A TRIP OF THE TONGUE
By Elizabeth Little
DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN REGIONAL
ENGLISH: VOLUME V, SL-Z
Joan Houston Hall, chief editor
The Belknap Press
of Harvard University Press, $85
Reading Elizabeth Little’s writing is a bit like reconnecting with that dear friend, the one who always makes you laugh. Her style is open and breezy, conversational and intimate. You know she can tell a joke. When it comes to language, she’s not kidding around though, casual voice or not.
Little is a linguist. She speaks a passel of languages, including English and French, and describes herself as “a kind of serial dater when it comes to learning languages.” She grew up in the polyglot borough of Queens, N.Y., hearing Chinese, Spanish, Bukharic, Italian and many others. Naturally she loves languages, but not so much English until she got interested in vanishing creoles — a creole is mix of two languages that borrow words from each other — and she set out to track down some of these linguistic four leaf clovers right here in the U.S.
She went to Montana to study Crow Indian speech, to Arizona to see how the Navaho are assimilating, to Washington State to study three Indian tribes’ speech, to South Carolina to hear the Gullah of the Sea Islands, to Florida for an earful of Haitian creole, to New Mexico for its peculiar Spanish. She also came to Louisiana, looking for speakers of creole French.
It’s the Louisiana chapter that will most interest readers on the bayou. Little went to New Orleans where she found vestiges of French and no small confusion over the word “creole.”
“Most of the French I came across was my favorite kind of French: culinary French. Consider, for instance, trout meunière, trout dredged in flour and served with a lemon and brown butter sauce. The name here comes from the French ‘miller’s wife,’ a nod to the preparation’s rustic simplicity — and, presumably, its dependence on flour.”
She also found, however, that there are a lot of local variations, like Fontainebleu pronounced “fountain blue.” Then there are words like lagniappe. “Lagniappe derives from the Spanish la ñapa and means, roughly, ‘a little something extra thrown in for free’ or, perhaps more succinctly, ‘gift with purchase.’”
New Orleans French was hardly a blend of French and English, but rather bits of many things simmering in a stew of English. Little set her sights outside the Crescent City and had better luck finding creole speakers once she disentangled herself from the evasive meaning of the word.
Language is just one way “creole” is used. Little found that Creole has another meaning. It signifies French ancestry, yes, but also can mean black. Or white. Or both. “Creole is, then depending on whom you ask, a dividing line between French and Anglo, white and black, white and light-skinned black, light and dark-skinned black, or some combination thereof. Today it can also be used to distinguish among whites with French heritage: while Creoles are descendants of original French and Spanish settlers, Cajuns are descendants of Acadian refugees.”
Fascinating, Little found, but not the creole she was seeking. Eventually she got a tip in a bar from a dancer who was also a linguistics major and headed out to the country to find creole speakers. She theorized that the French/African racial population blend would have produced a creole that borrowed many African words and grammatical structures, but after trips to a couple of River Road plantations and to Natchitoches, she found something that startled her. There seemed to be little African influence in Louisiana Creole.
“Though some (language) leveling surely would have occurred, would it really have been so extreme that scholars in the twentieth century would find no evidence of a grammatical link between Louisiana creole and any African languages?” So what happened?
“Which meant I was underestimating the role of French. Because whatever Louisiana Creole once was, over time it wasn’t becoming more African or even more English. So it must have been becoming more French — which means it must have been becoming less creole.”
What was happening? “Cajun French is a regional variety of French, which is to say it is not a creole. It does differ from Standard French in terms of pronunciation, idiom and vocabulary. There are legions of petty differences between the two. A Cajun French speaker might omit the ne of ne … pas, he’s probably ditched the subjunctive and the formal vous, and he doesn’t call a car une voiture, he calls it un char,” she writes. “But though the flesh may be different, the bones of Cajun French are basically the same as those of Standard French. Its nouns are gendered, its verbal structure is mostly the same, and its pronouns are identical.
“And as Louisiana Creole has rubbed up against Cajun French over the years, it has in some cases acquired the features of this more standard version of French.”
That’s worth learning, and Little does a splendid job of keeping what is a potentially stupefying subject interesting. She sprinkles in facts and anecdotes like chocolate chips in a cookie.
Not that she doesn’t have some shortcomings as a writer. She makes a typo now and again as here: “Originally French settlers in Nova Scotia, the Acadians were deported by the British in 1715 …” She obviously meant to type 1755. And she seems directionally impaired. “ … just outside of the town of Vacherie in St. James Parish, about forty miles east of New Orleans.” And when she went to Texas to hear border Spanish, she didn’t want to stop in El Paso, so she headed to Laredo. “ … I decided to skip El Paso and head farther west.”
These bloopers can be forgiven. Trip is a lively and entertaining book that is also informative. That’s a rare combination nowadays.
That same combination probably explains the interest in the final volume of Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE). This last book is just as massive as the first — 1,296 large format pages — and just as expensive at $85.
This is not a pocket companion in the least because it is five volumes. It’s a wonderful book which was begun in 1962 and compiled by a legion of scholars of American speech. In each volume, a few letters of the the alphabet are treated.
Volume V contains Sl-Z. There are not a lot of words with “y” or “z” or “x,” so the bulk of this book deals with “Sl” through “w.” That’s just part of the S’s, remember. Even so, it’s a linguist’s playhouse.
Where else can you find out that “slantindicular” is a coined word meaning “slanting, lopsided, sidelong; oblique, at an angle”? The folks in Tennessee, Kentucky and parts of New England where this expression originated know poetry when they hear it. What about “slue-footed”? It means “having a foot or feet that turn out or are otherwise misshapen or awkward; shambling, clumsy.” It’s a common description in the South. In the Midwest, you might say someone is “throwing up one’s toes,” which means to “vomit violently.” A “tommytoe” is a marble tomato, and this expression is common in the upper South.
You could go on and on, but this reference book is meant for more than a casual form of entertainment or go-to book for writers hoping to write accurate dialect. It’s a scholarly compilation of the way Americans use regionalisms, and like any dictionary, each entry has tips on pronunciation, usage and the geographic origin of the term. It may also help someone like a forensic linguist pinpoint the hometown of a ransom note writer. Or it might be used to answer a question posed to a librarian. That last seems most likely as many of these words and phrases are becoming rare.
You’re more like to find these five huge volumes in a library than anywhere else too, since they have the space and maybe more of a reason to spend the money on this dictionary that the publisher says is “widely viewed as the American equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary.”
Many of the 60,000 entries feature maps that show where the words/phrases are most common.
It’s a great source of information. That’s true. Mostly though, it’s fun as a recent discussion of the book on National Public Radio revealed. Even the commentator on NPR Books was clearly enjoying the funny and clever expressions that exist in no other speech than American English. You probably will too.