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Trip of the Tongue by Elizabeth Little (thoughts)

June 27, 2012


As someone who studied a bit of linguistics and a lot of language in college, I couldn’t resist requesting Trip of the Tongue by Elizabeth Little when I saw it on Netgalley. Fortunately I downloaded a copy early, because Bloomsbury USA archives their egalleys before their publication date! Anyway, the book is about a series of road trips Little took over the course of a year all over the continental US in search of non-English language communities. Almost inevitably, a book about minority language Americans is going to include some political and racial dimensions. While Little is white (her ancestry is Norwegian, which comes up in the book!), she doesn’t shy away from acknowledging racial and linguistic privilege, which was refreshing. She also clearly delights in linguistic diversity, and her love for the strange little quirks each language has really shines through. Her personality is very much in evidence throughout, and I imagine she’d make a fun dinner party guest!

Trip of the Tongue combines three of my favourite things: linguistics, travel, and social justice, so I very much enjoyed it! Little has a humorous, self-deprecating writing style that reminded me of Bill Bryson, and the book is light enough that I think even those who aren’t huge fans of nonfiction would enjoy it (I suspect it’d be especially good for memoir fans looking to branch out a bit). It’s as much as travelogue as a popular linguistics book, so fans of travel writing should definitely check it out, and there’s even a section about Forks, Washington. ;) For me, it was a four-star read rather than five-star because I prefer my nonfiction a bit ‘harder’ (aka not so many pop culture references and perhaps an author with a more formal linguistics background), but I still really liked it and bookmarked all sorts of interesting pages! I’m sure one of these days I’ll pick up her first book, Biting the Wax Tadpole.

Suggested Companion Reads

  • In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent (If you want more pop linguistics, this is a really fun, interesting book that I read last year and loved but didn’t manage to blog about; I think it’d especially appeal to all of the school overachievers, since Okrent is unabashed about her nerdiness. I’ve linked to the book’s website since I don’t have a review.)
  • In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson (Since I mentioned him! This is another roadtrip travelogue, about Australia.)
  • What Language Is by John McWhorter (McWhorter is one of my favourite popular linguistics authors, and this titles spends quite a bit of time on creoles, which Little also discusses.)
  • Translation Nation by Hector Tobar (Not a linguistics book, despite its title, but a really fascinating account of Latino culture in the US, which does include a look at language issues. I didn’t agree with everything Tobar said, but I enjoyed reading this one!)
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15 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2012 5:41 pm

    Count me as a memoir fan who thinks she’d enjoy that book!

  2. June 27, 2012 6:06 pm

    Oh wow, this is totally my cup of tea!

  3. aartichapati permalink
    June 27, 2012 9:51 pm

    I love books on language! It’s so fascinating to see how languages evolve on the page and on the tongue and how the language can really describe the social structure of a region or culture.

  4. June 28, 2012 7:24 pm

    This book looks amazing! I love books about language! The companion reads you suggested look really good to. So many amazing books to choose from! :)

  5. June 29, 2012 8:11 am

    Sounds like I’d love it! I’d heard about it and planned to read it but I’m glad for confirmation. Does she focus upon older non-english societies (i.e. the Amish) more than immigrant enclaves (Chinatowns/Spanish Harlem sorts) or was it more or less equal?

  6. June 29, 2012 10:14 am

    I ADORED this book. Especially since it starts off in my book club neighborhood in Queens. It’s one of my favorite reads of the year. I’m glad you enjoyed it! I liked it because it is accessible for everyone. You don’t have to already know a lot about linguistics to understand what she is talking about. I would have enjoyed even more “harder” linguistics, but books like this are equally as interesting and great for people who have a casual interest in the subject.

  7. June 29, 2012 11:26 am

    Sounds interesting. I forwarded to my mother’s, who a linguist as well as a Bryson lover. :)

    Since you mentioned Tobar, I wonder if you’ve read his (more recent) novel, The Barbarian Nurseries? I thought it was wonderful. I reviewed it, if you’re interested, here.

  8. July 1, 2012 4:29 am

    This looks really good! I am putting it on the TBR list!

  9. July 2, 2012 2:45 pm

    I saw this on NetGalley and decided to pass because I already have a huge e-stack of books to read. Now I regret not requesting it!

  10. July 6, 2012 3:13 pm

    Language changed my life. I moved to The Netherlands having no knowledge of Dutch. The process of learning and mastering a second language was one of my greatest challenges. This book sounds like a great read….

  11. July 15, 2012 2:53 pm

    Sounds interesting. I very much enjoyed the linguistics module I took as part of my degree and I’ve wanted to read more. Adding to tbr list.

  12. July 18, 2012 5:30 pm

    Yours is a stronger mind than mine if you can tackle linguistics!

  13. July 30, 2012 10:35 pm

    Stumbled upon your blog and saw this review. This book sounds something that would be right up my alley, thanks!

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