A linguistic island experiment

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KATY CLARK: I'm Katy Clark. This is The World. In order to prove a theory, you need a scientifically controlled environment, a lab. Derek Bickerton's ideal lab is an island. Bickerton is a linguist. Throughout his life, he's lived on many islands studying creole languages. Creoles are hybrids that come into being when people who speak different languages live side by side. Slavery and colonization created many creoles in regions like the Caribbean. So creoles and islands kind of go together. Derek Bickerton has written a memoir of his adventures with creoles. It's called �Bastard Tongues� and it's just out in paperback. One episode in the book is as notorious in linguistic circles as it is entertaining. Here's The World's Patrick Cox.

PATRICK COX: A few decades ago, Derek Bickerton developed a big theory. It's based on this:

DEREK BICKERTON: When people of different linguistic backgrounds are brought together without a common language, they have to improvise.

COX: And so, says Bickerton, they string together words they recognize in each other's language. Over time, they develop a form of communication.

BICKERTON: There's no structure to it.

COX: Just short, broken sentences.

BICKERTON: Very slowly uttered sentences because people are searching for words.

COX: This might have been heard on sugar plantations in the 18th century, when Europeans and African slaves needed to communicate. Linguists call this makeshift form of speech a pidgin. Now for Bickerton's big theory:

BICKERTON: When the children of these 1st generation immigrants begin to learn the pidgin, they transform it. They turn it immediately into a full, natural language.

COX: �Immediately.� That's the key word, the controversial word. It's generally accepted that children have the ability to speak a language hard-wired into their brains, but Bickerton takes that a step further. Under his theory, a child's innate ability to develop grammar kicks in even in the absence of grammar � and it kicks in immediately. Well, the theory needed proof. It needed a lab, it needed guinea pigs; guinea pigs who, at the start of the experiment spoke a pidgin and by the end of it might speak something more sophisticated and structured � or at least their children might. Now, as a theorist, Derek Bickerton has always prided himself on thinking outside of the box � so far outside, in fact, that the box is sometimes out of sight. In 1976, he and a like-minded colleague were on a camping trip on the Hawaiian island of Lanai. That's where they dreamed up their experiment. Here's how Bickerton describes this moment in his memoir.

BICKERTON: Over an open fire, in the wee of Mount Lanai-Holly, smoking some of Hawaii's most profitable crop, we discussed how we might test my theory empirically. Suppose we found an uninhabited island. Suppose we brought in speakers of six different, unrelated, mutually unintelligible languages together with their children. Suppose we gave them a starter language, a vocabulary of a few hundred words � just words, without any grammar � so they can communicate with one another. And suppose they stayed there for three years or so. What would happen? My prediction was that the adults would create a pidgin and the children would convert it into a creole. We looked at one another in the firelight. Should we go for it? Yeah, let's do it.

COX: Amazingly, the two linguists got the thumbs up from the University of Hawaii to plan their experiment. To fund it, they applied to the National Science Foundation. Bickerton also went in search of his uninhabited island, and he found it not far from the Philippines, in the archipelago of Palau.

BICKERTON: A beautiful little desert island about a mile long and a quarter mile wide.

COX: Just to make sure, Bickerton spent 36 hours on this island, alone.

BICKERTON: I nearly got swept out to sea once, when I crossed the channel and tide was running out of the lagoon to the Pacific Ocean.

COX: That aside, the island was perfect. There even appeared to be a spring.

BICKERTON: There was brackish water, a sort of marshland in one corner of the island that would have made, oh, an excellent little farm where we could have fed ourselves and so forth. And of course there were plenty of coconuts.

COX: You might have noticed he said �we.� Bickerton intended to stay on the island with his linguistic guinea pigs, along with a team of researchers. And the participants themselves? Six families, each speaking their own language.


COX: Now, those particular languages would have been too mainstream for Bickerton. He wanted his participants to speak minority languages from places like Borneo and Papua New Guinea. But of course, most of the focus would be on the children.

COX: Ideally, some of the kids would be even younger. Would these infants end up linguistically leapfrogging their parents? Would they come up with a richer vocabulary and grammar. Or would the development of a creole take longer than a single generation, as many linguists in the field believed? Bickerton was certain his study would provide an answer, so long of course as the National Science Foundation provided the money that he had applied for.

BICKERTON: The thing was going through very smoothly. I was in fact daily awaiting the final signoff when suddenly we got this message from the highest levels we had to suspend it.

COX: Bickerton believes that at the last moment, one of his critics got to the National Science Foundation. But even back in the 1970s, when social experiments were more commonplace, Bickerton's proposal had raised eyebrows. For sure, he could have gotten the consent of 6 families to live together on an island for 3 years. But truly informed consent?

MICHAEL ERARD: There's no way that you could fully inform individuals about what exactly would happen to them socially and psychologically over that course of time.

COX: This is author Michael Erard, who writes on language issues. He understands why Bickerton's experiment was ultimately blocked. But a part of him would have liked to have seen it go ahead. This one had it all.

ERARD: In a sort of Lord of The Flies, a sort of linguistic Lord of The Flies way.

COX: Lord of The Flies, Robinson Crusoe, and of course those Survivor-type reality shows. The idea of Bickerton's experiment mines a rich vein of the imagination. And how about a movie adaptation of the project? It would have to start, says Michael Erard, with Bickerton and his sidekick dreaming up their experiment.
ERARD: Owen Wilson would play Derek Bickerton and � no, Owen Wilson would play the other guy. Who would play Derek Bickerton? Jim Carrey. It'd be like a Jim Carrey and Owen Wilson vehicle, the two professors coming up with some wacky idea around a campfire, stoned out of their gourds.

COX: Of course, when things got a bit slow on the island, Hollywood might take liberties.

ERARD: I mean, you'd probably have to end it with an encounter with some otherwise unknown creature that also inhabits the island at the same time. Or you'd have to end it them stumbling upon this portal into another dimension or something like that.

COX: Okay, maybe not such a good idea. Strangely, Bickerton himself has never played out his experiment in print. Strange because he also wrote novels on the side, but they were fantasies � and he never liked to think of his island project that way. He is left with this thought.

BICKERTON: Nothing really can take the place of a controlled experiment. I don't think that you can ever get any kind of certainty of exactly what the human brain is capable of language-wise until you can somehow control the input to that brain.

COX: Derek Bickerton knows that these days, no government agency or university would fund his idea. So who would? Bickerton thinks maybe only a retired billionaire, who wouldn't care about the public outcry. But that's a long shot � and perhaps just as well. The puzzle of how creoles � these island languages � have evolved may just have to remain a puzzle. For The World, I'm Patrick Cox.

CLARK: We cover many stories on languages, from Arabic to Zulu. You can hear them on our podcast, �The World In Words�. You'll also hear segments on political speech, raising kids bilingually, and a weekly segment on untranslatable foreign words. It's all at theworld.org/language.