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

3.79  ·  Rating details ·  310 Ratings  ·  51 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
ebook, 288 pages
Published March 4th 2008 by Hill and 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
Jimmy Ele
This book reads more like the diary of a linguist. Derek Bickerton takes us on a journey through his career as a linguist, researcher, and professor. The low rating of 2 stars "It Was Ok" is because I expected more from this book. I expected to read about some sort of unifying language principle that is inherent in all languages. Did I get that? No. Instead we get a linguist's journey through many hole in the wall bars in post colonial countries/states. From Hawaii to Guyana, expect the author t ...more
Apr 08, 2008 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Nov 24, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
This book is the opposite of a dry, scholarly tome on linguistics, but is nevertheless very informative regarding developments in the field over the past few decades. The author weaves a discussion of linguistic discoveries and controversies into a lively memoir of his globe-trotting career studying creole languages. He relates many anecdotes and examples drawn from his fieldwork in Guyana, Hawaii, the Seychelles, and other places. According to him, this fieldwork consisted mostly of hanging out ...more
Jan 01, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 13, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Jan 02, 2014 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2014
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
Dan Russell
Feb 01, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 27, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: linguistics
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
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
May 14, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, language
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
Nov 04, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 14, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 30, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jun 14, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jun 20, 2016 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Bickerton is laboring under the illusion that people interested in creole languages will also be interested in him. He opens the book with foreshadowing so lacking in appeal or intrigue that I had no idea what he was referring to when he finally got around to explaining it, and had to go back and reread the first page. He spends page and pages detailing his career moves in the field of lingustics, discussing the lead-up to grand experiments that never got off the ground, and droning on about the ...more
Jack Scholl
Jul 08, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 23, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 20, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really enjoyed this book. I loved how Bickerton fused many anecdotes into the story to help you better understand the content. Also...word to the wise brush up on your grammar before you read this book. Luckily my mom teaches English and she had all the answers to my grammar questions, but if your mother isn't an English teacher and you didn't pay much attention in primary school, you'll be doing quite a bit of google-ing.

If your a lay person like myself and you're interested in linguistics,
May 01, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: travel, language
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
Apr 20, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
May 31, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"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.
Feb 20, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Mar 25, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
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.
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.
Jun 11, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: language
"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.

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.
Aug 17, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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!
Aug 09, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
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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
More about Derek Bickerton...

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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
“English has a single verb "to be," which occurs in a variety of contexts. The Guyanese have three verbs for the same set of functions. Or rather two verbs plus what we linguists call a "zero form," a verb that is "not phonologically realized" and looks to the layman like nothing at all:

I am hungry = me hongry.
The boy is laze = di bai lazy.

This is typically what happens when the predicate is an adjective. If it's a noun, you get yet another a:

I am captain = me a kyapn.

However, if the predicate is an expression indicating location, de must be used:

I am in Georgetown = me de a Jarjtong.

If there is no predicate (as in Descartes' "I think, therefore I am") then the meaning must be the same as "exist," and again de is used:

God is/exists - Gad de.”
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