Smith, Neil (2002). Language, Bananas & Bonobos: Linguistic Problems, Puzzles and Polemics. Blackwell Publishers, 160pp, hardback ISBN 0-631-22871-3, USD 54.95, GBP 40.00; paperback ISBN 0-631-22872-1, USD 21.95, GBP 11.99 Announced at: http://linguistlist.org/issues/13/13-433.html#1
Feargal Murphy, University College Dublin.
This book is an entertaining and stimulating collection of 20 essays on a wide variety of issues that can be profitably read by both linguists and non-linguists alike. As stated in the preface, this book is a collection of 'lightly revised and updated versions of columns and reviews [...] written over the last few years, mainly for the broadsheet Glot International, but also for a variety of other publications'. Readers of Glot International will be acquainted with the author's style will enjoy rereading the pieces. Those unfamiliar with the author's style will enjoy discovering the essays for the first time.
The book is divided up into three sections: 1. Problems, 2. Puzzles and 3. Polemics, with a Prelude neatly outlining the importance and variety of linguistics as an academic endeavour. In fact the wide range of areas one can explore from a starting point in linguistics is the main theme of the book. The essays, even when they are dealing with purely linguistic topics, show how the study of human language opens up all kinds of other areas of investigation and the author acts as an expert guide into these areas. The essays are well written, stimulating and entertaining, with one exception, but more of that later.
The essays generally take the form of some opening gambit that hooks the reader and then the essay takes one through a well reasoned analysis of the various issues involved.
For example, in essay 19, 'Structural Eccentricities', the opening sentence reads: 'Is connectionism really intellectually bankrupt or does it just look like it?' The essay that follows is an excellent debunking of the connectionist analysis of language acquisition but it also explores the challenge connectionism poses to linguistics, especially with regard to properly developing 'good poverty-of-stimulus arguments'. Some of the arguments in the essay are reminiscent of those presented in chapter 3 of Bloom (2000). Especially in the way they explore the difference between how humans learn words and how a neural net must be trained and exposed to many instances of the target word in order to 'learn' it. The essay also expresses the view that the connectionist notion of syntax as in reality 'structural eccentricities' means that linguistics has very little to learn from connectionism. The ease with which the essay shows that connectionism cannot explain either how children acquire words after so little exposure or the nature of the grammar of language is a lesson to all essay writers. The difficult technicalities are kept to a minimum without any loss of depth. The arguments are so well presented that one wonders why no-one expressed them in just that way before. It is one of the best essays in the book and should certainly be set reading for those interested in language and for those interested in the art of writing.
The essay is followed, like most of the others, with an up to date review of some more recent literature relevant to the essay. Other topics addressed in the essays include: the critical period hypothesis, syntactic operators, chimps and language, Relevance theory, linguistic savants, linguistics as a science, biolinguistics, political correctness, internalism/externalism, as well as an exercise in whimsy demonstrating that all linguists have names beginning with a velar (either on the surface or at some underlying level)!
The book makes easy reading for those either already involved in linguistics or just interested in linguistics and I could imagine some of the essays being used to clarify issues for students or for stimulating discussion and thought. The tone throughout is kept deceptively light as complex issues are presented in a concise and clear manner without ever straying into over-simplification. A very good example of this is the 13th essay in the book: '$'. It takes the form of a dialogue between a student and the author, identified as 'me', on the nature of operators. It humorously and intelligently answers many of the questions any student would ask about the topic of operators!
The essays should not necessarily be taken as the definitive statements about the issues explored. At the very least they present the main themes clearly and provide a springboard for further exploration. The ideas presented stimulate the reader to think further about each of the topics and to appreciate just how many aspects of human nature linguistics touches on.
And now for the exception that I referred to in the opening paragraph of this review. The 10th essay in the book is called 'Acquired Whining' and follows directly after an essay on political correctness where strictures against racist language are lauded, as long as they stop short of censorship.
I don't wish to whine too much but I feel an extremely important general issue is raised by a core part of this particular essay.
'Acquired Whining' is an essay on humour that explores how Relevance theory can help to explain how our innate Theory of Mind allows to find some things funny. A humorous piece is presented as an example. It is worthwhile quoting in full.
"Consider in this context the following excerpt from a policy document put out by the Ministry of Transport in Dublin shortly after Ireland joined the European Union: For a two-year experimental period, beginning at midnight on 31st December, cars will drive on the right (as in the rest of Europe), instead of on the left(as in the UK). If the experiment is a success, buses and lorries will thereafter also drive on the right."
An analysis of the joke then follows. Clearly, the joke works regardless of what country the document was supposed to have been published in. One suspects that there must be some reason why the joke is attributed to an Irish government publication. Could the reason be that such a document was actually written in Ireland? Unfortunately, there is no reference in the essay that would allow us to check the quote - which seems strange given the thoroughness of the citations everywhere else in the book, so we cannot use that avenue to assess the truth of the story.
There are reasons to suspect that the whole story is false. There was no such thing as a 'Ministry of Transport' in Dublin when Ireland joined the EEC (as it was at the time) or even after it joined the EEC. The Irish government did have a Minister for Transport and Power at the time. However, in the Irish system, a minister heads up a department rather than a ministry - unlike the UK system where there could be such a thing as a 'Ministry of Transport'. So if the quote were Irish, it would have to have come from a document issued by the Department of Transport and Power in Ireland. However, it is attributed to a non-existent Irish 'Ministry of Transport', in the essay. Perhaps this was a slip of the pen or perhaps it results from the fact that no such document was ever actually issued by an Irish government department. I suspect the latter and that the whole story is just a fiction. Like any fiction, it gains credibility by the inclusion of details that ground it in reality - hence the references to an Irish Ministry and to a concrete period of time. But surely the joke could have been presented and analyzed without any attempt to make it an 'Irish joke'. It is surprising to me that it was related in Glot International and then again in this book without anyone deciding to eliminate the reference to the Irish. The joke is not improved in any way by making it an Irish joke.
The preceding essay on political correctness states that the campaign for political correctness in language is beneficial if it 'brings to conscious awareness the perennial need for challenge to all forms of authority' (p.57). Examining our use of language can also bring to conscious awareness our own unthinking prejudices and then allow us to eliminate them. It is certainly a good thing to eliminate our unthinking prejudices.
Perhaps in the years to come there will be similar stories about what some Polish ministry published after Poland joined the EU. The stories will be funny and probably be a recycling of some old anti-Jewish, anti-Irish, anti-whoever jokes. And after they are told about the Poles, they will be recycled again and again about someone else until people can appreciate a joke without having to use it to also make fun of someone else.
My whining about this issue is really the result of my disappointment that a book of otherwise excellent essays is marred by this lapse. It surprises me that the book should contain what is either a sloppy use of an actual text or the utilization of a blatantly racist framing for a joke. Perhaps in any future edition, the issue can be cleared up. Until then, I recommend a little alteration while reading the essay: don't read lines 14 to 16 on p. 59!
REFERENCES: Bloom, P. (2000) How Children Learn the Meaning of Words. Cambridge: MIT Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Feargal Murphy is a lecturer in the department of linguistics in University College Dublin. His research interests include: Philosophy of language, Animal communication and Human language, and Philosophy of mind.