The Kingdom of Speech Noel Rude (native American specialist) kindly writes to say, re Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech:
But maybe we should pause a moment and ask just what the beef is between Daniel Everett and Noam Chomsky [addressed by Wolfe in detail. – ed.] –as seen by actual linguists. I can tell you what it isn’t. Hardly any linguist would now challenge the fact that language is creative and that there is at present no materialist theory whatsoever to explain this–though of course this fact is seldom mentioned.
Language, you see, divides between the physical medium (sound, symbols, words, grammar) and the nonphysical message. The big beef is not about the latter but the former. Chomsky intends no explanation for the latter, whereas the former, he has theorized, is biologically innate. He ascribed it to this elusive “language organ” no one has yet found.
Daniel Everett and the functionalists (now called cognitive linguists) claim that grammar arises from general cognitive abilities, that people simply invent it much like they invent whatever else they invent. It’s the old nature-nurture argument, as Richard Weikart describes in his latest book.
This, it seems to me, is arguing over trifles while the great mystery of consciousness and free will go unnoticed.
Both sides know that not all grammatical structure is biologically innate; else all grammars would be identical (as Jerry Coyne and others have noticed). Personally I think Chomsky is right and some is innate. Humans are biologically prepared for vocal language with an incredibly agile
tongue, marvelously fine-tuned larynx and acute pulmonary control, etc. No “language organ” may reside in the brain, but there is the neurological ability to hear and remember and produce complex sequences of sounds. And then if all else fails humans are equipped for sign language or braille–and of course there is the written word and now the internet.
Also I would suggest that if the mathematical realists are correct, then some of the logic of grammar must be discovered in the same way math is discovered and not simply invented. Mathematical Platonism, however, is anathema outside physics.
These nature-nurture arguments are interesting, though I don’t think either Daniel Everett or Noam Chomsky have as yet answered them definitively. But, as I said, the most interesting question involves not the physical aspects of the code and its production–which Amazon’s Aleksa also handles quite well, thank you–but the spiritual aspects which lie beyond any possible
So when y’all read the book and its reviews don’t forget the distinction between the medium and the message. And remember: Human language is the clearest window into the human soul.
See also: New York Times on “What a tease!” Wolfe’s Kingdom of Speech No one familiar with the scene thinks this honeymoon with Wolfe will last.
This time, Jerry Coyne is mad at NPR Weren’t hard enough on Tom Wolfe, author of The Kingdom of Speech
Chronicle Higher Ed review of Wolfe’s Kingdom of Speech
Prediction: Wolfe has damaged his reputation by blaspheming secular icons that are beyond reproach (Darwin, Chomsky) and thus will be remembered only among those who love facts and ideas.
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