Notes on “The Kingdom of Speech”

Fenster speaks:

The Kingdom of Speech, Tom Wolfe’s idiosyncratic reading of evolution, linguistics and language, ends with a paean to speech.  SPEECH! 

(Note to editor: italicize that word for emphasis.  Capitalize it of course.  And, since this is speech, we need a spoken exclamation point too, Victor Borge’s ssssh  ptt.)!

Makes sense, no? After all, Wolfe is a speech guy through and through.  As he wrote in Back to Blood, “SMACK  Aaaaaahhhhhhmmmm  uugggggghhhh  No mia malhablada puta gorda. We een Mee-ah-mee now.  You een Mee-ah-Mee now!


He is a little more restrained in The Kingdom of Speech.  Near his crescendo-like conclusion he writes:

But this is his conclusion and I am getting ahead of myself.

Let’s start by asking if it is appropriate  at all for a general reader to comment on a scientific work written for a general audience?  And I mean comment on the guts of it, on the science part?

I myself would hesitate greatly to critique Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. But what the heck I will take a chance and comment on The Kingdom of Speech.  The science here, such as it is, is linguistics.  That is something I know about as, if you will, a practitioner but hardly as a scholar.

There are several factors that give me the confidence to critique.

First, the underlying argument that Wolfe develops is that there is less than meets the eye to the science of linguistics .  It is harder for scientists to maintain a position of mansplaining privilege in writing for the popular audience if a smart layman can take apart the claims to science (that’s a big “if”, as we will see).

Second, even if we accept the claims of structural, computational or psycholinguistics to science, our intimate familiarity with the object of study – as compared with say, quantum mechanics  — will inevitably invite our attention.

Third, Wolfe writes not as a scientist himself so why can’t I critique in the same spirit?  Actual science is seldom so exuberant, even from a showboat like Steven Pinker.  Here, while Wolfe is more restrained than in his past work, he continues to write in his trademark style: showman, wit, and most dexterous purveyor of—what would be the word?—oh, yes, language!

The fact that Wolfe is not a scientist does not mean he avoids a critical reading of the field.  In fact, that is just what he is attempting: a critical reading, more in the manner of The Painted Word or From Bauhaus to Our House than a deep review of the drawbacks of deep grammar.  In fact many of the joys and frustrations in reading this book lie in its similarity to those earlier works in which art and architecture are subject to critical, not scientific, scrutiny.

Joy: because It is a fun read,  and it is enjoyable to see Noam Chomsky gently skewered, and given a similar treatment to the one Clement Greenberg received in The Painted Word.  But frustrating too.  You want to give Wolfe room to dance about in his usual way but you also do have to wonder what is missing.  Where art and architecture is concerned the proper response to criticism is criticism, and it is fine for Wolfe to fight fire with fire.  The proper response to science is, or ought to be, science.

That said, I say accept Wolfe’s reading on its face and let’s see what it tells us, hard science or not.  As he points out in the book, language has both lexical and expressive roots, and as long as he is a master of the expressive let’s at least see what he does with this power.

This is a short book.  An extended essay, really.  It consists of several parts.  Wolfe starts out with a brief history of how Darwin got credit for the idea of natural selection and Wallace got sloppy seconds.  It is a funny account—funny on its face and funny in how it so embodies Wolfe’s major preoccupation with status.  With Wolfe, it’s all about status.  Darwin was elite and Wallace was not, and that tells the tale as to who got wot.

Wolfe no doubt could not help himself when presented with a target like Darwin—why not make him a Leonard Bernstein character?– someone who fancies himself as having only noble intentions when in truth clueless about his real motivation, status.  This makes for an interesting diversion but we don’t learn too much about natural selection in this opening.

When we do get to the science of the mid 1800s, Wolfe reminds us that in the absence of a genetic explanation for why species morph over time natural selection was necessarily operating without an actual explanatory driver.  Yes, one could observe animals in their habitats and come to a eureka moment that change must have occurred.  But without genetics, the how of it could not be addressed.

This prompts Wolfe to remind us of the just-so story quality of a lot of evolutionary thinking, a trait that was pronounced in Darwin’s day as a result of not having an explanation for the how of it, but that persists in evolutionary thinking today.  This permits him, too, some latitude to poke gentle fun at Darwin’s  just-so thinking.

This does seem a little unfair.  Not  . . . sporting, really.  Yes, it took the fusing of genetics and natural selection to create the powerhouse of evolutionary theory, but if Darwin and his peers only had half the idea at their disposal they did with it what they could.

Wolfe then turns to the large question—very large at the time of The Origin of the Species—of whether natural selection only worked on the birds and the bees.  Or whether it also explained—in the title of Darwin’s next book written at a safe distance of 12 years—The Descent of Man.

Mankind eventually did get dragged kicking and screaming into the maw of natural selection.  But the question of language was never satisfactorily addressed.  How did bird imitation make the jump to words and sentences?  And even after genetics is allowed into the explanation, the question arises as to how such genetic change occurred.  If it was a mutation that did the trick—something that allowed an embedding of grammar rules deep in our brains—how did we end up in the quite recent past with a brain that had had no prior experience with poetry, scientific reasoning and higher mathematics but seemed ready made for them?

Wolfe argues that this question remained unresolved in Darwinian terms and that it took until the mid-twentieth century for science to return to the topic.  And here he comes to the main character in his set-piece: Noam Chomsky.  My own lack of deep familiarity with deep grammar rules precludes me from deep comments here.  Suffice it to say that Chomsky is portrayed as a man so brilliant and with such force of personality that his approach to linguistics quickly became settled science.  But that that settled science was unstable because it rested less on actual science than a combination of Chomsky’s brilliance and his intense charismatic ways.

Wolfe takes us through an inside baseball debate—which I cannot evaluate—concerning a challenge to Chomsky’s key argument that the rules of grammar are essentially hard wired into our biological brains.  The challenger—one Daniel L. Everett—took a different view of language.  Unlike Chomsky (and Darwin) but like Wallace, Everett worked in the field, and was thus more open to the actual facts of language than theories about it.  His field work experience was with a remote Amazonian tribe and he reported that, no, their language did not seem to fit the Chomskyian view.  Wolfe explores this tension at considerable length, with interesting asides dealing with the problems of snakes and other life-threatening critters in the Amazon.

And where does he end the discussion of this to-do?  With a 2014 article by Chomsky and three other researchers. I’ll let Wolfe tell the story:

So it’s all an enigma.  This feels a bit pat, in the manner of a college paper.  See, Chomsky himself wrote this article!  There it is, right there!  So there!

Wolfe could have let the story end at this point.  The most esteemed scientists of the 19th and 20th centuries–Darwin and Chomsky—labored to produce a satisfactory account of language, and neither was able to do it.

But wait!  As long as the science amounts to highly convincing just so stories why should the scientists have all the fun?  So in the last ten pages Wolfe recounts his own One Bright Night “Eureka” moment—or, as he puts it, a Bango! moment.

Wolfe’s non-scientific blinding insight seems to me pretty simple—indeed perhaps too simple.  It’s all about mnemonics, see?  A mnemonic is a “device”, a kind of code, something that stands for something else.  We don’t have to worry about their inner life as they wander through an innate interior grammatical universe since they are tools just the same as the bone we use as a club to beat other bones to a pulp.  We have the skill to use bones; we have the skill to use mnemonics as devices.


Wolfe: “Speech, language is a matter of using these mnemonics, i.e., words, to create meaning.”

But doesn’t this just explain, if you will, the lexical aspect of language?  We come to understand “rock” has a name, as does “food”, “dog” and “Highway to Heaven”.  But are the meanings of words–their device value–all there is to language?  A series of ever more complex word meanings?  What about expression?  What about structure?  What about for that matter . . . . grammar?  Wolfe’s one bright night Bango! insight was apparently deeply satisfying to him.  But is it just another example of a just so story?  And have we made any actual progress?

Moreover there is irony in the very last sentence of the book: “speech is what man pays homage to in every moment he can imagine”.

Compare that with this passage from The Painted Word:  “All these years, in short, I had assumed that in art, if nowhere else, seeing is believing. Well—how very shortsighted! Now, at last, on April 28, 1974, I could see. I had gotten it backward all along. Not ‘seeing is believing,’ you ninny, but ‘believing is seeing,’ for Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.”

So what Wolfe proclaimed in an ironic way in 1974 he now embraces with enthusiasm.  With art, and with everything, we celebrate speech.



So step up and choose your just so-story.

My favorite: Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language, a book that Wolfe does not discuss but which comes close to his way of thinking.

Check out the book. Deutscher takes the reader through his own just so story, one that I personally find very persuasive.  He moves from a theorized Me Tarzan stage where words were used for simple things.  Wolfe might call these mnemonics.  Deutcher uses the term metaphor.  The word rock stands for rock.  But since we understand it in the first instance using our metaphoric imagination, the human minds riffs endlessly on new and related metaphors as new situations arise.  Rock means rock.  Rock means solid.  He is rock solid.  He is a rock.  Rock Hudson.  And so on.

Is this speculation of a sort?  Yes, but while Deutscher’s ideas are not able to be empirically tested using the scientific method there is some method to his thinking.  Essentially, he works backwards, showing how complex terms today are very likely the result of metaphor accretions over long periods of time—a reef of metaphors, as he says.

Under this view there could well be a natural history to the development of language.  Is it enough to say it is built on the accretion of metaphors?  Does there need to be an underlying deep grammar capability at the same time?  Damned if I know.  Go ask a linguist.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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2 Responses to Notes on “The Kingdom of Speech”

  1. bjdubbs says:

    I read the essay in Atlantic and I’m almost embarrassed for Wolfe. He is completely out of his depth. The linguists I knew in college were some of the smartest people I will ever meet, Derek Bickerton’s books on the origins of language (and his bio) are hilarious and even exhilarating accounts of the origin of language, definitely worth reading even if you’re not that interested in the topic.


    • Fenster says:

      Even if he is right that Chomsky’s paper is the dead end he says it is–and I can’t evaluate that claim–he just doesn’t seem to have the chops.


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