Review of ‘Bastard Tongues’

When we first meet Derek Bickerton in his latest book, “Bastard Tongues,” he is knee-deep in water off a yellow sand beach on the deserted island of Ngemelis in the archipelago of Palau. There is a “dazzle of sunlight,” a “grove of coconut palms” and a lagoon of “tranquil blues and greens.” Other tiny islands dot the horizon “like giant toadstools.”

The professor emeritus of linguistics at UH makes the place sound like the perfect, private respite from today’s frenetic lifestyle — apart from the toadstool reference, that is.

Then, like any good writer, Bickerton throws in a wallop of tension. “Hull down on the horizon lay Peleliu, scene of ferocious fighting in World War II, home to deadly sea crocodiles, one of which had recently caught a fisherman and stashed his corpse on an underwater ledge, to dine on later.”

Yikes. As a reader, you can’t help but feel the pull to keep reading. Indeed, Bickerton’s memoir is already living up to the globe-trotting innuendo of its subtitle: “A Trailblazing Linguist Finds Clues to Our Common Humanity in the World’s Lowliest Languages.”

So far, so good.

As Bickerton wades ashore the northwestern tip of the island — presumably safely out of reach of those man-eating crocs — he writes, “Behind, the twin outboards of the motorboat that had brought me churned trails of white foam that dwindled rapidly into the distance. Soon their sound shrank to a murmur, then ceased; the boat vanished in a dazzle of sunlight on the lagoon.”

The writing here is solid. In three paragraphs, Bickerton has painted an evocative setting and introduced lurking trouble in the form of killer crocs. Yet, if you’re the type who buys a book based on the first couple — or three — paragraphs, you’ll be plunking down $26 for a book that doesn’t live up to its first page.

“Bastard Tongues” is no Indiana Jones adventure story. Nor does it read like the insanely popular genre of the modern memoir — e.g. “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert, “Marley & Me” by John Grogan, or “Angela’s Ashes” by Frank McCourt.

Nothing more happens on the island of Ngemelis. In his narrative, Bickerton returns to the island 115 pages later simply to identify it as the locale of a language experiment that the National Science Foundation almost funded but didn’t — due to ethical concerns.

The New York Times calls Bickerton’s book an “academic memoir” and that probably comes closest to cataloging it. Subtitle aside, “Bastard Tongues” is more of an intellectual expedition rather than a physical one.

Bickerton concludes his tantalizing, four-paragraph opening to ask the question, “Why on earth would a professor of linguistics have himself marooned on a desert island? Well, that’s a long story.”

Unfortunately, there’s no real story here. Just a guy trying to prove a point.

From this all-too-easy literary construct, Bickerton shares the details of his career in chronological fashion, starting with a bar in Ghana where Bickerton’s happenstance meeting with Professor John Spencer triggers what would become for Bickerton a 30+-year career in the “scientific study of language.” From Ghana, he travels to England, Columbia, Hawai‘i, Suriname, the Seychelles, Mauritius and elsewhere.

In doing research, Bickerton particularly liked to hang out in local bars, because “drunks are the world’s most underrated language teaching resource. The stereotypic drunk speaker slurs his speech to the point of unintelligibility, but in real life this happens only in the final, immediate-pre-collapse phase of drunkenness. Prior to that, drunks speak slowly and with exaggerated care, because they know they are drunk but don’t want other people to know. Moreoever, since they’re already too drunk to remember what they just said, they repeat themselves over and over and don’t mind if you do the same. If you’re gregarious and a drinker, it’s by far the easiest way to learn a new language.”

The hypothesis that drives Bickerton to roam the world bellying up to bars with drunks is summarized on page 113. “Words and how they’re pronounced differ from language to language and have to be learned. Grammar doesn’t. Words are unconstrained by anything except human creativity, but grammar depends on principles that all languages share — principles that derive, in ways still mysterious but by no means undiscoverable, from the working of the human brain.”

Basically, Bickerton supports the theory that grammar — the identifying characteristic of a Creole language, according to the author — is encoded in our DNA. He argues that a “biologically based program, or ‘bioprogram’ for short” is a “universal plan for constructing language that every normal child in the world is born with.”

And that, according to Bickerton, explains why languages on one side of the world possess similar grammatical structures as other languages on the other side of the world.

In the end, what the book really reads like is just how the book jacket describes, “…a unique blend of memoir, travelogue, history and linguistics primer, appealing to anyone who has ever wondered how languages grow or what it’s like to search the world for new knowledge.”

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