Little#039;s bad Language: Better left untouched

by Beacon Staff • December 12, 2007

John F. Kennedy was a doughnut. Granted, not really but he did have the German populace in a state of confusion when he gave a speech at the Berlin Wall and attempted to tell the crowd gathered before him that he too was a citizen of Berlin. He proceeded to say, "Ich bin ein Berliner." However, the addition of one simple word (ein) changed the meaning from a German statement of solidarity to a confession of confectionary standing.

The pastry incident was one of the many examples that inspired Elizabeth Little to compile Biting the Wax Tadpole, an exploration in grammatical anomalies.

The book chronicles Little's love for the nuances of foreign languages that stray a great distance from the structures of her native English. The result is a book that sounds like a strained high school Spanish teacher-the one who always had lipstick on her teeth and a bra strap hanging out, trying her hardest to be funny.

Melville House Publishers contacted Little to write the book after an essay of hers was printed by New York Times in a column called "Rituals," which chronicled the unusual, interesting and bizarre ways with which people pass their time. A more common mania may be bottle cap collecting and watching the Red Sox, but for Little the most attractive concept to dwell up on was words.

"It's not exactly the hot, sexy topic to write a book about," Little said. "I just wanted to write a book that was accessible."

That reader reachability has however, made it seem like a dressed up version of See Spot Run. Little compiled her freshman effort in four months, a relative whirlwind writing experience in relation to the usual amount of time taken for a one hundred and eighty-page syntax experience. It is divided into sections based on the parts of grammar that everyone had drilled into their heads as small children. The chapters are organized in a deceptively simple manner by taking the reader through verbs, nouns and the oral side of the various vernaculars.

The problem is that the severely abbreviated writing and editing period is readily apparent in the structure. Within the chapters is a mix of examples that lack logical order or reason, jumping from ancient Greek to French without a hint of transition.

When discussing noun and number agreements she jumps from examples the particles of Tagalong to the Arabic roots of the word "book" within two paragraphs, leaving readers with more dialects than are strictly necessary swirling around in their head than are necessary.

For linguaphiles of all levels, the sidebars outshine the content. The text is all business when it discusses the six locative cases of Finnish, while the sidebars convey nothing of real importance.

They manage instead to be places where Little shows that she can, in fact, write with wit, or at least involve the reader. There have probably been hundreds of books about the way that things have been translated incorrectly and Little manages to add in English examples as well. They include the story of the origins of Green Eggs and Ham and the nuances of Ikea's naming processes.

The attempts to explain strange snippets end up sounding like the book is pandering to a lazy audience, making a desperate attempt to impress a third party with banal knowledge. The reasons behind the origins of Tadpole were not to substitute for classic books on verb conjugations.

"It's not a reference guide," Little said. "I wanted to mainstream foreign language grammar. Tons of people love reading about English grammar, but it kind of stops with English."

The discussion of grammar is not one of the most intriguing topics in general and Little's attempts to make the subject attractive are valiant, to say the very least. However, the book ultimately fails to impart tangible knowledge and is not funny enough to read simply for the joy of it. The reader walks away with knowledge of the way that children are named in Iceland and a plethora of other useless factoids. The bits of knowledge may come in useful in future rounds of Jeopardy, but little else.