Free speech

Elizabeth Little’s word games
By CLEA SIMON  |  December 31, 2007


Twenty-six-year-old author (and Harvard grad) Elizabeth Little has had a lifelong love affair with language. As she makes clear in her surprisingly funny debut book, Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic (Melville House), she swoons over verb forms and goes ga-ga over participles. Visiting from her home in Sunnyside, Queens, she chatted with me — in English — over coffee at Peets in Harvard Square and explained.

How many languages do you speak fluently?
I feel comfortable in French, Chinese, and Italian, and there are a number of languages where if I got a good two weeks of prep beforehand, I would be fine, like Spanish or Portuguese or German. But I’m actually going to Hungary on Saturday, and I’ve been trying to learn Hungarian, and I’ve been failing miserably. Its a Uralic language, with Estonian and Finnish, which are miserably difficult languages. What I’ll often do is just study the written language, look at how the nouns are formed or the verbs are formed, and I won’t necessarily focus on practical aspects — which I’ve found is somewhat to my detriment when I realize I’m going to be in Budapest and need to find important things like bathrooms. It should be an interesting experience.

So you don’t focus on learning practical phrases?
I don’t, actually. What I love are patterns of language and how they compare to other languages. How nouns work differently in Russian than they do in Japanese, for instance. As a result, I’m just as clueless when I travel as anyone else. And in fact, I’m a little bit hurt because I know all this linguistic theory and all these helpful tidbits, but when it comes to putting it into practice, you have to forget all of that and just blurt things out. And so I just get all tongue-tied and I’ll go, “But I know what the subjunctive should be!”

What is the easiest language for an English speaker to pick up?
Probably Danish or Dutch. They’re all Germanic languages, so they’re very closely related. Dutch in particular. If you look at it and read it, it reads very similar to English. As does Afrikaans, actually, but that’s slightly more politically loaded. So I’m not sure I’d recommend, like, ‘Oh pick up Afrikaans! Go offend people in South Africa!’ In German, there’s a lot of similarities as well, grammatically.

But doesn’t German have that tortured verb-at-the end-of the sentence structure?
Yes, which English has, God bless it, lost over the years. Dutch is much simpler. In Dutch, like English, the noun declensions have been lost. Romance languages are also fairly easy because the vocabularies are so similar. English absorbed so much French from when the French ruled England. But it can also be bad because you’ll find words that seem like they mean the same thing when they really mean something very different. The Italian preservativo sounds like it means preserves, like jam, and it’s condoms. My friend Annika was living in Italy, she was staying with a family in Tuscany, and she was asking for jam with her toast and she kept asking, “Can I have a condom with my toast?” They must have been like, “Who is this American?”

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