A visit to Tom Wolfe’s ‘Kingdom of Speech’

The man in the white suit takes on Darwin and Chomsky.

Bebeto Matthews/AP
American author and journalist Tom Wolfe, Jr. appears in his living room during an interview about his latest book, 'The Kingdom of Speech,' in New York.

In his latest book, a slender volume of under 200 pages, Tom Wolfe undertakes to explain what is known about how human language “evolved.” 

Spoiler alert: It didn’t, really. At least not according to Wolfe. He champions the idea that language did not “evolve,” like the opposable thumb, through natural selection and the survival of the fittest. Rather, he calls language a cultural artifact, something humans invented, originally as a system of mnemonics, or memory aids, to help them keep track of the world around them. (Second spoiler alert: This idea is not going down universally well.

Wolfe goes after the idea that humans are “hard wired” for language. He attacks the notion of a “universal grammar,” a set of language patterns that all peoples share. 

This universal grammar includes something called recursion, defined thus by the American Heritage Dictionary: “The property of languages in which a structure, such as a phrase or clause, may form a part of a larger structure of the same kind, allowing for a potentially infinite variety of constructions.” 

Recursion allows for endless complex sentences, full of dependent clauses, that let people express ideas such as “the house we want to build” and “the factors that caused this problem last year.”

But Wolfe doesn’t get us there until he has explained how Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution could have been Alfred Russel Wallace’s theory instead. Indeed, “The Kingdom of Speech” is largely the story of two sets of competing scientists, one in the 19th century and the other in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The 19th-century pair were Darwin and Wallace. Each came up with the idea of evolution independently of the other. When Wallace sent Darwin the paper he had written explaining this, Darwin realized that Wallace had articulated the big idea that he himself had been pondering – dithering over? – since his return from his voyages on HMS Beagle years before. 

Darwin’s friend, Sir Charles Lyell, artfully managed to have the two men’s work presented jointly at the Linnaean Society in London in July 1858. Sir Charles relied heavily on the convention of alphabetical order to give the “establishment” Darwin precedence over the interloper Wallace.

Wolfe’s second pair of scientists are Noam Chomsky, who more or less remade linguistics after World War II, and his former student Daniel Everett, who has challenged Chomsky on “recursive grammar.” He has done so through fieldwork, by locating an Amazonian people called the Pirahã, who communicate in simple sentences in the present tense, with nary a dependent clause in sight.

Everett’s challenge to Chomsky may be not quite as effective as Wolfe suggests. But Wolfe goes after Chomsky
with an intensity suggesting some long-
standing personal grievance. “The Kingdom of Speech” may tell us more about the personalities of science and its institutional cultures than about science per se. 

That may not be the book he intended to write. But it’s the one he’s given us.

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