Creole: A search for a common language.

Bastard Tongues: A Trail-Blazing Linguist Finds Clues to Our Common Humanity in the World’s Lowliest Languages, by Derek Bickerton, $26, Hill and Wang (March 2008), ISBN-10: 0809028174, ISBN-13: 978- 0809028177, pp. 288.

Linguistics might not strike most people as the most titillating subject, but in the hands of Dr. Derek Bickerton it is an entertaining and mind-expanding topic with all the drama of a treasure hunt for the Holy Grail. The professor’s work will fascinate those who revel in the intricacies of language, grammar and cultural anthropology. Those who do not should pass.

His quest is to chart the DNA of “creole” languages, the subject of two of his previous books. Bickerton, professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of Hawaii, has written three other books on the roots of language and four novels. This book is told as a memoir of his journeys, interspersed with his discoveries about language, not as a typical academic report. The New York Times called it “gossipy, vain and pugilistic — in other words, all the juicy things an academic memoir should be but too rarely is.”

Bickerton took up linguistics at the suggestion of a professor he met in a faculty bar in Ghana — bars crop up a lot in this travelogue — while discussing cultural miscues in teaching English literature to local students. He was soon off to the University of Leeds in England to study. Next, he stumbled into a job as resident linguist of Guyana, then newly independent from British colonialism, to analyze the native “Creolese” language.

First, he would have to learn the language, a task he began with more imagination than experience. He consulted native educators and students only to find that few among them agreed on the “right” way to say anything. (He soon curtailed one method of inquiry, recording nocturnal conversations in bars, because he found that drinkers often overcompensated — being so guarded in their diction that unadulterated Creolese was illusive.)

His initial research told him that Creole or “bastard” languages sprang up seemingly out of nowhere whenever people speaking mutually incomprehensible languages were in contact with one another for a long time.

After decades of inquiry on various islands and continents, Bickerton believes the languages are similar because they are a natural manifestation of the human capacity for creating language. His “language bioprogram hypothesis” suggests that the offspring of the first generation, those who developed a pidgin vocabulary to communicate, use their innate capacities to transform their parents’ “scraps” of words into a definable language.

— Angela P. Dodson is an online editor for Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.

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