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Trip of the Tongue: Cross-Country Travels in Search of America's Languages Hardcover – March 1, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


“Little makes for a perfect tour guide. More than a collection of fascinating linguistic details (though it is that), by the end this book deepens into a full-throated defense of everybody's native tongues, and the right - no, the need - to hang onto them.” ―The Boston Globe

“Fascinating…Little's obvious enthusiasm drives the prose and keeps the information fresh and relevant. Arguing that language heritage is about more than the use of definite articles, Little delivers a revealing lesson in history, culture, prejudice, and privilege.” ―Booklist

“An entertaining and enlightening book from a brainy, foul-mouthed and very funny tour guide.” ―Kirkus Review

“An enchanting journey across the landscape of American language and culture, including everything from Navajo to Norwegian.” ―Publishers Weekly

About the Author

Elizabeth Little is the author of Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic. A Harvard graduate with a degree in Social Studies, she has formal training in Ancient Greek, Classical Chinese, Standard Mandarin, French, and Italian. She is currently a freelance writer and editor and lives in Los Angeles. Her website is

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA; 1 edition (March 1, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1596916567
  • ISBN-13: 978-1596916562
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,228,586 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Elizabeth Little was born and raised in St. Louis and graduated from Harvard University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications, and she has appeared on All Things Considered, The World, and Here and Now. She has written two works of nonfiction: Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic (Melville House, 2007) and Trip of the Tongue: Cross-Country Travels in Search of America's Languages (Bloomsbury, 2012). Dear Daughter (Viking and Harvill Secker, 2014), her critically acclaimed debut novel, was a Los Angeles Times bestseller and will be published worldwide. Dear Daughter has been nominated for the Barry and Macavity Awards for Best First Novel, was longlisted for the CWA John Creasey Dagger, and won the Strand Critics Award for Best First Novel. Elizabeth lives in Los Angeles with her family.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By takingadayoff TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 28, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition
What a great idea for a book - a language-themed road trip across America. Elizabeth Little is not a linguist, but she has had a lifelong interest in languages. And she has a few thoughts about language.

Little notes that there is a surprising variety of languages in the United States. In New York City alone, hundreds of languages are spoken.

She begins the road trip with Native American languages. She finds that most of them are on their last legs as living languages, and this turns out to be one of the themes for the book. Digging into the history of Native American languages, she finds that there's a disturbing pattern of language discrimination of the sort that occurred when Native American children were discouraged from speaking their home languages. Discouragement often took the form of physical punishment as well as creating a sense of shame about the language. It's what Newt Gingrich would call "the language of the ghetto."

Little finds similar language discrimination in the history of Creole language in Louisiana and Gullah in Georgia. This leads her to conclude that "the history of language in America is ... ultimately a history of language loss."

It's hard to disagree with her conclusion and that language discrimination that takes cruel forms is reprehensible. But not all language change in America has been involuntary. Little is disappointed that descendants of Basque immigrants in Nevada speak only a few words of Basque. Yet she acknowledges that she has never felt compelled to learn Norwegian, the language of her own immigrant ancestors.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Jaylia TOP 1000 REVIEWER on March 7, 2012
Format: Hardcover
This fascinating book is a philologically inspired virtual road trip. Author and linguaphile Elizabeth Little traveled 25,000 miles through 46 states in a quest to investigate the history, resiliency and syntactic quirks of languages still spoken in the US. She's out to have fun, whenever possible timing her visits to take advantage of opportunities to celebrate with the locals, but there's also a serious side to language politics and the book ended up having more substance than she originally expected.

Among Little's interests is discovering what it takes for a non-dominant language to survive, and the book begins, naturally enough, with chapters on the states of Montana, Arizona and Washington where Native American languages are still being spoken with varying degrees of fluency. Later chapters cover some of the languages brought over by immigrants and the communities that may or may not care about keeping those languages alive, leading Little to encounter and describe a Basque festival in Nevada, a Norwegian fair in North Dakota, a smelly plague of some grasshopper-like insect in Idaho, zealous fans of Twilight in Oregon, and a Haitian vodou botanica in Miami.

With a more sociological slant than in books written by language professionals Little explores how language choices relate to status, economic privilege, literacy and cultural identity. Her descriptions and the many tangents she goes off on are as witty and irresistible as Bill Bryson's and, while not a linguist, her insights on language and creoles are just about as intriguing and paradigm-rearranging as John McWhorter's.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By nashvillegirl VINE VOICE on April 7, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I knew I was going to like this book from the minute the author described herself as "kind of a serial dater when it comes to learning languages" (and here I thought I was the only one!). Elizabeth Little took two years to travel to various areas of the country, searching out different languages in the U.S., their history, their current status, and where they might be heading in the future. Little covers a great deal of ground - from Spanish in New Mexico to Louisiana French to Gullah in South Carolina.

The author has a gift, much like Bill Bryson's, of being able to combine history and facts in a narrative that keeps the reader engaged while being very informative at the same time. Although the reader is learning a lot, the book doesn't feel dry or too much like a textbook, due to the author also sharing personal details about her roadtrip. I particularly enjoyed learning more about the differences among the various forms of Louisiana French and how they developed (and are continuing to transform), and how the relative isolation of North Dakota caused the Norwegian language to last through more generations than usual. At one point in my life, I'm sure I learned at least a little about each of the languages and cultures mentioned in the book, but I had definitely forgotten most of it. This book was an excellent refresher, as well as a great way to learn even more - for example, I have never given much thought to the Basque population in the western U.S, but now, it will be something I think of the next time I visit Nevada.

Recommended for anyone who is interested in languages or in U.S. history.
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Format: Hardcover
A "celebration of American multiculturalism," Trip of the Tongue was a fascinating read. Part memoir, part travel book, and a historical and linguistic adventure all rolled in one, Elizabeth Little explores some of the (very numerous!) languages that make up the United States.

Little devotes chapters to several Native American languages, French and Louisiana Creole, Gullah (how did I live in Charleston, South Carolina for six years without learning about Gullah?!), Basque, Norwegian, Haitian Creole, and Spanish, while starting off and concluding with English. As she says in the introduction, "the most interesting story English has to tell . . . is the fact that English is spoken at all."

One complaint I have specific to the ebook version. Even with publisher defaults turned on, whenever Little included charts/images, the font was very, very tiny. I couldn't zoom in, and changing the font size only affected the text around it. Though not terribly frequent, this was content I wanted to read, and there were enough instances to make me wish I'd purchased a print copy.

Little's tone would sometimes shift suddenly between slightly formal and very casual. This is where the memoir feel comes in. It was a bit odd to be reading about history and linguistics (such as the above example) and then come across a phrase like "it was hotter than Satan's sweaty ball sack." Don't get me wrong - I totally laughed. I was just caught off guard. After I got used to these shifts, I was kind of thankful for the breaks the lighter sections gave me.

Trip of the Tongue shows the impact slavery, colonialism, prejudice, and privilege have on language. It also looks into the reasons languages die off, as well as what some communities are doing to prevent that.

If you are half as fascinated with language as I am, you'll love this book!
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