Book Review: Bastard Tongues

Bastard Tongues: A Trailblazing Linguist Finds Clues To Our Common Humanity In The World’s Lowliest Languages, by Derek Bickerton

I happened across this book while wandering through my local library branch [1] and thought it looked to be of great interest given my interest in languages as well as the issues of honor and legitimacy. Admittedly, these interests may be somewhat unusual, but all the same this is an interesting and humorous and poignant enough work that even those who do not have the same level of interest that I have in technical aspects of language (namely, grammar and structure) will find much to interest them here whether their interests are more intellectual or personal. Bickerton is a sufficiently fluent writer, even if I have not had any other experience with his writings or research, that even someone unfamiliar with linguistics will find much to make themselves feel at home with his work and perspective.

This particular book is the first half to a planned two-part memoir about the two-act academic career of the author [2]. This novel deals with the first half of that career, which focused on the issue of Creole languages. The second part, which focused on the issue of language evolution (so-called), is thankfully only discussed here in passing, mainly as the direction that the author’s studies led him as he began to wrestle with questions of origin and change over time. These later interests provide a certain structure on the book, namely in viewing the author’s interest in Creole languages as a past matter that was over and done with, as well as in providing a context by which the author’s larger interests in how babies learn language at all, with its potential for there existing an internal program by which human beings have an innate ability to design languages during the first part of their lives given sufficient input from the outside world, namely at least one other person to talk to and an atmosphere where communication is necessary.

There are a few elements which are immensely appealing on a personal level about this book. For one, the author is generally humane and populist (in a good way), focused on the lives and goals of people as they are rather than having some sort of political ideology that he wishes to force others into. This general bottom-up interest in exploring and appreciating people as they are, with a special interest in the linguistic capability of children. There are lots of accounts of papers hurriedly written, of the debates and arguments between intellectuals, of enjoyable travel experiences and occasional archival research (the author does not appear to a library rat who lives pouring through data, preferring to outsource that to graduate assistants), and of the usefulness of taxi drivers as a source of information. Those who love travel and appreciate the intellectual capability of small children will find much to enjoy with this particular book.

On an intellectual level, this book has a lot to offer as well. For one, the author speaks a great deal about the debates between different schools of thought within linguistics, and gives some striking evidence for the existence of a language program within mankind as a result of a comparative study of various creole languages around the world. In the aftermath of the exploitation that results from such horrors as slavery and imperialism, the author finds that the common human response has been to create languages that allow for common communication on a local and specific level that show the common humanity of others. For those who have a belief, or openness, to the existence of an innate program for language that is given to children as a way of helping them to learn language (and even create language), which suggests a way that language was divided among human beings in the first place, this book is a very useful one from an intellectual perspective.

Of particular historical interest is the fact that having a keen knowledge of history as well as archival data has led to a generally profound knowledge of the common programmatic development of Creole languages despite their immense diversity in terms of the linguistic melange that goes into the creation of these languages, which historically often occurred in a single generation. By grounding his research in the hard data of archives and in the realism of people all over the world, many of them from humble and marginalized groups whose mere existence has been denied by the nations in which they reside, and whose legitimacy has generally been dubious as well, the author manages to be both humane and compassionate towards others as well as rigorously empirical in his approach towards his field of study (which, as he humorously relates, was quite accidental and even providential). In the humblest of languages [3], Bickerton finds an area of communality between human beings and shows himself to be an immensely humane fellow to boot.


[2] As such, this memoir has much in common with:

[3] I share this interest in humble areas of low reputation:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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11 Responses to Book Review: Bastard Tongues

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