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

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

 

 

Excerpt

Chapter 1
 
I waded out of thigh-deep, pellucid water onto a beach of pure yellow sand. Behind, the twin outboards of the motorboat that had brought me churned trails of white foam that dwindled rapidly into the distance. Soon their sound shrank to a murmur, then ceased; the boat vanished in a dazzle of sunlight on the lagoon. I was alone on the island of Ngemelis, in the archipelago of Palau, in the western half of the Pacific Ocean.

I had landed near the northwestern tip of the island. Back of the beach lay a grove of coconut palms, extending southeastward to a low ridge of jagged limestone covered with impenetrable spiny scrub. Hull down on the horizon lay the larger island of Peleliu, scene of ferocious fighting in World War II, home to deadly sea crocodiles, one of which had recently caught a fisherman and stashed his corpse on an underwater ledge, to dine on later. North and east, the central lagoon of Palau spread its vast expanse of tranquil blues and greens, dotted with tiny islands like giant toadstools.

I was marooned on a genuine desert island.

Why on earth would a professor of linguistics have himself marooned on a desert island? Well, that’s a long story.

It began eleven years earlier, in West Africa. I was teaching English literature at what was then called the University College of Science Education, located in Cape Coast, Ghana. Science education, what exactly did that mean? Teaching science? Or teaching how science should be taught? Or just teaching everything in a scientific way? Nobody knew, but it sure sounded impressive. Once, in a bar at three in the morning, I stumbled on one of our janitors, paralytic drunk, sitting by himself and repeating, over and over, in tones of rapt adoration: “U-ni-ver-sity Coll-ege of Sci-ence Ed-u-cation! U-ni-ver-sity Coll-ege of Sci-ence Ed-u-cation!”

I wasn’t there out of love of Africa or because I particularly wanted to be a literature teacher. There wasn’t anything I wanted except to travel and have new experiences. I just did the next thing, whatever that was, and when it got boring I moved on to something else. Yet always at the back of my mind was this feeling that one day I’d meet someone in a bar who’d tell me my true purpose in life.

And believe it or not, this finally happened.

It was just another steamy, sweaty morning on the coast once called the White Man’s Graveyard. Thirsty from teaching, I dropped into the Staff Bar for a cold one (faculty are called staff in Britain and its ex-colonies). Somebody called me over to a table and introduced me to an unfamiliar face: John Spencer, Professor of Linguistics, University of Leeds, England, just passing through. I sat down and we talked and drank good Ghanaian beer. To all appearances, a morning like any other.

For some reason I started talking about what it was like teaching English literature to West Africans. The week before we’d been doing George Eliot—I think it was The Mill on the Floss—and we came to the bit where the outraged father drives his daughter and her illegitimate baby out into the snow. Teaching about snow in the tropics is bad enough; likewise explaining how any father who was not an unnatural monster could banish his own child and grandchild just because someone hadn’t spoken some words in some church. But then it turned out the whole class thought she was carrying the baby on her back. Naturally, since that’s how Ghanaian mothers do it. “No,” I said, “in her arms—like this.” And I demonstrated. And one of the students said, “What a stupid way to carry a baby.”

How could you ever get over cultural barriers like these? And lurking behind my frustration was a still deeper unease. How could you ever make any objective judgments about literature? If I say Joyce is the greatest twentieth-century English novelist, and you say, no, it’s Lawrence, how can we ever decide who’s right?

“You should study linguistics,” John said.

I asked him what that was. I honestly didn’t know.

John explained that it was the scientific study of language. And how would that help solve my problems? Well, if you scientifically studied the language writers used, you could get objective measures to compare them with. At least that was what John claimed, and I believed him.

And how could I study it, given that I had my living to earn?

There was a one-year course, John said, at his university. It was primarily designed to train teachers of English as a foreign language, but it mostly consisted of linguistics, and a generous British government would pay me the princely sum of £17 a week (at the 1966 rate of exchange, equivalent to about $45) while I was taking it.

And under normal circumstances that would have been that. Many times in your life you meet someone who suggests something to you and you say, “Hey, yeah, that would be interesting,” and promptly forget about it. So why didn’t I then? We were happy in Ghana. I was paid well for very little work. We had good friends, we loved the life there: the ratty bars where we all danced the highlife, Biriwa Beach on weekends, servants to do the house and yard, knowing that for as long as we stayed there we’d never feel cold, it would always be summer.

The ironic thing was that until then I’d been a card-carrying grammatophobe. In common with a great many other people, I loathed grammar and anything connected with it. At Cambridge I’d actually switched my major from English to history when I found out that for my finals I’d be expected to take courses in Anglo-Saxon and Italian. All I could remember about grammar from school was diagramming sentences. Why do that, what’s it for? Just shut up and diagram, dummy! And here I was, with a wife and three young children to support, gambling my career, such as it was, and my whole way of life on something I’d always hated, on a casual word from a stranger.

I can’t really explain it, to this day, but somehow I knew destiny had called me. And I’d always been ready to take a chance, to follow my gut instinct, do whatever it told me and damn the consequences. Luckily Yvonne felt the same way about things as I did.

I handed in my resignation forthwith; in a few months we were in Chapeltown.

Chapeltown is the wrong-side-of-the-tracks section of Leeds where all the immigrants hang out, and on $45 a week it was about the only place a family of five could afford to live. Even if you went without a car. We used to take the bus to the city market on Saturday afternoons, when prices dropped by half, and come home with the platform at the back of the double-decker laden down with our sacks of produce. Home was the rented bottom floor of a big house that had come down in the world, its tall windows still defended by enormous wooden shutters—we did “There’s trouble at t’ mill, lass” routines every time we closed them.

In retrospect, the course itself wasn’t up to much. We had ten lectures on Noam Chomsky’s new transformational grammar (as it was then called) given by someone who’d been a student in the course himself the year before. We were taught some British invention called systemic grammar; luckily it never got into my system. We had a ferocious female martinet of a phonetics teacher, a type only Britain can produce—if you’ve seen The Weakest Link you know what I mean—who effectively cured me of any interest in the sounds that make up language.

And yet, for all its flaws, the course was a revelation to me.

I realized that all my life I’d been deaf and blind to an endless string of fascinating mysteries that were there all the time, happening right under my nose, under everyone’s nose. For instance, how had I learned language? I couldn’t remember. Nobody can. By the time memory starts, language is there already. And once you’ve learned it, you don’t ever have to think about it. You may worry over the content of what you’re saying, or your precise choice of words, but how you’ll fit the sentences together—never. You never catch yourself thinking things like, “Do I need a relative clause here, or would an infinitival phrase work better?” You may not even know the names for half the things you use, and neither you nor I have the least inkling about how we assemble them. It’s as if language was like digestion, or breathing, or circulating the blood—you have no need to know, your brain does it all for you, deep down, below the level of consciousness.

What you speak is English, you think. But listen to a couple of physicists or teenage computer geeks—it’s like they were talking in Double Dutch, yet that’s English too. Pick up a grammar text, you’d think English was some monolith, but that and all other languages are shifting all the time as you move across professions, situations, classes, races, sexes. Or as you move through time. Grandkids and grandparents understand one another, even if each thinks the other talks weird sometimes, but after a couple of dozen generations the stuff will have become incomprehensible. Or as you move through space. Start walking in the middle of France and finish in the middle of Spain, you’ll hear pure French at one end and pure Spanish at the other, yet along the way, any two adjacent villages understand each other perfectly.

Small wonder that many linguists nowadays think first and foremost of Language with a big L, and see the various languages as simply different manifestations of this concept. Chomsky once went so far as to say that there is only one human language, with several thousand varieties. To the la...

Product Details

ISBN:
9780809028177
Subtitle:
A Trailblazing Linguist Finds Clues to Our Common Humanity in the World's Lowliest Languages
Publisher:
Hill and Wang
Author:
Bickerton, Derek
Subject:
General Language Arts & Disciplines
Subject:
Creole dialects
Subject:
Bickerton, Derek
Subject:
Linguistics
Subject:
Travel
Subject:
Bickerton, Derek - Travel
Subject:
Linguistics - General
Subject:
Creole Languages
Edition Description:
Trade Cloth
Publication Date:
20090317
Binding:
Electronic book text in proprietary or open standard format
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
Includes a Map, a Glossary, Suggested Re
Pages:
288
Dimensions:
8.9 x 6.76 x 1.14 in

Related Subjects

History and Social Science » Linguistics » General

Bastard Tongues: A Trailblazing Linguist Finds Clues to Our Common Humanity in the World's Lowliest Languages
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Product details 288 pages Hill & Wang - English 9780809028177 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "A novelist, professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of Hawaii and self-proclaimed 'street linguist,' Bickerton chronicles his studies of creoles — the 'bastard tongues' of the title — isolated languages with 'dubious and disputed parentage' spoken by the lower classes. Bickerton seeks to explain creoles' linguistic anomaly: all creoles, though isolated from one another, have similar grammatical traits. This chatty, humorous memoir, laced with lucid analyses, shows how a creole initially seems to be a mishmash of nonsensical words (e.g., 'She mosi de bad mek she tek he'), but is later revealed to be linguistically lush (translation: 'She could only have married him because she was completely broke'). Most creoles, the author says, were created out of necessity due to the language divide that existed between imperialist states and their colonies, and Bickerton theorizes that creoles are evidence of humans' 'innate language bioprogram that enables them to construct a new language out of [linguistic] bits and pieces.' Creating a multifaceted, immersive approach to the study of linguistics, Bickerton explores the miraculous human capacity for language and how the emergence of creole languages 'represents a triumph of... the human spirit.'" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Synopsis" by , Why Do Isolated Creole Languages Tend to Have Similar Grammatical Structures?

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 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--Creole languages 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 and 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 the usual dry academic manner. Instead, you become a companion on his journey of discovery. You learn things as he learned them, share his disappointments and triumphs, explore the exotic locales where he worked, and meet the colorful characters he encountered 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. Derek Bickerton is Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the University of Hawaii. He is the author of two books on Creole languages, Dynamics of a Creole System and Roots of Language, as well as three on the origin and evolution of language, and four novels. 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 and 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. Bastards 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 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. Bastards 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 h

"Synopsis" by , Why Do Isolated Creole Languages Tend to Have Similar Grammatical Structures?

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 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--Creole languages 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 and 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 the usual dry academic manner. Instead, you become a companion on his journey of discovery. You learn things as he learned them, share his disappointments and triumphs, explore the exotic locales where he worked, and meet the colorful characters he encountered 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. Derek Bickerton is Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the University of Hawaii. He is the author of two books on Creole languages, Dynamics of a Creole System and Roots of Language, as well as three on the origin and evolution of language, and four novels. 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 and 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. Bastards 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 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. Bastards 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 whe

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