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Elizabeth Little: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Elizabeth Little is the author of Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic. Her new book, Trip of the Tongue: Cross-Country Travels in Search of America's Languages, was published this month by Walker & Company. Elizabeth lives in Los Angeles.

What was the most enjoyable moment in researching Trip of the Tongue? The worst?

My most enjoyable moment was, without a doubt, my first evening in Neah Bay, a tiny town on the tip of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. I had just spent the past few days with friends in Tacoma, and I was loathe to leave their hospitality for what sounded like an uncomfortably rustic accommodation in the middle of nowhere. But then I discovered that I was staying in a cozy little cabin a stone's throw away from this windswept gem of beach. That evening I walked along the sand in my bare feet as the sun set. Then I returned to my cabin to drink hot chocolate and read about language. A near-perfect evening.

My least enjoyable moment, on the other hand, was surely when I was in northern Maine, when I got caught in a snowstorm and had to battle all-day morning sickness. There's a very good reason why that section didn't make it into the book.

How did you end up deciding which particular languages to highlight in the book? Were there some that just barely didn't make the cut that you'd like to tell us about?

The languages that made it into the book were those that really challenged my own assumptions about the history of language—or language itself—in the United States. I spent some time in San Francisco, for instance, but my background in Chinese language and culture made for a less than compelling narrative thread. It was a lot of "Oh, yes, I remember reading about that." (Looking back on things now, I wish I had tried to look at Chinese language and culture in Old West frontier towns. Although that should probably be a book of its own.)

Some other sections had to be set aside because they led me down a very different path than the one I was trying to travel. The chapter that got cut at the very last minute was a chapter that looked at the impact of technological change—very particularly in transportation and manufacturing—on language communities in Baltimore, Cleveland, and Detroit. I loved my time in each of those cities - in Baltimore I met the loveliest and most helpful docent and historian at the city's Jewish museum; in Cleveland I gorged on paprikash and learned about Hungarian girl scouts; and in Detroit I went to the Ford Rouge Factory, which turned out to be one of my favorite activities on the entire trip. Unfortunately, when I found myself compiling economic paper after economic paper for research purposes, I had to acknowledge that my focus was starting to drift.

In the final chapter of your book, you note that Trip of the Tongue didn't end up being the book you thought it would be. How did you originally envision it, and how did your travels and experiences change the book into what it is?

At the beginning I envisioned that the book would be more of a romp: road-tripping high jinks with some linguistic data thrown in. What I ended up with, though, is something more like a meditation. On language, on discrimination, on my own preconceived notions. I first got an inkling of this in South Carolina, where I went to learn about Gullah. My very first day in Charleston, I learned about these spikes (called chevaux-de-frise) that some city residents put on their fences in the nineteenth century to protect themselves in the event of a slave rebellion. It was at that point that the desire to write anything resembling a romp died a swift death. The history of race and language and culture in the United States isn’t exactly rich in comedy. (Though I certainly tried to find it where I could.)

But I'm glad that I ended up somewhere very different than I'd intended. Because it's not much of a journey of discovery if you only learn things you already knew.

I got the sense from Trip of the Tongue that you're not too sure many of the languages you profile will thrive in the future. Is it too late, or are there efforts afoot to save these languages from extinction (and do they have a chance of success)?

It gives me no pleasure to say this, but for most of these languages, there is little to no chance that they will survive as native languages in the United States. With the exception of Spanish and Haitian Creole, all of the languages I discuss in the book are faced with the prospect of rapidly dwindling U.S. populations—if there are even any speakers left at all. The last native speaker of Makah, for instance, passed away in 2002.

While there are assuredly efforts underway to preserve any number of American heritage languages, particularly those native to this continent, it is, I fear, an impossible task. The appeal and advantages of English have throughout this country's history been so incredibly strong that other languages are typically chewed up in a matter of generations. In this context, the fact that Navajo is still spoken by more than 150,000 people is a marvel and a testament to the resilience and cohesion of Navajo Nation—and let's not forget that the Navajo people also suffered under the U.S. government's proactive assimilationist policies.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn't support these language preservation efforts. On the contrary, I believe it's now even more important to record these languages—while we still can.

If you could wave a magic wand and immediately be fluent in any of the languages you highlight in the book, which would you choose, and why?

This is a tricky question to answer, because for me the greatest pleasure is in the study of languages, not necessarily in the use of them—and if I were fluent in a language I would miss out on all that fun memorization. (I'm not joking. I genuinely love rote memorization.) For this reason, the most practical choice would probably be Norwegian. Not only would I not be missing out on any particularly novel structure, but I'd also then be better equipped to go off and study all the other Scandinavian languages.

But if I'm perfectly honest about my facility with language, I would have to admit that it's unlikely I’d ever be able to master Navajo without a good deal of magical assistance. And I would love to know how it feels to be able to put together words in such a different way than I'm used to. So if I ever do find that magic wand, you'd probably find me back in Arizona soon thereafter.

How many languages do you consider yourself comfortable with speaking (or reading)? Are you working on learning a new language now?

As a fairly introverted person, I’m not sure I'm particularly comfortable speaking any language, English or otherwise. And I certainly wouldn't say I'm conversationally fluent in any language other than English, though I was at one point quite fluent in Italian and Spanish and able to get around in Mandarin without too much trouble. I find that unless I speak a language every day, my active command of it withers away depressingly quickly.

Reading is, of course, another matter. I've seriously studied (which is to say studied over the course of several years) six languages: Mandarin, Classical Chinese, Ancient Greek, French, Italian, and Spanish. I can read the latter three with relative ease. And while it might be slow going for the others since I’m so out of practice, I think eventually I'd be able to make sense of things.

Lately I've been working on reviewing those languages I've already studied, but as for what language is next—well, that's a question I ask myself every day. The answer depends on my mood, but lately I’ve been thinking I would love to finally learn Latin. When you have an 21-month toddler screaming in your ear every other second, a language so rarely spoken sounds very appealing indeed.

You write in the book about the wonderful bookstore Schoenhof's, in Harvard Square. Are there other bookshops that you've particularly enjoyed over the years?

I've never met a bookstore I didn't like. But Schoenhof’s is glorious, as are many other bookstores in Boston, particularly the Harvard Book Store and the Brookline Booksmith. Subterranean Books in St. Louis, Herridge Books in Cape Cod, and McNally Jackson in New York City are also favorites of mine. (The Strand, however, just gives me a headache.)

But one of my favorite place to buy books is actually not a dedicated bookstore at all. There's a thrift store in Queens—on Queens Boulevard, between 45th and 46th Streets—that has an amazing used book table out front. Each book costs $1 or $2, and the selection is eclectic and varied, from old-school Harlequins and serial westerns to poetry collections and political treatises. You never know what you're going to get with the used book table, but somehow I always found something I needed to have.

What's your own library like? I imagine you must have a good selection of language books on your shelves!

The vast majority of my library is currently packed away in preparation for a move that hasn't happened as soon as we'd expected. Every few days I think about unpacking everything, but I dread having to go through the whole process again. So these days I'm spending a lot of time looking sadly at the mountain of cardboard boxes that take up most of our bedroom and wishing everything was properly on display.

That said, my library is never that organized to begin with. There are a lot of piles—next to my bed, next to my desk, next to the couch, on the dining room table, on top of the refrigerator—and a lot of overstuffed shelves. And anything that could store anything has been appropriated in the service of my library. (Who really needs a china cabinet, anyway?) Basically, my home is in constant danger of being totally overrun by books.

But I do try to keep my language and history books out of the general mess of things, which means that there are at least a few hundred volumes that are arranged by subject and author. I've been collecting language primers for about twenty years now, so I've amassed a good number.

What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

In terms of non-fiction, right now I'm reading a book by Andi Rierden called The Farm: Life Inside a Women's Prison, which is fascinating if harrowing. And I've only just begun John D'Agata and Jim Fingal's The Lifespan of a Fact, but already I can tell that I'm going to have some very strong opinions about it.

As for fiction, a few days ago I read a wonderfully moody Victorian paranormal romance called Firelight. And right now I'm very much enjoying working my way through the James Ellroy and Otto Penzler-edited The Best American Noir of the Century.

The best book I've read recently is a classic: Jane Austen's Persuasion. A good friend of mine was horrified to discover that I hadn't read it, and so I sort of sheepishly picked up a copy. Of course I finished it in one night. It's wonderful, and I should have read it ages ago—my friend was right to be horrified.

Can you tell us a bit about your next project?

My next project is a novel, actually, which is obviously very different from the work I've published up to this point. But after spending so long on a single project, I find that I'm eager to try something new. I'm sure it's only a matter of time, though, before I'm lured back to the words of the world.

—interview by Jeremy Dibbell

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