Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Kingdom of Speech, by Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe, known for New Journalism, non-fiction like The Right Stuff, and great fiction like A Man in Full and Bonfire of the Vanities, long ago established himself as one of the great American writers.  A new book from Wolfe is cause for celebration.  In The Kingdom of Speech, Wolfe puts on his intellectual historian/ academic journalist hat to take on intellectual icons and explore the origins of language.

Target #1: Charles Darwin.  Darwin's ideas about evolution were not wholly original.  He became the figurehead of a new movement due to his social status, his connections among the intellectual and cultural elite, and the support of activist atheists who saw evolution as a linchpin for their movement.  Wolfe recounts the tawdry details of the scheme to get Darwin publishing priority over Alfred Russel Wallace, essentially robbing Wallace of the acclaim due him.

Further, Wolfe asserts that Darwin's theories lack scientific support or evidence.  His origin story, starting with a few cells in muck, has as much scientific support as ancient creation stories involving dung beetles, praying mantises, or spiders.  Later, Darwin tried to explain the origin of speech, suggesting that early man imitated bird sounds, or attributed the fact that men have very little hair compared to apes to sexual preference.  Wolfe says Darwin's ideas had no more evidence than Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories.

Target #2: Noam Chomsky.  Chomsky's linguistic origin theories, in which he talks about a language organ which all people possess, came to monopolize the field of linguistics.  Wolfe describes Chomsky's rise to prominence, comparing him to other young, charismatic leaders who start cults of dedicated followers.  That's right: to Wolfe, Chomsky is a cult leader who spent decades bullying detractors to the point that he and his followers dominated the field.  When an anthropologist in the field, Daniel L. Everett, studied a very primitive language in the Amazonian jungle, his work discredited Chomsky's whole body of work.  Wolfe describes Chomsky's elaborate efforts to adjust his terminology and discredit Everett. 

Wolfe's point in all of this is to argue that language did not evolve.  Language is not something that comes from a specific organ located inside the brain.  Language is an artifact, a tool that people groups develop over time.  This development and use of language is what separates humans from the animals.  Besides the animal kingdom, vegetable kingdom, and mineral kingdom, Wolfe wants to recognize "the kingdom of speech, inhabited solely by Homo loquax."

I am not an academic or scholar in the fields of biology or linguistics.  But I have spent enough time in the world of the academy to be frustrated by the controlling nature of the dominant theories that hold certain fields in their grip, treating alternative views like heresy and shunning dissenters as harshly as the Spanish inquisition.  Wolfe isn't worried about the shots he might take for his view.  I appreciate his uniquely iconoclastic, witty style.  The Kingdom of Speech won't go down as one of Wolfe's more popular books, but it may be one of his most substantial and important.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about language

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