Book Circle, A Collaborative Paper

Written for an Applied Linguistics Master’s Course: Cross-Cultural Perspectives
Researchers/Writers: E. Bilbo, M. Midcap, K. Secrest Williams, A. Williams



     Bastard Tongues: A Trailblazing Linguist Finds Clues to Our Common Humanity in the World’s Lowliest Language – the title of the book is, in itself, a great summary. In the first chapter of his book, Derek Bickerton presents two main ideas about language; first, that drawing boundaries between languages can be difficult, and second, that although there are some “scary” differences, languages are more alike than we think (p. 7). Bickerton’s accidental discovery of his love for linguistics, and these two foundational beliefs, send him on a quest to explain these linguistic boundaries and similarities.

     Through both an anecdotal, sometimes sarcastic, first person writing style, and in-depth analysis of the linguistic features of various languages, Bickerton takes the reader on his physical and intellectual hunt to discover why languages, and Creoles in particular, have so much in common. His physical journey leads him to visit and work in places such as Guyana, Suriname, Colombia, Hawaii, Mauritius, and more, where he researches and befriends people from all kinds of linguistic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

     Bickerton also invites the reader into his intellectual journey, showing both his research-based and common sense approach to accepting or rejecting certain theories of why Creole languages have so much in common. Through his experiences and the people he meets, Bickerton comes to reject monogenesis and substrate theories, which postulate that Creole similarities are due to their origin in one single Creole language, or that their grammatical features stem from their “parent” languages, respectively. Bickerton argues that although many Creole languages have never had contact with each other, they have similar grammatical features because of the human “bioprogram,” or what Noam Chomsky dubbed “Universal Grammar.” When children develop Creoles from the Pidgins they are exposed to, they draw from the biological programming that is present in every human mind.

     Bastard Tongues is full of many unbelievable, thought-provoking, laugh-out-loud moments. Throughout Bickerton’s linguistic adventures, he shares the unlikely ways he attained some of his first professorial positions, his unconventional method of obtaining his Master’s and Doctorate degrees, and the controversial yet fascinating island experiment he and his friend proposed, in which they hoped to witness the creation of a Creole. Along the way, he shares his contempt for academic snobbery and his respect for the culturally marginalized, emphasizing that Creoles are not bastard tongues at all, but “the purest form of expression we know of the human capacity for language” (p. 246).

Main Ideas and Connection to Course Themes

     While taking us on a linguistic journey, Bastard Tongues also questions assumptions and exposes stereotypes. As Bickerton observes, we naturally tend to see things through the spectacles of our own culture, and it requires constant effort to see past this.

     “History’s mostly written by white folk.” The themes of struggle against established power are revealed even through language histories. The idea that Standard English is the ticket to success permeates the globe. The ongoing assumption that the White, English-speaking way is the best way proves an imbalance of power in relation to learning. The belief is that knowledge should come from the “elite” or “powerful,” and could not possibly be the other way around. The author found in his travels that people are judged based on their whiteness. “White folk are God,” and carry with them a higher cultural status and the power of decision-making.

     Creoles have historically been looked down upon, have passed through periods of being forbidden, and have even been referred to as a sign of retardation. The author encountered a plethora of instances in which the same language spoken from the same mouth changed based on who the listener was. Sociolects are dialects based not on geographic location but on the social criteria of education, age, class, sex, and occupation. This concept of register, while fascinating from a linguistic standpoint, reveals societal inequities reproduced from generation to generation across the globe. The acceptance of one form of a language as better than another harmfully causes one to question his very identity.

     Yet speaking a “lower” language or a “non-standard” form of the dominant language does not indicate a misunderstanding or inability to accurately understand or use the standard form. Assumptions have been made throughout time that those using “Creole” or “pidgin” languages were somehow lesser, intellectually. These stereotypes limit a culture, and they mirror many of the stereotypes that minority groups of race, gender, and sexual orientation face. Because they are viewed in a certain way by more powerful and influential groups, they are often pigeonholed into the powerful group’s definition of them. These superficial generalizations can lead to a misinterpretation of the richness and depth of the similarities and differences of identities within the overall culture.

Critique and Recommendation
“The Purest Expression of Human Capacity for Language”

     Bastard Tongues is a fascinating account of the quest of Derek Bickerton for the origin of Creoles. A rare expert on Creoles and an unorthodox academic, Bickerton takes the reader on a journey from Ghana to Guyana, Surinam, Colombia, Hawaii, and the Seychelles to tell his story about Creoles. Bickerton’s easy-flowing, informal style makes Bastard Tongues accessible and appealing to a wide variety of readers. Bickerton’s work is informative enough to serve as an introductory reading on Creoles for a doctorate student and, at the same time, it is engaging and fun to read for general audiences interested in the languages, cultures, and histories of the people enslaved by European powers around the world.

     The book is a great read for those who are interested in studying what was until very recently viewed as the world’s “lowliest” languages. Bickerton’s intellectual journey covers findings of two decades of research on Creoles and would be interesting for those who would like to read about the connection between Creoles and Noam Chomsky’s Universal Grammar in a less academic format. His passion for Creoles, humor, and anecdotes ingeniously embedded in the account will also maintain the attention of a less sophisticated reader. Bickerton creatively manipulates linguistic concepts and highly technical jargon to make Bastard Tongues suitable even for younger readers, especially for those who are curious about languages and linguistics. The ideal reader is an open-minded, beginning student of linguistics who is looking for a better understanding of various areas of study in linguistics, as well as the challenges and inspirations associated with them.

     That said, Bickerton assumes prior knowledge of Pidgins and Creoles. Readers not familiar with them may find some of his arguments confusing and jumbling. Another disconcerting feature of the book is the author’s contempt for the academic world and his attitude associated with it. While challenging academia is not bad – and some would argue it is desirable – Bickerton occasionally comes across as rude, biased, and disrespectful. Aside from this, some parts of the book may feel repetitive and passages in Chapter 5 shift too frequently for the reader to follow. These shortcomings, however, should not put the potential reader off. The book’s overwhelming positive qualities greatly outweigh the negative ones and make reading Bastard Tongues worthwhile.

Favorite Quotes

  • “But then it turned out that 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.’” (page 4)
  • “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.” (page 6)
  • “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…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.” (page 6)
  • “…some people try to use language as an instrument of power, to build artificial barriers, keep other people in line, stamp them all into the same mold, but language itself resists power: it’s demotic, it’s subversive, it slips through the cracks of dictatorships, it makes fools of the powerful.” (page 7)
  • “I knew that ‘patois’ was a rude term for dialects regarded as socially inferior, and that dialects…were just languages that hadn’t yet gotten their own armies or navies.” (page 12)
  • “…if you’re not white in the Caribbean, certain kinds of behavior, like drinking in low bars, will destroy whatever hard-earned status you may have won. But if you’re white, nothing can take away your whiteness. And it’s your whiteness, not your morals, that folk will judge you by.” (page 19)
  • “This gives you at least a taste of what makes Creoles look simple: they use, compared to older languages, a far smaller inventory of items. But since they perform all the functions that older languages perform, they have to work harder, so to speak, and put more weight on syntactic structures than on individual words.” (page 37)
  • “If you want to find out anything, don’t ask the experts, ask the locals.” (page 50)
  • “If you don’t look, you’ll never find; if you look where no one else has looked, or where others have looked only superficially, you’ll always find something new.” (page 61)
  • “In Guyana, both my sons quickly picked up the local vernacular, as they did wherever we went. With us, they continued to speak British English; with their friends, they spoke the working-class Creole dialect of Georgetown, which was what kids spoke regardless of class. One of Jim’s school friends was on our flight, and they’d been talking together. “But you know, Dad,” he said with a worried air, “it somehow doesn’t feel right. I don’t feel comfortable talking Creolese anymore.” Language has roots in where you are as well as who you are. Six hours out, he was already a citizen of a different linguistic world.” (page 66)
  • “…never say it’s not there till you’ve looked for yourself.” (page 81)
  • “Now I was a full professor with tenure. At this point many profs relax and just coast through the rest of their career…As far as I was concerned, I’d gotten the bullshit out of the way so I could now get on with the serious business of life. Which is, of course, finding out stuff.” (page 94)
  • (Disproving the assumption that once a contact language is established, it will be passed on indefinitely): “Therefore it was the children of the expansion phase – not the relatively few children of the establishment phase, the first locally born generation, as I had originally thought – who were the creators of the Creole.” (page 165)
  • “Like magma seeking a volcanic rift, the language in all of us will find some way by which it can break out into the world.” (page 236)
  • “For Creoles are not bastard tongues after all. Quite the contrary: they are the purest expression we know of the human capacity for language.” (page 247)

Questions During and After Reading

  • In Chapter 3 Bickerton says, “One of the differences between linguists and people is that people like words better than grammar and linguists like grammar better than words – they’re looking for systems, and words just aren’t systematic” (p. 36). Can’t we be linguists and also like words and structures?
  • In Chapter 3 the author lays a case for Creole complexity and logic, using examples to claim that Creole languages are both more complex and more logical than English. How can both of these characteristics be true? Wouldn’t complexity necessitate seemingly illogical patterns?
  • Will Bickerton ever find the language that mirrors the Creole TMA (tense-mood-aspect) system, as he spends much of the book trying to do?
  • At one point Bickerton had an opportunity to work in Texas. In the future, does he ever go to Texas to study or work?
  • How much does Chomsky’s theory of the Language Acquisition Devise (LAD) play into the development of pidgins to Creoles?
  • What research has shown empirical evidence as to how children learning a pidgin create Creoles without the influence of other “dominant” language groups?
  • Bickerton and a friend proposed a experiment on an isolated island in Palau in which they would study the development of a new language. How long would his experiment last? (Answer found later: three years) How exactly would they create a new language? (Answer found later: Participants would represent a mixture of languages with different patterns of syntax formation – SVO, SOV, and VSO)
  • Regarding the island experiment, we really would have liked to have seen the experiment take place! WHY NOT? Bickerton did his homework and had all the bases covered. He was, of course, infuriated that his initial proposal was rejected, but why didn’t he pursue it further? We had been getting excited about seeing the results of this!
  • At the end of the book, Bickerton concludes that Creoles were created from pidgins by children who were drawing from their “bioprogram” for language. Does he have any historical or scientific proof that Creoles were created exclusively by children?

Alexis Williams is a writer and a freelance proofreader/editor. She currently lives in Oman with her husband who is a full-time elementary school teacher and photographer/visual artist. Please don't hesitate to visit the About Me & Contact Info page to learn more about Alexis and how to communicate with her directly. Also, don't forget to follow her page!

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