Bastard Tongues…Questions

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?

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2 Responses to Bastard Tongues…Questions

  1. Jim Robbins says:


    It’s A Long Way From Amphioxus

    Oh, a fish-like thing appeared among the annelids one day, 
It hadn’t any parapods or setae to display.
 It hadn’t any eyes or jaws or ventral nervous chord. But it had a lot of gill slits and it had a notochord.

It’s a long way from amphioxus, it’s a long way to us. 
It’s a long way from amphioxus to the meanest human cuss. 
It’s good-bye to fins and gill slits, and welcome lungs and hair. 
It’s a long, long way from amphioxus, but we all came from there.

    It wan’t much to look at and it scarce knew how to swim.
 And Nories was very sure it hadn’t come from him.
 The Molluscs wouldn’t own it and the Arthropods got sore. 
So the poor thing had to burrow in the sand along the shore.

    Repeat Chorus

    He burrowed in the sand before a crab could nip his tail.
 And he said, “Gill slits and myotomes are all to no avail. I’ve grown some metapleural folds and sport an oral hood. But all these fine new characters don’t do me any good.”

    Repeat Chorus

    He sulked awhile down in the sand, without a bit of pep; 
Then he stiffened up his notochord and said, “I’ll beat ’em yet! Let them laugh and show their ignorance, I don’t mind their jeers. Just wait until they see me in a hundred million years.”

    Repeat Chorus

    “My notochord shall change into a chain of vertebra, 
And, as fins, my metapleural folds will agitate the sea. My tiny dorsal nervous chord shall be a mighty brain. 
And the vertebrates shall dominate the animal domain.”

    For an even better understanding follow this link:

  2. Ron Boothe says:

    I found Bastard Tongues to be a fascinating read. Bickerton gives us a glimpse into the thought processes of a working scientist. We are allowed to follow along in his mental footsteps as he works at developing a theory that can explain how Creole languages emerge. Near the end of the book we get a brief sketch of his theory, but that is not the main point of his memoir. Instead it is a recounting of the journey that led to his theory, a journey that initially meandered down several dead ends, each of which yielded a few additional relevant facts along with several delightful anecdotes retold here.

    The way Bickerton comes across in Bastard Tongues reminds me in some ways of my impressions of Craig Venter based on reading his memoir, A Life Decoded. Both describe themselves as self-taught autodidacts who work primarily as outsiders rather within mainstream academia. Both appear to have outsized egos that can grate at times, and both appear to have primarily followed their own intuitions rather than methodically following the lines of thought that would have been most obvious based on reading the existing published scientific literature. Just goes to show that progress in science sometimes happens in mysterious ways, allowing the iconoclast maverick to make significant discoveries that were heretofore overlooked by legions of mainstream scientists working with noses to the grindstone.

    The essential element of Bickerton’s theory of where Creole languages come from is that they are formed by children using whatever sources of information they have available to work from. If a child is raised in an environment where English is being spoken, the child will automatically pick up English; if raised in China will pick up Chinese; etc. But if children are being raised in an environment where no specific language is available to be picked up, they will develop their own language, a Creole, by using whatever building blocks they have available in the environment in which they are raised.

    Bickerton’s theory of Creole languages falls within the general framework of universal grammar linguistic theories, initially formulated and championed by Noam Chomsky. Basically, these theories assert that the ability to use language is an instinct present in all humans. The particulars of the language(s) we learn to speak as children will depend on the specific features of the language(s) we are exposed to as we are growing up, but when analyzed at a deep level, all human languages share certain attributes of a universal grammar. This is because the ability to use grammar is programmed into our brains at birth and does not have to be learned. This theoretical perspective stands in sharp contrast with the (now defunct) psychological theories of language development championed by B.F. Skinner and his followers, in which it was argued that humans learn language in the same way they learn most everything else, through principles of classical and operant conditioning. (NOTE: Skinner’s alternative theoretical perspective, referred to as Verbal Learning, was still prominent when I was in graduate school in psychology in the early 1970’s. It is now as extinct as the dinosaurs.)

    Although retired, I continue to teach classes part time at some of the local universities in Tacoma. During the last two years I have taught a Senior Seminar in the Neuroscience Program at University of Puget Sound. While doing so, I have taken advantage of the expertise of some of our book club members. Stirling, an otolaryngologist, came to the seminar last year to conduct a session on neurological mechanisms related to dizziness, and earlier this Spring, Sid, a dermatologist, did a session on neural mechanisms related to itching. Most recently, Richard visited the class to discuss neurolinguistics. I found one of the scientific papers he had the students read to be particularly fascinating, and since it relates to universal grammar, I am going to briefly summarize it here.

    The paper, titled “Syntactic structure building in the anterior temporal lobe during natural story listening”, was published this year (J. Brennan, et. al., Brain and Language, volume 120, pp. 163 – 173, 2012). Subjects in this scientific study listened to a reading from Alice in Wonderland while brain activity was monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). What the scientists were looking for was a brain area whose activity is involved in building syntactic structure. In other words, a brain area that can break a sentence down into its grammatical components.

    For those of us of a certain age, an intuitive understanding of what is involved in this process can perhaps be attained by thinking back to our grade school grammar classes where we had to construct sentence diagrams. I invite you to try your hand at constructing a sentence diagram for this example sentence: “Her face brightened up at the thought she was now the right size.” The diagram produced for this sentence by the authors of the paper is presented in their Figure 1. By making calculations such as how many steps one has to move down in the diagram to find each word in the sentence, the authors arrived at a quantitative estimate of the amount of syntactic complexity associated with processing each word. In our example sentence, the word ‘her’ has a syntactic complexity value of ‘1’ while the word ‘thought’ has a value of ‘3’.

    After making these estimates of syntactic complexity for every word in the passages the subjects were asked to listen to, the scientists looked to see if they could find any place in the brain where the amount of neural activity was related to syntactic complexity. Remarkably, they found a brain area located in the anterior temporal lobe where the amount of neural processing associated with processing each word (as measured by the fMRI) was correlated with the syntactic complexity of that word (as calculated from the sentence diagrams). This finding provides evidence that there is in fact an area of the human brain whose function is related to the grammatical function of syntactic processing.

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