Bastard Tongues

Map of Creoles, travelogue, memoir, intellectual detective story, linguistics primer. All these epithets could be applied to Derek Bickerton‘s Bastard Tongues, which I recently finished reading. Subtitled “A trailblazing linguist finds clues to our common humanity in the world’s lowliest languages” I knew this book would appeal to me given my interest in Creoles, and I was right. After a prologue in Palau, the book starts in Ghana then heads to Guyana, Curacao, Colombia, Brazil, Hawaii, the Marshall Islands, Seychelles, and Surinam, not forgetting stopovers in the UK, USA, Europe, Mauritius, Caribbean …

Cover of

Book cover (via Amazon)

Although he’s now a Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the University of Hawaii, British-born Bickerton’s preferred method of Creole research during the 30 years he spent on the subject (mainly 1960s-1990s) was far from hoity-toity – it was often in bars, isolated communities or slums (“drunks are the world’s most underrated language teaching resource”). His thirty or so years of research led him to originate the language bioprogramme theory (LBH) as to the origin of Creoles, according to which their formation is from a prior pidgin by children as the latter share a universal human innate grammar capacity. In the 1970s Bickerton proposed an empirical test of his theory, which would have involved putting families speaking mutually unintelligible languages on a previously uninhabited Pacific island for three years. Funding was obtained, but the experiment was finally cancelled over ethical concerns about informed consent.

Derek Bickerton

Whether or not Bickerton’s hypothesis is true (see here for other Creolisation theories) his book, as well as being an interesting read, raises a number of important points about Creoles. Attending an international conference on Creoles held in the late 1960s he recounts how some Creole scholars had, as students, been warned off Creole studies as ‘professional suicide’: “Weren’t there more than enough real languages to go round?”.  Along the way he informs us that Creoles have grammars that are often stricter and more regular than those of European languages, and asks how, in some instances, Creole grammars so similar could have come into existence in so many different parts of the world. We also learn some fascinating history along the way such as the slave situation in 17th Surinam (the place where the most ‘extreme’ Creoles were born), how plantation societies were created, or Hawaii’s hidden history – Hawaii being the place where creolisation has happened most recently. We learn for example about the creation of Pidgin Hawaiian (which confusingly, despite its name, was actually a Creole):

When people think about pidgins they immediately think of Pidgin English, Pidgin French, Pidgin of some European language or other. The idea of the big white guy on top, and all the little nonwhite guys under him struggling to cope with the sophisticated complexities of his language is so firmly fixed in our minds that the idea of a pidgin based on a language of nonwhites, clumsily and haltingly spoken by members of the master race, seems almost inconceivable.

Some linguistic explanations are a little too technical for my taste, but they form a relatively small part of the book. My main gripe is a map at the beginning, actually a world map of Creoles and places that Bickerton studied and/or took an interest in, but which is labelled “Creole Languages of the World”. Given that there are only 22 labels on the map a novice could be forgiven for thinking that only 22 Creoles exist (worldwide there are actually 127 Creoles according to a 1977 study by Ian Hancock).

World map of Creoles

World map of Creoles

I’d like to end this post with the following quotation from the book’s last lines:

Creoles are not bastard tongues after all … they are the purest expression we know of the human capacity for languages. Other languages creak and groan under the burden of time … Creoles spring pure and clear from the very fountain of language, and their emergence, through all the horrors of slavery, represents a triumph of all that’s strongest and most enduring in the human spirit.

Further reading:

11 responses

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