May 2, 2012

Trip of the Tongue

Just forgive me in advance, please. I can feel that this is going to be one of those posts that results in E gleefully interrupting me in public and letting people know that I've developed yet *another* girl-crush.

But, seriously, Elizabeth Little's book was one of the best reads I've had in a long, long time.

E and I have fairly divergent reading tastes.  The only real places where we overlap are modern science/technology books, economics, science fiction, futuristic fiction, and historical novels relating to war or technology.  His pleasure reading tends to be much more empirical than I enjoy.  Additionally, he is much less picky about the writing.  So long as the data or analysis is good, he is happy.

I'm a sucker for words.  Topics like science, technology, travel, language, food, sports, economics, law, and policy all interest me and I do specifically select books to learn more about them.  But really, I'm a language slut.  If the writing appeals to me, I'll read anything.  If the writing is extremely engaging, I'll re-arrange my life to maximize my book time (See REAMDE).  

As you probably know (since my only readers are close friends or niche Internet meme-sharers), one of the things I love to learn about is language.  Accents? Dialects? Foreign language? Usage patterns?  I haven't been formally trained in linguistics at all (unless you count the French Phonetics class I took in college, which, I don't, because much to the shock of the instructor, it's not the most important thing in the world, and the only application I've found for phonetic representation is pronouncing dictionary phonetic spellings when learning a new language or laying down Scrabble words).  But, like many areas of my life, a lack of formal training doesn't stop me from spending a good bit of my time thinking about (and thinking I know stuff about) language, paying attention to the way people speak, and studying and trying to communicate in foreign languages.

Within the first dozen pages of Trip of the Tongue, I was laughing out loud, and thrilled to find that this book's words could yank me in and entertain me.  Even more satisfying, it's technical and academic enough (there are footnotes and an index of citations!) for it to feel like an equal bedside book to E's Cold War Submarines: The Design and Construction of U.S. and Soviet Submarines, 1945-2001. (Yes, that's actually on his bedside table right now).

For someone like me, this book is like finding a new best friend who shares my interests, but is much more focused on them than I am.  Thankfully, she's nice enough to give me an inside view into what it would be like to spend time formally pursuing and understanding cool stuff about language that I've always wished I could take the time to learn.  (The fact that my mother is a watercolor painter of a certain age who appreciates Sante Fe didn't hurt at all.)

Ms. Little's reference to Inigo Montoya and the impossibility of defining creole uniquely made me smile at the synchronicity.  Only a few weeks earlier I'd noted on my (semi) professional blog that I find myself thinking of his catch phrase on a daily basis while playing/battling with the language of contracts.

When Ms. Little mentioned the strange fact that she'd been to Elko before commencing her inquiry into American Basque culture, I smiled again, twice.  I, too, had been to Elko, just last spring, on E's and my Northwestern US Washington-Yellowstone-Bay Area loop, and, I also have a bit of a gambling problem (blackjack is my second choice to craps).

This book reminded me I'd actually been to Basque Country.  My work colleague from the summer I worked in Bordeaux was Basque and her parents insisted on sending us by train to the Basque festival in their hometown.  Her grandparents hosted us and I couldn't understand any of the Basque and only 50% of the French and Spanish, but I've never eaten and drank so much in 48 hours in my life.  I kid you not.  I was instructed to clean my plate and take naps repeatedly.  I'd never been told to take naps by a host (to rest up for the next big meal and walking in the center of town with, of course, copious amounts of drinking in the streets), either prior or since.  It is important to note that I was a collegiate athlete at the time and was often pointed out and laughed at during my stay in France for how much I felt I needed to eat -- but not in Basque Country.  I'd completely forgotten the richness of these memories and now, thanks to Ms. Little's descriptions of the colors, the clothes, the dancing, and the culture of the American Basque, part of it has come back and I've added a todo list item of, "Dig through hand-written diaries and find France summer of 1994.  Locate all you can about the Basque Festival and the friend who took you (with whom I've completely lost touch)."

The Gullah and Creole portions of the book reminded me about my experience in Anguilla with the fishermen.  We went to the docks to buy some lobsters and fish, and E, P & M couldn't understand a word the Anguillan fishermen were saying.  At dinner when they asked me, I thought about it and realized that to my brain it sounded like a bit of Hawaiian pidgin grammar attached to Puerto Rican accented vocabulary overlayed on a dialect of English that was new to me but not incomprehensible (Not for a sales transaction regarding fish, anyway).  When they turned to speak privately to set the price, I couldn't understand a word, but when they turned back with the offer price, I looked to the group and said, "That sounds fair, right?"  They laughed, and I was confused. E explained, "Babe, I have no clue what he is saying.  And frankly, you've been talking a little funny, too, for the last 5 minutes or so.  You look like you think you understand what's going on, so let's go with your version."

After reading this book, and thinking about how confused everyone was, including M, who was raised in a Spanish speaking household, I'm now convinced that what the Anguillan fishermen spoke was a much more interesting language than I realized at the time.  I'm a bit sad I didn't know that then, I would have loved to spend more time parsing it and asking about the history and language of the people I was speaking with.

Each of the other sections of the book challenged me to think in new ways about language in America and the histories of the peoples who've kept and lost their words.  But, truly, the best part of this book for me was that Ms. Little did all the hard stuff related to learning about new langauges.  She did the flights and the long haul drives, the hotels, the motels, the getting lost, the chasing down of the knowledgeable folks, the research and the compilation of the interesting facts.  Then, she packaged up all the good stuff from her trips and gave it to us in this book.

So, if you are an American who enjoys language or linguistics or words, I guarantee you will love this book, and, as a bonus, it may even trigger memories of linguistic experiences you'd forgotten.

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