Ok, my goal for this year is to make like the snake (who we all know is nature’s quitter, and if you can source that quote for me I’ll kiss you on the mouth [Ed. *kisses Hawkeyegirl on the mouth*]) more often, and so I definitely dnf this bastard (see what I did there?).
And the thing is, I love me some linguistics. I am a linguisti-nerd. What I don’t love is an oversized fratboy. Bickerton is a grown man (like, really grown. Almost oldish) who describes himself as having ‘a taste for low life and scatological humor, and a total lack of respect for the respectable.’ I felt like I was hanging out with twelve-year-olds.
Ostensibly Bastard Tongues is about the great language debate between whether we are born blank language slates, or whether we have some sort of common language-structure that just needs a bit of vocabulary hung on it. Bickerton poked around in the skeeviest of bars to find the obscurest of pidgins and Creoles (the ‘fake-language’ that two people who don’t speak the same language make up so that they can communicate, and then the ‘real-language’ that emerges when children learn a pidgin as their first language) and found out that they were all kind of the same, regardless of having originated thousands of miles apart. On islands. I know this sounds terribly dry, but this is a total linguistic hot potato. CONTROVERSY!!
And the thing would have been interesting (with a very loose definition of ‘interesting’) if Bickerton weren’t so set on communicating what a badass he is. He’ll deviate from his story constantly to talk about why his various ideas were rejected, and how stuck in the mud all other linguists are, and how idiotic their ideas are, and it’s always personal. It’s all ‘because they totally don’t get my shit, and what a rebel I am and how innovative and junk I’m being,’ never because new ideas need to be poked and prodded from all angles before they’re fit to walk around.
To his credit, he’d come up with this hilarious idea to see make his own pidgin by taking six couples speaking six different languages and CHUCKING THEM ON AN ISLAND TOGETHER FOR A YEAR. Obviously the People for the Humane Treatment of Other People, or whoever, had a field day with this, and there were rolls of red tape, and if I get a sense of Bickerton it’s that he’s not awesome at letting people take pot shots at him and just chugging through the red tape for the sake of the research, so the project never happened.
I mean, this is a man who’s concept of peer reviewing is that its your colleagues trashing your work if they don’t like you, and giving it a thumbs up if you’re pals. Which obviously happens in any system, but this smacks of a man who always gets picked last.
So a large part of the book ends up being a vehicle for Bickerton to attack those who have slighted him/cheated him/given him the cut-eye on the subway. Sort of as a tag to one of his rollicking stories, he’s all And then the publisher never gave me any money and then my wife tore a new one in his wife and I got a couple grand and then it turns out he cheated a bunch of other people and I could have sued him, but I’m bigger than that. I’m a linguist.
And, ok, maybe this is just me. But at one point he’s describing these ‘two very beautiful’ grad students who were staying with he and his wife (does this sound problematic yet?) and then mentions how Laura, ‘the sexier of the two’ did something something something I forget, because how inappropriate is that? If my husband invited two beautiful grad students to live with us, I’d have a fit, and if he mentioned in his book how he did this thing, I’d have an even bigger fit, and if I were the other grad student who isn’t Laura, I’d have his balls. Even if I was Laura, I’d probably be all, WTF man! And as far as I can tell, the whole point of this anecdote is to be all, And then my good buddy Tom showed up to do some important linguistic stuff with me, but Laura romped him good! We got stuff done anyways.
So here I am, 46 pages from the end. And I got stuff to do. I will not read your last 46 pages, Derek Bickerton, because I’m bigger than that. But I will give you a teensy handful of caterpillars, because I’m not that big.