Archive for July, 2012

I must admit, somewhat shamefully, that in the past I have been woefully mistaken about diversity in the United States. What I pictured in my mind was a more or less homogeneous sea of blonde-haired, fair-skinned people. Later, I realized that darker-skinned people also called it home. I had, of course, also seen some other people in movies – people with long braided hair, wearing colorful feathered headpieces. I knew these people as Red Indians (which I later realized was politically incorrect – at that time I thought it rather odd, since these Red Indians looked neither red nor Indian) and never gave a thought to who they really were or what became of them. To my credit, I was only a child and grew up on the other side of the world much before Facebook and Google were born.

Coming from a part of the world where mono-ethnicity is the norm, I can understand why we thought that other countries were the same. We all looked more or less alike, so why should things be different elsewhere? Many, many years later, I experienced a blast of diversity – cultural, ethnic, racial, lifestyle-related, you name it – when I lived/worked in Honolulu and New York City. But not too long ago, I got food for thought when someone (who has never been out of their home country before) asked me if the dark-haired woman sitting in front of us was American. “Why, yes”, I said. “But, aren’t Americans blonde?”. In that moment, I realized my own ignorance – I had witnessed but a drop in the ocean of diversity, as Elizabeth Little proves in her road trip, Trip of the Tongue: Cross-country travels in search of America’s languages (2012).

A self-confessed language fanatic, Little drives over 25,000 miles pursuing answers to linguistic mysteries:

Why do some languages last while others fade away?…How, ultimately, has the language experience affected the American experience?…why language communities in the United States have, again and again and again, eventually yielded to the seemingly implacable preeminence of English.

What is the language experience in America like? To say that the language of America is English, is a bit like saying Americans are blonde. American language, American English if you will, is the result of the co-mingling of different tongues, that happened (and is continuing to happen) at various phases in the nation’s history. European colonization of America brought into contact European languages with Native languages; slavery added African languages to the mix; and immigration, past and recent, is continuing to add more into the pool. Little’s cross-country travels look at each of these phenomena, their influence on American English, as well as the fate of these other languages and the mechanisms of language loss, death and preservation.

Colonization and the native peoples

…it’s almost easy to overlook the fact that American English owes much of its distinctiveness to words it has acquired in the New World.

Firstly, “all Native peoples are not, in fact, part of one big, homogenous culture”, and all Native personal names are not “of the verb-preposition-animal variety”. Sources suggest, says Little, that anywhere between 250 to over 400 languages were spoken in the pre-contact population of North America, and around 175 indigenous languages are spoken in the United States. That, however, doesn’t mean that these surviving languages are in any way mainstream, or are spoken by substantial numbers of people. I am not sure I have heard a conversation in even one of them. What contributed to the decline of these languages?

Plantation life

The institution of slavery brought African languages into the continent, traces of which can be found in  creoles around the nation. Creoles are contact languages born when two groups, speaking different languages, need to communicate with each other, but are either unwilling or unable to learn each other’s language. Creoles are also a tool to understand the socio-cultural milieu of the time of their conception. They are…

a linguistic encapsulation of the power dynamics of colonization and cultural exchange.

…[an] indication of the relative social, political, and economic power of each language group. The more power one group has, the more accommodating the other group will tend to be. ..Indeed, most creoles are based on the languages of the major colonial powers.

Speaking of creole languages, which are frequent byproducts of colonization, I began to wonder about such languages existing in India. I found that several Portuguese-based creole languages did indeed exist in India’s east and west coasts. Many of these languages are now extinct. I am not quite sure why or how colonial contact around the same period should have such different outcomes – with its people learning one language (English) to eventually become a mostly bilingual nation on the one hand, while also resulting in creole languages (Portuguese) on the other. Clearly, the mechanisms of language adoption and creation are hardly simple.


“Through sameness of language is produced sameness of sentiment and thought; customs and habits are moulded and assimilated in the same way, and thus in process of time the differences producing trouble  would have been gradually obliterated.”

An 1868 report quoted in Trip of the Tongue

Native and creole languages have more or less disappeared from the nation’s landscape, surviving only in pockets. Geographic isolation (such as, when some languages are spoken in less-known islands), and insulation from cultural and economic interactions that normally lead to assimilation, have facilitated the preservation of these languages in some parts. Others are in the midst of revivals, aided by determined individuals and communities. Some are struggling, and possible more are dying.

In the 19th century, a systematic campaign of forced assimilation and linguistic humiliation led to the loss of many native and creole languages. Under the pretext of civilizing the peoples, the government adopted a policy of mandatory English language instruction in schools, at the same time disparaging indigenous and creole languages, and punishing their usage. With children learning to despise their native tongues, and with parents fearing the consequences of teaching or even speaking in the language, generational language transfer ceased.

Creoles, particularly, continue to “routinely face prejudice and derision born of the mistaken assumption that their languages reflect some combination of simplicity and stupidity”. The very existence of creole languages is evidence of inequalities, and continuing to regard these languages as inferior or degenerate is a sure sign that these inequalities continue to exist in our society.

Prestige language

“…the language associated with access to power, status, respect, prestige, and economic benefits in both professional and personal life.”

Deborah House, quoted in Trip of the Tongue

The advantages of knowing English, indeed, the necessity of knowing English, has/have contributed in no small amount to the decline of these languages. Apart from its obvious economic advantages, English has evolved into a prestige language. Fluency in English is often correlated with intelligence, and poor or limited proficiency in the language is looked down upon. Such linguistic prejudice is quite common in bilingual countries, such as India (where I’m from).


Ironically, “the exploration and colonization of the Americas precipitated a rapid decline in indegenous language diversity…[and] also ushered in a new era of European language diversity”. Later immigration from Asia, and Central and South America, have only added to the diversity. A ride in the subway alone can offer you a glimpse of just how many languages are spoken in this country.

In the course of her road trip, Little finds Basque, Norwegian, Crow, Navajo, Makah, Spanish (many dialects of it), Louisiana Creole, Haitian Creole and Gullah, all in various stages of decline/revival/preservation. While she acknowledges the indispensability of English, she makes a case for the preservation of these, and other languages – these invaluable cultural artifacts.

The survival, death and dominance of languages is ultimately about privileges and inequalities.

A person’s language is necessarily a reflection of his or her own political environement, of the social and economic forces that influence survival and success. The languages of prestige are the languages of power.

Little certainly has a way with words, and combines trivia of the Jeopardy kind, with a thought-provoking commentary on the history of languages in the United States. What does the future hold for these languages? Of personal relevance to me is Little’s exploration of ethnic communities in the United States.

As ethnic communities welcome steady flows of immigrants, the usual process of language shift – limited English in the first generation, bilingual in the second generation, monolingual English in the third – is obscured, at least on the surface

Although, I see plenty of evidence of this phenomenon, a part of me was definitely saddened to imagine the loss of my native tongue in future generations (if I continue to live outside of my homeland).

Elizabeth Little is a talented writer, and I also hope to read her first book, Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic (2007).


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My Goodreads Challenge widget informs me that I have completed 39 out of the 60 book target that I set for myself this year. We’ve just stepped into the second half of this year (already!) and I am about 9 books ahead of schedule, which is heartening. But beyond the numbers, 2012 has been happy reading so far. I’ve ventured into series and authors that I haven’t explored before, relying more than ever on the community of readers to help me select, more often than not, very good reads.

This past June was a month of mostly food memoirs and mysteries. Come summer, reading lists sprout everywhere, telling you how you ought to spend your time at the beach or at the porch. I don’t prefer to read at the beach or the porch and I don’t believe in seasonal reading lists. My reading does not peak in summer, does yours?

Last summer, NPR recommended Blood, Bones, & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, memoir of East Village’s Prune restaurant owner and chef Gabrielle Hamilton. Prune, apparently has a cult following, a bit like, but very different from Shopsin’s, the diner which enjoys a particular type of cultivated reputation. Hamilton’s writing style is also quite unlike Kenny Shopsin’s (whose Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin I read earlier). Although, in hindsight, they both do share a proclivity to employ, what are usually considered, un-pretty words. Hamilton, whose bohemian childhood and exotic French mother, sounds like she would fit right into The Glass Castle, starts out in the food industry cleaning and waitressing, and graduates to corporate catering. Making 600 identical devilled eggs is not necessarily adequate training to become the chef (and the owner) of a restaurant, but this is what Hamilton does when she has some kind of an epiphany while inspecting a dump of a deserted restaurant. While food does feature prominently in her memoir, Hamilton herself and her singularly unconventional life choices attract a good amount of spotlight. Her writing, I must say, is mostly impeccable.

I also read Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the Table, which was pleasant and engaging. The tag Food Memoir can include a wide variety of works, that share one theme, food, whatever their other themes may be. In Reichl’s case, Tender at the Bone is a bittersweet coming-of-age story of a girl who understood her love for food very early in life.

Earlier this year, NPR also Maureen Corrigan at NPR recommended some works of mystery. Among them were Charles Todd’s The Confession and Anne Perry’s Dorchester TerraceBoth are period mysteries, The Confession is set in early 20th century, and Dorchester Terrace in the late 19th century. While the blurbs of both of these books are enticing enough, I can’t say they lived up to all the high praise.  The authors of both books are more interesting. Charles Todd is actually the pen name employed by an American mother and son writing team. The Confession, a squeaky clean novel, doesn’t dwell as much on period descriptions, as does Dorchester Terrace. 

A few months ago, after watching Kate Winslet’s masterful performances in Revolutionary Road and The Reader, I set about watching some of her earlier, less popular roles. Winslet, it turns out, made her screen debut in a 1994 New Zealand movie, Heavenly Creatures, which is based on the real-life relationship of two troubled teenage girls in the 1950s, who together bludgeoned one of their mothers to death. After a term in prison, one of them took the name Anne Perry and took to writing historical detective fiction. Unfortunately, and not for any reason related to Perry’s past, it does not look likely that I will be reading more of her works. The slow, armchair type mystery of Dorchester Terrace held little appeal for me. But Perry does seem to have chosen her genre well – it really did feel like it was written in the late 1800s.

After being very impressed with Wenguang Huang’s The Little Red Guard, I looked for more books that would talk about Communist China, especially the Mao era. This June, I read Li Cunxin’s Mao’s Last Dancer. I was a little confused about the book – it read like good fiction and on the front cover it says ‘Based on a true story’. Heck, I thought it was a true story. It certainly was a good story – poor peasant family, son selected to study ballet, childhood indoctrination, becomes very proficient, learns about the West, feels betrayed by ‘glorious communism’, defects, and becomes quite the superstar. I also enjoyed reading about ballet, having had no idea that it was studied seriously in an Asian country (Russian influence, of course). An inspiring story, I hope it qualifies as non-fiction.

The books I read last most definitely qualifies as fiction. Solid, well-crafted police procedural with a surprising theme. In Right as Rain, author George Pelecanos introduces detective Derek Strange. Middle-aged, tough, and black. I haven’t experienced much diversity in detective fiction. There are some women alright, but mostly detecting is the turf of men, white men apparently (at least on my bookshelf). Strange is my first black detective, and this brilliant book delves into being black, and into racism. And then, surprisingly on NPR again, I found Pelecanos talking about crime and race in the DC area, where his works are set.

I’m not really interested in writing books about racists. I’m much more interested in people who don’t think that they have any kind of those bad feelings inside of them, they deny it.

A black cop is killed by a white cop, in what appears to be an accident. Strange uncovers what really happened, as he navigates  racial tensions, personal relationships, and the streets of DC. I’m going back for more Pelecanos.

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