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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

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The alienation you mention, I would think comes from not being able to share conventions, or rules, between peers, thus frustrating attempts to form emotional bonds and forge a community. Pidgins would be a remedy to this, rather than a cause.
If pidgins were truly an ad hoc, clumsy, syntaxless mess they would be indistinguishable from word salad, which they're not. Even pre-linguistic gestural communication has some structure, and in fact all the features you list as elements of UG are found in what Susan Goldin-Meadow calls the resilient properties of language, those that appear in attempts to communicate even when there is no linguistic input.

In both home signs and pre-linguistic gesture we find units that serve nominal, adjectival, or verbal functions (may be linked serially) arranged into predicate frames with markings for thematic roles such as subjects and objects; that communicate about the past, future, and even hypotheticals, relate narratives about the self and others and make metalinguistic references.

Starting with mutual eye gaze, people point to direct attention and establish shared topics, and use mimetic actions to add comments, resulting in a semantic frame of topic+comment that focuses attention on a complete predicate, and to which other elements can be added. Children express the elements of these predicate frames in habitual patterns, based first on semantics and later on distribution. Interacting with peers provides a cultural incentive to negotiate shared conventions that foster understanding, such as converging on certain word orders. If there is any pre-existing language in the environment, it provides a rich source of expressions to insert into these structures, which already exist: not in some nebulous language organ but in the human appetites for abstract thought and social bonding.

Throughout DB's book he keeps asking what the children create these languages out of. Obviously my answer is that he should look at language as the audiovisual object it really is. Whatever. This may be the best linguistics book I've ever read. It's not boring!


I haven't kept up on Bickerton's work lately nor do I have references at hand, but I felt like chiming in that the "its-the-children" argument tends to fall apart when you consider creoles which we can see congealing (e.g., Tok Pisin) and historical evidence on some of Bickerton's (former?) central cases, like Hawaiian Pidgin and other plantation systems where children were rarer than newly imported laborers.

He may be right that pidgins and creoles can tell us something about language cognition, but the case for a creole prototype has suffered a lot in the last decade, at least when it's stated more specifically than above (as McWhorter and others have attempted to do). The idea of monogenesis has fell from favor among creolists some time ago (at least so far as I've seen), but this was in part due to the variety of pidgins/creoles in the world.

If I can find those references this weekend, I may post them. Searching for Bickerton in a linguistics database will certainly find you no shortage of criticism.


Cases like ABSL and Nicaragua conclusively disprove Monogenesis—the idea that all human languages derive from a single ancestral language.
Nor did the children draw gestures from their speaking caretakers since the co-occurring speech of the caretakers imposes an entirely different structure than the linguistic organization the children invent.
Similarities in the co-occurring gestures that accompany all the world's spoken languages require explanation no less than similarities that exist amongst all new languages created when users---adults or child---are denied a common language. The perception/attention pathway pursued in this blog provides such.


Ack, I think I reached into my Scrabble bag and pulled out the wrong word entirely. I meant the single-origin hypothesis for the pidgins that emerged in the 16th through 19th centuries. Not monogenesis of all human languages. My mind is still blanking on what the correct term is.
BLOGGER: The only term I know for the single source of all human languages is the Mother Tongue Theory. But the critical issue for Bickerton is not the origin of pidgins, but the origins of Creoles. Were they created by separate groups of children (Bickerton's thesis) or are they all descended from a common Creole?


What common Creole could be ancestral to, for example, both Hawaiian Creole and Nicaraguan Sign Language?
BLOGGER: Obviously, none, but Bickerton had to devote much scholarly energy to the task of showing that, say, Hawaiian and Jamaican Creoles did not have a common ancestor.

Jesus Sanchis

From the point of view of mainstream Chomskyan linguistics, it seems that pidgins and creoles are seen as some kind of breaches in the normal image of languages as a perfectly organized set of rules. But that depends on how you look at it. Let's try to imagine pidgins and creoles not as the exception, but as the normal thing in language evolution. We live in the year 2008 and we know a lot about languages, grammatical rules, spelling rules, we know about grammar mistakes, verb forms, etc., but let's go back to a time when human societies had no sophisticated hierarchical structure or when there was no elite or domineering group telling the others how or what 'language' they had to speak. We see pidgins as something strange because they are really strange for us in the framework of our own modern sophisticated, highly-complex societies. But for many thousands of years, the mixture of languages was definitely a common phenomenon, and the most important factor in language evolution. Mario Alinei, the linguist who devised the Continuity Theory, talks about hybridization as the main reason for language change, and I think he's quite right. In my opinion, American linguists are far too obsessed with language rules. There's something more to this debate. Pidgins and creoles can definitely be seen from a radically different perspective. They may have a central role in linguistics, rather than a marginal one.


Also, from the standpoint of integrational linguistics, one might consider pidgin-like babble (nongrammatical, nonregularized, nonChomskian, and with lots of signic interaction) as the primordial soup from which language arose. Grammar, regularity, a fixed vocabulary, etc., are invented later. Which is also a way of saying perhaps that the notion that Indo-European was a "language" in the sense that Greek or Latin or English are languages is a retrospective fallacy, one more version of the hindsight bias.

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