Biting the Wax Tadpole: Adventures in Word Travel

Overview

In this decidedly unstuffy look at the staid world of languages, Elizabeth Little uses her favorite examples from languages dead, difficult, and just plain made-up to reveal how language study is the ticket to traveling the world—without leaving the comforts of home. Little’s exploration of “word travel” includes:

• Shona, a language lacking distinct words for “blue” or “green”
• Why Icelandic speakers must ...

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Overview

In this decidedly unstuffy look at the staid world of languages, Elizabeth Little uses her favorite examples from languages dead, difficult, and just plain made-up to reveal how language study is the ticket to traveling the world—without leaving the comforts of home. Little’s exploration of “word travel” includes:

• Shona, a language lacking distinct words for “blue” or “green”
• Why Icelandic speakers must decide if the numbers 1-4 are plural
• Which language is the only one lacking verbs
• Just what, exactly, the Swedish names of IKEA products mean

Fully illustrated with hilarious sidebars, Biting The Wax Tadpole also addresses classic cases of mistranslation. For example, when Chinese shopkeepers tried to find a phonetic written equivalent of Coca-Cola, one set of characters they chose were pronounced “ke-kou ke-la.” It sounded right, but it translated literally as “bite the wax tadpole.” Not quite what Coke had in mind, but in this off-kilter ode to the words of the world, it’s just another example of language taking you someplace interesting.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Charming anecdotes, witty sidebars, and attractive illustrations … Little’s strong sense of humor never overwhelms her love of languages in this fascinating yet educational introduction to linguistics for a wide, pop-savvy audience.”
Publishers Weekly

“Biting the Wax Tadpole is witty, sassy, and laugh-out-loud funny. Little convincingly demonstrates that, as she puts it, ‘language is nothing less than a great adventure.’ So is her book.”
–Kitty Burns Florey, author of Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog

Publishers Weekly

In her debut book, writer and editor Little searches in "linguistic nooks and crannies" for the "quirks, innovations and implausibilities of the world's languages," threading witty pop culture references through tapestries of language trivia written with the not-so-linguistic reader in mind. (The title refers to the mistranslation in Chinese of "Coca-Cola.") Little strips linguistics of its academic drudgery, showing how the Tangut language uses verbs by translating phrases like Johnny Cash's lyric "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die"; referring to pop-culture icons like Al Gore, Jabba the Hutt and the Smurfs to get the point across; and covering every language from Yoruba, a West African language, to the verbless Kelen, invented as an experiment by a Berkeley undergraduate. The book contains charming anecdotes, witty sidebars, attractive illustrations (by Ayumi Piland) and comprehensive linguistics lessons on topics ranging from the well-known ("Verbs conjugate, nouns decline") to the obscure (the disjunctive adjective: "The most infamous English example is 'hopefully,' that famed bête noir of addled prescriptionist fussbudgets"). Little's strong sense of humor never overwhelms her love of languages in this fascinating yet educational introduction to linguistics for a wide, pop-savvy audience. (Dec.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

The bright yellow, orange, and pink cover, 28 cutesy cartoons, two-inch outer margins, and vast blank spaces give a children's-book appearance to this otherwise serious discussion of nouns, verbs, modifiers, numbers, and speech in various languages. New York City-based writer and editor Little has studied some of the world's most obscure tongues, but her observations-e.g., that in some languages, the infinitive "to be" can be expressed in as many as five different ways, that there are multiple variations for verb conjugation, and that nouns have declensions-make languages seem impossibly complex and difficult to learn. What's more, though it's surely not her intention, Little's many self-deprecating pronouncements to this effect do a disservice to language learning. Taking into account this caveat and also considering Little's with-it style and the neat charts and boxed bits of linguistic oddities, this small book might do for those interested in language and grammar. Recommended for larger libraries.-Kitty Chen Dean, Nassau Community Coll., Garden City, NY

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781933633336
  • Publisher: Melville House Publishing
  • Publication date: 11/1/2007
  • Pages: 184
  • Product dimensions: 8.46 (w) x 7.40 (h) x 0.71 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Little is a writer and editor living in New York City. She has worked as a literary agent and as a writer and editor for the travel guide Let's Go: China, and she writes regularly for The New York Times Travel section. This is her first book.
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