Author Interviews
12:25 pm
Sun March 4, 2012

A Road Trip In Search Of America's Lost Languages

Originally published on Mon March 5, 2012 11:38 am

The vast majority of the 175 indigenous languages still spoken in the United States are on the verge of extinction.

Linguist Elizabeth Little spent two years driving all over the country looking for the few remaining pockets where those languages are still spoken — from the scores of Native American tongues, to the Creole of Louisiana. The resulting book is Trip of the Tongue: Cross-Country Travels in Search of America's Lost Languages.

"I put, I think, 25,000 miles on my poor, long-lost Subaru that has since been consigned to the afterlife for cars," she tells Jackie Lyden, guest host of weekends on All Things Considered.

The first part of the book deals with Native American languages such as Navajo. Little writes the language is disappearing fast. Among kindergartners in one reservation school district, fluency dropped from 89 percent at the beginning of the 1980s to just a few percent by the end of the decade. Little says one reason for its decline is that the Navajo community is less geographically and technologically isolated.

"Once there is more television, you know, cable television and the Internet, and once younger members of the tribe have more ability to be exposed to the English language, the heritage language really drops off pretty quickly," she says.

Another example is Gullah. Once spoken by slaves and emancipated African-Americans in the low country of South Carolina, for years it was reviled as simply a butchered version of English. Through the generations, speakers became increasingly ashamed of that characterization.

But there is a distinct influence of West African languages in Gullah's structure, Little says, showing a depth and complexity that many Gullah-speakers themselves didn't appreciate.

In her estimation, that loss of language serves as a break from identity.

"The formation of our whole consciousness is framed by ... language," she said. "So when you take that language away, or even if it's forced out of a child or out of a adolescent ... that must be an incredible psychological trauma."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

There are about 175 indigenous languages still spoken in the United States and the vast majority of them are on the verge of extinction. From the scores of Native American tongues to Norwegian in North Dakota to the Creole of Louisiana, that national character is vanishing.

As Elizabeth Little writes in her new book: Each language is an invaluable resource. Every word is a latent little gem of human history, culture, and cognition. You could argue that the loss of a language is an irrevocable and incalculable loss to all humankind. Her book is called "Trip of the Tongue," and Elizabeth Little joins us from our studios in southern California. Welcome.

ELIZABETH LITTLE: Well, thank you so much for having me.

LYDEN: And you did take quite the trip to do this book.

LITTLE: I did, I did, over the course of a couple of years, actually. I was interested not just in the new arrivals to America but also in those communities that have been in the United States for hundreds of years or, in the case of Native American groups, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. And I put, I think, 25,000 miles on my poor long-lost Subaru that has since been consigned to the afterlife for cars.

LYDEN: It's a great journey. And the first part of your book, Elizabeth, deals with Native American languages - for example, Navajo. Let's listen to a little bit of spoken Navajo. This is from a weather report on a reservation radio station.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEATHER REPORT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Navajo spoken)

LYDEN: It is a wonderful language. But you write that it's disappearing fast, that among kindergarteners in one reservation school district, fluency dropped from 89 percent at the beginning of the 1980s to just a few percent by the end of the decade. What happened to Navajo?

LITTLE: It's really frustrating, because the Navajo language is far and away the most vibrant of the native languages in the lower 48 states. I would imagine that there are a number of factors, but I think one of the main ones is that the Navajo community is less isolated, both sort of in terms of geography and in terms of technology.

And I saw this on a number of reservations that I visited, once there is more television, you know, cable television and the Internet, and once younger members of the tribe have more ability to be exposed to the English language, the heritage language really drops off pretty quickly.

LYDEN: You went to South Carolina's Low Country to discover the roots of the Gullah language. Now, this is one that more people may be a little bit familiar with. We've got a recording here of the journalist/writer/novelist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston singing an old Gullah song that she learned. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH THE BUFORD BOAT DONE COME")

ZORA NEALE HURSTON: (Singing in Gullah)

LYDEN: Now, a lot of people consider Gullah just a simplified, a corrupted form of English for a long, long time. But you were able to pull that apart and find that such as outsiders who thought it was a corrupted form of English, some Gullah speakers were - I don't want to use the word ashamed - were defensive about it.

LITTLE: You know, I actually think that shame is a very applicable word here, and that's something that you see again and again for Gullah speakers. You know, they would go to school, and they were told that their language was just bad English and that it was uneducated English. And, you know, when you hear that over and over from figures of authority, you can't help but start to internalize some of that.

LYDEN: But you did some research yourself, and didn't you find that it does indeed have an African root and that it is actually an African language base?

LITTLE: It does. There's a really seminal work by the linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner. He really went through the lexicon and the grammar of Gullah and found specific connections to the languages of mostly West Africa. It's really telling when you go through that book to see how much influence there has been and how it is in no way a corrupted form of English.

LYDEN: My guest is author and linguist Elizabeth Little. Her new book is called "Trip of the Tongue: Cross Country Travels in Search of America's Languages." I like that title. Elizabeth Ms. Little, you went on to study Norwegian in North Dakota, Basque in Nevada, Creole in Louisiana with varying degrees of success in finding native speakers. Now, for the United States, a country that claims to take such pride in diversity, we seem to be very homogenous when it comes to our language.

LITTLE: It is interesting the way that English really eats up other languages. We're starting to see that change a little bit with the Spanish-speaking community right now, because it's not that Spanish speakers in America aren't learning English - they are, absolutely, and perhaps even more rapidly than they have in the past - but second generation speakers are actually retaining more and more of their Spanish and certainly comparatively more than other languages.

LYDEN: You quote Senator Richard Shelby in the book, and he says: By encouraging people to communicate in a common language, we actually help them progress in society. Well, it's a shame to lose that cultural identity, but do you think he has a point?

LITTLE: I will certainly agree that there are real economic benefits to speaking English in the United States. But once you accept that fact, you don't really need to do anything more to encourage people to speak English. We don't need to start abolishing, you know, multilingual ballots. No one is not learning English because they can vote on a, you know, Chinese language ballot.

LYDEN: Is something lost if we don't have neighbors who speak those languages, if people come here and lose their ancestral languages?

LITTLE: Well, I think the language, you know, it contains so much information about the culture. And certainly, you lose a tremendous tie to history and to culture when you lose the language. And I know I personally am just hugely bummed that I didn't grow up with any Norwegian, any Polish, and, you know, to be sure in the third or fourth generation. But I really felt sort of unmoored.

I wanted to know something more about where I came from, and having a better sense of the language would've really helped me feel like I belonged somewhere.

LYDEN: Well, (Irish spoken). That's Irish for thank you. Thank you very much.

LITTLE: Well, thank you so much.

LYDEN: Elizabeth Little is the author of "Trip of the Tongue: Cross Country Travels in Search of America's Languages." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.