Book details

Bastard Tongues

A Trailblazing Linguist Finds Clues to Our Common Humanity in the World's Lowliest Languages

Author: Derek Bickerton

Bastard Tongues

Bastard Tongues


About This Book

Bastard Tongues is an exciting, firsthand story of scientific discovery in an area of research close to the heart of what it means to be human—what language is, how it works, and how it...

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Book Details

Bastard Tongues is an exciting, firsthand story of scientific discovery in an area of research close to the heart of what it means to be human—what language is, how it works, and how it passes from generation to generation, even where historical accidents have made normal transmission almost impossible. The story focuses on languages so low in the pecking order that many people don't regard them as languages at all—Creole languages spoken by descendants of slaves and indentured laborers in plantation colonies all over the world.

The story is told by Derek Bickerton, who has spent more than thirty years researching these languages on four continents and developing a controversial theory that explains why they are so similar to one another. A published novelist, Bickerton (once described as "part scholar, part swashbuckling man of action") does not present his findings in the usual dry academic manner. Instead, you become a companion on his journey of discovery. You learn things as he learned them, share his disappointments and triumphs, explore the exotic locales where he worked, and meet the colorful characters he encountered along the way. The result is 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.

Imprint Publisher

Hill and Wang



In The News

“One of the field's old lions, he has spent the last four decades studying pidgins and Creoles and writing a few novels on the side. A self-described macho "street linguist" for whom fieldwork is part pub crawl, Bickerton has a penchant for big ideas and a "total lack of respect for the respectable" that, judging from his new memoir, has put him at odds with bureaucrats and colleagues. "Bastard Tongues" is gossipy, vain and pugilistic--in other words, all the juicy things an academic memoir should be but too rarely is.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Bickerton has made transformative discoveries about the way we acquire language… The book is part memoir, part intellectual detective story and part linguistics primer. Bickerton is a spirited, clever writer, and the tripartite nature of the narrative suits him.” —The Los Angeles Times

“His intellectual enthusiasm is so contagious that many readers will find themselves sharing his indignation…the rebel in you can't help but warm to him.” —New Scientist

“Derek Bickerton is anything but your average P.hD.-toting scholar. His new book, Bastard Tongues, is anything but the typical work of academic non-fiction. Much too personal to be a strictly scholarly enterprise and steeped in theoretical jargon unusual for the quintessential memoir, Bastard Tongues is as uniquely brilliant as the mind that created it…. a fun and enjoyable read that can enrich your mind as well as fulfill your hunger for excitement and adventure.” —The Daily Texan

“Advancing a radical new linguistic theory, Bickerton detects in creoles not the dynamics of language transmission but rather the wellspring of language creation…. Bickerton's account of his travels fuses the excitement of travel literature with the substance of groundbreaking linguistics. A bold new perspective on human speech.” —Booklist

“Bickerton writes appealingly about his immersion into trying to figure out the initially baffling phrases scavenged from the various languages that contributed to the creoles he worked on.” —The Chronicle of Higher Education

“An intellectual journey.” —The Honolulu Star

“Passionate. . . Part memoir, part detective story and part adventure, this book is a journey into Derek Bickerton's life work studying creole languages spoken by descendants of slaves and indentured laborers in plantation colonies.” —The Post & Courier (Charleston)

“Derek Bickerton turns the tale of his life's work--the study of Creole languages--into a gripping adventure story. Language lovers will exult in his linguistic insights, but everyone will delight in the surprising twists and turns of his global quest for the answer to why Creoles are all so much alike.” —Deborah Tannen, author of You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation and You're Wearing THAT?: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation

“Bickerton bar-hops through some of the world's most exotic locations and languages, and somehow along the way he manages to crack one of the deepest mysteries of language itself. A fantastic and frank account of research in the real world.” —Christine Keneally, author of The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language

“Derek Bickerton is one of the great modern contributors to our understanding of language, and Bastard Tongues combines an intellectual detective story, a disarmingly frank autobiography, and a tale of adventures in exotic places. If you're curious about the origins of pidgins, Creoles, or indeed language itself, start here. If you already know Bickerton's ideas and want to know where they came from, this book is for you, too.” —Melvin Konner, author of The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit, revised edition

“Open the book at almost any page and you'll be drawn in by the exotic places, interesting people, and the unfolding detective story about how a new language gets started. There is nothing dry about linguistics when Derek is telling the story. It's a delight to read.” —William H. Calvin, author of Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change

“A fascinating memoir from one of the most innovative and literate linguists of our age.” —Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of The Language Instinct, Words and Rules, and The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature

About the Creators

Bastard Tongues

Bastard Tongues