The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe

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The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 2/5
Reviewer: Morgan Melchor
Reviewed by Morgan Melchor
Summary: A rollercoaster from Darwin to Chomsky to Everett; Wolfe shows us how important the faculty of speech is in our dominance of human beings, in his usual journalistic style.
Buy? No Borrow? No
Pages: 192 Date: August 2017
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1784704896

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If you are not having a fight with somebody, then you are not sure whether you are alive when you wake up in the morning.

With Tom Wolfe making such bold statements as this even up to the near-present (The Guardian in 2004), you can be sure that Wolfe, nearing 87, has lost none of his familiar argumentative style; or that his journalistic days are nearing a close, with his love of melodrama.

'The Kingdom Of Speech' is, loosely, based on the idea that speech, not evolution, is what raises human beings above the rest of the animal kingdom. Wolfe reckons that speech will soon be recognised as the Fourth Kingdom of Earth. (Along with animal, vegetable and mineral.) This is big talk, especially considering that this is Wolfe's own theory, not of someone in the field of linguistics. But, we will return to that.

When Wolfe sets out for a fight, he sets out with guns blazing. First in the firing line is Darwin. In the initial portion of the book, we hear the oh-so-familiar story of Darwin and Wallace concocting the same theory, but Darwin being the one to take the glory because in Wolfe's terms he was a gentleman and Wallace was a mere 'flycatcher.' (This term comes up repeatedly.)

Next, Wolfe takes on another giant: Noam Chomsky, or Noam Charisma, as Wolfe derisively calls him. And again, he comes down on the side of Daniel Everett, another 'flycatcher.' It seems to me that Wolfe has some personal issue with powerful people and just automatically sides with the 'other guy;' if so, is this really the right place to air these views? It's more of the rant of a guy with a chip on his shoulder than a serious academic text.

'The Kingdom of Speech' takes a long time to make its point, if indeed there is a point at all. Anything that can be said in three sentences is stretched out to three pages, peppered with obsolete ellipses and huge tangents. Wolfe also regularly writes as though from the point of any of his 'characters,' which feels very weird indeed when you get Darwin thinking in fear of Wallace once again forestalling me and my own priority, this time beyond the reach of any more monkey business by my Gentleman sidekicks… This bastard - you get the picture. It doesn't sit well. And it takes up page space. A lot of page space.

When Wolfe reaches Noam Chomsky and Daniel Everett's disagreement over the basic existence of something Chomsky calls the language organ I felt we were finally getting somewhere. Everett's work is highly controversial and really interesting. But, again we are treated to the same style of attack (OOOF! - right into the solar plexus!) without much substance. There is some fascinating information in there, but there's too little of it. Everett, part Christian missionary, part linguist, came upon a hitherto undiscovered Amazonian tribe who completely blew Chomsky's theories out of the water. When I finally felt we reached was the meat of the book, things just… stopped.

Had Wolfe run out of things to say? I may be slightly controversial in positing this, but it seems as though he is out of his depth. Linguistics is not Wolfe's area of study. He's a journalist. And a very readable one - if you like the style. (Which I, personally, do not.) But who is Wolfe to write this book?

The conclusion of the book is all Wolfe's, not more portraits of academic giants. Wolfe had a Bango! moment of his own (Wolfe uses all kinds of strange synonyms for 'eureka'): language is all simply mnemonics - man started to speak in order to remember things. And the more complicated the things, the more complicated the memory-aid, which is why (Wolfe claims) we now have between six and seven thousand mnemonic systems, otherwise known as languages. Why Wolfe, an author and journalist - undoubtedly a very clever one, but not a linguist - feels he can make this grand claim is very dubious.

Overall, this book is… I've got to say it: pretty irritating. I was irritated by Wolfe and his massive tangents, and I'm not entirely sure he actually understands the science behind evolution or, if he does, he hasn't shown that in this book.

For further reading, I would suggest Daniel Everett's: Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes, or, of course, Darwin's On The Origins of Species. Both are fantastic books and if you are at all interested in this subject, then they are far better written! You might also appreciate You Talkin' To Me?: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama by Sam Leith.

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