In a sense, though, Bickerton’s wanderings were perfect preparation for the island experiment. They taught him and his family self- reliance, and they exposed him to several of the creole languages to which he would return later as a scholar. In fact, Bickerton’s much-delayed experiment is actually a miniaturized, humane version of the social experiment that engendered the world’s 100 or so creoles.
These experimenters were motivated by money, not curiosity. They were the owners of colonial plantations throughout the tropics who needed to import laborers (often slaves in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, contract workers in the nineteenth). These immigrants spoke languages as different from one another as German is from Chinese, and it often happened that no one group was numerous enough to impose its language on the others. For example, records show that the 65 slaves of a plantation in French Guiana in 1695 spoke 12 different languages.
Under such circumstances people rapidly developed pidgin--a form of speech with a limited vocabulary and little or no grammar. For example, to express the thought, They put the body in the ground and covered it with a blanket, and that’s all, a Hawaiian pidgin speaker Bickerton once taped said, Inside dirt and cover and blanket, finish.
Plantation workers got along well enough speaking like this in the fields, and they could usually fall back on their native languages at home. But as time passed, Bickerton believes, pidgin speakers’ children learned it as the real language. Even at home, Bickerton says, they didn’t necessarily have parents who spoke the same language. In Hawaii, for instance, there’s a word, four-blood, for someone whose grandparents each came from a separate ethnic group. Building on an inadequate form of speech, children expanded the pidgin, providing grammar even though there were no adult speakers to guide them. Within one generation, says Bickerton, pidgins changed into fully grammatical creoles.
Pidgins and their creole offspring took much of their vocabulary from the languages of those who gave orders; hence it was easy for contemptuous Europeans to describe the new tongues as ramshackle versions of true languages. Broken English, nigger French, and bastard Portuguese were common terms in the last century. That attitude taints creoles still, but Bickerton insists it’s a misconception. It’s true that creoles got much of their vocabulary from European languages, but they combined those words using entirely different rules. For example, the creole spoken today in the South American country of Guyana got many of its words from English. But, says Bickerton, you cannot say in English, ‘Is weary, I weary.’ In Guyanese creole, though, that’s perfectly acceptable. It means, ‘Gee, I’m real tired.’ So in this creole structure, you’ve got English words arranged in a way that no English speaker would arrange them.
It’s just this hybrid quality that makes creoles unpopular among linguists. The new languages, created where cultures overlap, are messy. A paper stating that a particular point of grammar comes from an African language will likely be met by a reply that no, it really comes from Portuguese. Settling the matter can require forgoing diagrammed sentences on the blackboard for a look at aging slave-ship manifests and crumbling nineteenth-century newspapers. (Bickerton particularly favors accounts of trials, with their word-for-word reproduction of creole testimony.) Not surprisingly, many linguists, especially those who plumb the mysteries of grammar, prefer to work with languages that have clearer pedigrees.
Bickerton began his professional research at the University of Guyana in the late 1960s, studying different varieties of Guyanese creole. In 1972, however, he moved to the University of Hawaii to investigate a younger creole. Still alive on the Hawaiian islands were adults who recalled and used their childhood pidgin. In 1973 and 1974 Bickerton and a team of five graduate students recorded some 250 hours of Hawaiian speech and generated thousands of pages of transcripts. Then they combed through this record, doing the grunt work of theoretical linguistics: looking for regularities and devising rules to account for them.
As the analysis progressed, Bickerton was deeply impressed by how much Hawaiian creole English, born in the late nineteenth century among Asian and American immigrants, had in common with Caribbean creoles, born two centuries earlier among Africans. It sent him back to the long-noted but unexplained fact that the rules of creoles the world over, while not similar to those of their supposed source languages, are similar to one another.
For example, creoles distinguish between accomplished and unaccomplished actions, so that a Jamaican saying the equivalent of He went to wash must say either Him gone for bathe, meaning he went with the intention to wash, or Him gone go bathe, meaning he went to wash and completed that act. In the same way that an English speaker cannot talk about bathing without putting that act in the past, present, or future, the Jamaican speaker cannot complete this sentence without indicating whether the action was accomplished. Creoles the world over, Bickerton noticed, whether based on English, Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese, or Arabic, maintain this distinction.
There are many other similarities. Creoles are friendly to the double negative: No dog didn’t bite no cat. Creoles decline to invert word order after a where or when question, saying, Where you are going? instead of Where are you going? And they use adjectives as verbs, as in I going full Angela bucket, which is perfectly grammatical Guyanese creole.
Bickerton began to wonder if these striking similarities, which seem to have popped up independently all over the world, might reflect some innate, universal properties involved in human language making. I thought if that’s true, then children should produce creolelike phenomena in the course of learning, he says. So I went into the library and pulled out pretty well everything in sight on child language. And I found some grist for my mill.
There was, for example, a study conducted at the University of Minnesota in the 1970s, in which young children were asked to complete a series of partial sentences all structured so that finishing each correctly required an understanding of the distinction between specific and nonspecific references. For example, John read a book yesterday, and he enjoyed _____ is completed by the book, not a book. To the researchers’ surprise, three-year-olds who took the test succeeded 90 percent of the time in making such distinctions between nonspecific and specific. This was odd, because English grammar doesn’t highlight the distinction; it’s not obvious when the or a is called for (and adults learning English often stumble on this point). But creole grammars do highlight the distinction. I thought, well, eureka, Bickerton says.
He knew that children speaking creole would automatically look for ways to distinguish a book and the book (in words of their own language) because the distinction is built into the structure of creoles. Hawaiian creole, for example, has a slot before nouns that speakers leave empty for nonspecific references but fill when making a specific reference. One Hawaiian that Bickerton taped said, Me, I get rash, meaning As for me, I get rashes (nonspecific). When referring to a particular ailment, the same speaker might say, I get one rash, filling the slot before rash. Whether they fill the slot or not, Bickerton explains, creole speakers know it is there. The unfilled spot is the grammatical equivalent of zero--a silent placeholder that signifies this is nonspecific as surely as the word one signifies this is specific. And the distinction that creole speakers make is the same one the Minnesota children were expressing by using a and the.