06/27/2012 02:34 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2012

Come Along and Ride on a Linguistic Voyage

As fuel prices drop in the United States and temperatures keep going up, many Americans are hopping into their cars and pulling out their maps, smartphones, tablets, or GPS devices to get on the road. Where should they travel? Elizabeth Little, author of the newly released Trip of the Tongue, has some suggestions. Over the course of two years, she traveled thousands of miles in an old Subaru, chronicling her encounters with Navajo, Crow, Puyallup, Quileute, Makah, French, Louisiana Creole, Gullah, Basque, Norwegian, Haitian Creole, and Spanish people. In this interview, she discusses her book and offers tips for other would-be language road-trippers.

NK: What drew you to feature the Basque-speaking communities in Nevada and Idaho?

EL: Basque is one of those languages that every budding polyglot comes up against early in their studies. It's a language isolate, which means that it's not related to any other known language, and so it seems very mysterious and exotic and well nigh impossible -- all things that appealed greatly to a teenager with more books than sense.

When I discovered that mysterious and exotic language in Nevada of all places -- and in a town where I could play two-dollar blackjack -- well, I couldn't resist digging a little deeper.

The wonderful thing about language in the United States is that if there's a language that interests you, then chances are very good that there's also part of the country -- maybe not even that far away -- where you can have the opportunity to learn about the language, its history, and its people.

NK: You also chose to write about Spanish in New Mexico. Why did you decide to write about such a language that so many people are already familiar with?

EL: While it's true that one of my goals in writing this book was to introduce readers to the surprising diversity of language communities in the United States, my primary intention was to explore the forces that affect language loss or language preservation.

It was natural, then, that I would turn my attention to Spanish, which has such a large population of speakers and is so widely regarded as a potential threat to the primacy of English. I was eager to engage with that latter perception in particular, because even though Spanish is very much the bogeyman of various English Only/First groups, I was peripherally aware of the fact Spanish-speaking immigrant communities were in fact learning English as fast as -- if not faster than -- other language communities throughout American history. I thought it was important to examine the truth and fiction of the assumptions -- both public and personal -- that are made about the role the Spanish language will play in the future of the United States.

NK: In South Carolina, you explored Gullah, a language most Americans might have never heard of, but unknowingly have a connection with through the story of Br'er Rabbit, Porgy and Bess, and the song "Michael Row the Boat Ashore." What else do you wish more people knew about Gullah?

EL: The thing I wish more of us understood about Gullah -- and about all Creole languages for that matter -- is that they're not "simplified," "dumbed-down," "corrupted," or "degraded" versions of their parent languages. Creole languages are born out of language contact (broadly, when speakers of different languages find themselves in a situation where they need to communicate but are unwilling or unable to learn each other's languages). These new languages are as sophisticated and expressive as any other language, but because they share so many similarities with their parent languages -- and because speakers of creole languages are typically members of marginalized communities -- they are often mistaken for "bad French," "bad Spanish," "bad English."

Gullah isn't bad anything. It's a rich language with a rich history and culture. I would prefer if its close relationship to English made it more compelling to non-speakers, but sadly that is often not the case.

NK: Of the languages you discuss in the book, which is your favorite (if you can pick just one), and why?

EL: I'm a love-the-one-you're-with kind of girl when it comes to languages -- the languages I like best at any given moment are usually the ones I'm studying at the time (right now: German and Arabic -- although that's already fading as I'm starting to feel myself drawn to Celtic languages).

It's just as difficult for me to pin down a favorite language from the book. I would say generally that the languages that interest me most are the indigenous American languages -- if I were ever to completely lose my mind and decide to go back to school, I would probably want to study the languages of the Pacific Northwest.

NK: What advice would you give to other would-be linguistic road-trippers?

EL: The same advice I'd give to regular old road-trippers -- take the road less traveled. Get off the highway and go to a town or a state you've never been to before. Visit the local attractions, track down the local cuisine, attend the local festivals. Don't forget to make a stop at a library or independent bookstore. It won't take long to stumble across something of interest.

If you're not so much a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type, it's also easy to do some research in advance. Check out the MLA Language Map, where you can pull down data by language or by geographical division. SIL's Ethnologue also lists languages by country -- you can see the page for the United States here.

But wherever you go and however you get there, keep your eyes and ears out. Look at menus and listen to songs. Read the newspaper. Start conversations with the little old ladies you come across at tiny, overlooked tourist attractions. Start conversations with everyone, actually -- even if you're as painfully shy in public as I am. Soon enough the history of the area's languages will begin to make itself clear.

And don't get discouraged. That's the beauty of the open-ended road trip. If you get somewhere and it's not to your liking or not what you'd hope for, just hop back in the car and go somewhere else. There's a whole country out there; go explore it.