Most linguists approach language as just another kind of natural fact, like cells or rocks. Most of the intellectual action takes place in chairs, and it ends less often in triumphant discovery than in quiet revelation.
Then there’s Derek Bickerton. One of the field’s old lions, he has spent the last four decades studying pidgins and Creoles and writing a few novels on the side. A self-described macho “street linguist” for whom fieldwork is part pub crawl, Bickerton has a penchant for big ideas and a “total lack of respect for the respectable” that, judging from his new memoir, has put him at odds with bureaucrats and colleagues. “Bastard Tongues” is gossipy, vain and pugilistic — in other words, all the juicy things an academic memoir should be but too rarely is.
The book opens with Bickerton wading ashore on a remote Pacific island. If we discount bar stools, little of the subsequent action takes place in chairs. In fact, Bickerton always seems to be leaping out of them. After finishing his doctorate, he writes, he’d gotten all the nonsense out of the way and “could now get on with the serious business of life. Which is, of course, finding out stuff.” With this same irresistibly headlong tone, he describes jetting off to Guyana, Hawaii, Mauritius, Suriname and elsewhere to explore his ideas about languages without pedigrees.
Pidgins are contact languages invented by people who don’t share a language to use. Pidgin speakers, Bickerton explains, will “use words from your language if they know them; if not, they’ll use words from their own, and hope you know them, and failing that, words from any other language that might happen to be around.” Some pidgins, like Chinese Pidgin English (once spoken along China’s coast) or the Chinook jargon of the American Northwest, originated in voluntary trade contexts. Others arose from the slave trade and plantation economies.
Compared with pidgins, Creoles have bigger vocabularies and more grammar; the conventional view is that they are pidgins that became someone’s native language (though some linguists disagree). Many Creoles — like Saramaccan, an English/Portuguese Creole spoken in Suriname, and Seselwa, a French Creole spoken in the Seychelles — have more features in common (like their verbs) than you’d expect from languages that have never been in contact. Is this because they were created when English, French or Portuguese words were laid onto the same bed of grammar as African languages? Or because later generations learned both the pidgin and their parents’ languages, mingling the two? Or because a pidgin was created once, perhaps in a West African slave trade outpost or by sailors, and then transmitted elsewhere?
Bickerton swats down all these theories and explains how he arrived at his own solution, the language bioprogram hypothesis, which he elaborated in the book “Roots of Language” (1981). According to this idea, a pidgin becomes a Creole when children learn it, filling in the grammatical gaps with patterns and words that come not from any specific language but from some universal language template they all carry in their heads. This was an extension of Noam Chomsky’s influential claim for an innate universal grammar possessed uniquely by humans.
You’d expect an idea like the bioprogram hypothesis from someone with the habit of jumping out of chairs. Nailing it down, however, requires more “sitzfleisch” (literally, flesh for sitting) than Bickerton acknowledges having. Amid all the tales of partying with beautiful Brazilian graduate students and bouncing though the Colombian mountains in the back of trucks, he neglects to mention that other scholars (including some of his own students) have delivered some heavy blows to the bioprogram idea in the last decade. They’re unlikely to write memoirs, however, especially ones as diverting as “Bastard Tongues.” Bickerton invokes local histories, social factors and other variables to defend the bioprogram from the claim that all those grammatical bricoleurs in diapers didn’t push their Creoles in the same direction. Here’s where a peculiarity of Creole studies, which has rumbled in the background of the book, comes to the fore: evaluating any claim means whacking through a jungle of detail in which arguments about, say, verbs in some Dutch Creole depend on data about population crashes in Suriname in the late 17th century.
Bickerton may yet be proved right, especially if some reality-TV producer or billionaire philanthropist gets behind an experiment he hatched in the late 1970s. Bickerton proposed marooning six couples speaking six different languages along with children too young to have learned their parents’ language on a Pacific island for a year, to see what language the adults might figure out and how the kids might alter it. The National Science Foundation objected to the project on ethical grounds, and the experiment was not financed. Bickerton is happy to let someone else take up his idea and finally put a stop to all the “word wastage” of arguments about “how much language structure the brain can create.” “I’m out of it,” Bickerton writes — though the reader hardly believes his modesty. “I’ll consult, if asked. … All I care about are the results.”