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

Bastard Tongues by Derek Bickerton
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's review
May 14, 11

really liked it
bookshelves: non-fiction, language
Read in March, 2011

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 languages, respectively) and ridicules the diffusion theory (that Creoles all came from the Caribbean, which really does seem ludicrous). He argues that the meager evidence at hand shows that colonialization perforce leads to a pidgin, which over a generation or two is transformed by children, who take its scraps and apply them via their bioprograms to a new but complex grammar, into a full Creole.

Bickerton writes in an appealing, everyday-Joe style, dismissing the snootiness of academia and speaking plainly when he disagrees with an idea. He comes off as both reasonable and amusing, though not exactly easy-going. He’s put in the legwork over the years to support his arguments, and tells anecdotes, some funny and some harrowing, of his time in Guyana and other places around the world, interviewing poor and working class peoples whose language is furthest from the rarified European strata. As a memoir, it’s far too bare-bones – I get the feeling Bickerton included that material just so the reader would know his credentials in the school of life – but as an exploration of Creole language and an introduction to Chomskyian ideas on language instinct, it’s accessible, readable, and fully informative.

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