Book of the week
The Kingdom of Speech
Tom Wolfe’s very short new book is both “a gas to read” and “a little bit bonkers,” said Charles Mann in The Wall Street Journal. Taking a harshly skeptical look at prevailing theories about the origin of language, the 85-year-old author of The Right Stuff and The Bonfire of the Vanities paints Charles Darwin and the linguist Noam Chomsky as frauds who’ve hoodwinked us all into accepting that language is a product of the impersonal forces of evolution rather than an innovation wholly attributable to human ingenuity. “WTF?” I wrote in a page margin at about this point. Sure, I laughed out loud at the “gleeful” insults Wolfe flings at Darwin and Chomsky, both of whom are portrayed as elitist twits. But neither of those two hugely influential thinkers ever denied the role of human ingenuity in language’s story. Wolfe simply imagines he has an argument with them, then imagines he wins it.
The New Journalism pioneer “doesn’t even understand the theory he so despises,” said Jerry Coyne in The Washington Post. When he tries to cut the legs out from under the theory of evolution itself, the ostensible evidence he offers is wrong four times over. There’s never a chance he’d correctly present the evolutionists’ hypotheses about language: that the brainpower necessary to conceive of complex language developed gradually over time, and that language too developed gradually, from primitive utterances. Then he turns to Chomsky, who in 1957 proposed that all languages share certain structural characteristics, indicating that the human brain is wired for language. A dispute about Chomsky’s theory erupted a decade ago, but “every part” of the account we get in this book is wrong again. “Somewhere in his mission to tear down the famous, Wolfe has forgotten how to think.”
At least Chomsky was due for a toppling, said Caitlin Flanagan in The New York Times. Ever since he took a public stand against the U.S. war in Vietnam, he has been a saint of the Left and inspired countless lesser professors to waste their time playing public intellectual, as Wolfe’s scathing summary reminds us. “But what, Lord, does this have to do with the topic of language?” Not much, “thank God,” because colorful diversions are what’s best in The Kingdom of Speech, which is otherwise just “a short book by a big author on a dull subject.” Wolfe has left behind so much stylish writing, though, that he can rest assured that in a century Chomsky will not be nearly as widely read. “In the long run, the kingdom belongs to him.”