Author Elizabeth Little explores how our common language has divided us from the culture and heritage of the past.“I would describe myself as a well-read but slightly profane travel guide,” admits author Elizabeth Little, who proves to be engaging company throughout her second book, Trip of the Tongue: Cross-Country Travels in Search of America’s Languages (Bloomsbury USA, $25). A self-professed language fanatic, Little covered 25,000 miles and 46 states over two years in her quest to understand why, time and again, English has prevailed over the hundreds of other languages that at one point or another flourished within America’s borders.
That wasn’t the journey Little envisioned when she pitched the book to her publisher. She figured she’d repeat the successful formula of her critically acclaimed debut, 2007’s Biting the Wax Tadpole, and “collect and curate” interesting things about language in the United States. “I thought I was going to find all these vibrant language communities and talk about American multiculturalism and how it has been sustained through the years,” she tells American Way. “What I found was very different. It became a story of how those languages are lost instead of how cool it is they’re still around.”
Among the 11 destinations featured in the new book, Arizona’s Navajo Nation — where federal programs in the 1800s stripped Navajos of their culture, language and economic livelihood — is especially somber. Later, Little deftly captures the pride of the crowd at a Basque festival in Elko, Nev., one in a series of annual fetes that serve as extended family reunions and help preserve the Basque culture in North America. But the author hits her narrative stride describing a breathtaking drive through Washington state, when those profane elements of her color commentary emerge to great comedic effect.
Little’s favorite souvenir from her trip was the word lagniappe, a common term in Louisiana for “a little something extra thrown in free.” Her talent for dovetailing pop-culture touchpoints (such as the Twilight series) with academic discourse (“Why preserve dying languages?”) serves as literary lagniappe, leaving readers not only informed but greatly entertained when they part ways with Little at the end of her insightful journey.