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Bastard Tongues: A Trail-Blazing Linguist Finds Clues to Our Common Humanity in the World's Lowliest Languages Hardcover – March 4, 2008

ISBN-13: 978-0809028177 ISBN-10: 0809028174 Edition: First Edition

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang; First Edition edition (March 4, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809028174
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809028177
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.3 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,820,393 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A novelist, professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of Hawaii and self-proclaimed street linguist, Bickerton chronicles his studies of creoles—the bastard tongues of the title—isolated languages with dubious and disputed parentage spoken by the lower classes. Bickerton seeks to explain creoles' linguistic anomaly: all creoles, though isolated from one another, have similar grammatical traits. This chatty, humorous memoir, laced with lucid analyses, shows how a creole initially seems to be a mishmash of nonsensical words (e.g., She mosi de bad mek she tek he), but is later revealed to be linguistically lush (translation: She could only have married him because she was completely broke). Most creoles, the author says, were created out of necessity due to the language divide that existed between imperialist states and their colonies, and Bickerton theorizes that creoles are evidence of humans' innate language bioprogram that enables them to construct a new language out of [linguistic] bits and pieces. Creating a multifaceted, immersive approach to the study of linguistics, Bickerton explores the miraculous human capacity for language and how the emergence of creole languages represents a triumph of... the human spirit. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


“One of the field’s old lions, he has spent the last four decades studying pidgins and Creoles and writing a few novels on the side. A self-described macho “street linguist” for whom fieldwork is part pub crawl, Bickerton has a penchant for big ideas and a “total lack of respect for the respectable” that, judging from his new memoir, has put him at odds with bureaucrats and colleagues. “Bastard Tongues” is gossipy, vain and pugilistic—in other words, all the juicy things an academic memoir should be but too rarely is.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Bickerton has made transformative discoveries about the way we acquire language… The book is part memoir, part intellectual detective story and part linguistics primer. Bickerton is a spirited, clever writer, and the tripartite nature of the narrative suits him.” —The Los Angeles Times
“His intellectual enthusiasm is so contagious that many readers will find themselves sharing his indignation…the rebel in you can’t help but warm to him.” —New Scientist
“Derek Bickerton is anything but your average P.hD.-toting scholar. His new book, Bastard Tongues, is anything but the typical work of academic non-fiction. Much too personal to be a strictly scholarly enterprise and steeped in theoretical jargon unusual for the quintessential memoir, Bastard Tongues is as uniquely brilliant as the mind that created it…. a fun and enjoyable read that can enrich your mind as well as fulfill your hunger for excitement and adventure.” —The Daily Texan
“Advancing a radical new linguistic theory, Bickerton detects in creoles not the dynamics of language transmission but rather the wellspring of language creation…. Bickerton’s account of his travels fuses the excitement of travel literature with the substance of groundbreaking linguistics. A bold new perspective on human speech.” —Booklist

“Bickerton writes appealingly about his immersion into trying to figure out the initially baffling phrases scavenged from the various languages that contributed to the creoles he worked on.” —The Chronicle of Higher Education


“An intellectual journey.” —The Honolulu Star


“Passionate. . . Part memoir, part detective story and part adventure, this book is a journey into Derek Bickerton’s life work studying creole languages spoken by descendants of slaves and indentured laborers in plantation colonies.” —The Post & Courier (Charleston)

“Derek Bickerton turns the tale of his life’s work—the study of Creole languages—into a gripping adventure story. Language lovers will exult in his linguistic insights, but everyone will delight in the surprising twists and turns of his global quest for the answer to why Creoles are all so much alike.” —Deborah Tannen, author of You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation and You’re Wearing THAT?: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation
“Bickerton bar-hops through some of the world’s most exotic locations and languages, and somehow along the way he manages to crack one of the deepest mysteries of language itself. A fantastic and frank account of research in the real world.” —Christine Kenneally, author of The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language
“Derek Bickerton is one of the great modern contributors to our understanding of language, and Bastard Tongues combines an intellectual detective story, a disarmingly frank autobiography, and a tale of adventures in exotic places. If you’re curious about the origins of pidgins, Creoles, or indeed language itself, start here. If you already know Bickerton’s ideas and want to know where they came from, this book is for you, too.” —Melvin Konner, author of The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit, revised edition
“Open the book at almost any page and you’ll be drawn in by the exotic places, the interesting people, and the unfolding detective story about how a new language gets started. There is nothing dry about linguistics when Derek is telling the story. It’s a delight to read.”—William H. Calvin, author of Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change
“A fascinating memoir from one of the most innovative and literate linguists of our age.” —Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct: How Mind Creates Language and The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature

Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
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This is a must read for any interested reader or serious historical linguist.
K. Jackson
To Derek Bickerton, the first category is the important one, even if this is the one place he failed to investigate in his research.
Stephen A. Haines
Reading the book made me want to dump my job and go back to school to start a new vocation - something Derek Bickerton himself did.
Justin Thyme

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Found Highways VINE VOICE on March 13, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This is the most interesting intellectual biography I've read. Bickerton's motto above helped him to wander into linguistics when he was teaching English literature in Africa, and then become one of the first scientists to discover how creole languages work.

Bickerton investigates the creole languages invented by the descendents of West Africans enslaved by European powers - - the English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch. He doesn't have the "Sitzfleisch" for library research, so he spends time in bars with the "unrighteous working class" in Columbia, Brazil, Barbados, Hawaii, Mauritius, and a dozen other places.

Bastard Tongues is a linguistic detective story. It takes Bickerton almost twenty years to find the answer to his mystery - - how creoles develop into full-fledged languages (just as complex as French or English) from the simpler contact languages (pidgins) that slaves used to communicate with their European overseers.

One of the most interesting of Bickerton's discoveries is how creoles exist on a continuum from "deeper" (almost incomprehensible to someone not a native speaker) to a level closer to the European language.

Bickerton goes into detail about how "the infernal machine" of a slave economy worked and shows how it was the nature of the slave economies in the "New World" that determined the evolution of their languages. Bickerton did as much for the field of history as linguistics. His analysis of the "expansion" and "establishment" phases of the American slave economies, and his investigation of the "maroons" - - escaped slaves, from the Spanish "cimarron," ("wild" or "runaway") is as interesting as the creole grammar.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Justin Thyme on April 26, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This book was reviewed in the NY Times, LA times and Washington Post all on the same day. For some reason, Amazon only posts the Washington Post review and not the other ones, which I think were much more accurate.

The last sentence of the Washington Post review leaves the impression that the book may be a slog for non-linguists - but I have to say the opposite is true. I know next to nothing about linguistics, but found the linguistic parts to be very understandable and informative. Most of the book is about characters, situations and little known bits of intriguing history, woven together in a compelling way. It's not often that you want to read a non-fiction book all in one go, but this book was impossible to put down.

The writer's love of travel and ideas and his genuine interest in the people and world he encounters is positively infectious. Reading the book made me want to dump my job and go back to school to start a new vocation - something Derek Bickerton himself did. Just take a look at the LookInside pages and see for yourself.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By F. Scott Key on May 24, 2008
Format: Hardcover
We all love a mystery, especially a big one, and the mystery of the origins of language is still a big one. Language is our most human invention. We start to talk before we start to walk. It seems so natural within the human experience that we look for it in other species and build it into our machines. Language allows us, not only to communicate but, to refine our thoughts before we even speak and in the process change the way we think. We see language as another indicator of how intelligent we really are; but is language our own clever invention or is it the result of a biological template we all possess that makes talking trash as natural as walking tall?

"Bastard Tongues" by Derek Bickerton proposes an answer to this provocative question in a charming and funny memoir of his studies abroad. That rare academic with a preference for field work, Bickerton, with his trusty tape recorder by his side, has parked himself in the middle of things all over the world to hear those "funny" languages spoken by the people who use them every day. In the process he makes you regret whatever career choice you may have made and wish that you had been smart enough to have chosen linguistics. Bickerton has spent his life answering opportunity's knock to study creole languages everywhere and the consequence of this lifetime of research is a fascinating theory that changes the way we view ourselves and the tool we use so often that we rarely give it any thought at all.

In "Bastard Tongues", Bickerton uses creole to illustrate how fundamental language really is. Children invent it. Creole languages exist all over the world using different root languages but essentially all recognizably creole and related by grammar and structure, not the language of the individual words used.
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Format: Hardcover
When I picked up Derek Bickerton's latest book, "Bastard Tongues", I expected to find a scholarly treatise on the origins and journeys of the so-called low languages, and I wasn't disappointed. What I had not expected was to be entertained, intrigued and delighted to be taken on a magical journey, with a master story-teller as my guide.

Bickerton does a masterly job of tracing the roots (and routes) of pidgin languages from such diverse origins as West Africa and Northern South America, the Seychelles and Hawaii, and asking the question - why they produce so many words and phrases in common, without any known previous contact.

But it's Derek Bickerton's own fact-finding journey that provides the entertainment in this book. Part scholarly tome, part travelogue, part autobiography, "Bastard Tongues" is a plain-spoken and frequently disrepectful memoir, replete with hilarious tales of the tribulations of a language detective. Whether slogging through the bush in Guyana, carousing with the creoles in Columbian bars, or careening across deserts in the most precarious forms of transportation in search of a thread to link the most basic forms of communication, Bickerton keeps one entertained and delighted from beginning to end. I couldn't put it down.
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