Archive for December, 2016

Kingdom of Speech

Monday, December 12th, 2016

unknown By Tom Wolfe

The Short Take:

Wolfe has fun, in this slim nonfiction book, looking at speech as a result of evolution and then debunking the idea. He’s no scientist, but I rather enjoyed his irreverent portrayals of Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky.

Why?

Let me make it clear: I do not buy Wolfe’s position that Homo sapiens is not a product of evolution. However, while he boldly makes that claim in this book, his true subject is whether language evolved. That is an interesting subject, indeed.

Darwin, Chomsky, and others have tried to determine just what language/speech is. These two — and many others — believed it was the result of evolution. Others think it is an artifact — something humans made, like stone tools.

Learning about Alfred Russel Wallace (the unsung co-creator of the theory of natural selection) and Daniel Everett (whose 30 years with an isolated Amazon tribe turned linguistic theories upside-down) was worth the 167-page read. Gaining insight into the world of linguistic studies was also interesting. But, Wolfe’s lack of knowledge (disinterest?) in the vast science supporting evolution was dismaying.

A Little Plot:

Wolfe starts his story with those men who first proposed a process of evolution (which included Darwin’s grandfather and even earlier proponents). He ends in the present day. In between he traces theories and studies about what language is/isn’t and how it came about.

PS. I couldn’t help but wonder if Wolfe has been hanging out with John Irving — he made that same obnoxious use of italics and exclamation points. Maybe he was making fun of his own position? I hope so.

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