Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic, by Elizabeth Little

Things I love: words. Words and I are very good friends, if you know what I mean, which is that I really like learning about them. Where they came from, what they do, how funny they can be. See: my love of a children’s book called Word Snoop. And this book is better, because it is for adults and therefore includes swear words. I am a big fan of a well-placed swear word, and Little clearly has practice in this.

I thought this book was going to be about something like the vagaries of translation, because of the title, which references a terrible transliteration of the words “Coca-Cola” into Mandarin. But actually, that’s just a bit that’s in the conclusion, and the rest of the book is EVEN BETTER, because it talks about verbs and modifiers and nouns and how nouns are pretty set in their ways in English, but how you have to go and decline them in other languages, and how some languages have a really fun time pluralizing nouns, and how the Bantu language family isn’t content with just two or three noun classes (aka genders), no, no, how about 16? Or 22? I kind of want to die just thinking about it.

And Little feels that pain, and loves it! About noun class, she writes, “Grammatical gender often appears to be based on just the right combination of reason and utterly arbitrary dart-throwing monkey logic to ensure maximum confusion,” which is SO TRUE, at least with what I remember of my French.

Little also throws in all these little sidebars of awesomeness, which highlight things that are really neat about various languages. So in a sidebar about noun tense, for instance, Little talks about how the Guaraní language adds endings to verbs to signify tense. There’s a past-tense marker and a future-tense marker, which is cool, but EVEN COOLER is that you can combine them. Little’s example uses presidents, so with this combination of endings you can get a word for Al Gore: mburuvicharangue, or “what we thought was going to be a future president but then turned out not to be.” How cool is that?

I will grant that this might not be that cool to you — my husband certainly gave me funny looks about that last example and others that I shared with him. But if you’ve ever suffered through a conjugation in your life, you will probably find something to like in here.

Recommendation: An absolute must for lovers of words or languages or humorous anecdotes.

Rating: 10/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2007, Support Your Local Library Challenge)

See also:
books i done read

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

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