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Comments for Bastard Tongues

Bastard Tongues: 01/06/11

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)My reading of Bastard Tongues by Derek Bickerton coincided with getting hired by the Census. It ended up being a mental preparation for the wide range of languages I might face in the field. Now nearly a year later, my review writing lines up with my husband packing for a business trip to New Orleans, a place where Creole is spoken.

Derek Bickerton's book is that perfect blend of memoir and research I crave in my nonfiction reading. I mark this book among my favorites, along with Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin and The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson.

He begins his book with his arrival to Ngemelis Island where his first big linguistics research position. But before he jumps into what makes Ngemelis Island linguistically interesting he steps back in time to how he got interested in linguistics. Normally I would roll my eyes at an a flashback so early but in this case, the flashback belongs there. Ask any academic how they got to their chosen field of expertise and there is always a story. Bickerton's is one of the more fantastic ones.

Bickerton's story goes back to South Africa and a chance to change directions. If he was willing to study linguistics, he could transfer to Cambridge and live with a small stipend. It's the sort of story I could completely relate to and it put me in the mood to love the book.

The book is a region by region study of creoles and pijins and creoles. Bickerton looks for grammatical links between different languages for some larger human connection. Is grammar in born or a result of complex interactions? Are we reinventing the same patterns over and over again because we're programmed to? Or are we following the same pattern learned and passed down over the ages?

Bickerton has his opinions on those questions. He discusses the pros and cons of his theories in a fascinating, clearly outlined chapters interspersed with his own experiences as his linguistic career has progressed. If you are at all interested in language, you must read Bastard Tongues.

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