Although this book can be read as a gentle introduction to linguistics (and maybe you tried your hand at some linguistic analysis on the exercises I posted), it reveals a lot about people in general. Actually, the subtitle of the book can serve as an outline to some broader questions: “A Trailblazing linguist finds clues to our common humanity in the world’s lowliest languages.”
A trailblazing linguist
Bickerton drinks with the natives and devises ambitious projects. He flies by the seat of his pants and is fairly cavalier about the impact of his efforts on the native speakers he is studying. He has become recognized as an authority on pidgins and creoles. One can find much to admire and much to criticize in the behavior of this scientist. I suggest this autobiography makes the work of science seem very human, maybe all too human, if we think of science as a solid foundation of truth. Is anyone bothered by the thought that the pursuit of scientific truth has a significant Wild West side? Ego side? Political side?
Finds clues to
Bickerton tries to draw reader in to the game by revealing the results of his investigation gradually throughout the book. The adventure is solving the puzzle. What if the next newspaper puzzle section would be language puzzles? The methods of linguistic analysis are applicable to a wide range of topics, beyond linguistics. I seldom meet a stranger that doesn’t have some interest in language.
Our common humanity in the
Language has forever been regarded as a key capability of humans. Languages unite us and divide us at the same time. People who speak like us are like us. People who don’t are low class or threatening. Have you ever rejected a candidate for a job because of his or her language? How do you react when you overhear some on today’s youth ragging on each other? How many immigrant parents do you know that made sure not to speak their native language at home for fear thekidswould not learn English properly? How many times have you heard complaints that ‘these people’ can’t speak proper English? Why are there rabid English only campaigns?
On page 38 Bickerton illustrates that all languages are sophisticated systems. He uses the example De de de [They be there]. To speak correctly you need to know when to use de[be]. You can say me de a Jarjtong. But you can’t say *me be hungry. You have to say me hungry, leaving out the verb. In some African-American dialects you can also leave out the verb, e.g., he bad. You can also say he be bad. But you have to say bad be what he be. You can’t say bad be what he. The last example has parallels in standard English, read Midwest broadcast English. You can say he’s bad, but you can’t say, bad is what he’s. You have to say, bad is what he is. It gets even more complicated. In case you look down on people who speak dialect, consider my experience attending a dinner party of the African-American upper crust in Philadelphia. I began to feel a bit inadequate when I noticed that most of the guests were fluent in two languages or dialects. They switched with ease between their African-American dialect and standard English – very colorful, very impressive.
I suggest one value of this book is that, by stripping language down to basics, it makes us realize that the motivation for language is to communicate, to work together. And all languages and dialects are sophisticated tools for that purpose. And our social policies should be designed accordingly.
World’s lowliest languages
Are pidgins too simple to make a proper human language? (p 101) How should we define “proper human language?” Bickerton clearly wants to explore that topic – he wrote another book on the origins of human language (read, when language started to first appear in our species) and what constitutes human language at the absolute minimum. I personally am professional interested in the second question. I am a theoretical linguist, which means I don’t do what Bickerton does. I sit in my armchair and think about how to model language with mathematics. For Bickerton I think pages 101 and 102 are the core of his passion, because the mystery is clear: developmental linguists suppose that a child acquires his language by learning its rules from his parents and other speakers initially. But if the language of the parents doesn’t have rules, as in pidgins in Hawaii, how can a creole, which has rules, originate?