Do you only think of the word Creole when you’re hungry for gumbo or Cajun blackened chicken? That was pretty much me, before I read the wonderful and enlightening book on the origins of Creole languages around the world Bastard Tongues by the renowned linguist Derek Bickerton. He is an expert who has written two other books on Creole languages and the origins of language in general, entitled Dynamics of a Creole System and Roots of Language. At times, I admit I got a little bogged down with some of the linguistic jargon the author uses, like “superstrates” and “substrates”, but on the whole I found the book immensely readable, one that anybody interested in Creole languages and the origins of languages should add to their reading lists.
Derek Bickerton has taught in several different countries and is a Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the University of Hawaii. The memoir-like accounts of his travels and adventures in various places such as Columbia, Brazil and the islands of Ngemelis, Palau, and Hawaii on their own are enough to make the book an entertaining and enjoyable read. Like the Sherlock Holmes of linguistics, he tracks down and eliminates theories others have put forth on the origins of Creole languages and deduces that however improbable, the theory that remains must be the correct one.
Creole languages are ones with words and sometimes some of the grammatical structures of other languages mixed with words and phrases from other languages. In America, most of us are familiar with the French/English Creole found in Louisiana. However, there are a lot of other languages involved in the formation of Creole languages elsewhere. African languages and the spread of slavery and plantations in South America, Barbados, and places like Surinam combined with languages like Spanish or Portuguese over time to evolve into Creole languages that have a grammatical structure, flair, and style of their own.
The title - Bastard Tongues - is eye-catching, and since Creole languages and their origins are the subject of the book, they could be technically referred to as bastard languages. But though the Creole languages have questionable origins and some people consider them lowly, they are still languages boasting their own syntax, grammar, and complexity. Also, studying them can give one many insights as to the beginnings of all languages.
One of the more interesting theories about languages discussed in the book is Noam Chomsky’s, in which he claims “that human language formed part of human biology, and that somehow the fundamental principles of human language were latent in the brains of all normal human infants.” He states further children are born with “a language acquisition device, usually shortened to LAD,” which “was a black-box mechanism that somehow enabled children to learn any language they were exposed to.”
But what happens when children aren’t exposed to a “real language”? What if they were exposed only to pidgin forms of languages, and these languages were thus “substantially similar wherever they were produced,” as the majority of Creole languages are? The jargon here might sometimes make the going a little rough, but the overall writing style is entertaining. Exploring the many theories of language acquisition makes the journey intellectually stimulating and worthwhile.