Trip of the Tongue, Cross-country Travels In Search of America’s Languages; Elizabeth Little; Bloomsbury, 2012
Little is an obvious fan of language study. This book traces her search for languages (in the US) that are disappearing or at least are in danger, in the face of the predominance of English. It isn’t an academic study and it isn’t as broad-based as the title might suggest, however it is an interesting book for linguaphiles. She travels alone, in her vehicle to locations that have already piqued her linguaphile interest and tells some personal stories along the way.
The chapter titles reveal the menu:
Washington: Lushootseed, Quileute and Makah;
Louisiana: French and Louisiana Creole;
South Carolina: Gullah;
North Dakota: Norwegian;
Florida: Haitian Creole;
New Mexico: Spanish;
Los Angeles: English
The language stories and anecdotal information are entertaining and reveal the author’s personality (she is shy) but also her growing discomfort with the larger issue of privileged languages versus non-privileged languages, which underlies the disappearing usage of some languages. In an excerpt from Alcée Fortier’s 1894 transcription of the Creole tale “Chien avec Tigue”, Little gives us the original Creole, the English translation and, in a footnote, what might be the modern Standard French. This is rich pickings and she does a nice job digging into the words and some of the issues beneath the words. This is where she is most interesting, discussing, for example, the stigma that attaches to some languages like Creole. ‘Prestige’ languages, like English (and Standard French), will overwhelm less prestigious languages it appears.
Little’s growing unease with the tension between prestige and non-prestige languages is further explored in the influence of African language patterns and words on American language and culture. The historical record of prejudice and inequality is the context and background to a significant aspect of the American language story and it comes out in successive chapters where the language has European roots as well, such as Basque, Norwegian or Spanish.
When she examines the state of languages in the context of Miami, a city where English is not the majority language, she asks if a non-prestige language can hold its own in America. She explores two groups, Haitians who speak Haitian Creole, and Cubans, who speak Spanish. Its telling that Haitians in Miami are learning Spanish in addition to English but Spanish-speaking Cubans aren’t learning Haitian Creole. Here, the issue is not so much the prestige of English as it is the relative power and prestige of the wealthier Cubans versus the Haitians.
Spanish is the second largest language group in the US after English, which has never been legally designated as the Official Language at the national level. There is a perception among some Americans that the Spanish language is growing to the detriment of English. Although the absolute numbers of Spanish speakers is growing, mostly due to immigration (for example from Mexico and Central America) it is not true that English is suffering, according to Little. Nevertheless, many states are passing Official English legislation, “a cheap but effective shot” by local politicians. Bilingualism, apparently, is feared not only for its cost but for its effects on academic learning, and dual track schools have been banned in California.