The Quotable Bickerton

Derek Bickerton

I was in the downtown El Paso library a few weeks ago, and a book caught my eye. It seemed familiar somehow and had a curse word right on the cover, so I had to see what it was about. Creoles! I'd almost forgotten about them! I'd had a fascination with that sort of thing years ago, but then I got distracted and forgot. Bastard Tongues helped me to rekindle that fascination, with a vengeance.

The book is essentially a narrative, but it leads you through Derek Bickerton's theories (and their origins and development) along the way. It's an extremely easy read; I think it's primarily for lay-people. That said, it does seem to summarize all his previous work on creoles pretty well, pointing out problems and changes in theory as it goes. Even if you're more into sociology than linguistics, this book will not disappoint. Creoles are largely the result of "the infernal machine" of slavery, so their very existence is a bit embarrassing to the powers that be. Maybe that's why we don't hear much about these languages in mainstream linguistics. They don't get no respect.

I won't try to summarize the whole book here. I'll just drop in some quotes that I find particularly amusing and/or enlightening. I've included page numbers in case you want look any of these up and see the context.

One of the differences between linguists and people is that people like words better than grammar and linguists like grammar better than words . . . (37)
The downside of higher education is that it gives you the confidence to maintain baseless fantasies in defiance of common sense. (221)
To really get at the heart of something, you can't have too little training. (148)
Fact may be the flesh of science; idealization is its lifeblood. (44)
. . . for some reason, the near certainty of causing harm by doing nothing is outweighed, for most people, by a remote risk of causing harm by doing something. (244)
And at the same time [the infernal machine of slavery] developed an essential ingredient of our modern world, the work discipline and the system of organization that, replacing the whip with economic necessity, kept countless millions working at sterile and repetitive tasks throughout their lifetimes. (165)
At all costs, you must stop the slobs from saying "ain't"! (198)
. . . I had to get force-fed with all the latest convoluted syntactic analyses from the Chomsky bunch. And I've wondered since if I wouldn't have been better off learning to read Dutch . . . (187)

Based primarily on his experience with pidgins and creoles, Bickerton proposes "the Bioprogram", a sort of weak Universal Grammar.

All the bioprogram did was make sure that any deficiencies in the input would be filled--that whatever was needed for a full human language would be available. And it did this by providing not a smorgasbord of choices, but a simple list of preferred options. (111-112)

Bickerton not only describes his present view on what a creole is and how it works, but also past views and views of others, highlighting their problems. One thing I found particularly interesting is how his view changed on the different strands of a given creole that typically exist, ranging from very close to standard English (or whatever the superstrate language may be) to very far and more in line with the Bioprogram. It's not that the creole changed for some speakers to become more like English over time; in a typical plantation situation, there would actually be two instances of creolization: the first mixing English with various African languages to creole a fairly English-like creole, and the next mixing this creole with the languages of many, many more slaves during the plantation's nearly inevitable expansion period.

A minority of relatively privileged slaves (house slaves and artisans) may have kept the original contact language alive among themselves, . . . (164)

The result, over time, is a sort of continuum of dialects of the creole, making the whole thing seem even more like "bad English". Another issue that makes it tough to collect data on creoles is that most of the speakers these days are bilingual and might code-switch between the creole and the superstrate language. So the whole thing's pretty hard to sort out, but what a payoff if you can sort it out! A pretty clear picture of the Bioprogram, our innate ideas about what a language is and how it works.

[Creoles] are the purest expression we know of the human capacity for language. (247)

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At December 13, 2008 6:41 AM , Anonymous Derek Bickerton said...
It's nice (if extremely rare) to find a reader who really understands (and gets with) what one writes. This is a very insightful commentary and I thought you had a great selection of quotes. Keep up the good work and don't forget that my new book Adam's Tongue (about language and evolution) comes out next March.

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