mordicai caeli (mordicai) wrote,
mordicai caeli

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Cum Grano Salis. (83)

Bastard Tongues by Derek Bickerton.

City of Flowers:
motorcycle diablos,
Commie sparrow teams.

Remember how much I liked Adam's Tongue? It just goes to show how terrible I am at predicting what books are actually my favorite-- Adam's Tongue was an "Honorable Mention" in my Best of 2009 round-up but clearly should have been in the top-most ranks. It came after Bastard Tongues & speculated on the origins of human language, & had a few fascinating tossed off comments about Bickerton's work with Creoles & his aborted attempt to have the ultimate "desert island" experiment made-- I knew I'd have to go back & find out more. & here we are, & I have! I think I perhaps enjoyed Adam's Tongue better, but then I have an anthropological background-- or at least enough of one to appreciate Derek Bickerton's arguments in context. I'm less of a linguist, so there is an element of faith here-- grit your teeth & dive in! The examples have less pop, less omph-- they are just less intuitively significant. Again, solely because of my own abilities; someone who was more of a linguaphile & less of an anthropologist would probably find the situation reversed. Bastard Tongues is as much a memoir of Bickerton's adventures researching as it is about the Creole & Pidgin research itself, but it still keeps its academic edge. It isn't a condescending piece of Pop Non-Fiction-- no one would accuse this of being an overblown Economist article.

The crux of Bickerton's argument is that there is a fundamental bioprogram for the acquisition of language, & Creoles reflect that better than anything else (110, 143). He makes a few stabs at "motherese" & Chomsky's "LAD" but really, those are just stabs at the same sort of neurolinguistic nuts & bolts (102, 110). He boils it down to:
  • Adults can't create a new language to save their lives.
  • Older children can create a new language, but not a full one.
  • Youger children can create a new language out of ??? (235).
Well, those question marks are tricky. He brings up feral wolf children & the culture of the dead in Nicuragua, as well as a list of historical isolation experiments, to that end (240, 231-236, 241-242). He brings up his own failed attempt to start an experiment on a desert island, & tries to think up alternative routes to an ethical experiment (115, 242-246). Clearly it all ties in with Pidgins, & the crucible of childhood-- but we'll just have to wait to see how, I guess. Besides this core thesis, the story rumbles all over the world-- "motorcycle diablos" & "sparrow teams," court record research that echoes Carlo Ginzberg's The Cheese & the Worms, all the Creoloes & know-- Haitian & Bajan & Réunion-- & oceans more besides. (146, 214, 155, 226, 148, 151). There is plenty here for me to mine for Oubliette-- Fort Creoles versus Plantation Creoles & plantation islands versus habitation islands are just the tip of it (146, 153, 228). Derek Bickerton: he's great!
Tags: bickerton, books, haiku, linguistics

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