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Review of  Language, Bananas and Bonobos

Reviewer: Feargal Murphy
Book Title: Language, Bananas and Bonobos
Book Author: Neil Smith
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Issue Number: 13.905

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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:

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

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

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

"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

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

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!

Bloom, P. (2000) How Children Learn the Meaning of Words.
Cambridge: MIT Press.

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.


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