Derek Bickerton (born March 25, 1926) is a linguist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. Based on his work in creole languages in Guyana and Hawaii, he has proposed that the features of creole languages provide powerful insights into the development of language both by individuals and as a feature of the human species. He is the originator and main proponent of the language bioprogram hypothesis according to which the similarity of creoles is due to their being formed from a prior pidgin by children who all share a universal human innate grammar capacity.
A graduate of the University of Cambridge, England in 1949, Derek Bickerton entered academic life in the 1960s, first as a lecturer in English Literature at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana, and then, after a year's postgraduate work in linguistics at the University of Leeds, as Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at the University of Guyana (1967–71). For twenty-four years he was a Professor of Linguistics at the University of Hawaii, having meanwhile received a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Cambridge (1976).
To answer questions about creole formation, in the late 1970s Bickerton proposed an experiment that involves marooning on an island six couples speaking six different languages, along with children too young to have acquired their parents’ languages. The NSF deemed the proposed experiment unethical and refused to fund it.
In his book Roots of Language (1981), Bickerton speculates on a theory to answer three questions:
- How did creole languages originate?
- How do children acquire language?
- How did the language faculty originate as a feature of the human species?
In Language and Species (1990), he suggests that all three questions might be answered by postulating that the origin of language can be traced to the evolution of representation systems and symbolic thinking, together with a later development of formal syntax. Using primitive communication faculties, which then evolved in parallel, mental models became shared representations subject to cultural evolution. In Lingua ex Machina (2000) he and William Calvin revise this speculative theory by considering the biological foundations of symbolic representation and their influence on the evolution of the brain.
In his memoir Bastard Tongues (2008), he describes himself as a "street linguist" who emphasizes field work, with a "total lack of respect for the respectable", and he outlines his theories for a general audience.
In Adam’s Tongue (2009), he makes an argument for the origin of language with niche construction as the catalyst. He claims that human language is not on a continuum from an animal communication system but is a separate entity entirely. Animal communication systems (or ACSs) only convey information that relates to individual survival, mating and reproduction, and social signals. Yet above all, an ACS only acts to coerce others within the species and cannot be removed from the present circumstances. Human language on the other hand is capable of displacement.
Bickerton argues that niche construction by early man allowed this breakthrough from an ACS into language. He cites the fact that around two million years ago our ancestors had found their way to the top of the scavenging pyramid, and were accessing the carcasses of megafauna before any other predators had a chance at it. They had moved into the high-end scavenging niche. This was a niche that required the cooperation of all the early humans in a group. By imitating an animal, like a mammoth, one could attempt to convince others to follow them to the body - a large source of meat. Granted, imitation is iconic (while language is symbolic), but these instances were an act of displacement in communication since the body could be miles away and discovered hours earlier. Over time, the sounds signifying something like a mammoth would be decontextualized and come to resemble something much more closely resembling a word. Displacement, he claims, is the breakthrough that leads to language.
He claims that these words allowed the formation of concepts (rather than simply categories that animals are also capable of). Words began as the anchors for sensory information and memories about a specific animal or object. Once the brain had words it could create concepts which came together as a 'protolanguage'. The protolanguage remained much like a pidgin for a million years or more, eventually it went from the “beads-on-a-string” model of speech to a hierarchical structure through Merge.
- Tropicana, A Novel., 1963
- Dynamics Of A Creole System, 1975
- Bickerton, Derek (1981). Roots of Language. Karoma Publishers. ISBN 0-89720-044-6.
- Bickerton, Derek, (1984). The language bioprogram hypothesis, in: Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 7, 173-221.
- Bickerton, Derek (1990). Language and Species. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-04610-9.
- Language and Human Behavior, 1995
- Lingua ex Machina: Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain, 2000 (co-author with William H. Calvin)
- Bickerton, Derek (2008). Bastard Tongues. Hill and Wang. ISBN 0-8090-2817-4.
- Bickerton, Derek (2009). Adam's Tongue. Hill and Wang. ISBN 978-0-8090-2281-6.
- Bickerton, Derek (2014). More than Nature Needs: Language, Mind, and Evolution. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-72490-7.
- Erard, Michael (2008-03-30). "Walking the Talk". The New York Times.
- A brief self-description related to Lingua ex Machina.
- Bickerton's blog, inactive since 18 Oct 2009, and as archived by the Wayback Machine on 9 July 2011
- Interview on Adam's Tongue, "The Book Show", ABC Radio National, 24 May 2010