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Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic    by Elizabeth Little order for
Biting the Wax Tadpole
by Elizabeth Little
Order:  USA  Can
Spiegel & Grau, 2008 (2007)
Hardcover, Softcover

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Elizabeth Little tells us in her Introduction to Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic that 'learning to speak a new language and engage with a new culture is a veritable minefield of potential misunderstandings and compromising situations.' But she also speaks of the joy of language exploration through word travel, 'the chance to discover the stunning diversity of human language and culture without even leaving the comfort of your own home.'

Little offers her book as 'a collection of the quirks, innovations, and implausibilities of the world's languages - a jump-start for the novice word-traveler.' She looks at languages from the perspective of their use of: Nouns; Verbs; Numbers; Modifiers; and Speech, illustrating her commentary with black and white cartoons. I was intrigued by different cultures' views of numbers of things, as in different noun forms in Sanskrit for one horse, two horses, or three or more horses. And the politically correct crowd would have problems with various languages that align gender with attributes like size and sensitivity.

You know the author has a passion for her subject when she calls verbs 'the ringleaders of a sentence, irrepressible gossips that dish all the best dirt' and has section headings like Conjugation and Copulation. She tells us about the optative mood, 'used primarily for wishing and hoping' in languages like Ancient Greek and Japanese - surely all languages should have this form? Going from the sublime to Star Wars, we learn that Jabba the Hutt's grammar (such as it was) was closely modeled on Quechua.

I was fascinated to learn that the reason hours have sixty minutes (as opposed to a hundred) is that 'the Sumerians relied on a sexigesimal system' (base sixty); that the Piraha Amazonian language has no numbers, the culture having no need of them; about how various languages describe color; and their use of utterances involving clicks and ingressive sounds. Still wondering about the title? It comes from Coca-Cola's introduction to China, when shopkeepers used characters that sounded close to the original but were translated as ... bite the wax tadpole.

Elizabeth Little ends by telling us that for her, 'language isn't just an opportunity to flex my mental muscles ... It's full of culture, history, humor ... Language is, at its heart, about humanity'. Read her book, Biting the Wax Tadpole, to discover the oddities of languages all over the world and what they reflect about the cultures that speak (or spoke) them.

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