Mar 19, 2008, 09:30AM

BOOK REVIEW: Bastard Tongues by Derek Bickerton

A linguist recounts his personal search for the origins of language, getting lost in cobbled together creole languages along the way. From The Daily Texan.

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.

Spoken by some of the most impoverished and oppressed peoples in the world, Creole languages (called "bastard tongues" because they are hodge-podge mixes of multiple other languages) are often regarded by the linguistic community as "simple," "unsophisticated" and "low." On his quest to understand how language originated, Bickerton finds that as the proud "legitimate" children of Latin and Anglo-Saxon origins uncomfortably look down their noses at "bastard tongues" for their uncouth sounds and straight-to-the-point grammar, Creoles are actually "the purest expression we know of the human capacity for language."

As Bickerton recounts his jet- setting adventures across the world in search of evidence, he also gives readers an inside view of the arcane hypocrisy of higher education (with its herd tendencies and unnecessary dog-and-pony show traditions). His blistering critique of the "coddled members" of academia is, at once, insightful and hilarious.

What makes this book accessible to those outside the linguistic academic community is the fact that Bickerton feeds readers his theory in small spoonfuls and with lots of humorous sugar. This incremental method reels you in to feel the same kind of personal investment and wonder that Bickerton must have experienced the first time through. An underdog story of an eccentric scholar and his passion for an eclectic body of languages, "Bastard Tongues" is a fun and enjoyable read that can enrich your mind as well as fulfill your hunger for excitement and adventure.


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