Book of the Day: “The Kingdom of Speech” by Tom Wolfe
In his typically colorful and entertaining style, Tom Wolfe brooks no argument as he boldly declares in The Kingdom of Speech that language is the attribute that distinguishes humans from animals. Speech, he proclaims in the book’s opening pages, is “the attribute of all attributes and is 95 percent plus of what lifts man above animal!”
Wolfe arrives at his conclusion after a whirlwind tour of the development of evolutionary theory. Darwin, Wolfe points out, fails to provide in The Origin of Species any clues to the way that natural selection explains the development of language. Wolfe humorously observes that “mildly negative reviews of his book hit [Darwin] like body blows, and the fierce ones cut him through to the gizzard.”
Wolfe points out that in the 19th century, Max Müller and Alfred Russel Wallace challenged Darwin on the subject of language and natural selection, with Müller contending that language elevates animals in the fullest way. Although Darwin attempts to explain the rise of language as a part of the evolutionary process in The Descent of Man, he fails miserably, according to Wolfe, and, as a result, “in the entire debate over the Evolution of man—language—was abandoned, thrown down the memory hole, from 1872-1949.”
Linguist Noam Chomsky—whom Wolfe calls “Noam Charisma”—rides in on his semantic white horse, introducing “universal grammar,” with which every child is born. Through his field studies with a small tribe in Brazil, one of Chomsky’s students, David Everett, concludes that speech is an artifact and explains “man’s power over all other creatures in a way Evolution all by itself can’t begin to.”
In the end, Wolfe declares that speech will soon be recognized as the “Fourth Kingdom of the Earth” alongside the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms.
Stimulating, clever and witty, Wolfe’s little book is sure to provoke discussion about the role language plays in making us human.
This article was originally published in the September 2016 issue of BookPage.