Derek Bickerton’s Bastard Tongues

(Note: This is a post I wrote in August 2011 which I though was lost in the ether when I switched my blog hosting service, but I had luckily e-mailed it unknowingly to myself, so here it is! This was when I first began thinking about pidgins and creoles as an MA student a few years ago, and I’ll be posting more on Hawai‘i Creole or “Pidgin” this year as there is much to gain on understanding language by investigating pidgins and creoles, oh and this is my 100th blogpost on Leaky Grammar! never thought I’d make it this far, but I don’t think I’ll be stopping anytime soon. Lastly, there’s an interesting dialogue on some of the topics raised in this post on in which Derek Bickerton, Rue Savage-Rumbaugh, Mark Turner, T. Givon, and others respond to a provocative article by Anthropologist Terry Deacon.  Definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in universals in language).

“When the infernal machine of plantation slavery began to grind its wheels, iron laws of economics came into play, laws that would lead to immeasurable suffering but would also, and equally inevitably, produce new languages all over the world – languages that ironically, in the very midst of man’s inhumanity to man, demonstrated the essential unity of humanity.”

– Derek Bickerton

University of Hawaii Professor Emeritus of Linguistics Derek Bickerton recently wrote a book, part memoir, part academic adventure, part linguistic exploration on his experience with the world’s pidgins and creoles and how they shed light on our essential unity as a species.

So how do pidgins and creoles ‘demonstrate the essential unity of humanity’ ? Defining what pidgins and creoles are is the first step to seeing why they raise some of the most fascinating questions (I think) confronting the field of linguistics (and language oriented researchers more generally).  Kent Sakoda, a researcher of Hawai‘i Creole English (a creole but confusingly referred to as Pidgin by locals), offers up some quick definitions:

Pidgin: A pidgin is a new language which develops in situations where speakers of different languages need to communicate but don’t share a common language. The vocabulary of a pidgin comes mainly from one particular language (called the ‘lexifier’). An early ‘pre-pidgin’ is quite restricted in use and variable in structure. But the later ‘stable pidgin’ develops its own grammatical rules which are quite different from those of the lexifier. Once a stable pidgin has emerged, it is generally learned as a second language and used for communication among people who speak different languages. Examples are Nigerian Pidgin and Bislama (spoken in Vanuatu).

Creole:When children start learning a pidgin as their first language and it becomes the mother tongue of a community, it is called a creole. Like a pidgin, a creole is a distinct language which has taken most of its vocabulary from another language, the lexifier, but has its own unique grammatical rules. Unlike a pidgin, however, a creole is not restricted in use, and is like any other language in its full range of functions. Examples are Gullah, Jamaican Creole and Hawai`i Creole English.Note that the words ‘pidgin’ and ‘creole’ are technical terms used by linguists, and not necessarily by speakers of the language. For example, speakers of Jamaican Creole call their language ‘Patwa’ (from patois) and speakers of Hawai`i Creole English call theirs ‘Pidgin.’

Chomsky held that humans have an innate, biological program called LAD (language acquisition device) or for some linguists wanting to avoid masculine-oriented acronyms, Bickerton jokes, LASS for language acquisition support system.  This allows a child to in a sense ‘re-create’ the language they are exposed to from insufficient data (or the poverty of stimulus in Chomskian terms) and how children can say things that they never heard uttered to them before in their life, for example asking the notoriously ubiquitous question, “why is the sky blue?”  From research in child language acquisition and creole studies, their is overwhelming evidence for some kind of “critical period,” some of the most fascinating evidence coming from research on Nicaraguan sign language.

From his understanding of creoles, Bickerton writes that there are three generalizations we can make about creoles and language more generally:

 1. Adults can’t create a new language to save their lives

2. Older children can create a new language, but not a full one.

3. Younger children can create a full human language out of ???

It’s those ???? that have pestered Bickerton’s thinking on this.

What was the content of that ??? What was the absolute minimum input that children would have to have in order to acquire a full human language? How much could the human mind alone contribute to the task of creating language anew? Just some of it, or all of it? Can children who are living, growing up and playing together who have no access to a language simply create one?  Of course creating a language from zero input is impossible, right?

Bickerton says that we simply can’t know for sure because no research has ever been done to prove this and actually doing a research project like this would come up against ethical boundaries as to what a research project would have to look like and do in order to figure this out for sure.  So how can children, from the minimal input of a limited and ungrammatical pidgin, create a fully fledged language?  And why is it that these created languages, these creoles, are so similar around the world even though they never had contact with each other?  Of course the vocabulary is different because the bits and pieces of language the children have access to when creoles are being created are from different languages, but the grammatical similarities between them is remarkable.

Bickerton concludes his romp through the world of creoles with these final remarks:

“What (children) build from those scraps won’t be exactly the same everywhere.  It can’t be, because the scraps will be different in different places and they will incorporate into the new language whatever they can scraps – more in some places than others.  But the model into which those scraps are incorporated will reveal the same basic design wherever those children are and whoever they are ,and similar structures will emerge, no matter what languages their parents spoke…For creoles are not bastard tongues after all.  Quite the contrary: they are the purest expression we know of the human capacity for language.”

The degree to which nurture (biology) and nautre (experience) play a role in child language acquisition is still being debated but Bickerton’s theory, backing the view of the major role of language acquisition being biologically based is still holding sway in theories of creole genesis, and it will be interesting to see the development of  our understanding about the language bioprogram, that innate capacity for human language, in the future.

My own thoughts on this is that there is a third aspect of this nature/nurture debate that is slowly revealing new and exciting ways to think about language that doesn’t rely on a debate of degrees between nature and nurture.  This third aspect to the previously two-sided langauge coin, the symbolic properties of language communication itself, is being explored by everyone from anthropologists to neurolinguists, but I’ll leave that for another day.

If you are at all interested in language or simply the fascinating intellectual journey of a curious individual, I highly recommend this book.

Here are some of the more memorable quotes from the book:

“My experiences provided objective evidence for something I’d subjectively known for years.  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.”

“Fact may be the flesh of science; idealization is its lifeblood.”

“And that first exchange of letters led to one of those episodes I can only call “intellectual infatuations,” of which I’ve probably had a dozen or so in the course of my life.  They are indeed like love affairs without sex: they begin abruptly and without warning, they involve intense, rapid, and passionate exchanges of correspondence, they don’t last very long, and they give way to complete indifference or occasionally… a calmer but more lasting relationship.”

After getting his PhD, Bickerton writes:

“As far I was concerned, I’d gotten the bullshit out of the way so I could now get on with the serious business of life…Which is, of course, finding stuff out.”

“Words are unconstrained by anything but human creativity, but grammar depends on principles that all languages share – principles that derive, in ways still mysterious but by no means undiscoverable, from the working of the human brain.”

I took the featured image for this post last month at a beach on Oahu, nice rainbow in the background!


5 responses to “Derek Bickerton’s Bastard Tongues

  1. re drunks—I had some trouble getting Osaka people to speak to me in their native dialect (they’re trained to use the Tokyo standard with foreigners) until I figured the trick of getting them drunk. A shame I had to return soon after.

  2. I absolutely loved this book when I randomly discovered it a few years ago. Bickerton is a wild man, huh? Before reading that book, I imagined that Creolists just travel to beautiful, exotic places and drink in beach shacks for a living, and this book did nothing to dispel that impression :) Not that I mean to take away anything from the seriousness of his scholarship and ideas.

    One of the things I really love and respect about him is how fierce he is in defending those “lowly” languages, and their speakers. He strikes me as sort of…fiercely just, if that makes sense.

    Thanks for reminder of this book and this fascinating topic!

    (p.s. I did a pretty similar post a little while back myself!

    • Hi Allison, thanks for the comment and for posting that link. Yeah, he’s a pretty interesting guy, and the book definitely reads like a adventure autobiography. He did quite a bit of work on Pidgin (Hawai‘i Creole) in Hawai‘i and it was absolutely crucial to a lot of our understanding of how Pidgin has changed over the years. He’s still living here on O‘ahu somewhere and pops into the university every now and then, but I haven’t had the chance to meet him yet.


  3. Pingback: Pidgin and the Legacy of Sugar in Hawai‘i | Leaky Grammar·

  4. Hi Gavin. I have recently written a work on a similar subject of language creation, sharing, propagation, evolution, replacement, preservation. I would like to ask if you wouldn’t mind read it and letting me know what you think about it.

    Here is the short summary of my work:

    Language is an algorithm created by a system perceiving the world around itself in order to extract the meaning from perceived sensory input data and create a reality. The systems involved in creation and use of languages are:

    1. Sensory system which provides data in a shape of multidimensional change patterns. This is data creation system.
    2. Cognitive system which interprets data patterns and stores “sensory pattern – meaning” key value pairs in memory. This is data translation and storing system.
    3. Control feedback loop which compares multiple consecutive “sensory pattern – meaning” key value pairs and adjusts the translation algorithm until the comparison results start falling within a pre-set tolerance boundary, by enforcing the adjustment of the translation algorithm. The resulting stable unchanging translation algorithm which produces consistent results is a language. This is language creation and stabilization system.
    Language quality and complexity depends on the quality and complexity of all three systems involved in the language creation. Languages are built from simple “sensory pattern – meaning” key value pairs which are assembled into complex “sensory pattern – meaning” matrices.

    The most important system responsible for creation of languages is the control feedback loop.

    This is a naturally occurring phenomenon in living systems and is responsible for creation and preservation of stable, biological systems thus making them “living” systems. Multiple control feedback loos exist in all living systems from viruses and bacteria to complex multi organism colonies. They regulate systems and keep them stable. But control feedback loop can only operate on the “sensory pattern – meaning” key value pairs, the language. This means that control feedback loop cannot exist without a language. This makes a language also a naturally occurring phenomenon, and probably the most important naturally occurring phenomenon in living systems. Without natural ability of living systems to create and use languages there would be no life. For biological systems to survive, they need to be able to make sense of the world around them, and of themselves, and for that purpose they create and use languages. That sense of the world around us is called “the reality”. So we can say that without languages there would be no reality and no self.

    In order for multiple living organisms to engage in information exchange, they need to be able to:

    1. Create some kind of output which can be perceived by the other organism as a sensory input. Ability to create output which can be perceived as sensory input enables us to communicate with each other.
    2. Translate the perceived sensory input coming from the other organism into meaning. Ability to translate the perceived sensory input coming from the other organism into meaning enables us to understand each other.
    3. Imitate the sensory input to create the output which the other organism understands. Ability to imitate the sensory input coming from another organism enables us to converse. This ability is directly dependant on the quality of the input receiving (sensory) systems, output producing systems and their coordination. It is the different quality of these systems in different members of the same species, which causes the creation of different dialects and for instance sound changes in human spoken languages.
    4. Synchronize language algorithms in order to ensure that both organisms produce identical “sensory pattern – meaning” key value pairs, meaning that they understand each other. This is achieved through the entanglement of the control feedback loops of both organisms. This process is called language synchronization and results in the creation of a common group language. Language synchronization starts by synchronizing the understanding of the simplest well known “sensory pattern – meaning” key value pairs. This is why the simplest natural sound blocks with their associated other sensory data, are the building blocks of human vocal languages for instance. These are the simplest well known “sensory pattern – meaning” key value pairs which can be used to synchronize our understanding of more complex “sensory pattern – meaning” key value pairs and complex “sensory pattern – meaning” matrices. Ability to synchronize individual languages enables us to form groups.

    Because language is based on the perceived world, change in the perceived world can trigger the change in the language used to create new reality out of the changes in perceived world. Change in the environment, location, circumstances, population can all trigger individual language changes which will trigger group language synchronization changes. These changes are again controlled by the control feedback loop of each organism and the entangled control feedback loop of the group. All these control feedback loops work together to preserve a stable reality. If changes are small, control feedback loops will migrate the languages from a state which is not stable any more to another stable state. This process will result in language evolution. If the changes are severe population changes, this process can result in language replacement. The same control feedback loops will preserve the language if the perceived world does not change.

    You can find details here:

    Grateful in advance

    Goran Pavlovic

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