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Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic (Anglais) Broché – 11 novembre 2008

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In the summer of 2000, I was in Nanchang, a fairly large city in southeast China that isn’t exactly what I’d call a popular tourist destination. I’d spent the dayon the road, stuck in the back of a sweltering bus that had broken down not once, but twice, and I hadn’t
eaten anything all day but some stale Chips Ahoy cookies I’d found in the bottom of my backpack. I was tired and cranky in the way that only those afflictedwith bad luck and low blood sugar can be.

By the time I got into town, I wanted one thing, and one thing only: a plate of dumplings the size of my head.

As soon as I got off the bus, I dropped my pack at a hotel and went to the first restaurant I saw. I knew from experience that it was pointless to try to decipher a Chinese menu in my exhausted state, so I swallowed my pride, went up to the hostess, and very
politely asked for an English menu.

“Ni you méiyou yingwén de càidan?”

The hostess responded with an expression that, sadly, I knew all too well: she had no idea what I was trying to say.

And I knew exactly what the problem was.

When you begin a course in Mandarin, one of the first things you learn is that the meaning of any given sound changes depending on your tone. Anyone with a mother is, of course, familiar with the linguistic peril of tone, but different languages use tone differently. In English, tone–or, more properly, intonation–usually applies to an entire thought: we pitch our voices up at the end of a question or we use monotone
to convey sarcasm. In Chinese, however, tone can change the meaning of the words themselves. A single syllable–ma, to use the standard example–can mean mother, hemp, horse, or scold, depending on whether the tone of the word holds steady, rises, dips, or falls.

When I got to China, I discovered that the first tone, the hold-steady tone, gave me all kinds of trouble. To really nail it, you have to speak it much higher than you expect, until you almost feel like you’re singing the word. Unfortunately, singing isn’t exactly my forte: the higher register of my voice can kindly be called “shrill.” So every time I had to say a word with that troublesome high hold-steady tone, I would hold back a bit and try to get away with a nice, non-offensive contralto.

Which meant that every time I tried to say something with this first tone–in particular, the “dan” of càidan–I got it awesomely wrong. Like, first—round—of—American Idol wrong. So it wasn’t at all surprising that the nice woman at the hostess podium had no
idea what I was saying.

It had been happening for over a month at that point.

Before I traveled to China, I’d studied Mandarin for a year–two hours a day, five days a week–and I’d thought I was well prepared. I knew how to ask directions to a train station, bus stop, or Internet café.

I was ready to yell at cab drivers and politely decline souvenirs, solicitations, and marriage proposals. But once I got there, my brain was fogged full of semi-familiar
words and phrases, riddled with grammatical minutiae. Nothing came out the way I intended it to. My speech was an explosive mess.

I’d somehow managed to keep my spirits up for nearly a month as I blustered about, more often than not resorting to pantomime and occasionally to outright bribery to get a point across. I’d bungled conversations with government agencies, underground religious groups, and small children who were convinced I was some kind of monster, but until I got to Nanchang, I’d managed to keep my optimism intact, usually by reminding myself that I would never have to see these witnesses to my linguistic humiliationagain. But that nameless, menuless eatery finally didme in. I was willing to admit defeat: I was total crap
at Chinese. Not for the first time, I felt the bone-deep weariness of being a stranger in a strange-language land.

But I’d come this far, so I made one last, desperate effort–“càiDAN!”–pitching my voice so high on the last syllable that I sounded like I’d been punched in the stomach.

A silence fell over the restaurant. The hostess furrowed her brow, the diners exchanged puzzled glances over their plates, and I resigned myself to yet another night alone in my hotel room, dining on chocolate chips and failure. But then, out of nowhere, a waitress in the back yelled “Càidan! Zhèige hen dà de wàiguorén yào yigè càidan!”

The huge foreigner wants a menu
. I was so pleased I’d been understood, I almost forgot to blush.

• • •

Those of us in possession of the wallflower gene know that the world is full of special hells: communal showers; mandatory company parties; high school. And then there’s travel. Travel’s tricky, because unlike, say, high school, it can actually be simultaneously enjoyable and enlightening. But learning to speak a new language and engage with a new culture is a veritable minefield of potential misunderstandings and compromising situations. When you travel, you’re not just paying for the privilege of seeing and experiencing new things, but also for the opportunity to make an ass of yourself.

Fortunately, there’s another way. You don’t have to jam yourself into a coach-class seat and sweat over itineraries and etiquette to get to know the languages and cultures of the world. Nor do you have to have a healthy trust fund or a perfect credit score. All you
have to do is let go of those traumatic memories of mind-numbing middle-school Spanish class. Because once you’re out of school, freed from the shackles of prescriptive grammar and college admissions requirements, the burden of language study gives way
to the singular pleasures of language exploration–and the chance to discover the stunning diversity of human language and culture without even leaving the comfort of your own home. World travel isn’t an option for everyone; word travel, on the other hand, is.

I think it’s fair to say that I don’t pick up languages. If anything, I roll around in them gracelessly and pray that something sticks. I speak halting Italian, and I rarely use French except as a way to swear at other drivers without fear of reprisal. I’ve stopped telling people that I studied Chinese because I’m sick of having to concoct plausible translations when asked to decipher calligraphy. Once I put Ancient Greek on my résumé. In high school. When I was applying for a job at Blockbuster Video. And then spent a summer being mercilessly teased for it. (“Thank god you’re here, Elizabeth–we always wondered what we’d do if Plato applied for a membership.”) Ever since, I’ve really tried to avoid the subject of Ancient Greek altogether.

Even so, languages are, without question, the great compulsion of my life.

My introduction to foreign languages came courtesy of my father, who, being a dutiful Canadian, felt it necessary to teach me a few key words in French. As such, I learned to say my name, to count, and to properly pronounce “Jean Béliveau.” Much to my dismay,however, my study proved to be of little practical use. (St. Louis doesn’t exactly have a thriving Francophone community.) Even when I did get the opportunity to practice my French on a family vacation to Europe, I was shockingly unable to strike up a single conversation about my name or knowledge of ice-hockey history. My taste for linguistic impracticality didn’t get me into any real trouble until the fourth grade, when my elementary school decided–for reasons I suspect had less to do with staff qualifications than uppity parental demands–to start teaching us Latin. For the most part, class consisted of reviewing fancy Latinate vocabulary and learningabout vomitoria. We did, however, get the occasional actual Latin grammar lesson, and it was during one of these lessons that my latent love of languages truly came into view.

We were learning, appropriately enough, the conjugation of the verb “to love”: amare. To the tune of the Mexican Hat Dance.

I’d never conjugated a verb before–not formally, in any case–and it triggered something deep in some anal-retentive cortex of my brain. After years of adopting and discarding a series of halfhearted hobbies (bugs, dinosaurs, ghostbusting), I’d found
my focus. It helped that I always enjoyed learning things by rote–and languages offered a nearly unlimited supply of potential memorization. But, more important, I loved a good mystery. My heroes were Harriet the Spy, Hercule Poirot, the entire cast of Clue. And a foreign language is like a mystery, a code to be cracked, a secret I could share in.

In other words, I was done for.

I made lists of languages that I wanted to learn by the time I was fifteen, twenty, twenty-five (the mostdistant age I could imagine at the time). I dreamt of keeping multilingual diaries so as to confound even the cleverest snoops. I made up my own languages,
which I practiced on my cats.

Shortly thereafter, I purchased my first foreignlanguage dictionary, a slim volume of German and English that I ordered by mail. When it was delivered, my mother said to me, quite reasonably I think, “Just what do you think you’re going to do with that?”

“Learn German,” I said.

“But why?” she asked.

I shrugged. “Why not?”

Revue de presse

“This is a fun book for grammar and pop-culture lovers alike. Little provides grammar basics and little-known facts by incorporating stories of her travels, Star Wars, Dr. Seuss, and other familiar icons. It’s both a breezy read and a useful resource.” —

“A delightful language scrapbook . . . I have found a kindred spirit in Elizabeth Little.” —Chicago Tribune

“Charming anecdotes, witty sidebars, 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.” —Publisher’s Weekly

Détails sur le produit

  • Broché: 192 pages
  • Editeur : Spiegel & Grau; Édition : 1 Reprint (11 novembre 2008)
  • Langue : Anglais
  • ISBN-10: 0385527748
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385527743
  • Dimensions du produit: 18,2 x 1,3 x 21 cm
  • Moyenne des commentaires client : 2.0 étoiles sur 5  Voir tous les commentaires (1 commentaire client)
  • Classement des meilleures ventes d'Amazon: 183.044 en Livres anglais et étrangers (Voir les 100 premiers en Livres anglais et étrangers)
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Par Jacquie Bridonneau le 23 avril 2014
Format: Broché Achat vérifié
Expecting much more than well-known anecdotes here - so I was quite disappointed in this book. I'm also a language fanatic, but this was not up to what I was expecting at all.
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Commentaires client les plus utiles sur (beta) 8 commentaires
28 internautes sur 29 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
The wittiest book on the quirks of language you'll ever find! 11 décembre 2007
Par Michael J. Hines Jr. - Publié sur
Format: Relié
Little's look at the world of languages, their common traits, and their huge range of differences, will introduce everyone but the most well-informed of linguistic scholars to the unique and at times amusing quirks of language. From languages that click, to languages with only three names of colors, Little takes us on a grand tour through both time and space, broadening our horizons and understandings of history and culture as evidenced by the way people have used language.

The real charm of the book, however, is Little's frequent use of pop cultural references, witty remarks, and double entendres, to make what could be a dry topic turn out simply effervescent. Any reader will be infused with Little's own passion for languages after turning just a few short pages.
21 internautes sur 22 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Riddled with Errors! 22 novembre 2008
Par Max Varazslo - Publié sur
Format: Broché
A bona fide language fanatic myself, I bought "Biting the Wax Tadpole" with high hopes. I looked forward to learning something new about languages spoken off the beaten track, as it were. I was disappointed almost immediately. First-time author Elizabeth Little simply gets too many otherwise easily verifiable facts completely wrong.

A few examples... In the first chapter she opines, "If English were to decline the word 'bar' using the Hungarian system, it might look something roughly like this..." Why "something roughly"? Couldn't she simply outline the declension of an authentic Hungarian noun? Instead she takes an English noun -- not even the immediately recognizable Hungarian equivalent -- and adds a list of mismatched case endings to it. Words in some languages, like Chinese and Japanese, are presented in their native scripts; others are only transliterated, though not always accurately. In Korean, for instance, the proper name "Chachi" would be spelled differently from the slang word for "penis." The author stops short of admitting she's perpetuating a nearly forgotten urban legend, but that's exactly what she's done. So much for scholarship...

Still not convinced? Nouns denoting nationality in Swahili, like "Mchina" ("Chinese person"), are not gender-specific. The author mistransliterates the sample Greek verb she uses to illustrate the Middle Voice (epaideusamen) as "epaideusan" (which is the plural of the third person past tense form she used in an earlier example). In the next chapter she confuses the German words for "new" and "nine," which are similar but not identical.

And so on. While some of the information may be useful to beginners, with errors of this magnitude the book is mostly unreliable as a reference.

The book is undeniably witty -- but shouldn't we learn something valuable while we're laughing? I'm honestly amazed that no one took the time to vet the manuscript before it was published.
8 internautes sur 8 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Absolutely beguiling -- if you're a language geek. 1 avril 2008
Par David M. Giltinan - Publié sur
Format: Relié Achat vérifié
It's time for the annual sheap-shearing contest in the Aberfan Valley. You're there, checking your flock before entering. How do you count?

Yan, tan, tether, mether, pip, azer, sezar, akker, conter, dick, yanadick, tanadick, tetheradick, metheradick, bumfit, yanabum, tanabum, tetherabum, metherabum, jigget.

This vestigial vigesimal counting system is just one of the many delights to be found in Elizabeth Little's completely enchanting book of musings on language. As she puts it, the words are "utterly charming, sounding like nothing so much as the names a young Will Shakespeare might have conjured up for a litter of adorable kittens." She's right -- I have no words to describe how much joy that little sequence "yanadick, tanadick, tetheradick, metheradick, bumfit" brings me, except to say that when I first read it, I literally squealed with delight . And how often does one get to do that these days?

Though the chapter names are sober: "NOUNS, VERBS, NUMBERS, MODIFIERS, SPEECH", this is a book which romps, gambols, and frolics along the highways and byways of language, unearthing fascinating nuggets along the way. Little claims no formal qualification for writing on linguistic topics, other than a lifelong enthusiasm for language. In writing such a wonderful book, she has demonstrated that no other qualification is needed.

If you are a language geek (like me), this book gets 5 stars hands down. Though it seems hard to believe, not everyone will stare transfixed by the beauty of the declension table specifying all 18 Hungarian case endings that Little includes in the book. But for those of you who find such matters eerily fascinating (and you know who you are!), "Biting the Wax Tadpole" is a garden of earthly delights.
11 internautes sur 12 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
A Fun Look at World Linguistics 26 janvier 2008
Par Scott Martin - Publié sur
Format: Relié
As a professional writer, I really should have much more than a passing interest in the finer points of grammar and linguistics. So, to assuage my guilt, I periodically try to find a book that will help me learn more about English and its illogical curiosities, not to mention its austere technicalities. It can be a bit embarrassing. For example, if someone who knows that I'm a writer asks me to define the copulative then I'll try to change the conversation to football, which I find fifty times more interesting than grammar. Of course, it depends who's asking.

This book caught my eye initially because it's yellow. Every other book about the language is light blue, dark blue, light mauve, taupe, or fawn. I also liked the title which is as strong a non sequitur as Monty Python's Flying Circus. Most books about linguistics have dreary titles and a dreary layout. Memo to publishers. Try this next time...The Hooters Monthly Guide to Semantics and Participles, or Debbie Does Declensions. This approach might increase sales and interest.

While Biting the Wax Tadpole is a serious look at a serious subject, Elizabeth Little writes with a warm, self-effacing, and generous style that makes the technical interesting and fun. To be honest, some of the work is a bit deep for me and might be best for, say, a tenured professor of linguistics, but the the journey around the world's languages is a crazy ride that makes me appreciate my native language and hope that I never get caught in Swaziland trying to find a square meal. I, for one, am glad that we don't have masculine and feminine nouns with no logical way to determine gender. Imagine what the political correctness mafia here would do with that system! Look at what they have organized, as Little points out, with "alumni."

Anyway, this book is a must for anyone who loves language and/or works in the field. Biting the Wax Tadpole provides an intriguing and witty introduction to how we communicate. And it's yellow.

I hope that Elizabeth Little writes many more books--on many more subjects.
1 internautes sur 1 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Great fun! 25 mars 2010
Par James Yanni - Publié sur
Format: Broché
Contrary to what the author insists, we are NOT all language people; I certainly am not. I am fine within the familiar contours of my native American English, and have a reasonable facility (possibly better than Ms. Little's, if I can believe her self-deprecating statements on the subject) with pronunciation and accent. And I have a more than reasonably good memory for vocabulary. But I have never been able to adjust to a foreign grammatical structure; I've made two attempts to learn German, and one to learn French, and in each case, grammatical structure and word order did me in. I seem to be hard-wired for the English take on this aspect of language.

In spite of this, however, the author managed to convey her enthusiasm for the subject so thoroughly, and in such a charming manner, that I couldn't help but find it contagious. I may yet have to make another attempt to learn another language. If I could be guaranteed of finding a teacher as knowledgeable, as enthusiastic, and as entertaining as Ms. Little, I almost certainly would.
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