Derek Bickerton (1926-2018), the insular linguist, and his work

Derek Bickerton was a world-famous linguist and author. He died in 2018, at the age of 91 years. He has written scholarly books about creole languages, human evolution, the brain, but also poetry and novels. Ten years before he died, he had written a kind of intellectual biography focusing on his research on creole languages and pidgins which he had called Bastard Tongues: A Trailblazing Linguist Finds Clues to Our Common Humanity in the World’s Lowliest Languages. These (according to the public, not according to him or me) lowliest languages are pidgins and creoles.

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Bickerton’s bestseller novel of 1959

When this book came out in 2008, published when he was 81 years old, I did not get to read it. For one thing, there was probably not much new in it for me. I had read most, actually probably all, of his work on creoles and pidgins. My MA thesis had been about Bickertonian linguistics, applied to twins who create their own languages. He stated that pidgins and creoles shed light on universals of grammar, language acquisition, language creation and language evolution.


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Children learning their language: are they programmed to use certain traits?

Bickerton was a major mover in creole studies in the 1970 and throughout the 1980s. After the 1980s, however, his interest had moved more in the direction of the origin of language and human evolution. Therefore, I did not expect that he had generated new ideas on creolized languages after 1990, but certainly in other fields. Yet, in the field of creole studies, he was probably the most influential figure ever. Today, his creole work is not often quoted anymore. The field has more or less agreed that he was wrong with his idea of a “bioprogram” for languages. More on that below.

Bickerton and evolution: origin of language

Why is his creolistic work more marginalized? In science it works like this: people start criticizing your work, and other people therefore do not bother to read your work anymore, because others have shown it to be wrong. People just refer to the critics, and do not take the effort to read the author himself/herself anymore. An elementary observation in the sociology of science. Maybe that is one reason. Changing his main topic of research also contributed. That is what he also did: shift from creoles to human evolution.


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Hawaiian Pidgin is a Creole language; and different from Bickerton’s pidgin

His idea of the bioprogram was based on the observation that creoles from all over the world share a number of properties, and his explanation was that children had created those structures. Their parents spoke incomplete and highly variable (chunks of) languages, called pidgins by him, and the children made those “pidgins” into full languages by adding a range of grammatical meanings and structures not found in the languages around them. They would introduce those grammatical distinctions, because these children were biologically programmed to do so. Their bioprogram would both force and enable them to impose those properties on that chaotic input they received. Bickerton identified some 15 recurring properties of creoles that would be part of this bioprogram. Having also studied creoles, I have observed that most of these languages, from all parts of the world, indeed share many of those properties. Quite fascinating, and this requires an explanation. On the other hand, I have always been sceptical about the biological foundations of it.

His key argument is Hawai’i, where he recorded people in the 1970s, some of them native Hawaiians, others were immigrants who had arrived to work on the plantations, and their children. The immigrants’ speech, when communicating with others than their own people, was variable, mixed and chaotic. He calls their speech pidgin (and in this, he differs from what others call pidgins). The local language, on the other hand, spoken by their children born and raised on the island, was highly uniform, systematic and the children were able to express all nuances expected in a natural language. A creole language. Children were responsible for the regularisation and homogenising.


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Lowliest language?

In this book it appears that Bickerton, in 2018, still adhered to the ideas he developed in the 1970s and 1980s. That is another observation in the sociology of science: old ideas do not as a rule disappear when new ideas arrive, but because the followers of the old ideas die out.

When the book had just been published five years ago, I read a very critical review by an academic and therefore I decided that the book was not worth reading. The tone was: how can Bickerton, decades later, stick to his old ideas, even though these have been falsified, and there are no adherents of the idea, except for himself? Now I have read the book, and I enjoyed it a lot. Indeed, Bickerton has not changed his mind about the bioprogram, but he did modify it at some points because of new evidence. Remember that not all scientists do that, many remain in the “old school”.

Bickerton writes in an incredibly engaging style, filled with humor, and his argumentation is almost always according to the rules. A joy to read. The book is written as if you sit and listen in a bar to some old guy, who is not drunk yet, telling his life story. I think Bickerton would be happy with that characterization. Regularly Bickerton comments on the reader’s thoughts in the book, and he answers the questions that came to your mind.

Talking about bars. In his book, he admits to doing much of his fieldwork in bars, getting drunk with the common folk. Because that is where you get the best and most trustworthy language data. From reliable sources in Amsterdam, I also learned that he did not despise cannabis products either.

I had him as a teacher for a year in Amsterdam, and the first thing he said was that he was born in Britain, but had lived all over the world (UK, Africa, Spain, South America, Hawaii), and that he therefore had an undefinable accent. Indeed, from the book I learned that he had an MA from Cambridge in literature, that he taught literature in Ghana, Africa, worked and lived for four years in Guyana, South America, where he was studying the enormous variability in the local creole language, for which he developed a model, as an alternative to Labovian models. He ended up being a professor in Honolulu, Hawai’i, in the Pacific. In the meantime, he had also, with the help of a cab driver, discovered a creole language in Columbia (called Palenquero) spoken by maroons (people who has escaped slavery). What he does not write in his book, and I do not know why not, is that he also wrote novels, poetry and crime literature. I own a copy of his novel Payroll, discarded by a provincial library in Saskatchewan, Canada, where it was lent out many times. One of his books was even made into a feature film. That gave him some financial leeway.

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Bickerton’s often borrowed novel

Bickerton’s descriptions of both common people and academics are hilarious, and written with a “total lack of respect for the respectable”, according to one comment. He was a man who went his own way, and by treading new paths, he also made some substantial discoveries about the social, linguistic, historical and cognitive flexibilities of humans.

In contrast to the writings of some hailed as demigods in the world of creole studies, which are riddled with errors and fallacies, Bickerton’s observations are almost free of factual errors (as far as I can see, at least) or strange reasonings or fallacies, and he is also able to admit his own earlier mistakes and develop his ideas further.

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Put six couples and their child on an island. They do not speak each other’s language. What happens? Photo: Lux Tonnerre. No other copyright-free pictures are available for the island of the rejected experiment initiated by Bickerton

Apart from his ideas on creoles and his work on human evolution (especially in connection with language), Bickerton is famous for designing one specific experiment, together with Tom/Talmy Givón, of six couples, all with a young child, who do not share a common language, to live on an island, after they have learned a few hundred words of a common artificial language. What will the kids do? Will they create a new language? The project is famous for being rejected by the American National Science Foundation. But what I learned in the book was, that it was in fact initially approved, even by the ethics committee. It just never materialized because of subsequent opposition. This book describes how the idea was conceived, planned (a concrete uninhabited island was even selected (Ngemelis) and Bickerton spent some time on his own on the island on his own to test it out for its suitability!), but eventually it did not materialize because of increasing objections from academics who, in the eyes of Bickerton, thought they could make a decision, out of their comfortable armchairs, on behalf of the individuals who would have chosen themselves to be part of the experiment, with their informed consent. That part of the book is one of the most revealing of the book.

Cynics, by the way, have mentioned that a similar project, of high interest for science, would get through if some TV company would propose a similar idea, and the volunteers and their young children would be followed by cameras for entertainment of the world, in the meantime creating a miracle language – or not.

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In short, this book, written by a unique author about a controversial scientist (himself), can be recommended. He describes his intellectual development for common folk in an entertaining style, is definitely worth reading. On the basis of overwhelmingly positive ratings by the general audience on internet fora, the non-academic audience apparently loves the book, in contrast to academic colleagues. I also thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I am not sure where that places me intellectually.

Bastard Tongues: A Trailblazing Linguist Finds Clues to Our Common Humanity in the World’s Lowliest Languages

by Derek Bickerton

Peter Bakker is employed as a linguist at Aarhus University. He received training from the world’s leading creolists: Mervyn Alleyne, Derek Bickerton, Pieter Muysken and Norval Smith. He has published extensively on creoles. The book Creole Studies – Phylogenetic Approaches can be downloaded for free.






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