Derek Bickerton’s Bastard Tongues

Bickerton is best known for making the case that the grammatical similarities between pidgin tongues around the world, and between Creole tongues around the world, reflect an innate human linguistic bioprogram. He believes that, whenever history isolates together a group of adults who have no language in common, these people develop a language with the grammatical structure of pidgin, and their children develop a language with the grammatical structure of Creole.

As he describes in Bastard Tongues, Bickerton hoped to test this prediction experimentally -- but the National Science Foundation denied permission for the experiment due to ethical concerns. Bickerton still hopes to see some form of this experiment conducted. The children involved could all be orphans from Third World countries, who in recompense for their role in the experiment would receive trust funds – to me this sounds like a good deal for a Third World orphan, but the idea makes some people uncomfortable. Link to Wikipedia on language bioprogram theory.

Besides providing fascinating evidence for this theory, Bastard Tongues is a highly-readable manual on how how to get things done – especially if you agree with Bickerton that the “serious business of life” is “finding out stuff.” One example -- the conventional wisdom used to be that there were no Creole languages in Latin America. Bickerton says he looked at a demographic atlas, figured out that the likeliest place to find Creole Spanish was near the Caribbean coast of Colombia, went to Barranquilla, asked if there was a nearby village where odd-sounding Spanish was spoken, and was directed to a Spanish-Creole-speaking village.

If doubting the conventional wisdom is one of Bickerton's life skills, getting around bureaucratic obstacles laid down by universities is another. I kind of want another memoir from him just to explain how he acquired these skills in the first place; he refers in passing to having worked on a farm, so maybe that has something to do with it – often the smartest people are those who grew up on farms, because they had to figure out how to make stuff for themselves... The dumbest people are those like myself who grew up in suburbs owning plenty of stuff, and when it broke down we just went and got over-charged to have it repaired...

Characteristically, Bickerton recommends you learn new languages from drunk people -- "Most of the Spanish I speak was learned from drunks in bars. In fact, drunks are the world's most underrated language teaching resource. The stereotypic drunk speaker slurs his speech to the point of unintelligibility, but in real life this happens only in the final, immediate-pre-collapse phase of drunkenness. Prior to that, drunks speak slowly and with exaggerated care, because they know they are drunk but don't want other people to know. Moreover, since they're already too drunk to remember what they just said, they repeat themselves over and over, and don't mind if you do the same. If you're gregarious and a drinker, it's by far the easiest way to learn a new language."

Some Bickertonisms to live by --

“... when you're trained to see things a certain way, it's amazing how blind you can be to the obvious. To really get to the heart of something, you can't have too little training.”

“The downside of higher education is that it gives you the confidence to maintain baseless fantasies in defiance of common sense. Ordinary folk are humble in the face of common sense; they have no agenda, and unlike academics, they know they don't know very much, so they act accordingly. But if you think you know a lot, and you've cemented that lot with a carapace of theory, you become immune to new facts and commonsense reasoning, and you have a knee-jerk negative reaction to anything that contradicts your agenda.”

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