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Works by Derek Bickerton

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Common Knowledge

Date of death
Bebington, Cheshire, England, UK
Places of residence
Manoa, Hawaii, USA
University of Cambridge
Bickerton, Ashley (offspring)



It's generally much easier to learn something new when you haven't already decided that it's all wrong.

The premise of this book is that human beings have a built in "bioprogram" that they use to construct a language. To try to explain how this works, if groups of people who have no common language encounter each other, they at first speak to each other in a "pidgin" -- a system in which words from multiple source languages are used for various words. So a pidgin made by French and German speakers might call a dog a "hund" (German) but a cat a "chatte" (French). You've probably met pseudo-pidgins in TV shows about non-English speakers -- they will say something like "me go store" for "I am going to the store" -- but also for "Should I go to the store?" and "I went to the store" and "I will go to the store." Pidgins have little grammar and rarely allow nuanced communication, lacking, e.g., such things as details of time (usually determined by verb tense, which are an aspect of grammar, not vocabulary).

Because pidgins are so limited in their ability to communicate, some people (very often the children of the original pidgin speakers) gradually add a grammar to turn a pidgin into a creole -- a complete language. So far, so good; most linguists agree on this point. What's more, very many if not most agree that there is a bioprogram (that is, a built-in set of brain routines) for learning language -- it's how children pick them up. It is likely, although it has not been shown as far as I know, that this bioprogram only encompasses certain language features. (As support I note that crows and ravens have an amazingly complex set of vocalizations that clearly are designed to convey detailed information, but humans can't seem to figure out crow speech -- it requires a different bioprogram. What happens if we meet true aliens I don't know -- for all we know, they're trying to talk to us every day but we don't even realize that what they are doing is attempting to communicate.)

Author Bickerton goes beyond that basic bioprogram. In studying a series of creoles, he noted a series of common grammatical features -- features not found in the languages which were the source language of the creoles; they must have been added by those who made the creoles rather than coming from the source languages. He therefore argues that the grammar in the creoles was, in effect, inherent in the bioprogram. So, e.g., our brains are built so that we know and understand serial verbs (a series of verbs which have a collective meaning), verb tenses, and verb aspects (involving things such as whether an action takes place at a moment in time or over time, and whether it still continues). A creole, which forms in isolation, will involve these features.

That a creole can involve these aspects is certain; Bickerton's evidence is sufficient to prove that. But there is a huge problem which Bickerton merely waves his hand at: If our brains are designed to do grammar in a certain way, why are there so many languages that don't have them? Why doesn't English have an aorist tense (action that took place at a particular time)? Why is the subjunctive dying? And why, for pity's sake, is it so hard to learn a foreign language once one is past the age of four? I know an adequate vocabulary of about four or five languages. I speak one, because grammar is frankly really, really hard. If all these things are built into our brains, every language should use the same grammar and it should never degenerate! I simply find Bickerton's thesis completely incredible.

Of course, that doesn't make Bickerton wrong. He certainly knows more about language than I do. The problem is, he also knows more about language than there is to be known. This is a book written by someone who is certain he knows everything (about language, politics, and everything else), and it shows. He is incredibly sarcastic about those who disagree with him, showing no respect to conventional wisdom or those who came before him. It is (to me) extremely off-putting -- and, worse, it seems to imply a person who will ignore anything that goes contrary to his thesis. And there is a lot of evidence contrary to his thesis. Enough to destroy it? I don't know. I won't know until I can talk it over with someone who is willing to listen to those who disagree with him. In other words, not Derek Bickerton.
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4 vote
waltzmn | 3 other reviews | Jun 27, 2017 |
It's remotely possible Bickerton's on to something, but he sure wasn't able to make it clear or convincing here.  In fact, I gave up at p. 42 because of all the illogical claims and dismissals of others' work.  This was published in 2009; I'll wait a couple of more years and see if any of these ideas have gotten sorted out.  
Cheryl_in_CC_NV | 3 other reviews | Jun 5, 2016 |
This book is GREAT! It's written in a quick-witted, casual style that is intelligent and doesn't simplify linguistic details too much for the sake of the lay-reader. It's an adventure story, a safari, a vacation, a dive into the linguistic 'bioprogram' we just may all have in our brains...
amaraduende | 3 other reviews | Mar 30, 2013 |
Wow, this book was fantastic. Explaining how man aquired language, has been deemed the hardest question in science, and I have often wondered how language evolved in mankind? How can we even think without words? Bickerton answers many of these questions, and the theory he puts forth is well thought out and presented. I can now, at least, ask intelligent questions about the evolution of language in the third chimpanzee. The construction of ecological niches as "the new grand truth" for the theory of language evolution was pure genius. It seems to fill the gap that had been missing. Derek Bickerton's expertise details why earlier attempts to solve the language problem have fallen short. If you have an interest in language developmen,t this is a MUST read, and if you can make the time, let me know what you thought.

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1 vote
robrod1 | 3 other reviews | Nov 8, 2012 |



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