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The kingdom of speech

Call Number: 
401 W855

Satirist Tom Wolfe is back with another contrarian broadside against sacred cows. In The Kingdom of Speech, Wolfe takes on two scientific icons, Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky.  In this slim, provocative volume, Wolfe risks the scorn of the scientific establishment by criticizing the self-importance of these legendary figures.

Wolfe contrasts the patrician Darwin, whose theories were always backed up by other English gentleman scientists, such as Charles Lyell, with the “flycatcher,” Alfred Russell Wallace, a working class naturalist who had difficulty finding support in the British scientific establishment. Both men are credited with the theory of evolution, but Darwin spent far more time on his estate than out in the field. While Darwin’s ideas about natural selection have been proven correct by subsequent scientific findings, Wolfe claims that he did not have credible notions of man’s acquisition of language and abstract thought.

Until the Cold War, linguistics was heavily influenced by anthropology. In order to keep up with other fields that were becoming increasingly scientific in the late 1940s, mathematical formulas were developed to explain the evolution of language  The Neo-Darwinian Noam Chomsky, whom Wolfe calls “Noam Charisma,” came up with his universal theory of language acquisition in graduate school.  Chomsky posited that every child is capable of understanding the universal rules of grammar because of a “language organ” which processes deep syntactic structures.  Chomsky later refined his theory to include the principle of “recursion,” that all humans could express multiple thoughts in the same sentence.

As Chomsky’s scientific stature grew, he became the foremost linguistics professor in the world.  Chomsky used his newfound gravitas to protest the Vietnam War, and his political activism merged socialism and libertarianism. From his perch at MIT, Chomsky became one of America’s most famous public intellectuals.

Let’s fast forward a few decades. Chomsky’s theories about human language acquisition are now under considerable scrutiny.  Daniel L. Everett, a linguistics professor and former missionary, has lived with a tribe deep in the Brazilian rainforest, the Pirahã people, who do not observe any of the rules of universal grammar.  They have no words for the past or future, make no tools, have no colors or numbers, and do not practice recursion.  There is a heated debate in the field of linguistics about whether Chomsky’s language theories can be applied on a universal basis. As forTom Wolfe, he suggests that speech is just another artifact of humanity; that the acquisition of language and abstract thought is a learned behavior, and not an evolutionary imperative.