December 04, 2007

I done 'em wrong

Yesterday a friend forwarded a link to Elizabeth Little's charming essay "Ablative, Allative, Adessive, Compulsive", and I followed it and read it, thinking it was current. But I was surprised that there was no associated plug for her recent book (Biting the wax tadpole: confessions of a language fanatic). So I jumped to the conclusion that she'd been betrayed by careless editors in the NYT travel section, and this morning, I dashed off a little note under the title "They done her wrong".

What I didn't notice -- until several readers pointed it out to me -- was that the NYT published her essay back in November of 2006, whereas the book was published in November of 2007. In fact, it's plausible that the essay, far from failing to promote the book, was the seed from which it grew.

I haven't read Biting the wax tadpole, but judging by Little's NYT essay, it should be fun. In my original post, I ventured to suggest that her enthusiasm might exceeds the boundaries of mere fact, as in her mention of "at least nine" Hungarian "locative cases", and the anecdote underlying her title, which appears to be an urban legend. However, another reader quickly set me straight:

Actually, she accurately ascribes the "wax tadpole" not to Coke but to Chinese shopkeepers.

And her "nine Hungarian locatives" is actually eighteen Hungarian cases, with a sample declension of "bar", included in the context of jokingly worrying how to remember that you weren't in the bar or at the bar or even gone to the bar when you came home late and drunk.

It's an engaging little book, really.

So I'm going to shut up and wait to read the book before I make any more mistakes. Here's the only part of my original post that wasn't an error: it's nice to see a popular book about language that promotes enthusiasm about morphology and syntax as well as lexicography and etymology.

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 4, 2007 09:18 AM