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

3.7 of 5 stars 3.70  ·  rating details  ·  209 ratings  ·  44 reviews
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 impos
Hardcover, 270 pages
Published March 4th 2008 by Hill & Wang
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In this ill-conceived effort, part memoir, part a smattering of dumbed-down linguistics, Derek Bickerton has succeeded in writing a book that is likely to interest nobody, except perhaps members of his own family. I can't imagine who he, or his editors, thought would find it readable, let alone interesting.

The autobiographical stuff is an undisciplined hodgepodge, whose disjointed nature is not improved by the self-congratulatory tone that is always close to the surface. Even more tedious is hi
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This is an amazing book. Bickerton talks about the basic structure of language, as shown by creole languages, which, he thinks, reflect the underlying grammar structure of the brain. His writing style is confrontational and controversial, making the book feel like a combination of Steven Pinker and Redmond O'Hanlon, and his research style is equally controversial, including a proposal to try to create an ab initio creole by putting a fair number of two-year-olds from various backgrounds together ...more
This is part autobiography, part interesting book about linguistics, particularly how Creoles come about. The linguistic details are very absorbing, but his message was hardly ground-breaking news. It contains a bit of history, which is necessary for understanding how the groups of people came to be together, and the dynamics that there were between them. What surprised me was not what he was saying, but what he said the objections were. If people were still arguing that creoles come from a 'pro ...more
A highly unlikeable narrator makes an otherwise good book almost unreadable. I dragged through the second half of the book when he became utterly intolerable- academia is the devil, and he, the fearless, Indiana Jones-esque linguist, dares to defy convention and show them all a thing or two! Also, liberals are the worst, and if only someone would ask a person with no training in linguistics, then the field might advance.

An interesting look at Creoles and Pidgens, a notoriously under-researched p
Dan Russell
Feb 01, 2012 Dan Russell rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: linguists, language mavens
A *very* fun read.

A romp through Bickerton’s life as a creole linguist, with tales of visiting really backwater villages in remote places—villages where they speak a “deep creole” or pidgin language. Bickerton is a real field research linguist who’s trying to understand how/why creoles develop out of pidgins. The book is full of his personal history of how he semi-accidentally backs into being an academic, his somewhat unorthodox research methods, and his history of ideas about creoles.

The boo
When seventeenth-century Europeans founded sugar colonies in the Caribbean, they first cleared the land and built houses and roads. At that point, the number of black slaves was comparable to the number of whites, so the former got a chance to learn something like the language of the latter. Afterwards, the planters started cultivating the land, and for this they needed to bring a much larger number of slaves, who could outnumber the whites as much as 30 to 1. The latter group of slaves had no l ...more
Part adventure story and part intellectual biography, this book is Derek Bickerton's labor of love, a story of an accidental journey into the world of colonial bastard tongues, feeding an intense curiosity and culminating in the man's advocacy of heretofore misunderstood Creoles and the people who speak them. As an added bonus, we get insight into humanity's innate ability to form languages, and how scant inputs have combined in remarkably similar ways across the world.

The underlying story, as w
The author, a field linguist specializing in the development of Creoles, combines a memoir in broad strokes with an overview of his main hypothesis about Creoles. This latter boils down to an endorsement of what he calls the language bioprogram, based on Chomsky’s idea that children have an innate template that enables them to acquire (not “learn”) language. Bickerton rejects the super- and substrata theories (that Creoles are essentially dumbed down European languages, or relexified African lan ...more
I read this book after it was given to my by my friend Sargeant following a certain conversation. I started reading it out of obligation. As I should have known, that is no reason to read a book.

Bickerton argues that grammar is innate to the human brain, and that creole languages hold the key to this innate structure. If you are interested in language and you want to read a highly informal account of how it works, you may be interested in this book.

There is a lot of TMI from Bickerton's personal
Sarah Sammis
My reading of Bastard Tongues by Derek Bickerton coincided with getting hired by the Census. It ended up being a mental preparation for the wide range of languages I might face in the field. Now nearly a year later, my review writing lines up with my husband packing for a business trip to New Orleans, a place where Creole is spoken.

Derek Bickerton's book is that perfect blend of memoir and research I crave in my nonfiction reading. I mark this book among my favorites, along with Your Inner Fish
This was such an interesting book. I have always been interested in patois. I've learned a couple of Jamacian patois phrases from my friend Devon at work but I never seem to be able to get the correct inflection. The book made me see how woefully ignorant I am of the mechanics of the English languege. I know I should give myself a break - the author is a Linguist after all. The long held assumption that common language was spread through nautical jargon spoken worldwide is challenged by Bickerto ...more
Jack Scholl
Here is yet more support to Steven Pinker's thesis in The Language Instinct that there is indeed genetic grounding for language. Several times in the book, Derek Bickerton offers up the details of the ideal experiment to test this notion, but it appears that modern (litigious, PC) society will be unlikely to allow such an experiment, despite its potential to improve the lives of the experiment's subject. I share few of the author's personal characteristics (much of the book dwells on his life in ...more
This book suffers from WHITE DUDE KNOWS BEST SYNDROME (yet he likes to rail on other people who act the same way, like the Dutch socialist government who built the housing the Surinamese immigrants lived in outside of Amsterdam). I didn't finish the last chapter because he asks, of using one-year-old orphans in a language experiment that would also affect their emotional and social growth, "Is there a genuine objection here? What about informed consent? Well, who gives informed consent for infan ...more
An eye-opening view into the world of linguistics, this researched book shows us the roots of our world's languages and explores places we never thought to look. Bickerton is a whimsical and down-to-Earth writer and thinker who wants to find the source of all Creole and Pigeon languages, for that is the only way to find the true source of all language. He travels from country to country, soaking up culture and deep Creole languages, posing as drunkards in the lowliest of bars to get at the real ...more
Douglas Prats
Entertaining read about a topic which is not often discussed. Some very interesting examples of creole languages and how they slowly formed over one or two generations.
It's interesting to read something from an author who isn't afraid to tell you he was totally wrong. It helps, I suppose, that he was able to reverse his wrongness to come up with a better theory. Bastard Tongues is a fascinating description/investigation of the formation of Creoles and pidgins. A cross between a travelogue and a dissertation, the text occasionally misses the perfect balance of information and humor, with one or two instances of thinly-veiled "I told you so"s, but overall ties t ...more
It was interesting in parts, but I think a linguist would understand it best, despite the fact that there was a glossary at the end. I do not agree with Chomski's idea that language in innate. I think it needs to be learned.
I usually take a look into language books that I see - it's an interesting subject, but books about it are usually too dry for me to really get into. With Derek Bickerton's book, though, I knew I'd like it right away. He takes the reader on a tour of the world, following his career as something of a maverick linguist specializing in pidgins and creoles. There are moments where the technical linguistic aspects were over my head, but he kept them interesting and jumped right back into his story as ...more
"Bastard Tongues" is an interesting mix of travelogue, autobiography, linguistics primer, and inside view of the scientific discovery process. Bickerton's dry, self-deprecating humor and amusing anecdotes make it an enjoyable read, while still explaining the what motivated his studies, how he pursued his discoveries, and why they are important. Along the way he provides an insightful commentary on science, the scientific method, and modern academia.
I was hoping to like this a lot more than I did. It delivered in the beginning with just the right mix of humor and linguistics, but the end got too jumbled with the author's personal politics. For a very promising start, the middle was all over the place, and the end was abrupt with a sickeningly sweet bow to tie it up. Still, I learned some interesting things and got to pretend that I, too, was a ground-breaking linguist, if only for a few hours.
Wow! A linguistics book that is funny, sharp, witty, educational, and entertaining all in one. Even if you don't understand the first thing about languages and how they develop, you should give this a read. It also pairs nicely with Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind, since both deal with the way the human mind is programmed to develop a rich, full language despite any obstacles it may encounter.
You don't have to find linguistics terribly intriguing to get into this book, but it certainly helps. It reads kind of like a nonfiction book and kind of like a novel, taking us through the life of the author as he journeyed through parts of the world and parts of the linguistic academic circles. Guaranteed to make you think a little more about the language you take for granted... even if you majored in linguistics.
Linguistics is a minor passion of mine, so i was excited about this "accessible" book. He spends a lot of time on discrediting colleagues and accepted theories, but also goes into the social factors that play key roles how Creole languages develop. But his true interest - experimenting to see whether children with inadequate language inputs will create robust language - is what kept me reading.
Great book. I wish he could have pulled off the experiment of 6-10 families with one year old children thrown together on an island, all speaking different languages. The children would have probably come up with a full-fledged grammar using words input by the experimenters. It got nixed by some chicken shit academics. Too bad for science and lingusitics. Anybody in ESL should read this.
Aug 17, 2008 Amber rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: people interested in the history of language.
Shelves: nonfiction
I won't lie, this book wasn't a piece of cake. There are portions that are very dense with linguistic jargon that I could only skim and barely understood at all. That being said, most of the book was extremely interesting and a quick, fun read. I also came away from this book feeling like I had learned something about world history that I didn't know before. I give it a thumbs up!
"Bastard Tongues" has two important things going for it: 1) The author has lived an interesting life, and 2) The theory he puts forward, to understate it, is intriguing. And since it is basically a mixture of a memoir and a soapbox for the author to explain the results of his decades of research (formal and otherwise), this book is a worthwhile read.

Jan 27, 2011 Elsie added it
I enjoyed his casual style of writing. I felt like I was exploring with him. The last paragraph sums it all up, refuting the idea that Creole languages are bastard languages but rather purest expression. He theorizes that we all are born with a language structure in which to fit or create whatever we are exposed to.
This book is GREAT! It's written in a quick-witted, casual style that is intelligent and doesn't simplify linguistic details too much for the sake of the lay-reader. It's an adventure story, a safari, a vacation, a dive into the linguistic 'bioprogram' we just may all have in our brains...
Travelogue meets Creoles. Definitely my kind of books. Made even better with the quirky, tell-it-like-it-is style of Bickerton. Gone are the days of building a strong academic career off a one-year diploma in linguistics. Great theories and good stories.
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Derek Bickerton (born March 25, 1926) is a linguist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. Based on his work in creole languages in Guyana and Hawaii, he has proposed that the features of creole languages provide powerful insights into the development of language both by individuals and as a feature of the human species. He is the originator and main proponent of the language b ...more
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“When the infernal machine of plantation slavery began to grind its wheels, iron laws of economics came into play, laws that would lead to immeasurable suffering but would also, and equally inevitably, produce new languages all over the world – languages that ironically, in the very midst of man's inhumanity to man, demonstrated the essential unity of humanity.” 1 likes
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