January 27th is Family Literacy Day here in Ontario, and to celebrate, my son’s Grade 1 class organized a Literary Dress-Up Party. Everyone brought in a favourite book, dressed up as a character from that book, and then told the class why the book was so fantastic. For one day, his classroom was filled with superheroes, fairies, princesses, the Wizard of Oz, Sam-I-Am and even Justin Bieber, all talking about stories and all having fun. My boy went as Waldo, and he couldn’t have been prouder to don the red-and-white stripes and big black glasses. I was pretty proud, too, so I thought I’d share a photo.
But this blog isn’t really about me or my family – it’s about books. I’ve read several good ones this week, and particularly enjoyed treatise on endangered languages in the United States written by a video-game playing Harvard grad.
Trip of the Tongue, Elizabeth Little
Bloomsbury, 320 pages
Elizabeth Little didn’t expect to move to Queens. When she had graduated from Harvard, she found an apartment in Brooklyn and set herself up as a writer. Queens was the home of the Nanny, the Mets, and big-box stores, none of which held any appeal for a literary twentysomething hipster. Then she fell in love, and it turned out that the love of her life lived in Queens. So Queens, as uncool as it was, became her new home.
Little’s move to Queens was the first step of a much longer journey. Queens is home to 2.3 million people, and half of those people were born elsewhere. Little heard more languages whispered softly in her city block than she had ever heard before, but English was the only language she heard spoken audibly on the street. The relationship between these minority languages and English seemed very complex, and Little wanted to learn more. In search of answers, she climbed into her Subaru and drove around America to visit minority language speakers in the communities where they live. In Trip of the Tongue, she invites the reader to join her on this linguistic and cultural road trip.
Two years and 25, 000 miles later, Little shares her experiences of language in America. She stands on battlefields in the Midwest and listens to Native North Americans speak of the silencing effects of residential schools. She walks all over New Orleans, tours former plantations (whose huts remind her of the mushroom houses in SuperMario 3) and drinks in sketchy bars to figure out the differences between white Creole, black Creole, and Cajun. She plays blackjack with the Basques in Nevada and eats lutefisk with Norwegians in North Dakota. And all along the way, she provides compelling linguistic and historical evidence as she contemplates the likelihood of each language to survive.
Trip of the Tongue will appeal to readers of Bill Bryson, Elizabeth Gilbert and lovers of language everywhere. Especially if they also enjoy SuperMario 3.