Monday, December 12, 2016

The Kingdom of Speech

I just read a strange book on linguistics called The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe, published August 2016. I don't recall buying it, it must have been a $1 Kindle special or something.

I describe it as strange for several reasons. Wolfe's writing style is cynical, even flippant. His writing reminds me of one of the Uncle John's Bathroom Reader series, "Plunges into History" (2001). For example in describing Charles Darwin's response to the letter from Alfred Wallace (in which Wallace introduces his "survival of the fittest" theory of the origin of species which Darwin had been musing about for 20 years but never published or even written down) as "freaking out" (Wolfe does apologize for the anachronism).

Wolfe frequently wanders off in tangents. He "surfed and Safaried and finally moused upon..." an academic from Rice University upon which he wonders for half a page on how the Rice football team is doing and wanders from there to a discussion on concussions in the NHL.

The whole point of the long chapter on Darwin and Wallace seems to be merely to introduce the concept of the "flycatcher", a rather derogatory term for science field men, as opposed to the wealthy Gentleman Scientists like Darwin and Sir Charles Lyell. Because Wallace was considered a mere flycatcher, Wolfe argues, he was not given due recognition for his insights.

Wolfe next attacks Noam Chomsky, undoubtedly the most influential linguist of the 20th century. Chomsky's biggest asset, according to Wolfe, is his charisma. He compares him to Joseph Smith of the Mormons, the Buddha, Ron Hubbard and several other leaders of religious cults, and then for his youthful success to Joan of Arc, Alexander the Great and Napoleon. Chomsky and his followers deplore fieldwork, becoming "air-conditioned armchair linguists with their radiation-bluish computer-screen pallors and faux-manly open shirts."

Wolfe's biggest problems with Chomsky, other than his unprecedented domination of a field of study, was two of his theories - the Language Organ and Universal Grammar. The language organ theory developed and promoted by Chomsky argues that humans are born with a built in ability for language complete with what he called a "Universal Grammar" - basic syntax and structure, and the 6,000+ languages spoken around the world are mere variations of this. One of these structures is recursion, the ability to put thoughts inside of thoughts inside of thoughts. I use recursion in my own writing a lot (probably too much?) and have done so long before I even knew there was a name for it. Recursion, according to Chomsky (according to Wolfe), is what separates language from communication among other animals.

Wolfe also criticizes Chomsky for his political writings and activism, but that seems to me to be irrelevant to the case at hand. I have a copy of Chomsky's short book "9-11" on American foreign policy that makes sense to me.

The flycatcher term reappears in the chapter on Dan Everett and his 30 year study of the Piraha, a small tribe deep in the Amazon jungle. The Piraha have a very simple culture and a correspondingly simple language. Their only significant artifacts are bows and arrows. Their housing is little more than temporary shelters of branches and leaves. They have no leader, no class structure, no religion, no music. Their language likewise is simple - they use only 3 vowels and 8 consonants. They have no words for yesterday or tomorrow (only "today" and "other day") so have no concept of history or future. There is in fact only one tense, the present. They have no names for colors. They have no names for numbers, not even one and two, just a vague concept of a little and a lot. The simplicity of the language however does not make it easy to learn, and is described by Everett (the only outsider to become fluent in the language) as the most difficult language in the world with "highly esoteric constructions in grammar, including meaningful glottal stops and shifts in tone, plus a version consisting solely of bird sounds and fool their prey while out hunting." However one thing the Piraha language did not have is recursions. Every sentence is simple and straightforward. Everett believed he was experiencing a civilization preserved virtually unchanged for thousands of years and that the Piraha represented an early stage of human culture and language.

Everett published an article in Current Anthropology August-October 2005 describing the Piraha and arguing that, contrary to Chomskyan theory, the Piraha's grammar comes from their culture, not from any preexisting mental template. In 2008 Everett published a book aimed at the public about the Piraha which he called "Don't Sleep - There Are Snakes". The title comes from the Piraha's typical "good-night" greeting. (It's on my wish list!)

The Current Anthropology article, according to Wolfe, struck the Chomsky universal grammar with a "OOOF!--right into the solar plexus!...". Wolfe explicitly compares Everett with Wallace: "Everett struck them as a born-again Alfred Russel Wallace, the clueless outsider who crashes the party of the big thinkers."

Everett was immediately attacked by Chomsky's minions (my word - I'm surprised Wolfe didn't think of it) and accused him among other things of being a shameless liar and making claims no one will bother to check. Everett one-upped this claim by inviting a New Yorker magazine writer John Colapinto and linguist W. Tecumseh Fitch to visit the Piraha and see for themselves. Colapinto's story, published in April 2007, became instantly popular and Wolfe imagines Chomsky fuming
"...the New Yorker called him Dan, not Daniel L. the magazine's eyes he was an instant folk hero...Little Dan standing up to daunting Dictator Chomsky."
Another thing that sticks out in Wolfe's book is his thumbing his nose at what he considers "political correctness". In referring to the various groups being studied by linguistic field workers he writes "...among more breeds of na--er...indigenous peoples..." He must have thought this joke rather clever and funny for he repeats it five or six times throughout the book. Another time he refers to "the Inuit (the new "politically correct" name for Eskimos) at the North Pole...". To me, all Wolfe is doing here is proudly displaying his own ignorance.

Wolfe then goes on to relate several incidences from Everett's book: rushing his wife Keren who was dying of fever to a hospital upriver; and warding off an attack of Piraha men under the influence of cachaca, the local alcoholic beverage. To what purpose? I can only assume to make his readers want to read Everett's book. It adds nothing to the theme of his own book that I can see.

In the final chapter  Wolfe rambles on about the various directions that linguistics are moving in but ends with Everett's theory that language is a cultural tool, an artifact if you will, that man has made himself to represent things. Language is the ultimate form of mnemonics. Wolfe ends with his own personal revelation that speech was the first artifact and was essential for the creation of all the rest that have followed.

If you are still with me here, I'm going to share my own inexpert opinions on the theories discussed in this book.

Universal Grammar and the Language Organ - I believe there is something to this but it's not as hard wired as some portray it. The human brain is wired to learn language at an early age but the lexicon (list of words) and grammar that they learn varies considerably among the 6,000+ languages still spoken today. Words and grammar are artifacts in that they have been created by the people who spoke the language before, and are slowly changed, in ways fairly well understood, by the people who are speaking them now. But language itself is not an artifact. We are not all born with the ability to make pottery or weave textiles - we have to learn those and not everyone does. But everyone learns a language. We will never know, but it is possible and quite likely that all languages have a common ancestor.

The Piraha - From what we know of human migration, the ancestors of peoples in the Amazon jungle came from Asia some time in the last 10-20 thousand years. These ancestors had a well developed culture and language. I believe the simplicity of the Piraha culture and language is an example of regression rather than an early stage of development. For whatever reasons - isolation, catastrophic loss of elders, etc, they lost much of their ancestors' culture and language. Like fish who live in dark caves lose their sight. They didn't need to count so lost the ability to do so. Every day is much the same so no need to remember history or plan for the future. Interestingly the only artifact they retained is the bow and arrows, a rather sophisticated hunting tool important for survival. Had this culture been discovered in the Kalahari in a branch of the San people, there would be a stronger argument for this being a truly primitive (early stage of development) example of culture and language, but even then I believe regression would have played a significant role.

Other than display his gross ignorance, Tom Wolfe accomplished little in the writing of this book. He did generate some discussion on the topic, which I suppose always does some good. He makes a few valid points - that the domination of a field of study by an individual stifles progress; that Wallace didn't get the recognition he deserved; and that field workers are as important as office theorizers in advancing knowledge.

There are many critiques of this book. I wrote this before reading any of them to provide my own unbiased impressions. If you would like to see what other, more knowledgeable writers have to say, you can find some links here:
The Kingdom of Speech [Wikipedia]
The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe - a bonfire of facts reeking of vanity [Book of the Day]
Tom Wolfe's The Kingdom of Speech Takes Aim at Darwin and Chomsky [New York Times]
His white suit unsullied by research Tom Wolfe tries to take down Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky. [by Jerry Coyne, Washington Post]


  1. Just noticed that Wolfe was 85 when this book was published. Perhaps this shows that at this age we should restrict our writing to our memoirs, rather than critiquing an unfamiliar scientific field.

  2. Now THIS is a book review. Good thing you didn't pay more than a dollar for the book. Someone must have peed in Wolfe's cornflakes for sure. I am familiar with Chomsky's political writings and in general agree. Don't know his linguistic work other than by reputation.

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  4. The Everett Chomsky debate continues. This was in the 5 OCt 2017 The Economist.

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