The Kingdom of Speech

Steven Poole in The Guardian:

WoolfWhat separates us from the other animals? The list of proposed answers is as long as your arm: rationality; cooking; religion; pointless games; making stuff; and so forth. But one popular answer has always been our power of language. The exact process by which we acquired it is mysterious. So here is Tom Wolfe to tell us why everyone to date has got it wrong. The book tells the story of two little guys up against two establishment bullies. The hard-grafting Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently co-discovered the principle of evolution by natural selection, didn’t stand a chance against Charles Darwin, who enjoyed “the eternally Daddy-paid-for life of a British Gentleman”. Darwin imagined his theory could explain everything, but Wallace eventually decided that it couldn’t explain language, which must after all have been God-given. A century later comes Noam Chomsky, revolutionising linguistics by suggesting that humans have an innate (therefore evolved) capacity to acquire languages: a built-in “deep grammar” or “universal grammar” or “language acquisition device” which explains, for example, how toddlers can easily construct novel well-formed sentences. (See also Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct.) “Nothing about Chomsky’s charisma was elegant,” Wolfe complains, perhaps wishing the object of his abuse had worn a white suit, and yet, he says, Chomsky ruthlessly dominated the field. Until, that is, a plucky, outdoorsy underdog called Daniel Everett spent some time with an Amazon tribe called the Pirahã and reported that their language lacks a certain feature (recursion, or nesting of ideas) that Chomsky had suggested might be universal, and so proved Chomsky wrong. The smoke cleared and the origin of language remained as elusive as ever.

Wolfe tells these stories with the kind of free-wheeling vim familiar from his brilliant books such as The Right Stuff and The Bonfire of the Vanities. Particularly in the way he ventriloquises the thoughts and worries of his protagonists, the book is superbly written, when it doesn’t tip over into a kind of self-parodic babble. (Darwin, we are assured, “was also a slick operator … smooth … smooth … smooth and then some”.) The only problem with Wolfe’s tales, really, is that they are irresponsibly partial accounts, riddled with elementary falsehoods.

More here.