It is a dramatic fable, but at the end of the book we have not reached a real ending. Everett’s work is not enough to convince linguistics researchers, as Wolfe might wish, that they had “wasted half a century by subscribing to Chomsky’s doctrine of Universal Grammar”. But Everett is surely right in thinking that language is not going to be explained by the study of grammar alone.
We need to look at how humans evolved cooperative cultures in which effective communication was at a premium, and at “theory of mind”, which gives humans knowledge of the intentions of others. We need to understand the appearance of symbolic thought, and the hierarchical and recursive structuring of complex actions such as toolmaking. We need to ask how language “means” something, which grammar alone does not give, and how culture co-evolves with language so that we might see how an unstructured set of words slowly acquires deeper grammatical complexity. All these and many more are rich research areas alongside the continuing search for a universal grammar.
There is far more to language than Wolfe can handle in this short book, and growing excitement ahead. Everett himself has two new books in the works that will provide his own take on culture, symbolism and the appearance of language.
The balanced take is despite Wolfe’s skewering of Darwin and Chomsky.
Of course if we are looking for a way that it all just somehow happened and apes are doing it too, we will be left with nothing more than a string of papers that are obliged to fly in the face of reality or face oblivion, never mind censure.
See also: Oh dear, someone isn’t happy with Tom Wolfe’s Kingdom of Speech. A new dark age? Just because Wolfe skewers Chomsky’s pretensions and those of the Darwinians? My, my, we are getting very fragile already.
Can we talk? Language as the business end of consciousness
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