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Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic

3.59  ·  Rating details ·  311 ratings  ·  70 reviews
In this decidedly unstuffy look at the staid world of languages, Elizabeth Little uses her favorite examples from languages dead, difficult, and just plain made-up to reveal how language study is the ticket to traveling the world—without leaving the comforts of home. Little’s exploration of “word travel” includes:

• Shona, a language lacking distinct words for “blue” or “gr
Hardcover, 184 pages
Published November 1st 2007 by Melville House
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Mar 20, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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 "u
Mark Freckleton
Jul 04, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I will confess I was a little skeptical of this book because I have run into far too many efforts by non-linguists who obviously did not have the background, training and expertise to know what they were writing about.

In this case, the author, Elizabeth Little, graduated in political science and "language citations in Mandarin and Classical Chinese" (whatever that means). Self effacing (the introduction centers on her inability to communicate in order to get some food in a city in Southeastern
Sandy D.
Parts of this book bored me to tears, but other parts were so intriguing and eye-opening that they made up for the mind-numbing sentences like "The accusative is used for the direct object of the verb, while the dative is used for, among other things, the indirect object" (p. 27, picked at random. There were worse sentences).

The fun stuff (for me, anyway) was the trivia on language structure in vastly different languages. Nez Perce colors, Finnish verb structure, counting in French and Japanese,
Jan 01, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
It's essentially a trivia book: a decidedly non-comprehensive and disarmingly subjective take on just about every language ever. And I'm totally hooked. Some excerpts and analogies could be from the author's diary, which is odd and fleetingly annoying, but the payoff is great: she ties it all in with a pop culture reference that makes me suddenly understand linguistic vocabulary specific to remote tribal languages for which I previously had no frame of reference. A really, really fun book. Usefu ...more
Mar 28, 2008 rated it really liked it
The only thing I really didn't like about this book on languages is that I didn't write it myself. I would recommend this for anyone who's interested in language - you don't need a linguistics background to read and enjoy. The book is divided into chapters like "Nouns" "Verbs" and "Adjectives," and each chapter surveys all the things other languages do with those categories. Her tone is light-hearted and she throws in little wry observations or literary jokes here and there. One small thing I di ...more
Jun 17, 2012 rated it really liked it
I enjoy this book a lot. I love reading interesting language tidbits, like the fact that the words "nine" and "new" are very similar in many, many languages, for some reason, or that "orange" is the same in a lot of languages, and is a relatively new word in them.

I did think the book would be more of a memoir, based on the title---more about the author's own life and language learning. It isn't---it's like a sampling of trivia about languages around the world, divided into categories like nouns,
Apr 01, 2008 rated it liked it
I majored in Linguistics in college (Nickname "WordNerd")so I really get the authors love of languages. Not necessarily to master them;just to experience the romance and adventure of one of the key things that humans do--communicate with words. This is an enjoyable book that is well written and definitely shows love for languages. Anecdotal bits and more scholarly (I use 'scholarly' very loosely, as the style is very conversational) sections are organized in chapters that deal with specific gram ...more
Aug 24, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: humor
My favorite thing is when an author describes a sensation, experience or thought process that I thought I was alone in and does it so eloquently it leaves me shaking my head. Anna Quindlen's "Imagined London: a tour of the world's greatest fictional city" was one such book. This one is another. I loved it!
Michael Smith
May 16, 2013 rated it really liked it
A hardcore look at the grammars, underlying structures and idiosyncrasies of the world's languages, enlivened by a cheerful and intimate voice.
May 13, 2008 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: those interested in language
Shelves: postcollege, 2008
A fun book and an easy read. It made me want to learn more languages, and helped me decide which ones to definitely avoid.
Zac Bellinger
Jul 23, 2017 rated it really liked it
A light read on a dense subject. Very accessible and at times hilarious. The author is very clever.
I recommend this book for the budding linguist or anyone interested in language. It goes through a lot of the basics and more interesting facts but doesn't delve too deeply into any one matter.
I really had fun reading this.
This book is a compilation of interesting facts about languages. It is more a book for dipping into and reading interesting trivia. I did enjoy reading about some of the quirkiness of translations into Chinese, tonal languages slang, pronunciation and the oddities of grammars of different languages. I bought this book secondhand and the title certainly appealed to me.
Aug 07, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: odd-books
Most of the guides to foreign languages focus on vocabulary. For a change this one focuses on grammar. Unfortunately it does mean it can be a bit technical. Entertaining and interesting despite this.
Jul 30, 2018 rated it liked it
Easy to read, well researched, well written, but in the end more than I wanted to know about noun declensions etc.
Feb 13, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Two and half stars. I liked it well enough but It didn't engage me as much as I hoped.
Feb 09, 2015 rated it really liked it
“Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic” by Elizabeth Little, published in 2007, is a fun tour through a few basic aspects of human language. Five chapters deal with the constituents of language: nouns, verbs, numbers, modifiers, and speech, and these chapters are surrounded by an introduction and a conclusion.
Many tidbits in the book will catch the eye of people who, like me, enjoy reading about languages. In Hungarian, a Uralic not Indo-European language, many nouns are de
Aug 27, 2014 rated it liked it
In its favor, this book does present a fair amount of information about the different ways different languages are organized. A lot of it, we've heard before, but that's okay because it wouldn't make sense to leave it out just because it's familiar. The title, "Biting the Wax Tadpole," refers to a phonetic rendering of the name "Coca-Cola" by Chinese shopkeepers -- an anecdote new to me -- and the author debunks the idea that it was Coke's own marketing people who came up with this infelicitous ...more
Apr 23, 2009 rated it liked it
I thought this book was an entertaining guided tour through various linguistic anecdotes, with an eye towards highlighting things that English speakers might find amusing, odd, or startling. I enjoyed her first-person experiences and the exuberance and enthusiasm that she put into it. I'm always fascinated by the multitude of ways in which different languages "discretize" the space of human experience into grammatical and lexical components, which aspects are marked, which ones are elided, etc. ...more
Aug 30, 2012 rated it liked it
Here's what I liked:

1) finding out the origins of our words, numbers, etc.--why we don't use the metric system, where "eleven" and "twelve" came from--in a fun, modern, relatively easy-to-understand way. Relatively.

2) witty sidebars that were actually more fun than the book itself.

Here's what I had issues with and why it only got 3 stars from me:

1) It did get a little technical for me--I can hardly remember which are adverbs and which are adjectives, let alone how to conjugate verbs or what a pa
Dec 26, 2008 rated it really liked it
I had been lusting after this book after listening to possibly my all-time favorite episode of TTBOOK. And it was great for those of us who can get geeked-out on language. I find that I appreciate some of the same linguistic idiosyncrasies as Little, which is always heartening, and her discussion of Semitic languages has convinced me to add one to my list of languages I'd like to learn someday. This is thoroughly a trivia book that, I think, is best geared toward anyone with a background in fore ...more
Mar 25, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: linguistics
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 ...more
Jun 21, 2008 rated it it was ok
Shelves: word-nerd
This was an interesting look at the great variety of languages, sound and structures that exist in the world, but really, it was way too technical for me. I never had grammar lessons in school, apart from whether the comma goes inside or outside of quotation marks. So works like "declension" were Greek to me. The concepts came across ok, but I would have gotten a lot more out of it if I had the proper background.

I'm not entirely sure the point of the book. It had some humor it it, but a dry, iro
Dec 18, 2010 rated it did not like it
I really wanted to like this book. I was hoping for a bit of light reading that wasn’t total junk snippets of where the oddities of language come from or the weird things about language that maybe I’d never thought of. Instead I got a book about conjugating verbs and declining nouns. About parts of speech I barely remember learning about in school. If you truly love not just words, but grammar pick this up and enjoy. If you can’t remember what a participle is, walk away. If you don’t remember wh ...more
Dec 26, 2011 rated it it was ok
While the writing was well-paced and interesting for what is essentially an "intro to global grammar," I either wanted Little to go all in and make it actually a grammar text & explain more of the lingual concepts she skimmed the surface of in depth, or to step back a bit from the language aspects and make the book more of a memoir. As it floated in between, there wasn't enough of either to grab onto, and if the book hadn't been fairly short, I probably would have abandoned it about 3/4 of t ...more
Sep 17, 2015 rated it really liked it
If when you talk to me about grammar, language, or my Spanish-English shower curtain and thought, "Wow, that Lauren, she sure is interesting and fun," then you would probably like this book. If your reaction is more like, "NEEEEEEEERD!!!" then maybe it's not for you.

This is a fun travelogue of sorts, but instead of through a place, it's through language itself. The author is clearly having a good time, and it's fun to read about a truly diverse group of languages, not just Indo-European with a
May 12, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Language fanatic Elizabeth Little compiles a bunch of interesting and funny facts about various world languages. Fascinating, and a neat reminder that many languages differ from English in fundamental ways.

Content-wise, I think this was worthy of 5 stars, especially if you're a language nerd like I am. But for style, it gets a 3 -- Little tries way too hard to be funny and cute, and while sometimes she pulls the former off, the latter is always annoying. Thus, I compromise at 4 stars, but defini
There's a lot of interesting facts in here about languages familiar and strange (to me). And as a language fan, that was really neat! I found the organization on parts of language logical, but within the chapters it was sometimes a bit chaotic - like someone who knows a lot of facts just wanted to share them all at once. How else could it have been done? Not sure! My favourite parts would have to be when the author is sharing personal stories related to language learning. It got my language-fan ...more
Nov 30, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: nerds
this book is super nerdy which is why i loved it so much. it is eats shoots and leaves for language instead of punctuation. peppered with interesting sidenotes and illustrations, little compares languages and how each ones addresses different linguistic problems. i learned so many random tidbits about foreign languages and the origins of some english words (like 'eleven' and 'twelve'). i've probably forgotten most of them, but it was pretty fascinating. and despite the cerebral and academic sub ...more
Jul 20, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Biting the Wax Tadpole is a neat little informal overview of interesting variety in human language. If you're interested in a quick overview of the Hungarian case system (18 of them) or in a 92-character Mandarin poem, where each character is some form of "Shi", this book is for you.

On the downside, perhaps the author was too recently out of high school, but the reader is reminded several times that she did not enjoy her experiences there.
Jul 27, 2011 rated it liked it
This book delves into some of the intricacies of languages, which could potentially be a nightmare of boredom. Happily, Little has a sense of humor and an engaging writing style. She has learned about a huge number of languages (although she doesn't speak them). Early on I guessed that she probably is well-acquainted with a quantity of profanity in several languages--that turned out to be true. Other than that, a very enjoyable book--if your into this kind of thing.
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Elizabeth Little was born and raised in St. Louis and graduated from Harvard University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. She has written two works of nonfiction: Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic (Melville House, 2007) and Trip of the Tongue: Cross-Country Travels in Search ...more