Bastard Tongues by Derek Bickerton

My idea in choosing this book is to share my interest in linguistics.  It is not a grand ideas book about the human capacity for language.  Rather it is an autobiographical account of one linguist’s travels to try to describe a set of languages.  Bickerton has another book, Adam’s Tongue, which is very speculative about the origins of language and is quite fun.

Here are some explanations of linguistic terms in the book.

  • Tense refers to forms a language uses to express time: past, present, future, etc.
  • Aspect refers to additional features of events, such as duration of an event.
  • Mood refers to the relation of a statement to reality, such as whether the statement asserts a fact or a hypothetical situation.
  • Voice refers to the presentation of the information in a sentence, for example, passive voice in English where the thing acted upon is made the subject of the sentence.
  • Concord/agreement refers to changes in the form of a word based on other words in the sentence, e.g., a verb may change form to reflect the subject and/or object of the sentence.

These simple definitions get trickier as we encounter the great variety of languages in the world, but they will do for now to get you started.  Below are three exercises.  Try to figure out which sequences of sounds have which meaning.  I have explained how to pronounce odd looking symbols.  Note: the spaces between forms indicate word divisions.  A form is considered a separate word, if it can stand alone.  Forms inside a word occur in a fixed order, when they occur.  Vague, I know, but again it will suffice for these exercises.  I do not give the names of the languages, but they are actual languages.  Think of these as Sudoku.

Exercise 1: ʌ as in cup, ʃ as in sheep, ʔ as in British bottle.

  1. minʌʃp  huypay                                 You go buying.
  2. nʌʃp  toʔkpay                                     He goes selling.
  3. tʌnʌʃkap  huypay                              We (excluding you) go buying.
  4. nanʌʃkap  huypay                             We all go buying.
  5. miganʌʃkawu  toʔkpay                     You all didn’t go selling.
  6. tʌnʌʃp  ʃiʃhuypay                              I go meat buying.
  7. tʌʃiʃhuyp                                            I buy meat.
  8. nʌʃp  huypay  ʔinaʔw                       Her husband goes buying.
  9. nʌʃp  toʔkpay  tʌnyaʔw                   My husband goes selling.
  10. tʌʃiʃhuykap                                       We (excluding you) buy meat.
  11. miʃiʃtoʔkw                                         You sold meat.
  12. ʃiʃtoʔkah                                            He will sell meat.
  13. migaʃiʃtoʔkah                                   You will not sell meat.
  14. kanʌʃu  ʃiʃtoʔkpay                           He did not go selling meat.
  15. tʌgaʃiʃtoʔkp                                      I do not sell meat.
  16. naganʌʃkawu  ʃiʃhuypay                 We all did not go buying meat.
  17. tʌganʌʃkaah  ʃiʃtoʔkpay                  We (excluding you) will not go selling meat.
  18. nʌʃah  ʃiʃhuypay  ʔinaʔw                 Her husband will go buying meat.
  19. kanʌʃu  ʃiʃtoʔkpay  ʔinyaʔw            Your husband did not go selling meat.

Exercise 2: ŋ as in sing

  1. ʌwŋ  hawk                                         You study.
  2. toy  hawk                                          I study.
  3. toy  ŋu                                                I sleep.
  4. ʌwŋ  ŋu  hay  ze                                You slept two hours.
  5. ʌwŋ  hawk  baw  ze                          How many hours did you study?
  6. toy hawk  baw  lʌw                          How long did I study?
  7. hay  ze  toy  ŋu                                 I will sleep two hours.
  8. baw  lʌw ʌwŋ  ŋu                              How long will you sleep?
  9. baw  lʌw toy  hawk                          How long will I study?
  10. baw ze  toy  ŋu                                 How many hours will I sleep?

Exercise 3:

  1. mi kam                                                 I come.
  2. nau yu go                                             You go now.
  3. yu  kam wantaim  mi                         You come with me.
  4. mi go wantaim yu                               I go with you.
  5. mi stap long bus                                  I am in the jungle.
  6. yu stap long haus                                You are in the house.
  7. mi go long taun                                    I go to town.
  8. bai yu go wantaim mi                         You’ll go with me later.
  9. nau mi stap long haus                         I am in the house now.
  10. bai mi stap wantaim yu                      I’ll be with you later.
  11. yu go wantaim mi long bus                You go with me to the jungle.
  12. mi kam wantaim yu long haus           I come with you to the house.
  13. Bai yuk am long bus                            You’ll come to the jungle later.
  14. Nau yu stap wantaim me long taun  You are with me in the town now.
  15. Bai mi kam wantaim yu long taun     I’ll come with you to town later.

By the way, one or more of these languages is a creole.  Which one(s)?

This entry was posted in 2012 Selections, Bastard Tongues and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Bastard Tongues by Derek Bickerton

  1. Ron Powers says:

    From The New York Times:

    John Holm, Pioneer in Linguistics, Dies at 72

    Mr. Holm studied creole and pidgin languages spoken by millions of people around the world, especially the English-derived creoles of the Caribbean.

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