The Kingdom of Speech
by tom wolfe
little, brown and company, 192 pages, $26
Despite its title, Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech isn’t mainly about language. It’s about evolution, feckless intellectuals, and leftist politics.
Wolfe recounts two moments of modern intellectual history: Darwin’s race to beat Alfred Russel Wallace into print with the theory of natural selection, and the recent challenge to Noam Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar from the linguist Daniel Everett.
The two episodes are connected by the question of the origin of language. Soon after Darwin published The Origin of Species, the eminent German linguist Max Müller mocked efforts by Darwin and his disciples to discover the origin of language in bird song, onomatopoeic imitation of natural sounds, or a mother’s cooing. “Language is our Rubicon,” Müller wrote, “and no brute will dare to cross it.” Language allows us “to draw a hard and fast line between man and brute.”
A hard and fast line was just what Darwinians didn’t want. Evolution couldn’t be a Theory of Everything or an explanation of human origins unless it could account for language. According to Wolfe, Darwin was never able to get around Müller, and the issue of the origin of language “was abandoned, thrown down the memory hole, from 1872 to 1949.” Keep that time gap in mind.
Enter Noam Chomsky. Chomsky said that we possess an innate language “organ,” a “language acquisition device” embedded in our brains. A Martian linguist visiting Earth, Chomsky claimed again and again, would recognize that (in Wolfe’s words) “all languages on this planet were the same, with just some minor local accidents,” evidence of a biologically grounded Universal Grammar behind the diverse grammars of particular languages.
Wolfe’s sympathies are with the little guys who take on titanic intellectuals, with the “flycatcher” Wallace and with missionary-turned-anthropologist Daniel Everett. After decades of fieldwork among the Piraha, a tiny Amazonian tribe, Everett discovered that the tribe’s language, also called Piraha, doesn’t behave as Chomskyan theory says it should. Chomsky has argued that the ability to embed sentences within sentences (“recursion”) is a universal feature of language, but Piraha doesn’t use recursion. Piraha has no past or future tenses, no abstract color terms, no numbers. For years, Everett tried to squeeze Piraha into Chomskyan categories, but he finally concluded that cultural constraints play a more critical role in the formation of linguistic structures than Chomsky would have us believe. When Everett published his findings in Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes (2008), Chomsky’s acolytes came down hard. It’s an ongoing battle.
Wolfe relishes these tales of intellectual combat, which he tells with his usual rollicking bombast. He doesn’t show as much interest in exploring the kingdom of speech. That time period, 1872 to 1949, when Wolfe claims everyone had shoved questions about the origins of language down the memory hole, was the period when Heidegger was puzzling over Dasein’s residence in the “house of language,” when Wittgenstein was writing the manuscripts eventually published as Philosophical Investigations, when Saussure was giving his lectures on structural linguistics, which inaugurated a century-long debate about linguistic and cultural difference. The very period Wolfe dismisses witnessed a massive “linguistic turn” in European thought.
Because he ignores all this, Wolfe exaggerates Chomsky’s influence. (Charles Taylor’s recent The Language Animal barely mentions Chomsky.) Wolfe’s animus toward Chomsky seems personal and political more than intellectual. Chomsky is an ivory-tower leftist, formulating theories about language without leaving his cushy MIT office and attacking American foreign policy without braving it out in a war zone. Wolfe thinks it’s fun to stick pins in the pompous. Don’t we all? But that delight doesn’t tell us much about language.
Wolfe hopes that Everett’s work will deflate Darwin, too, by undermining the notion that Evolution is a Theory of Everything. Welcome as that outcome would be, it’s doubtful. For Everett, “speech had not evolved from anything—it was just a ‘cultural tool’ man had made for himself.” For a convinced Darwinian, that just moves the question a notch: The question isn’t “Did humans evolve a language organ?” but “How did humans evolve this capacity for cultural invention?” Wolfe’s variation on Everett, that language is a mnemonic tool, covers only a tiny province of the kingdom of speech.
Still, Wolfe is right to reintroduce Müller’s rebuttal, and he’s right that the question of the origin of speech is another way to pose the ultimately theological question of the origin of our species.
Peter J. Leithart is president of Theopolis Institute.
We depend on our readers. Please support First Things by making a donation today.