Saturday, July 8, 2017

Bastard Tongues by Derek Bickerton

Linguist Derek Bickerton specializes in how language develops. His research focuses on the origin of Creoles, especially in Hawaii. Bastard Tongues is a rollicking read, as the reader joins the quest of a colourful academic iconoclast.

The anecdotal storytelling and lighthearted tone suggest the pleasing illusion of being seated beside the author in an open-air bar in the tropics, listening to him elicit Creole sentences from native speaker informants.

A self-described "lifelong autodidact," Bickerton has filled his book with grim historical details about slavery. Indeed, "the infernal machine" of slave-based sugar production gave rise to Creoles. Initially, English and Dutch brought indentured laborers to work the Caribbean islands. But the Portuguese were first to develop the plantation society."

I doubt it's common knowledge that "in 1493 the pope divvied up the non-Christian world between Spain and Portugal...the boundary line being down the middle of the Atlantic." One result was that "if Spain wanted African slaves, she had to buy them from Portugal." For the formation of Creole languages, "the shift over time in the balance of whites and non-whites" was "a crucially important factor in the formation of Creoles."

Bickerton began his linguistic research in Guyana, a place with a shockingly violent history. Later, Hawaii later revealed itself as the crucible of the Creole tongue. From this book, I learned the islands had been unoccupied until Polynesians settled there 1200 years ago. When the Americans took over, Hawaii was home to sizable immigrant groups from Japan, Korea, China and Portugal. Before the hegemony of English asserted itself, Hawaiian newspapers were published in at least five languages.

After his Hawaiian investigations, Bickerton found that the Creoles of Seychelles and Mauritius supported his language bioprogram hypothesis. What else could explain how children in Hawaii "ignore all the English they were exposed to...and acquire a Creole construction that they could never possibly have heard?" In effect, children built the grammar, and taught the new language to their elders. He posits his inborn grammar theory as the only explanation for why Creole grammar "was the same in Hawaii as it was in Suriname, despite the thousands of miles that separated them."

But what exactly is a creole, and how do creoles, pidgins, and dialects differ from languages? A pidgin is a short-lived and limited attempt by two linguistically different groups to understand each other on first contact. Highlighting the socio-linguistic hierarchy of tongues, Bickerton quotes fellow-linguist Uriel Weinreich: "A language is a dialect with an army and a navy." Creoles, though, are complete tongues. Although they use borrowed vocabulary from French, English, Dutch and Portuguese, they are complex languages that can express a full range of meanings and intimations.

Far from lamenting language loss around the world, Bickerton calls languages "tough beasts" that "die hard," and feels we should "treat reports of language death with some skepticism." Meanwhile, "like magma seeking a volcanic rift, the language in all of us will find some way by which it can break out into the world."

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