Imagine, for a moment, that lutefisk had the zip of gumbo, and Norwegian folk songs had the verve of zydeco. Were that the case, Minot, N.D., might have had a marketing advantage over New Orleans, and the buzz phrase for partying would be la de gode tider rull instead of laissez les bons temps rouler.
Notably, though, most Americans use the phrase “let the good times roll,” and both the resilience of non-English languages in the United States, and their disappearance, are the focus of Elizabeth Little’s new book, Trip of the Tongue: Cross-Country Travels in Search of America’s Languages (Bloomsbury).
Little, a Harvard grad from St. Louis with a passion for linguistics, started out trying to learn why America is the place where languages go to die. With a melting-pot tradition and a dominant, if not official, language, the answers are pretty clear, though not all-encompassing. You can still hear Creole in Louisiana, Navajo in Arizona, and Polish in Buffalo. And new immigrant communities, from Miami to Los Angeles to Astoria, Queens, are polyglot places, peopled by arrivals too fresh to the pot to have melted yet.
But why the Norwegian language faded from the northern Great Plains while Creole survived in the swamps of Louisiana raises intriguing questions about language adoption and assimilation—and cultural self-identity. Little, for instance, has studied a wide range of languages, but not Norwegian, one of the threads of her own ancestry.
“With a language like Norwegian, there is less to sort of grasp on to that might pull people into being interested in it,” Little says, sitting outside a diner near her home in Los Angeles. “They don’t have the wonderful musical traditions that you would find in Louisiana.... Certainly that plays a role in whether a language lives or dies.” It’s the “chamber of commerce” effect, she says. A cultural identity that can be marketed has more chance to persevere than one that doesn’t.
Trip of the Tongue distills Little’s two-year, 25,000-mile quest into a series of travel essays as she explores Native languages in Arizona, Florida, and Washington; pidgin languages in Louisiana and South Carolina; and European languages in Nevada, North Dakota, and California. As in her first book, Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic (Melville House, 2007), Little mixes the serious with the comedic. And she found a lot to report on. For instance, many languages, particularly those from Native American tribes, have already died away, she says, often done in by government policies that forced tribal children to attend schools in English, where teachers denigrated the Native languages.
“A prevailing disdain for one’s community and culture and worth has to affect all the ways that you structure your life,” Little says.
Geographical isolation helps preserve language, but it also retards economic and cultural integration. Still, Little believes that “the preservation of these languages, not necessarily in a day-to-day form, is important.” The language itself “has important information encoded in those words about the history of a people, about the culture of the people, sometimes about things like botany,” she says.
In a sense, language carries the DNA of cultural identity.
“I think about it from a place of self-esteem and wanting people to feel comfortable in their identity and place in America, and to not be forced to feel shame for who they are,” Little says. “Assimilation can happen in a positive way. It doesn’t have to be damaging to the spirit of the people.”
Little nimbly moves beyond dry sociology to the engagingly humorous. One of the best ways to encounter languages, she writes, is through ethnic festivals. Or in the case of Basques in Elko, Nev., to sit down at a $2 table at a casino. Basques, according to legend, are left alone by the devil because Satan found the language too hard to learn.
And about that lutefisk, a traditional dish prepared by rejuvenating dried whitefish in a lye bath, then rinsing and soaking it in water for several days before cooking. “It seemed,” Little writes, “a little bit like something was decomposing in my mouth.”
Los Angeles–area writer Scott Martelle is the author of Detroit: A Biography, to be published in April by Chicago Review Press.