The Kingdom of Speech (Book Review)

The Kingdom of Speech, written by Tom Wolfe, is a simple and interesting book looking at the miracle of human speech, or language.

Wolfe begins with the theory of evolution and Charles Darwin. I’m not sure how much Wolfe believes, or disbelieves, in evolution, but he does criticize it here. Most people are unaware that Darwin was almost “scooped” in his theory by a man named Alfred Wallace. Wallace, who was not a member of the elite class like Darwin was, sent in a paper to Darwin explaining the idea that evolution occurred through the process of natural selection. Darwin had already thought up that idea himself, but had not yet put his thoughts to paper hoping to collect more evidence for it. Darwin gave Wallace credit for the idea, but in a backhanded way — “He, Darwin, would not be claiming priority. Just the opposite. He was extending a magnanimous hand to a newcomer. He would be making room on the stage for a lowly flycatcher to be heard.” (Wolfe)

Darwin, of course, wanted his theory of evolution to apply to Man in every way. The one issue that didn’t seem to fit though was language. How did language evolve? Darwin wrote that it came from birds tweeting and animals grunting and so forth. Wallace, however, wrote in an essay entitled, The Limits of Natural Selection as Applied to Man, that language was an absolute dividing line between Man and animal. This conundrum stymied Darwin and other evolutionists on the issue of language, and the field of linguistics entered into, what Wolfe names, its Dark Ages for about three quarters of a century.

Then came Noam Chomsky. Chomsky has been seen as the god of linguistics since the 1950s. Chomsky’s big idea was/is that language evolved in Man over time, and now every human has what’s called the “language organ.” The language organ functions in every person just like the heart or kidneys do — it’s just there and it is functioning from the moment of birth. Chomsky also put forth the idea of recursion. Recursion is the ability of humans to place one thought within another (in one sentence) in a potentially endless series. For example: John has a nice house … John, your brother, has a nice house … John, your brother, has a nice house on thirty-first street … John, your brother, has a nice house on thirty-first street, which he purchased from his father in law … etc… etc… The idea of recursion became orthodox within linguistic circles — like a law of nature, Wolfe says — Noam Chomsky – like Newton, Copernicus, Einstein – had discovered a new law!

Now enters Daniel Everett. Everett is a failed missionary, ex-Christian, who lived and worked with the Pirahã (pronounced Pee-da-hannh) people for many years. He is one of the only people who actually learned the Pirahã’s language. Everett found no examples of recursion among the Pirahã, and he refuted Chomsky’s theory by suggesting that, rather than humans evolving language and developing a language organ, humans instead developed language as a tool after evolving to the current state — a tool, much in the same way humans have developed hammers, axes, bows & arrows, and computers. Language is not a direct product of evolution, but rather an artifact invented by humans after evolving to the point when humanity was capable of developing such a thing.

This idea caused much controversy in the linguistics world, and the gods (Chomsky & followers) were not happy. But, even though Everett was dismissed as being a low-brow hack, his idea did change the flow of thought in linguistics and brought things to the point where no one really knows anymore where language came from. “Language — what is it? What is it? Chomsky’s own words at age eighty-five after a lifetime of studying language! The previous 150 years had proved to be the greatest era ever in solving the riddles of Homo sapiens — but not in the case of Homo loquax, man speaking. A parade of certified geniuses had spent lifetimes trying to figure it out — and failed.” (Wolfe)

Wolfe completes his book with some of his own conclusions. He seems to agree with Everett — speech is a tool developed by Man, enabling Him to take dominion of the world. Notice how the words of one man, like Jesus or Muhammad, can control millions of people over centuries: “[T]he power of one person to control millions of his fellow humans — for centuries — is a power the Theory of Evolution cannot even begin to account for … or abide.” (Wolfe)

“Speech ended not only the evolution of man, by making it no longer necessary for survival, but also the evolution of animals.” (Wolfe)

The elephant in the room, which Wolfe never mentions but I will, is God. God: the Great Speaker, who created all things with His Word, and then breathed His breath into Man making him His image bearer. Man does have dominion over the world because Man can speak, and that speech is a gift – not a product of evolution – straight from God. God sustains the universe by His Word, all things were made through His Word, and that Word became flesh for all to see: Jesus (John 1:1-14). So, the mystery of speech is no mystery to the Christian.

All in all, The Kingdom of Speech, is a good book — an easy read which I recommend to anyone interested in the field of linguistics and the power of speech.

I gave it 4/5 stars.

Further reading: Kingdom of Language by Peter Leithart, First Things

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