A trip around America’s languages with Elizabeth Little

At some point during Elizabeth Little’s gargantuan road trip, she realized that her book, A Trip of the Tongue: Cross-Country Travels in Search of America’s Languages, was morphing from something whimsical to something serious.

Perhaps it was in Florida, where she found a life raft of Haitian Creole struggling to stay afloat in an ocean of  Spanish and English.

Perhaps it was Montana, where she attended competing re-enactments of the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Or perhaps in Forks, WA, where she came across an obscure native American language and an anything-but-obscure vampire book and movie series.

Little was in Washington State to check in on other indigenous languages. She only went to Forks because it was barely out of her way. She describes it as a formerly “sleepy lumber town.” Now it’s turned itself into a sort of vampire theme park. The reason? Rain.

In 2003, writer Stephenie Meyer decided to set what would become the Twilight series in Forks because, according to a Google search, it was the rainiest place in the U.S. She made one of her characters, Jacob Black, native American. The Quileute tribe is local to Forks, so Black became Quileute.

In the second movie of the series, The Twilight Sage: New Moon, Jacob Black says something in the Quileute language. The circumstances suggest it’s a declaration of love—he whispers the words to the object of his affection, Bella Swan.

Quileute speakers have confirmed that the words are genuine Quileute. But they’re not saying what it they mean “out of respect for Jacob and his feelings for Bella.” Yes, out of respect for two fictional characters.

As Little experienced, Forks has become a magnet for Twilight fans, with bustours and motels playing off the vampire theme.

In itself, this episode might have gone into either version of Little’s book—the  whimsical one or the serious one (the book ends up managing to be both). But it points to just how arcane and exotic native American languages have become in this country—and how that can be intensely attractive to mainstream Americans.

As Little’s book progresses, you can sense her indignation rising. Time and again, she is confronted with old stories of attempts to eliminate Native American languages. In our podcast conversation, she talks about how she perceives the same impulse today in the English Only movement that’s sweeping across states with laws that restrict the official use of any other languages. Many Americans, she says, still believe that schools and other institutions of the state should insist on English, for the good those who don’t speak it.

This conversation is part one (of two). I’ll feature more with Elizabeth Little in a future podcast.

Listen via iTunes or here.

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