- Language, bananas & bonobos: Linguistic problems, puzzles and polemics by Neil Smith Malden
Neil Smith has brought together twenty of his essays and reviews in this attractive and accessible volume. As supplemental reading in introductory linguistics classes, these wide-ranging 150 pages will invite students to enjoy linguistic issues and to observe language attentively. The slim volume has an extensive reference list, an index, and a glossary of about 150 key linguistic terms.
After a brief ‘Prelude’ on the centrality of language and the many applications of linguistic knowledge, S divides the book into three parts: ‘Problems’, ‘Puzzles’, and ‘Polemics’. The essays grouped as ‘Problems’ concern six situations: language acquisition by the blind and the deaf; language use by autistic individuals; a mentally handicapped linguistic ‘savant’ who can speak twenty languages; synaesthesia; the structure of noise; and dissociations. All six provide evidence for the modularity of our cognitive and linguistic faculties, but this theme is an echo in the essays rather than a stated organizational principle.
The essays grouped as ‘Puzzles’ concern observations which imply surprising facts about language. For example, S shares the discovery of regular, rule-governed patterns in the (mis)pronunciations of his two-year-old son. Other essays in this section concern the polite and coercive dimensions of politically correct speech, the source of Woody Allen’s humor, the application of relevance theory to the interpretation of images, the ambivalence of scientific theorizing toward falsifiability, and grounds for distinguishing coordinating conjunction from subordinating conjunction.
The ‘Puzzles’ essays seem to cluster thematically on metarepresentational processes, that is, using a representation not only to describe a state of affairs but also to interpret (metarepresent) another state of affairs.
S’s third section, ‘Polemics’, uses four book reviews as springboards to controversy. He refutes the claims of Sue Savage-Rumbaugh et al. in Apes, language and the human mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) that a bonobo named Kanzi has linguistic competencies like those of a small child. He reviews Lyle Jenkins’s Chomsky-friendly Biolinguistics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), concentrating on the part of Jenkins’s book about the evolution of the brain mechanisms that underlie language. In his review of Steven Pinker’s [End Page 821] Words and rules (New York: Basic Books, 1999), S explains the controversy between symbolists and connectionists. He also takes on Jeff Elman’s book Rethinking innateness (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), panning Elman’s support for connectionism. In addition to book reviews, S includes in his ‘Polemics’ section three argument essays. One addresses critical periods in language acquisition; another, Chomsky’s internalist position; and a third works out phonological rules to account for S’s claim that all ‘Linguists (have surnames that) begin with velars’ (118).
Language, bananas & bonobos is a good choice for supplementary reading and an excellent sourcebook of paper ideas for students. It is perhaps too eclectic to be integrated into the syllabus of an introductory course, but it is written for students in order to stir up research. The notes following each essay often point to current discussion of the issue. S’s essays are brief and entertaining with only a few requiring any specialized knowledge to enjoy.