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Bastard Tongues

A Trailblazing Linguist Finds Clues to Our Common Humanity in the World's Lowliest Languages

Derek Bickerton

Hill and Wang

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ISBN10: 0809028166
ISBN13: 9780809028160

Trade Paperback

288 Pages



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A Choice Outstanding Academic Title

Bastard Tongues is an exciting firsthand story of scientific discovery in an area of research close to the heart of what it means to be human—what language is, how it works, and how it passes from generation to generation, even in places where historical accidents have made normal transmission almost impossible. The story focuses on languages so low in the pecking order that many people don't regard them as languages at all: Creoles spoken by descendants of slaves and indentured laborers in plantation colonies all over the world.

The story is told by Derek Bickerton, who has spent more than thirty years researching these languages on four continents, developing a controversial theory that explains why they are so similar to one another. A published novelist, Bickerton (once described as "part scholar, part swashbuckling man of action") does not present his findings in a standard academic manner. Instead, you become a companion on his journey of discovery. You learn things as he learns them, share his disappointments and triumphs, explore the exotic locales where he works, and meet the colorful characters he encounters along the way. The result is a unique blend of memoir, travelogue, history, and linguistics primer, appealing to anyone who has ever wondered how languages grow or what it's like to search the world for new knowledge.


Praise for Bastard Tongues

"Most linguists approach language as just another kind of natural fact, like cells or rocks. Most of the intellectual action takes place in chairs, and it ends less often in triumphant discovery than in quiet revelation. Then there's Derek Bickerton. One of the field's oldest lions, he has spent the last four decades studying pidgins and Creoles and writing a few novels on the side. A self-described macho 'street linguist' for whom fieldwork is part pub crawl, Bickerton has a penchant for big ideas and a 'total lack of respect for the respectable' that, judging from his new memoir, has put him at odds with bureaucrats and colleagues. Bastard Tongues is gossipy, vain and pugilistic—in other words, all the juicy things an academic memoir should be but too rarely is."—Michael Erard, The New York Times Book Review

"Bastard Tongues is the story of Bickerton's effort to solve the mysteries posed by his research. How did fully formed languages emerge from the scraps of pidgin? Why could children speak Creole, but not their immigrant parents? And why did Creole languages from all over the world display numerous similarities, despite their geographical isolation from each other? The book is part memoir, part intellectual detective story and part linguistics primer. Bickerton is a spirited, clever writer, and the tripartite nature of the narrative suits him . . . One is convinced after reading Bickerton that the results would back up his grand theory of human speech, which he calls the ‘language bioprogram.'"—Nathaniel Rich, Los Angeles Times

"Take six couples who speak very different languages, each with one or two infants, and strand them on a deserted island for one year. Provide them with a starter pack of vocabulary consisting of 200 or so neologisms. Stand back and watch how a new language emerges. This is the ‘forbidden experiment' at the heart of Derek Bickerton's Bastard Tongues. Audacious? You bet! But Bickerton nearly persuaded the US National Science Foundation to fund it, and his intellectual enthusiasm is so contagious that many readers will find themselves sharing his indignation at the last-minute rejection. And who can blame us? By this stage in the book we have accompanied Bickerton on a hugely entertaining personal journey through time, across continents and into the vicious underworld of scientific rivalry . . . His argument hinges on the discovery that remote and isolated Creoles share some spookily similar grammar. Other researchers have tried to shoehorn this fact into their theories by suggesting that the languages have a common origin. ‘Impossible!' says Bickerton—the only thing they have in common is the human minds that created them. The unavoidable conclusion, he says, is that grammar arises from an innate, hard-wire, human capacity for language. When Bickerton proposed this idea three decades ago, his peers flatly rejected it. These days some see it as the most convincing argument for Noam Chomsky's universal grammar. But if Bickerton's theory has acquired a sheen of respectability, one gets the impression that he would rather it hadn't. He may have shelved his forbidden experiment, but if Bastard Tongues is anything to go by, he still has some more hellraising to do."—Kate Douglas, New Scientist

"Much too personal to be a strictly scholarly enterprise and steeped in theoretical jargon unusual for the quintessential memoir, Bastard Tongues is as uniquely brilliant as the mind that created it . . . As Bickerton recounts his jet-setting adventures across the world in search of evidence, he also gives readers an inside view of the arcane hypocrisy of higher education (with its herd tendencies and unnecessary dog-and-pony show traditions). His blistering critique of the 'coddled members' of academia is, at once, insightful and hilarious. What makes this book accessible to those outside the linguistic academic community is the fact that Bickerton feeds readers his theory in small spoonfuls and with lots of humorous sugar. This incremental method reels you in to feel the same kind of personal investment and wonder that Bickerton must have experienced the first time through. An underdog story of an eccentric scholar and his passion for an eclectic body of languages, Bastard Tongues is a fun and enjoyable read that can enrich your mind as well as fulfill your hunger for excitement and adventure."—Mary Lingwall, The Daily Texan

"The ironically titled Bastard Tongues, by world-renowned linguist Bickerton, is part memoir, part adventure, part detective story, and all charm. The author humanizes accounts of his life-long study of Creole languages—and provides some illuminating analyses that might intimidate a casual reader but will delight someone fascinated by language: what it is, how it evolved, and what influences helped shape it . . . In this book, Bickerton has interposed anecdotes about adventures living and studying in other cultures on four continents, and tells, in often fascinating detail, how his ideas took shape—and how further primary investigation and secondary research changed those ideas."—Bob Green, Honolulu Weekly

"I couldn't help feeling somewhat envious of Derek Bickerton, the author of Bastard Tongues, as I read his thorough and engaging tale of his search for the root origins of the Creole language. Bickerton's joie de vivre was evident on every page of this entertaining and educational narrative. In this book, Bickerton, a highly regarded and sometimes controversial linguist, serves up both a lively detective story as well as a behind-the-scenes look at this fascinating field of study. Bickerton invites us to join in on his search for the Holy Grail of linguistics. We tag along as he crosses continents and introduces us to a colorful cast of characters along the way, from academicians and scholars to actual speakers of the Creole dialects that continue to flourish in Hawaii, South America, and the West Indies. I found this book to be a surprisingly entertaining read. Bickerton has the ability to take a complicated subject and make it accessible to readers like myself, who have a limited knowledge about the study of linguistics. These are probably some of the same abilities that have made Bickerton a ground-breaking researcher in his field. Does he find the answers he is looking for? I'll leave it up to you to find out. You'll want to read this book if you've ever been curious about the origins of language and how language is constantly changing and developing as we continue to evolve as a species."—Gita Tewari, Feminist Review

"Do you only think of the word Creole when you're hungry for gumbo or Cajun blackened chicken? That was pretty much me, before I read the wonderful and enlightening book on the origins of Creole languages around the world, Bastard Tongues, by the renowned linguist Derek Bickerton. He is an expert who has written two other books on Creole languages and the origins of language in general, entitled Dynamics of a Creole System and Roots of Language . . . On the whole I found the book immensely readable, one that anybody interested in Creole languages and the origins of languages should add to their reading lists. Derek Bickerton has taught in several different countries and is a Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the University of Hawaii. The memoir-like accounts of his travels and adventures in various places such as Columbia, Brazil and the islands of Ngemelis, Palau, and Hawaii on their own are enough to make the book an entertaining and enjoyable read. Like the Sherlock Holmes of linguistics, he tracks down and eliminates theories others have put forth on the origins of Creole languages and deduces that however improbable, the theory that remains must be the correct one . . . The overall writing style is entertaining. Exploring the many theories of language acquisition makes the journey intellectually stimulating and worthwhile."—Curled Up with a Good Book

"The nuggets of advice are enough reason to consult Bastard Tongues, the career memoir of Derek Bickerton, well-traveled emeritus professor of linguistics at the University of Hawaii. But it's the theory that's exciting for newcomers. The theory puts 'lowly' creole languages right at the center of understanding the human capacity for language . . . Whether he turns out to be right about the innate features of language use, Bickerton in his memoir points towards fascinating questions on the environmental side. For example, he reports that while reading transcripts of conversations he participated in with pidgin speakers, he finds himself unable to grasp utterances that he must have understood in the moment. He explains: 'so much depends, where pidgin is concerned, on where you are, who's there, what you've been talking about, what things were visible in your surroundings, and I don't know what else, though I'd like to exclude weather and the time of day.'"—Kevin Matthews, UCLA International Institute, Center for World Languages

"Derek Bickerton is one of the great modern contributors to our understanding of language, and Bastard Tongues combines an intellectual detective story, a disarmingly frank autobiography, and a tale of adventures in exotic places. If you're curious about the origins of pidgins, Creoles, or indeed language itself, start here. If you already know Bickerton's ideas and want to know where they came from, this book is for you, too."—Melvin Konner, author of The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit

"Open the book at almost any page and you'll be drawn in by the exotic places, interesting people, and the unfolding detective story about how a new language gets started. There is nothing dry about linguistics when Derek is telling the story. It's a delight to read."—William H. Calvin, author of Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change

"Derek Bickerton turns the tale of his life's work—the study of Creole languages—into a gripping adventure story. Language lovers will exult in his linguistic insights, but everyone will delight in the surprising twists and turns of his global quest for the answer to why Creoles are all so much alike."—Deborah Tannen, author of You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation

"Bickerton bar-hops through some of the world's most exotic locations and languages, and somehow along the way he manages to crack one of the deepest mysteries of language itself. A fantastic and frank account of research in the real world."—Christine Keneally, author of The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language

Reviews from Goodreads