BASTARD TONGUES by Derek Bickerton


A Trailblazing Linguist Finds Clues to Our Common Humanity in the World’s Lowliest Languages
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Groundbreaking linguist Bickerton (Language and Species, 1990, etc.) summarizes his career, focusing on his efforts to understand the link between languages commonly called “pidgin” and “Creole.”

Now retired from the University of Hawaii, the author throughout his long career has challenged conventional thinking in scholarly monographs that have significantly altered our understanding of tongues previously characterized as inferior or bastardized. When a dominant, usually white force arrives in an area, sometimes bringing slaves from another part of the world, mutually incomprehensible languages collide. Bickerton demonstrates that the older generations of the indigenous group develop a pidgin version of the dominant group’s language. Their children, on the other hand, create and spread a Creole: a different language featuring complexities of grammar and syntax often unknown in the pidgin. Creoles all over the world appear to be quite similar in their deep structures, causing Bickerton to argue for the presence in all of us of an inherent language-generational capacity he calls a “bioprogram.” (He notes the obvious connections to Noam Chomsky’s theories.) To test his notion, the author has tried to obtain funding for a test on human subjects, with no success so far. In his text, a combination of memoir, treatise and thesis defense, the diction varies widely and wildly from gee-whiz informality to dense professional jargon comprehensible to fellow linguists but numbing for general readers. Bickerton is neither shy nor humble, several times ripping into academics he sees as hidebound pedants who need less sitzfleisch (the capacity for sitting on their butts in libraries) and more of what he possesses—the eagerness to go to bars and listen to actual people talk.

Provides some truly educative moments, glazed with a thick icing of self-regard.

Pub Date: March 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-8090-2817-7
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 2007


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