Return to Fantasy Island: An embattled scholar still champions his dream experiment in language formation

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu May 22 15:26:27 UTC 2008
>>From the issue dated May 23, 2008

Return to Fantasy Island
An embattled scholar still champions his dream experiment in language


In 1976 the linguist Derek Bickerton was visited in Hawaii by a kindred
spirit, Talmy (Tom) Givon, a professor at UCLA. Neither was particularly
taken with the pleasantries of academe, and they bonded over their outre
status. Givon, an Israeli expat who had fought in the Suez War, in 1956,
once advertised his antagonism to the academy by showing up at a
linguistics conference garbed in a poncho and sombrero, with a Winchester
rifle in his pickup truck. Bickerton had backed his way into the
discipline after working at a string of other professions, landing at the
University of Guyana, and being immediately fascinated by the varieties of
creole English he found there.

As this pair of soi-disant renegades smoked pot while soaking up the
bucolic otherworldliness of Lanai's Mount Lanaihale, they talked about
Bickerton's theories of creole languages, particularly his idea that their
genesis  a long-contested issue within linguistics  provided a privileged
view on the essential, innate program of how basic mental structures work,
an empirical justification for Noam Chomsky's notions of universal
grammar. Indeed, if one could somehow create a creole, a language that
develops when speakers of multiple languages remain in contact with one
another, it might just prove the existence of such mental structures. In
this unlikely open-air seminar room, far above Lanai's fragrant pineapple
fields, Bickerton and Givon cooked up an experiment that is probably the
most notorious in the history of modern linguistics.

The proposed desert-island experiment, as it became known in linguistic
lore (somewhat misleadingly  it was actually planned for a small
western-Pacific atoll named Ngemelis, in the Palau islands), comprised a
three-year set of projects, the middle 12 months of which entailed having
six sets of parents, each hailing from an unrelated language family, live
and work together without exposure to any secondary tongue. Each pair
would be accompanied by their 2-year-old child, who at that age would be
just on the cusp at which kids effortlessly acquire their first language.
During the initial year of the experiment, Bickerton and his research
staff were to have taught the 12 adults a basic set of around 200 English
vocabulary words, like "head" and "fish." The third year would be taken up
with analyzing the data that resulted from these extreme conditions. And
the second, crucial year would be the crux of the experiment  when the
couples and their kids would gut it out in this crazy, linguistically
unstable (and physically demanding) environment.

If the research protocol sounds today like a reality-TV show run amok, the
proposal was all the more astonishing in the pre-Survivor days.
Remarkably, and to his surprise, as Bickerton recalls in his recently
published memoir, Bastard Tongues: A Trailblazing Linguist Finds Clues to
Our Common Humanity in the World's Lowliest Languages (Hill and Wang), the
plan got a green light from the University of Hawaii's Committee on Human
Experimentation. So in 1977 he sent off his proposal to the National
Science Foundation; a few months later, he learned that an NSF panel had
approved the project, with one caveat. An advisory board consisting of six
experts from psychology, anthropology, and isolation studies would have to
be drawn up before the foundation would sign off on the project, which
Bickerton was told was a "mere formality." It looked as though he would
soon embark on a project that he envisioned would unlock the secrets not
only of how creole languages are born but also of how language per se
comes into being.

Bickerton's theories about creole languages have been no less
controversial than his desert-atoll proposal. The subfield of creole
linguistics is a relatively youthful one, and Bickerton, 82, now emeritus
at Hawaii, has lived through its birth, adolescence, and maturity over the
past four decades. But the idea that languages like Haitian French and
Guyanese creole represent a curious and somehow unique linguistic
phenomenon has been around for the past two centuries. The generally
accepted account has been formulated around the initial contact and
intense interaction of groups of speakers representing more than two
unrelated (or only distantly related) languages. Such a sociolinguistic
environment is ripe for the emergence of a pidgin  a common language, as
syntactically stripped down as a birch in winter  to facilitate basic
communication among speakers who otherwise wouldn't be able to understand
one another. It is no coincidence that the creoles most frequently studied
emerged amid the horrors of Caribbean sugar plantations, when the massive
importation of slaves, speaking many African languages, found themselves
under the linguistic control of overlords speaking English, Spanish,
French, Portuguese, and Dutch.

It is from the development of a working pidgin that creole languages
emerge, as children who are at the age of language acquisition play among
themselves, are exposed to the pidgin, and learn it as their first
language. The macaronic, or mishmash, pidgin has an epiphenomenal
vocabulary (it's been called a "word salad") drawn from the contact
languages and based, in Bickerton's account, on the elegantly willy-nilly,
catch-as-catch-can logic endemic to any language. What the children who
were exposed to this macaronic pidgin developed from scratch were
brand-new syntactic structures.

In Bastard Tongues, he gives as an example the Guyanese creole sentence
"Look a red man a piss a road corner." Although the words seem familiarly
English, for the most part, he glosses the sentence as "Look, that white
guy is taking a leak on the side of the road." The first "a" in the
passage is a definite article, probably derived from "that"; the second
"a" is marker of aspect, indicating continuing action; the third "a" is a
preposition akin to "on." "Road corner," Bickerton writes, is a wonderful
euphemism made concrete as a noun phrase indicating "the side of the
road." How did "road corner" come to mean its opposite? He writes: "In the
oldest form of Guyanese, 'wissaid,' derived from 'which side,' was the
chosen form for [a question marker in speech, like "where"]. That meant
that 'side' could thereafter mean 'place' and only 'place' and therefore
could no longer mean 'side.' But something meaning 'side' still had to be
said, so they co-opted 'corner'; 'a road corner' now means 'by the side of
the road.'"

The lexicography of creoles is quite a bit of fun to think about  and
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. But much more important to him
was what was happening syntactically. He began to see formal similarities
among vastly different creoles. Whether they emerged in the fort
environments of the Indian Ocean or the plantation conditions of Guyana,
Haiti, and Suriname, they bore to his mind formal resemblances that he
believed could not be accounted for by the influences or lingering
presence of either native African or colonial languages. The grammatical
categories of tense and aspect, he reasoned, seemed to work similarly in
all creoles, regardless of what formal categories had existed in the
original contact languages. The macaronic recruitment of words from the
various languages in contact may have blunted how similar these systems
were; nonetheless, for all intents and purposes, they seemed weirdly,
interestingly equivalent. Could it be possible that creole syntactic
structures offered an on-the-ground glimpse of what was most fundamental
in language? Bickerton rolled the dice in his research proposal, thinking,
against the odds, that that might be so. Initially at least, he threw a

Bickerton's theoretical understanding of creole languages was undergirded
by an understanding of them as "exceptionalist." These were liminal
languages, borderline even when it came to their status as a "language."
In that sense, they were like the peculiar languages spoken by wild
children who, in classical European tales, had grown up orphaned in the
wilderness, and who had learned to speak only at age 12 after being raised
by wolves. Such languages don't don the fancy clothes of English or Latin
or German or Sanskrit, but are somehow closer to the naked structures of
early language as our ancestors took the babbling baby steps of nascent
communication. As such, they offered a privileged window on how language
came into being, a vantage point that had long disappeared with most

When I asked Michel DeGraff, who specializes in creole linguistics at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (and who himself is a native speaker
of Haitian French), what he thought about Bickerton's memoir, he was a bit
nonplussed. He wrote by e-mail: "Bickerton is 'blazing trails' in his own
imagined community of scholars. He keeps repeating the old dogma that
'creoles spring pure and clear from the very fountain of language, and
their emergence, through all the horrors of slavery, represents a triumph
of all that's strongest and most enduring in the human spirit' and (as if
that were a compliment) that the 'convoluted recesses [of noncreole
languages] facilitate lying and deceit.'" According to DeGraff, who
squared off against Bickerton in 2004 in Language, the journal of the
Linguistic Society of America, over the extent to which creole languages
offered an "exceptionalist" paradigm for understanding how language
emerges, Bickerton invokes a Rousseauvian myth of noble savages, of
primitivism posed against the debauched and overly self-consciously
codified speech of civilized men.

I asked Bickerton what he thought of that takedown, and he wrote back via
e-mail: "It's nonsense to claim that I 'invoke Rousseauvian myths' and so
forth. This is just a rhetorical smoke screen to cover the weakness in
DeGraff's own position." He continued: "All I do is set forth the only
possible explanation for why creole languages are as similar to one
another as they are: that they are using what DeGraff, as an MIT man,
might be happier to call the default parameter settings of universal
grammar. Nothing DeGraff has ever written has even tried to explain these
similarities, yet since the 1880s they have been recognized as the most
salient feature of creole languages." The question, though, of whether
Bickerton's work is indeed trailblazing or a capitulation to 19th-century
assumptions about what creole languages represented is one that can't be
separated, ultimately, from his research, or from the way his work is
received. The question itself is polarizing.

The anthropological linguist Michael Silverstein, of the University of
Chicago, dismissed Bickerton's "bioprogrammatic" ideas by calling him the
"P.T. Barnum of linguistics," and DeGraff scoffed at the notion that
Bickerton's ideas were even original: "Bickerton's idea that, among all of
the world's languages, creoles are closest to the evolutionary roots of
human language is not at all new. The basic idea was already published in
1872 by Auguste de Saint-Quentin, a 19th-century amateur linguist in
Guyana who wrote that creole grammar is 'a spontaneous product of the
human mind, freed from any kind of intellectual culture.' Intoxicated by
his studies, he wrote of its 'rigor and simplicity' such that 'one wonders
if the creative genius of the most knowledgeable linguists would have been
able to give birth to anything that so completely reaches its goal, that
imposes so little strain on memory and that calls for so little effort
from those with limited intelligence.'"

Just after his proposal for the atoll experiment had seemingly been
accepted by the National Science Foundation, Bickerton started to hear
negative responses to the proposed experiment. John Lynch, for example, a
professor of language in Papua New Guinea, had this to say: "The project
is unethical, racist, and exploitative, particularly given the fact that
the subjects are to be from areas with little or no contact with the
Western world.  One staff member summed it up very succinctly: The Pacific
is not a cultural zoo." Still, as Bickerton writes in Bastard Tongues, he
expected after the fait-accompli note from the NSF that the sailing would
be smooth.

He was mistaken. The NSF's flags turned red, and as the advisory board met
with Bickerton in Colorado, layer after layer of the experiment met with
serious objections and reservations. Ward Goodenough, an anthropologist
who specialized in Polynesian cultures and is now a professor emeritus at
the University of Pennsylvania, became the most critical member of the
committee. "At first I was quite enthusiastic about the idea," he said in
a recent telephone interview. "My wife was with me at our second meeting,
and she pointed out to me some things that made me reconsider the whole
business. The thesis was a recipe for serious trouble." Goodenough called
Bickerton "an interesting man, full of ideas," but said the idea of
graduate students' overseeing human subjects in such a difficult and
arduous experiment was dangerous. "You could see it would blow up in their
faces. They had no sensitivity to the human aspects of it." When
Goodenough argued his position in front of the committee, he quickly
persuaded it to recommend that the NSF turn down the experiment as
originally proposed.

By the time the advisory committee was done, Bickerton saw his Defoe-like
foray into the roots of language in tatters: Rather than the Asians and
rural Pacific Islanders he saw as research subjects, the board required
subjects from developed countries. No children would be involved. The
experiment could last no longer than three months, and it had to take
place in the continental United States. Facing those restrictions,
Bickerton writes, "Tom and I came independently to the same conclusion:
Screw it." He wrote a novel (about a man who sheds his humanity to speak
with dolphins) to make up for the lost income the NSF would have provided,
and he resigned himself to the fact that his experiment was unlikely ever
to see the sunlight. Much of Bastard Tongues is given bitterly over to his
barely suppressed anger that what he sees as a groundbreaking social work
of scientific research was torpedoed by the politically correct,
paternalistic, child-coddling bias of his peers.

Suspending judgment about the ethical concerns of this linguistic
approximation of Biosphere 2, what might Bickerton's proposed experiment
have yielded? He thinks that we might have masses of data to sift through
raw information delivered up pristinely, about everything from the
creation of pidgins to the sociolinguistic parameters of hierarchy,
information that the discipline rarely has access to. Others are doubtful
even about that. In a phone interview, Silverstein characterizes the
desert-atoll petri dish as an "ancient one  to see what language, if any,
springs from nothing," but he believes it was a flawed attempt to map a
purely theoretical idealization onto a set of empirical circumstances.
"Chomsky's notion of the emergence of language ex niholo," Silverstein
says, "is based on instantaneous learning; Bickerton was committing the
fallacy of trying to calibrate an idealization within a real-life
situation." Crucially, isolating language from a set of social dynamics is
impossible, he says: "Bickerton's notion of communication is a very
impoverished one. It took absolutely nothing into account of the nature of
social action (asymmetry, dominance, etc.)." For most anthropological
linguists, unembedding language from its social and cultural context, and
studying it in isolation, is simply a misrepresentation of what language
ultimately is.

DeGraff says that "the sociolinguistic profiles of Caribbean colonies at
the time of creole formation were not at all similar to that of the
'desert islands' Bickerton's dreamed of for his experiment. Any result
from the latter would have little to say about the emergence of creole
languages. What we've learned from linguists and historians who are better
informed of the socioeconomic history of the Caribbean is that when
Haitian creole, say, was taking shape, the Africans and their descendants
in Saint-Domingue (that is, colonial Haiti) had much greater exposure to
French and their ancestral languages than Bickerton's conjecture would
permit." Much of Bickerton's thinking, DeGraff says, is based on a false
sense of a blackboard-erasing moment attendant to the conditions of
slavery, a moment when linguistic anarchy reigned. "The fact that many
Africans in the colonial Caribbean, especially those in daily contact with
the European colonists, could speak full-fledged varieties of European
languages has been richly documented  in first-hand colonial reports," he
notes. "We learn from them that there were Africans in Saint-Domingue who
were quite fluent in French, so fluent that they were deemed capable of
teaching French to some of the French-born illiterate patois speakers who
came to the colony from far-flung provinces."

Bickerton argues for the "exceptionalism" of creole languages by citing
peculiar syntactic phenomena like serial verbs, which are absent in the
languages in contact. Still, DeGraff argues that the sociohistorical facts
of, say, Haitian creole are consistent with the linguistic evidence. "In
Bickerton's scenario, the grammatical structures of creole languages are
created almost exclusively by some innate 'language bioprogram.' For him,
this has to be so because the linguistic input  actually, the 'linguistic
scraps' available  to the first creole speakers came almost exclusively
from a pidgin. The latter, for Bickerton, is virtually a linguistic tabula
rasa, with little structure, if any; thus the 'scraps.'"

"In such a scenario," DeGraff continues, "we would expect that a creole
language such as Haitian creole would have created its grammatical
structures and word stock, including its affixes [the additions to the
front and back of words, like "-ed" or "-s" in English, that signify tense
or plurality or aspect], from mostly the precedent pidgin's linguistic
scraps, with almost no structures retained from the varieties of French
and African languages spoken in colonial Haiti. Yet the linguistic
evidence cries out loud and clear to the contrary: For example, it is well
documented that there are quite a few syntactic patterns in Haitian creole
that are derived from the ancestral African languages, and by and large
the lexical materials of Haitian creole, including most of its prefixes
and suffixes, have been selected from French. This is particularly
striking in the case of affixes which are claimed, in Bickerton's
scenario, to be virtually nonexistent in the pidgin. In this scenario, the
presence of French-derived affixes in Haitian creole would be a complete
mystery, as they would not have been available in the impoverished pidgin
that putatively preceded it."

Regardless of such criticisms, Bickerton ends Bastard Tongues by proposing
the desert-island experiment again, in a new setting: among South American
orphans, or even in a large American city, among recent immigrants in a
day-care-center-cum-language-lab. He still believes that performing the
experiment is necessary for understanding the origins of creoles: "You
pays your money and you takes your choice, as the amusement-stall barkers
used to say in the old country," he writes. "Either way, the results would
tell us something about the human brain that we couldn't learn any other
way." This time, though, he argues that anybody willing to execute the
experiment should bypass federal support and go straight to someone in the
private sector. If television executives can put on Kid Nation, placing
children in a survival-of-the-fittest contest in a ghost town, maybe it's
not such a reach.

Eric Banks, a former editor of Bookforum, is a writer in New York. Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 54, Issue 37,
Page B7


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