A multiethnic cross-country trip with a smart and saucy pedant at the wheel.
In this lively follow-up to her debut, Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic (2007), Little tours a variety of cultures to see how well their native languages are holding up against the predominance of English. She starts by visiting a variety of Indian tribes—the Crow in Montana, the Navajo in Arizona, the Makah in Seattle—where a theme quickly takes hold: Languages don’t always die a natural death. Sometimes they’re victims of attempted murder, as people who assimilated into 19th- and early-20th-century American life (often against their will) found their language banished. Little also hunts the byways of New Orleans to sort out the roots of the mixed-race and mixed language known as Creole. In Charleston, S.C., she samples the salty English and African gumbo known as Gullah. She learns the unlearnable Basque language in Nevada and finds differences between Spanish spoken in New Mexico and elsewhere. Throughout, Little effectively employs humor, which takes the edge off her occasional root-and-branch disseminations on etymology. She ranks scenes of natural beauty by the number of times it makes her use the F-word; the view from a Seattle highway turns her “into a character from Glengarry Glen Ross”; a bite of lutefisk in North Dakota “seemed like something was decomposing in my mouth.” In a description you’ll never hear from Al Roker, the author describes the weather in Laredo, Texas, as “hotter than Satan’s sweaty ball sack.”
An entertaining and enlightening book from a brainy, foul-mouthed and very funny tour guide.