Derek Bickerton Memorial Page

last updated: May 8, 2018

Derek Bickerton, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, passed away on March 5, 2018 at the age of 91.

A seminal thinker and visionary, Derek laid out an important goal for himself, which he described in the introduction to The Roots of Language (1981), one of the most discussed books in the history of linguistics:

Language has made our species what it is, and until we really understand it—that is, understand what is necessary for it to be acquired and transmitted, and how it interacts with the rest of our cognitive apparatus—we cannot hope to understand ourselves. And unless we can understand ourselves, we will continue to watch in helpless frustration while the world we have created slips further and further from our control.

Derek pursued the goal of understanding language and humanity with unwavering intensity throughout his life, developing and extending his ideas in Language and Species (1990), Bastard Tongues (2008), Adam’s Tongue (2009), and More than Nature Needs (2014), as well as in numerous papers, presentations and speeches over four decades. The origin of language, the genesis of pidgins and creoles, and the nature of the genetic endowment for language were endlessly fascinating to him, and he wrote about them with ever-increasing eloquence and insight.

Derek relished disagreement and controversy, recognizing turmoil as the cost of moving forward. People listened to him, and he made a lasting difference—in linguistics and in the lives of his students and colleagues. I speak from experience in this regard. He was the first person to reach out to me when I arrived in Mānoa as a visiting colleague many years ago. During the period that our careers overlapped, I enjoyed numerous stimulating conversations with him on linguistic matters, and I cherish the memory of our social interactions as well.

No matter the turmoil in his academic endeavors, Derek enjoyed a rich family life. His remarkable and elegant wife Yvonne was the love of his life, and their synergy as a couple was evident to anyone who saw them together. Derek paid tribute to their long and happy marriage in a poem, the last few lines of which strike me as a fitting epilogue to his life.

Yet do we regret that we stayed
So long at the feast, gobbled up
All that was there for the taking?
Would we have gained by forsaking
The party early, our cup
Undrunk, our parts half-played?

No. There’s so much that we’d have lost:
Learning at last how love grows
When our animals finally sleep
Learning to savor the deep
Joy of mere closeness—God knows
Such things are worth any cost.

Following the announcement of Derek’s passing, a number of friends and colleagues have contacted the Department of Linguistics with their thoughts and remembrances, which we will share at this site in order of their receipt. If you would like to submit a remembrance, please send it to the main office email and CC Dr. William O’Grady.

–William O’Grady


From Robert Blust

What I loved most about Derek was that he was a fighter for what he believed was right.  I followed his personal evolution from a creolist, to one of the few linguists who dared to take on the question of the origin of language, and to approach it in a biologically defensible way.  After his retirement I invited Derek on several occasions to come to my 646 class (‘Advanced comparative method’) to give us his take on how language came into being in our remote quasi-human ancestors.  I assigned readings first from Language and Species (1990), and later from Adam’s Tongue (2009), and encouraged the students to have questions ready for him when he came to visit us.  We had some lively discussions, one of which even led to him incorporating some suggestions of mine into the second edition of Adam’s Tongue.  Toward the end it became apparent that it was getting harder for him to manage these discussions, and they stopped several years ago.  My 646 class has seemed to have an ’empty spot’ ever since.  We will all miss Derek, his fierce independence, and his unique and lasting contributions to both pidgin and creole linguistics and to the elusive question of how we became the only species on this planet to be blessed with the gift of language, a gift that may prove to be our undoing as a result of the power it has given us over Nature.

Robert Blust
UHM Department of Linguistics

From Tom (Talmy) Givón: Recuerdos to Bick

It is nigh impossible to express in human language, however supple or elegant it may strive to be, how much Derek meant in my life, and how much I shall miss him. He lived his life to the full, restless, reckless, haunted perhaps by the same sense that has always haunted me–that there is so much out there still waiting to be deciphered, always more and more however much you strive to go at it. And that the little time we are allotted on this miserable, breathtakingly beautiful vale-of-tears is never quite enough. Arrr.

If there was one quality that set Derek apart, it was his relentless audacity; that and his willingness to change course whenever the facts didn’t match a favored prediction, or when a new, implausible perspective beckoned. All that, and lastly, alas, his unrequited infatuation with Noam Chomsky. When we first corresponded, prior to the conference he organized in Hawaii in 1975 on Pidgins and Creoles, I sent him a paper suggesting that both Pidgins and Creoles reflected language universals–of pre-grammatical and grammaticalized communication, respectively. His first, snap reaction was “no way”, having come out of the substratum tradition of West Africa and the Caribbeans. A month later I got another note: “I re-analized my Hawaii Creole data, and you were right. Universals override substratum, leastwise when multiple substrata clash”.

In 1976 we published a joint paper on the Hawaii Pidgin, pointing out to credible pregrammatical universals of discourse-structure. A year later, at our 1977 symposium on Discourse and Syntax, he proposed to give a paper titled “Generative grammar meets the discourse monster”. He never submitted the paper for publication, and soon his book “Roots of Language” (1981) veered fatefully toward a Chomskian ‘bio-program’, presumably exemplified in the syntactic universals of Creoles. Counter Chomsky, however, he insisted (with John Lamendella, Dan Slobin and myself) that the gradual development of childhood grammars recapitulated the gradual evolution of human language. For many years afterwards he was a steadfast adherent of The Master. By our 2008 Symposium on the Genesis of Syntactic Complexity, though, he zagged again, taking issue with Chomsky’s anti-Darwinian approach to language evolution. Still, he kept challenging me to give a non-arbitrary account of the ambiguity of ‘competence’ clauses such as “I have orders to deliver”. My eventual account (in “The Story of Zero”, 2016) didn’t mollify him. “You have shown only a statistical trend (over 90% of the textual sample). Not enough”. The graduality of evolution didn’t transfer to graduality of diachronic change.

In the late 1970s we submitted the soon-to-be-notorious Island Project to NSF, proposing to track down in situ the gradual creation of a Pidgin language and eventually a Creole, by isolating several monolingual families on a Pacific island and studying their lingua-franca development, of both the adults’ Pidgin and the children’s Creole. We were soon denounced by the linguistic establishment’s guardians of PC at imperialists, colonialist and racists, with dark visions of Pitcairn Island looming on the Pacific horizon. One of Derek’s greatest regret was the eventual demise of the project. It was pulled back at the last minute by the highest level of the NSF bureaucracy after a most-encouraging response from the late Paul Chapin, long-time linguistics director at NSF. We were soon saddled with a forbidding committee of social-science luminaries, meeting twice on the So. Ute Rez in Ignacio, where I was working at the time.

Gradually, relentlessly, we were nickled-and-dimed to death. Eventually they agreed to fund us–provided we carried it out in an deserted European castle with non-exotic Western subjects. At a campground up the Piedra River drainage, above 10,000 feet, we sat around the fire one evening, Derek, Yvonne and myself. The luster had gone out of the project, we concluded. It was a nobrainer, we declined to pursue it any further. Derek related the story in a later book, “Bastard Tongues”, a somewhat sanitized version. We contemplated a fictional account of the real version, but by then he had given up on his fiction. Alas, he had the wildest imagination.

When after their retirement Derek and Yvonne moved for a while to rural Southern Oregon, I invited him to go chase Sasquatch with me in the forests of Northern California, up Bluff Creek in the drainage of the lower Klamath, where the famed–faked–Paterson/Gimlin tape of a female Sasquatch was reputed to have been filmed. Derek’s limp, by then pronounced, never stopped him from traipsing all over the mountainside. I told him I was not so much into chasing Sasquatch, but rather into tracking the Sasquatchers (or Sasq-nuts, as I used to call them; a tight, secretive international fraternity I stumble upon by sheer accident and eventually wrote my 2011 novel “Sasquatch” about). He said “never mind, let’s go have us some fun”. On my office wall, next to the most iconic Patterson-Gimlin photo, I still have a framed fake of Derek, leaning on the Louse Creek sign, with a wooden Sasquatch head–snapped from a bust in front of the country store below Bluff Creek–superimposed over his grinning face.

Above all, Derek was about the relentless pursuit of knowledge, spiked with a healthy dose of adventure; be it in Spain in the 1960’s (where we coincided but didn’t know each other), in Africa, in the Caribbeans or in Hawaii. I’ll always remember that long-ago evening around the fire on Molokai island when Derek, Yvonne and I, stoned out of our gourds, agreed to go ahead with the Island Project. It’s going to be revolutionary, we agreed, unprecedented. But more to the point, Derek observed, it was going to be fun.

T. Givón
White Cloud Ranch
Ignacio, Colorado

From Vincent O. Cooper

I first met Derek Bickerton when I was a graduate student attending the Linguistics Summer Institute at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. At the institute I took two of his graduate seminars and was impressed by his energetic , though often controversial, promotion of creole language studies as a central field of theoretical linguistics and cognitive psychology. Over the years that followed I learned a great deal from him as a scholar, mentor, and friend. The field of sociolinguistics has lost  one of its outstanding scholars.

Vincent O. Cooper, PhD
University of the Virgin Islands


From Joel Bradshaw

I took Derek’s sociolinguistics course in the fall of 1973, during my first semester of graduate linguistics at UH Mānoa, while still taking prerequisite courses in phonology and grammar. (Charlene Sato was in the same class.) I found the style as well as the content of Derek’s lectures fascinating. He had a gift for conveying big ideas in engaging stories. As he paced back and forth in front of the classroom in his typically disheveled fashion, I used to imagine him with a parrot on his shoulder, a patch over his eye, and a peg leg, telling us where to find the treasures we sought. (I never at that time imagined him in a kilt, dancing!)

Among the most memorable readings in that course were Weinreich, Labov, and Herzog’s Empirical Foundations for a Theory of Language Change, and several articles by William Labov, by Gillian Sankoff on multilingualism, and by William Wang on lexical diffusion. (Derek also introduced me to the early novels of V.S. Naipaul, set in Trinidad and enriched by the creole spoken there, which I think I mined for some minor grammatical analysis.)

In 1977, after returning from fieldwork on Numbami, an Austronesian language in Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea, I read Sankoff’s dissertation on “Social Aspects of Multilingualism in New Guinea,” based on her fieldwork among related languages in the same province. As a result, my first externally refereed publication was not a sketch of Numbami phonology or grammar, but an article on “Multilingualism and Language Mixture among the Numbami,” whose ancestral language was not the one most commonly spoken in their own village.

Derek also hired me for my final research assistantship, to look for grammatical similarities and differences between substrate languages and pidgin/creole varieties for his Change and Variation in Hawaiian English project. He later served on my dissertation committee. I wrote about word order changes in Oceanic languages in Papua New Guinea that were presumably due to contact with Papuan languages. Derek was helpful in sorting out changes that might be due to universal factors from those that were more likely due to the influence of substrate languages.

For instance, in 1976, Sankoff and Penny Brown had published an article in Language on “The Origins of Syntax in Discourse: A Case Study of Tok Pisin Relatives,” about relative clauses marked at both ends by ia, a discourse particle ubiquitous in Tok Pisin. With Derek’s encouragement, I presented a counterargument at the 1978 LSA Summer Institute at the University of Illinois titled “The Origins of Syntax in Syntax,” arguing that relative clauses marked at both ends are very rare among the languages of the world, but very common among the Austronesian languages of Morobe Province, PNG, and therefore are more likely due to the influence of local substrate languages, and not universal factors. That argument formed part of my dissertation.

I spent most of the 1980s working outside academia. When I returned to UH in the 1990s, it was not easy to get back up to speed on my own research agenda. Derek was very helpful in giving me detailed feedback on what became my first published article in the 1990s, about serial verb constructions, which are much discussed in pidgin and creole linguistics. He helped get my research back on track and his ideas still influence how I think about language variation.

Joel Bradshaw

From Thom Huebner: Memories of Derek — A Personal Perspective

No stranger to controversy, the lanky big-featured professor with a British accent and a graying comb-over cast an intimidating figure over this naïve twenty-five-year-old incoming graduate student when passing in the corridors of Moore Hall. But the buzz surrounding the recently published Dynamics of a Creole Continuum, louder internationally than at home, was enough to lure me into one of his courses one semester. The classes were never boring. Once hooked I would sit in awe as Bickerton at one moment would make an off-handed comment that was absolutely elegant, insightful, revolutionary and true, and in the next breath a statement that one could only wonder, “He can’t really mean that, can he?”

But it was exciting knowing that he listened to students as he was working out the details of Roots of Language in class with us. Much later, in Bastard Tongues, Bickerton articulated his view of the mentor / mentee relationship that he maintained throughout his life: “Students are more fun when you’re learning stuff from them than when they’re learning stuff from you” (p.258) That symbiotic relationship between Bickerton and his students has continued to shape all his search, from the origin of creoles to the origin of the human language faculty.

From my own evolving perspective, Derek’s dedication to his students brought out a warmer side of him. He’d listen not just to their research ideas and problems, but also to any personal problem that one might feel comfortable disclosing regarding any impediments to their study. One semester, while I was working on my dissertation in Hawai’I and Derek was on sabbatical in New York to be near his daughter, who was accepted into a prestigious ballet company, I had a chance to attend a conference in New York and met up with Derek and Yvonne for spaghetti dinner at their west side flat.  I knew that when I came out to them I would never feel a warmer and more accepting environment. But they were more interested in exploring alternative options after NSF’s final refusal to fund Derek’s “Island Project.”

This was about the time that the novel King of the Sea was published. Very roughly inspired by a sequence of events that actually took place at the University of Hawai’I’s Marine Mammals Research Center, the fictional adaptation left me with three lasting impressions: 1) Bickerton’s a great story-teller. This was not his first novel. 2) Wow! Maybe he really HAS cracked the dolphin communication code; and 3) The novel has all the elements one might want to include in a made-for-movie adaptation:  a tropical setting, an interracial romance between mainland haole grad student and exotic local girl (also a student), animal rights and animal communication, science fiction, international intrigue, even a little bestiality. I don’t know if Derek ever pursued a film contract and if so whatever came of it, but I still fell despite the fall of the KGB it would be a box office hit.

As sometimes happens, in academia and in life, when formal bonds have expired, distance ensues, aggravated by burdensome teaching schedules and heavy demands to focus one’s research and publish. And to be honest, I am still a little intimidated by him today.  But I remember him as a man of unbounded curiosity and imagination, of quick wit and profound depth. The answers to the questions Bickerton has always asked will continue to have implications not just for all branches of linguistics but also for the social and cognitive sciences for years to come.

Thom Huebner

From John Rickford

Derek was a monumental figure in the study of Guyanese Creole and Creole Studies more generally, advancing both areas significantly during his lifetime. This is clear from the first email responses I received to my email yesterday sharing the news, including former UG students like Walter Edwards & Hubert Devonish, and the co-editor o the Handbook of Pidgin and Creole Studies, John Singler (although he had disagreed with Derek in the literature).

On a personal level, Derek was always encouraging to me and his work inspired and informed me.  We will miss him.

 John Rickford

From Ian Hancock: Remembering Derek

One afternoon in the late 1960s I was sitting at my Royal typewriter working on my dissertation when I answered the door to Derek. I’d begun a correspondence with him sometime earlier—not email, back then—and I hadn’t been expecting his visit, but there he was. I’m not sure what initiated our contact, though it must have been our shared interest in creoles; perhaps it had something to do with a bibliography of pidgin and creole languages I was helping to compile, and with the section on Guyanese. At any rate, that summer afternoon in London was the start of a friendship that lasted for nearly half a century. I still have one or two of those early letters.

Both of us, though British-born, have lived outside of the UK longer than we have lived in it. Generally, I’m not too impressed by the ex-pat Brits that I’ve encountered, and I suspect that Derk shared that observation. Perhaps because he wasn’t so much an “Englishman” but—as the cliché goes—a citizen of the world. Or much of it anyway. Exposed to West African Pidgin in Ghana, acquiring its distant cousin Creolese in Guyana then comparing it with “Da Kine” creole years later in Hawaii not as a socially remote scholar in each case but as someone who moved with the locals in many ways, and intimately.

That exposure to three different creoles spoken in widely-separated parts of the world was the catalyst that sowed the seeds of Derek’s controversial Language Bioprogram hypothesis, something I routinely teach about in my creolistics seminars. I like to think that I helped tip the scales when he was refining it, after I sent him a paper on a creole called Juba Arabic written for me by one of my students, Ushari Ahmad Mahmud, in 1974.  While a physical, historical connection could be (and was being) made between Africa, South America and the Pacific Ocean to explain the structural similarities their respective creoles shared, the fact they are also found in Juba Arabic, with which no connection could be made, made it clear that their common characteristics had to be explained in some other way: our ability as humans to generate language when no pre-existing stable model is there for us to imitate once we’re born.

Although we went our separate ways after leaving Britain our paths crossed often, and each time we seemed to pick up where we’d left off, even during the years when I decreolized—my academic and political Romani involvement was taking me far away from Creolistics. On one occasion, when I was visiting Derek and Yvonne when they still lived in Makiki St. in Honolulu I stepped backwards in their small flat onto an owl, a rare Ming Dynasty figurine of jade-inlaid platinum—and broke it. Were Derek and Yvonnne upset? Fighting back the tears, they said that if I sent them a Van Morrison LP, all would be forgiven. I did, and it was. I remember on the same visit following Derek across the city to a Kama’aina Hawaiian party in the middle of the night in a car with a standard shift, something I’d never driven before, in a city I didn’t know then. We made it okay.

I remember our sharing a small place in Greenwich Village for a week before both speaking at a creole conference in New York City. And each morning my trying to keep up with him as he strode forty or more blocks to the venue rather than take the subway. He was rather taller that I was. I remember our sleeping on the beach on St. Thomas and waking up to find the tent surrounded by tracks made by sand crabs. I remember our both being asked to consider a position at Texas, at a linguistics conference in Washington DC, and our both initially saying “no thank you.”

There are a lot of other memories; Derek and Yvonne sitting in the Horse’s Brass, the pub in our home in Texas, our kids swimming in the pool at the house they rented in Austin, the sessions when Derek would try to teach me the finer points of Chomskyan grammar…the long walks we would take while discussing aspects not only of creolization but about the human condition. We shared a  skepticism and impatience about many things; one trivial (but surprisingly Trump-like) irritation we shared was the increasing use of “Happy Holidays” as a greeting instead of “Merry Christmas,” not because of any particular religious fervour, but because it was clearly an effort to be PC as well as to extend the season’s marketing prospects. Derek took the Roma struggle very seriously, and on occasion wrote letters protesting evidence of anti-Gypsyism that I’d bring to his attention.

Derek’s greatest achievement, however, was to persuade Vonnie to marry him. She was his wife and anchor over six decades, not only did she raise along with him their highly successful children, but she was able to get him to take up folk-dancing.

I’m going to miss me old buddy.

Ian Hancock

From Ed Klein: In Memory of Derek Bickerton

I am very thankful for this opportunity to write a few words in tribute to my mentor, my boss, and my PhD. chair, Dr. Derek Bickerton.  This reflection tells of a very narrow part of this amazing linguist’s professional life. It seems like rather ancient history, given that even I have reached the end of my 44-year teaching career at Hawaii Pacific University and retired last May.  This account, then, is bookended by 1970 and 1981, my decade with Derek Bickerton.

Immediately before I entered the Linguistics Department at UH, I had spent 4 years of work in Peace Corps (1966 to 1970), all connected with South Korea.  First, I was a Peace Corps Trainee (Hilo), then a Peace Corps Volunteer (Korea), then a Peace Corps Trainer (Hilo), and finally a Peace Corps staff member—a regional representative, again in Korea. Clearly, my background was Peace Corps and Korea when I took residence in Hale Manoa to begin my graduate studies.  How did this finally connect me with Derek? I assure you that it does, so please hear me out.

For the first two years of the 1970s under the generous funding of the East West Center, I worked on masters degrees both in linguistics and ESL. (ESL metathesized into ELS a few years ago at UHM.)  But in summer 1972, I knew that my two years of East West Center support would soon come to an end. My wife-to-be and I had set a date in October to be married. Now, she not only had a real job with the DOE, but she also had a car and a rented apartment not far from UH.  Still, my own self-esteem said I needed to bring home a paycheck.

One day, our wise department chair at that time, Byron Bender, called me into his office and asked me a simple question I shall always remember.  “What are you going to do in the coming year?” “Well, maybe I’ll apply to a mainland school to earn a PhD.“ Without skipping a single beat, he retorted, “Why don’t you stay here?  I think I can find you some money.” Long story short, he eventually sent me across the hall, and I did a kind of preliminary interview with Derek for some new project called the “Non-Standard Hawaii English Project”  Now, at that point, I was a linguistics student with the wisdom gained by successfully navigating three semesters of grad courses, and as a specialty I was one who had a pretty clear idea of how Korean phonology worked and the great historical story of the wonderful Korean alphabet, Hangul, and the complicated system of Korean “levels of politeness,” but truthfully, I wasn’t completely clear on the difference between pidgins and creoles. That bit of ignorance was about to change.

So in fall of 1973, I embarked on a “real linguistics job.”  Derek had gathered and hired several students, Bill Peet, Terry Makuakane,  Charly Sato, Carol Odo, myself and others and put us through a rigorous sociolinguistics training program.  This study was to be a description of Hawaii Pidgin English and Hawaii Creole English and their relationship. Who were speaking these? Where were they being spoken?  We learned other important sociolinguistic methods—for example, how to establish a random sample. (In fact, it turned out to be impossible in the Hawaiian situation.  Contact me later for the story of that interesting debacle.) We learned to use our tape recorders–both reel- to-reel and cassette tape recorders. We learned tricks for keeping our subjects talking. As a group, we gathered and discussed the various features we would consider in the study–for example, how tense, negation and conditionality are expressed in Hawai`i creole and pidgin. Derek, of course, from his previous work in Guyana, already knew what might very well be the important features, but we actually verified these by going through some preliminary taping sessions to see if it were true.

In brief, all of us student assistants were to work on interviewing probable good subjects.   A good subject was a person who sounded local (the more local, the better) and who was willing to give us an hour of time.  Our non-threatening topic was “How have you seen Hawai`i change in the last ten years?” We really didn’t care about the answer to that topic; we just wanted them to keep talking!  As interviewers, we found subjects not only on `Oahu, but also on the neighbor islands. Terry Makuakane and I, for example, scored a trip to Hana with the project.

Then back in Manoa, we would transcribe the 45-60 minute interviews using the Odo alphabet—a phonetic system which uses only English letters and no diacritics.  The work was all done by hand in pencil into marble notebooks on the right side, while on the left side we would later tally the pidgin/creole features we had found examples of.  Our rate for just the transcribing (not coding) was presumed to be about “10 or 12 to 1.” That is, if we had an hour-long interview, then we hoped to transcribe it in about 10 to 12 hours.  There was not one computer to be found in the project. That part, we were told, had been cut out of the proposal by the NSF, the source of the project funds. If we were to do this project, we were to do it by hand with pencil and paper and our own mathematic/linguistic wits.

We were set up in a couple of rooms in the so-called “temporary buildings” across from the old medical school on the upper UH-Manoa campus.  We student assistants each had a desk. There were usually cool breezes from Manoa Valley, but if they failed we had neither air conditioning nor fans.  More memorable, however, were the termites. These buildings were heavily infested, and every day we went to work, the automatic first chore was to wipe the termite droppings off the desk, lest your work through that day be contaminated by termite frass (or poop) on your hands, your clothes, and any documents you were working with.

Our student assistant responsibility was to work 10 hours per week on the project.  I clearly remember one project meeting in which Derek, in a somewhat scolding manner, suggested that the transcription and coding process was not moving fast enough.  “Are we really spending 10 hours a week on the project?” he asked, not really expecting individual answers. Things moved along much faster thereafter. Within the two years of the project, a sufficient number of interviews were recorded and then transcribed, coded, and analyzed.   Derek’s responsibility was to do the final analysis and the final project report. These reports were “published” in 1976 and 1977 as a two-volume, 8 ½ X 11 mimeographed work of turgid prose, diagrams, charts, and illustrations. However, it was indeed the most up-to-date report on non-standard Hawaiian English of its kind.

I have not forgotten that I am supposed to connect Derek and my interest in Korean and Korean immigrants.  In another part of my life back then I had made friends with Amy Agbayani thru a church connection. I became interested in one of her several endeavors—namely, Operation Manong—a project co-founded by Dr. Agbayani  to connect new immigrant students, primarily from the Philippines, to UH student tutors to help the newcomers increase their chances of entering and doing well in post-secondary education here in Hawai`i. However, in some cases, the immigrants at a particular school were not always 100% Filipinos.  Nevertheless, these non-Filipinos were not snubbed but were included in the tutorial help along with any Filipinos. I was sent to tutor at Kalakaua Intermediate School, right off Kalihi Street, in which there were indeed many Filipinos, but the second largest immigrant group was Korean. It took only one visitation for me to realize that, yes, the Korea kids sounded like they were from Korea, not the Philippines, but just as obvious was the fact that the non-native English they were speaking was strongly influenced by Hawai`i Creole English, sounding in some ways like the Filipinos, Japanese, and other Pacific islanders in their nascent English.  I thought that maybe I had found my dissertation topic since this brought together my interests in second language acquisition, Korean, Koreans, and non-standard English in Hawai`i. With permission from the school, I began to tape some of my sessions with the various Korean students while tutoring at Kalakaua.

Sometime later, I made an appointment with Derek and presented him with a very rough, broad outline of what I thought I wanted to do—a longitudinal study of Korean adolescents learning Hawai`i Creole as well as Standard American English.  In a word, he said, “No. This is not what you want as your dissertation topic.” I was crushed. His argument was that adolescent language, whether their first language or their second language, was highly volatile, varying this way and that way, quickly changing depending on which group of peers they last identified with or had just talked to.  He predicted that I would fail to find convincing patterns. If I wanted to do some kind of variation study, I should find more stable subjects than kids in middle school.

It was not long after this meeting that much changed.   Derek went on Sabbatical. My wife and I had our first child, and I landed a full-time job at Hawaii Pacific College.  However, among the dozen or so Koreans I could have followed up on at Kalakaua, there were four boys that I kept in contact with. They were now in high school, but I kept taping them from time to time, and I began to transcribe some of the tapes.  I made a handful of presentations about the data that I was finding–locally at the Hawai`i Council of Teachers of English and nationally at TESOL. In all, I continued to follow and tape them for four years, and only stopped when one of my four subjects was tragically killed in a car accident.

Derek returned from South America, and I showed him what I had been doing. Much of this, I thought, showed recognizable and regular “change” in the four boy’s English from HCE to SAE.  Much to my surprise, he did not scold me. He actually gave me some good, earnest counsel and suggestions. Did he completely forget our previous conversation? Or was he still thinking that he should let this foolish grad student wallow in his pages and pages of hardly analyzable tokens of non-standard negatives, tense markers, and conditional phrases uttered by some Korean kids from Kalihi until he realizes the futility of the project on his own?  No, I think he was now on my side. Thereafter there was never a discouraging word. Perhaps sabbaticals really are wonderful breaks that relax and open the minds of hard working professors and in many ways also benefit the hardworking grad students under them? Through 1979 and 1980 I worked very hard to finish the analysis and the writing of the dissertation while keeping my full-time teaching position at HPC. Derek was very available and totally helpful during this time as I pumped out chapter after chapter.  He shepherded me through the penultimate version of the paper and through the meetings with the rest of my committee.

In mid-April of 1981, three life-changing things happened to me and to my family, all in the same week.  First, the final draft of my dissertation was accepted by the whole committee. Pushing the deadline, I even had to deliver the copies personally to their homes in some cases. Second, I received notification that I had been granted a Fulbright Professorship to teach a year at Sogang University in Seoul.  And third, our third child was born to us. Then in May ’81 my family attended graduation, and Derek, who was not really one for such ceremonies, had actually borrowed regalia from a colleague and “hooded” me on a terribly hot Sunday on the quad. A week or so later, he and Yvonne threw a party at his apartment in my honor.

There are other tales I could tell about my decade with Derek—like his 1976 proposal for an empirical test for developing a “new pidgin” on an uninhabited Pacific island by bringing together for a year several married couples who spoke totally different languages. I was helping him and was close to finding an appropriate Korean couple, but that’s another story for another time.

All of us, particularly those of us in sociolinguistics, owe Derek Bickerton profound gratitude for his long and innovative work in the department.  I offer my deepest sympathies to his family upon his passing. May he rest in peace.

Ed Klein, Ph.D.
Hawaii Pacific University

From John Odling-Smee:

I first met Derek at a conference in Barcelona in 2004. I knew about his work on language, but given that I am not a linguist, not much more about him then. I gave a talk on niche construction theory and I was surprised that, immediately after I had given it, Derek came up to me and started talking to me about it. I realised that he had got hold of my theory far more rapidly than most people. I was also surprised and delighted that he liked it so much. He seemed to think it would be relevant to his own work on language, although at that stage I couldn’t understand why.

The second time we met, just over a year later was when my wife Ros and I were travelling back on a working trip from Australia via Hawaii. We stayed with Derek and Yvonne at their lovely house on the coast. They were marvellous hosts, intellectually, gastronomically and recreationally. I like to think we all got on very well with each other and Derek and I certainly achieved a much better understanding of each other’s work at the end of it. After that we stayed in touch and collaborated slightly, although I think not as much as either of us could have wished. It’s with sadness that we have learned of his death now from you, although at a great age and I should imagine after a very fulfilled life. He achieved a lot.

With best wishes and yours sincerely,

John Odling-Smee
Emeritus Fellow, 

Mansfield College, 

From Manny Drechsel & Terry Makuakane-Drechsel: A Tribute to Derek Bickerton

We take this opportunity first to express our condolences to Yvonne, children and grandchildren for the loss of a life partner, father, and grandfather. Our thoughts are with them, and we hope that recounting our memories can help shed some light about what Derek has meant to us in our lives and perhaps reduce their pain of loss a bit. Reading the postings on how he affected the other contributors’ lives in fact brings back many fond memories of our own with Derek, among which we would like to share both personal and professional experiences.

Teresa “Terry” and I first met Derek at the LSA-sponsored 1973 Linguistic Institute at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in his lectures on pidgins and creoles. At the time, Terry was an undergraduate student at the University of Hawai‘i-Hilo, and I was a graduate student at University of Wisconsin-Madison, and we also met each other there for the first time. Not only did Derek inspire us with his challenging lectures on pidgins and creoles, convincing me to pursue a similar track of study; he also brought Terry and me together. Six years after our first meeting in Michigan, Terry and I married at Ha‘ikū Gardens in Kāne‘ohe on windward O‘ahu in the presence of Derek and Yvonne, among others. I am not sure whether Derek ever realized his role in that aspect of our lives.

He also had a big influence on our future academic pursuits and early professional lives. After that “fateful” summer, Derek hired Terry as a student researcher from Fall 1973 through Spring 1975 to work on his NSF-funded “Non-Standard Hawaiian English Project” (NSHEP). While still attending UH-Hilo, she worked with his graduate student, Karen Neff, who lived on the Big Island, and together they interviewed “pidgin and creole” speakers throughout Hawai`i Island. After Terry transferred to UH-Mānoa in Spring 1974, she continued to work on his NSHEP project, while completing her B.A. in linguistics. Academically and professionally, Terry could not have had a better preparation and opportunities than with NSHEP, including experiences of working alongside Derek and inspirational graduate students like Bill Peet, Carol Odo, Ed Klein, and Charlene Sato. Other NSHEP “informants” like Lei and Brownie Abordo opened the door to new areas of pidgin and creole studies that had never been explored in-depth before, e.g. a “Non-Standard Hawaiian English” sign language. Lei had a brother who was born deaf, so the two siblings communicated with each other and others in the Hawai‘i deaf community through a unique pidgin form of sign language, significantly different from ASL and possibly infused by the Hawaiian language. Terry recalls that Lei and her brother could immediately identify people who were or were not “native speakers of their language.”

As Ed Klein has recounted in his tribute, Derek was bold in his proposals to recreate “pidgin and creole” social situations, like bringing together married native speakers of diverse languages to live on an isolated island. He seemed more intrigued about what language(s) their children would speak as a result of this linguistic experiment. Another such experiment was the “hypno-linguistics” project in 1975, which involved Terry, her older sister, and father. The idea was to hypnotize the subjects and to use age-regression to take them back to their childhood and record their speech of that earlier stage of development. While Derek was not able to carry out the controversial isolated island proposal, he did successfully carry out a pilot project of hypno-linguistics with Terry and her family. Terry remembers one of her professors at the University of Michigan, where in Fall 1975 she returned for a graduate degree in linguistics, making unflattering remarks about Derek’s “experiments;” yet this same person also spoke in awe of his ground-breaking work in pidgin and creole studies. Terry has always remained proud and grateful to have worked with Derek on NSHED. She especially appreciated his encouragement and support to pursue a career outside of linguistics after she completed the M.A. at Michigan. Almost 20 years later, after Terry got her doctorate in education leadership, she was able to acknowledge Derek publicly at a UH-College of Arts and Sciences presentation for his academic and professional influences on her. Hali‘a aloha e Derek!

I never was a formal student of Derek’s, although in Fall 1974 I too worked for Derek on his project “Non-Standard Hawaiian English Project” and addressed issues of ethnographic description. When Terry transferred to UH-Mānoa in Spring 1974, I joined her for a semester in Fall of that year – returning to Wisconsin in Spring 1975 to complete an M.A. in linguistics and a Ph.D. in anthropology with a focus on anthropological linguistics in Spring 1979. Even after I had returned to Wisconsin, I regularly consulted with Derek. He always welcomed inquiries about pidgin and creole languages and linguistic analysis. There is one scene that I still remember distinctly – we were at a beautiful beach on windward O‘ahu in the mid-1970s, with Derek and Bill Labov, when they got into a spirited discussion about the advantages of the continuum analysis, including implicational scaling, over variable rules. Derek clearly made the case against the variable rule and for implicational scaling, although to my disappointment he never showed much interest in the sociocultural domain of linguistic variation – a deficiency that in my mind we could address by systematic observations based on the ethnography of speaking, as promoted by Dell Hymes and John Gumperz. Over the years, I have however come to appreciate the continuum analysis as preferable to conventional dialectological analysis in dialect ranges other than decreolization continua.

In hindsight, more significant to me than Derek’s variationist analysis or his many other contributions to pidgin and creole studies was his unconditional support of my doctoral research on Mobilian Jargon or the Chickasaw-Choctaw trade language, a Muskogean-based pidgin of the lower Mississippi River valley, in the mid-1970s. By no means could I take such support for granted at the time. Except for those familiar with Chinook Jargon of northwestern North America, most Americanist linguists showed surprisingly little interest in linguistic convergence, let alone pidginization. On the other hand, most creolists at the time did not show any more interest in non-European pidgins unless they were of African origin or reflected characteristics of an African substratum. Refreshingly, Derek never expressed any such presumptions towards my doctoral project, and as he was never shy about sharing his opinion, I can also conclude with confidence that he never held such ideas, at least during the years when I knew him. Derek indeed was among the very first to address the question of a Hawaiian-based pidgin preceding Pidgin English for the Hawaiian Islands (see his essay entitled “Pidgin Hawaiian” and coauthored with Pila Wilson in Pidgin and Creoles Languages: Essays in Memory of John E. Reinecke, ed. by Glenn G. Gilbert) and then to sponsor our mutual student [S.]J.M. Roberts in a project on the same topic (see e.g. “Pidgin Hawaiian: A Sociohistorical Study.” Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages 10 (1995): 1-56). Derek’s research of pidgins and creoles, including his notion of cultural blinders from his book Bastard Tongues, also inspired my own recent book on Maritime Polynesian Pidgin, a regional Polynesian-based pidgin in the eastern Pacific during the first hundred years of European contact.

There is so much to be grateful to Derek for – and not the least also to Yvonne, who has always struck us as the pillar in their mutual relationship. Mahalo nui loa to both; and rest in peace, Derek!


Emanuel “Manny” Drechsel & Teresa “Terry” Makuakane-Drechsel


From Kauanoe Kamanā and William Wilson

We received news here in Hilo from Manny Drechsel about the passing of Derek.  So sad to hear about this.

E hele ʻo ia me ka maikaʻi,
Ma ke ala polohiwa a Kāne;
E hele ʻo ia me ka maluhia;
E hele nō me ka palekana;
ʻO kāna ma kēlā ʻaoʻao ma ʻō,
ʻO ka launa me nā kupa o ka ʻāina,
ʻO ka poʻe āna i hāpai ai a hanohano;
Hanohano pū ʻo Hawaiʻi lau lāhui,
Hui like, walaʻau like, aloha like;
Aloha wale ka ʻohana me kākou like ē;
Ua hala ia kumu, ia hoahana, ia hoaaloha nui ē.

May his journey be blessed,
Along the pathway of Kāne;
May his journey be peaceful;
May it be taken in safety;
When he reaches that destination beyond our world,
May he enjoy interaction with the people of islands,
Those whom he raised up for recognition;
Recognition that also came to Hawaiʻi, land of many peoples,
Gathering together, chatting together; loving each other;
Such feelings of aloha for his family and for all of us as well;
We have lost our teacher, our fellow worker, our great friend.

We remember Derek for his great aloha for the people of Hawaiʻi.  He was a champion of the people out in the communities, people who were sometimes seen as overly ordinary.  If we are not mistaken, he too was a bit of an underdog hired with only the M.A. He was such a fun person to be around. Never pretentious, a guy who enjoyed a joke and sometimes shocking you a bit too.

Derek greatly encouraged us in our pursuit of Hawaiian and Hawaiian language revitalization.  Kauanoe was recruited into linguistics by Derek and hired by him to serve as the Hawaiian language expert in his multilingual team investigating the contributions of different languages to Hawaiʻi Pidgin English and Hawaiʻi Creole English.  When Bill showed Derek examples of broken Hawaiian from an older Hawaiian publication, Derek mentored and supported him as a coauthor with Derek for an article that first surfaced Pidginized Hawaiian to linguists.  Derek believed that the role of Hawaiian had been underplayed in descriptions of the history of Hawaiʻi Creole English.  He supported continued research into that history by such people as Sarah Roberts and Manny Drechsel who have enriched the initial material collected during his project with Kauanoe.

Derek’s focus on collecting data tied in well with our efforts as students to learn Hawaiian from interacting with the remaining Hawaiian speaking kūpuna. His overall perspective on the value of community people was an important part in changing attitudes in Hawaiʻi that helped us establish our Hawaiian language revitalization efforts at UH Hilo and also the Pūnana Leo preschools.  We built our programs to levels of national prominence using people who had otherwise been seen as unqualified.  We also changed the way Hawaiian was taught from being seen from the perspective of Standard English to connecting it to the everyday local culture and language of our students.  To this day, university Hawaiian language students in our classes are required to make connections between Hawaiian and Pidgin and translate between the two languages. This was simply an application of Derek’s methodologies.

Our perspective on multilingualism as a component of Hawaiian identity and local identity as a whole was very much nurtured through our relationship with Derek and the work that he led.  He supported our efforts to reestablish Hawaiian speaking homes and a full Hawaiian medium school system.  We think he would be pleased to see all students in our P-12 Hawaiian medium laboratory school site Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu honoring their immigrant ancestors through required  study of heritage languages and using Pidgin as well in required interviews of family members in that language.

Derek Bickerton was very important person in our own personal history and that of the larger efforts in which we have been involved. We acknowledge his contributions on an individual level, a program level, and a community level.  Mahalo nui e ka ʻohana no kā Derek hana.  E hele ʻo ia me ka maikaʻi ma ke ala polohiwa a Kāne.

Me ke aloha,
Kauanoe Kamanā and William Wilson


From the Wailua Public Library

In 1972, after the adventure of living in a number of countries across four continents, Derek and his family settled in Honolulu, where for 24 years he taught linguistics at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa while he and his wife Yvonne finished raising their three children (all three becoming successful in their own fields of law, dance and contemporary art). Eventually, he retired from teaching to write full-time, so he and Yvonne built a home in our lovely town of Waialua and moved to the North Shore. As avid readers, they became both participants in and supporters of our Waialua Library community and its many activities.

Born in Cheshire, England and educated at Cambridge University, Derek spent most of his live researching, writing about, and contributing to our understanding of the development of human language. His work studying creole languages in places like Guyana and Hawai‘i led him to theorize that humans possess an innate capacity for grammar that is revealed in the similarities among the various creoles spoken around the world. He referred to himself as a “street linguist,” stressing the importance of field work to his research, which benefitted from, in his words, a “total lack of respect for the respectable.” Some of this work formed the basis of his Language Bioprogram Hypothesis, published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 1984.

But Derek was also a published writer of books. After authoring the novel Tropicana in 1963, he spent most of his writing life sharing his revolutionary ideas on the roots of language, beginning with Dynamics of a Creole System in 1975 through to his most recent work, More Than Nature Needs: Language, Mind and Evolution, published by Harvard University Press in 2014.

In 2008, Derek produced a fascinating memoir of his life and work entitled Bastard Tongues, which was read and discussed by our Book Club/Readers’ Group the following year. Derek was an active member of that group and, with his dry humor, his sharp intellect, his global perspective and his resulting skepticism regarding the glories of our modern culture, he enlivened and broadened our monthly Book Club discussions for many years.

Naturally, as a successful writer and experienced teacher, Derek was imposed upon and generously agreed to organize and instruct our very first Writers’ Group—at that time a collection of enthusiastic amateurs without much of a clue. His patience and no-nonsense approach to telling a story clearly and concisely helped all of us to become better writers. The Writers’ Group thrives to this day as a result of his influence.

And, of course, until just recently, Derek was still devouring books selected for him by Yvonne at our monthly book sales. Some good habits do last a lifetime.

We have been so very fortunate to have had Derek as a friend and neighbor. We are a richer community thanks to his years of contribution since we have all, in one way or another, become the beneficiaries of his belief in and support of one of our most valuable community resources, our public library. We are grateful, Derek, that your many adventures brought you here.

Barbara Byrnes

From Mariana Maduell

Derek was a unique individual.  I had originally decided to go to UH to work on pidgins and creoles, but he was away for my first year there, and I moved into other areas of investigation.  I only did one course with him during my whole time there.

We became friends through his wife Yvonne, who joined my Spanish dance company in 1990, while I was writing my dissertation on some linguistic aspects of flamenco performance.  From the company’s first performance on, he was always extremely supportive of us and generous towards me personally.

The last time I saw Derek was one summer when their daughter, also a friend of mine, was in Austin to teach in the summer session for the American Ballet Theatre.  They came for a few weeks, and we had the opportunity to get together a few very special times.  He gave me a copy of his new book, Bastard Tongues, which I immediately began reading.

Yvonne had told me in a phone call early this year that he was really unwell, but I hoped he would rally.  It was not to be; he will be missed.

Mariana Maduell