Alan Perlman reviews Tom Wolfe’s “The Kingdom of Speech”

I just finished “The Kingdom of Speech,” by Tom Wolfe (2016, Little, Brown), author of “The Right Stuff” (about the first astronauts), “Bonfire of the Vanities” (a shot at NY’s elites), “A Man in Full,” (about the vulgar wealth of the New South), and many others I enjoyed immensely.  Apart from his stylistic peculiarities, Wolfe brings the informed layman’s perspective, which he fills in with rich detail and tells you things you weren’t aware you didn’t know, e.g., in “Right Stuff,” that ”burned beyond recognition” is often a sanitized way of saying “barbecued into a human turkey,” which Wolfe describes in detail.

In his latest, he takes on the field in which I, along with giants like Lakoff (over 100,000 citations), Pinker, and the Olympian BS artist Chomsky, have spent my life: linguistics.

Wolfe pads the book with a lot of extraneous material about various cultures’ creation myths and narration of the scholarly back-and-forth of tight-assed British gentlemen in itchy tweeds, as to who would publish what, the hypothesis of evolution having arisen, as is not uncommon, in more than one place.  Who would get credit?

What is of interest here is that Darwin wanted to believe that language was, like everything else about Homo Sapiens, a product of evolution.  He gamely and lamely tried to find the origin of human thought processes in his dog.  Many scholars guessed as to the source of language, and these guesses got ridiculous names, e.g., the “pooh-pooh” (language originated from emotional cries), the “ding-dong” theory (language came from imitating sounds in nature), and others.  For seventy years, linguists gave up on the search for the origins of language.  Completely gave up.

Wolfe gives lots of attention to linguistics’ major luminary and professional public intellectual (and America-hater), Noam Chomsky.  He revived linguistics and related it to cognitive science by pointing to specific brain structures that created language.  Never mind that nobody had ever found them. They were there.

Computer metaphors abounded and were taken as reality, e.g., that the brain is hard-wired to learn language.  What does that even mean?  His insights began to acquire the golden luster of Plato, Aristotle, Newton, and others in the pantheon.

But woops, as Wolfe would say.  Even as Chomsky was turning out books by the dozen and articles by the hundreds (and BTW, he has, amazingly, never been subjected to the peer review that others endured), another linguist claimed to have found a tribe so primitive that their language had no recursion (the process by which sentences are linked to and embedded within other sentences), which Chomsky considered universal.

Wolfe devotes many pages to this controversy, but what he should have given more emphasis to was the heretical notion that fundamental Chomskyian concepts — deep/surface structure, transformations, generative grammar – were imaginary metaphoric constructs, bearing no relation to physical reality.

Unlike previous generations – and Wolfe makes much of this – Chomsky and acolytes prefer sitting in front of computers in air-conditioned offices, introspecting and writing generative “trees” disgramsthat represent “my dialect,” instead of going out and learning other languages and seeing how different they really are.

But the dirty little truth is out: linguists, who have been very successful in labeling parts and processes, are completely stymied at the lips: how the acrobatics of the vocal organs create meaning, style, attitude, irony, social status, and much else in context, all at the same time with each utterance…we’ll never know.

Each sentence is a bit of performance art.

We can watch it all move, but how does that create meaningful sound, how does it create meaning in the mind of the hearer?  The answers involve brain processes that are related to consciousness itself, so we’re a long, long way off.

What exactly is going on when we split ourselves into three, as in “I don’t know if I can control myself” (actual sentence)?  How many “I”’s are there?  Or consider “I thought/said to myself…”.  Who is thinking or talking to whom?  I read that at some point, people realized that the voices in their heads weren’t gods, but themselves.  Wow!  Dawn of consciousness! Cue “2001” music!

Wolfe concludes that speech is both an artifact and a mnemonic.  I disagree with the first.  Language is in a class by itself.  It leads to all else.

As for mnemonics, I would relate them to the origin of language.  I prefer the (my own) “Scared Shitless” theory of the origin of language.

What’s the one thing (besides sex, I guess, but that’s a whole separate issue) that would cause primitive people to vocalize and cause everybody to adopt the same mnemonic?  Predators!  I bet the first vocalizations were attached to approaching wolves, bears, tigers, and other furry friends.  Necessity drives invention, right?

Might as well give names to the harmless ones, too.  Hey, let’s name everything else.  And language was off and running, provided our brains were developed enough to grasp it.  Eventually we learned to talk about things that weren’t there.

Next came  (i) expressions of time, as humans realized that things happened, were happening, or would/might happen; (ii) grammatical relations, as humans discovered that things/symbols could be put in relations to each other; (“drink water”) and (iii) the discovery that entities could have properties (“cold water”), leading to further combinations.

It might have taken thousands of generations to get to (iii), but any tribe smart enough to talk about the future and to give things names and properties and put them in simple relations to each other…had a tremendous advantage over those who couldn’t.

This probably happened many times, since the world’s languages are so different as to be unrelated to a common ancestor.

So language winds up being intertwined with evolution, after all, but not the way Darwin thought.  Language users predominated, easily.  From here it’s only 50,000 years till we get religion/literature (…and we’re still using language to BS ourselves!).

I wish Wolfe had devoted more space to the vicious way in which Chomsky’s acolytes attacked their predecessors.  And what a waste. All Chomsky did in 50 years, in an effort to make linguistics more scientific, was create new ways of diagramming sentences, invent imaginary brain structures, and plunge linguistics into its own Dark Ages, complete with heretics and Inquisition.

Let us confess that we linguists are little more than adept labelers (though good labeling can elucidate the way language seems to work)…and that the true bio-neuro-physical creation and interpretation of language will be a mystery for the foreseeable future.