Or maybe I should say, Tom Wolfe's take on linguistics.
I've been an avid reader of Tom Wolfe's works since the 60s: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, The Right Stuff, The Painted Word, Bonfire of the Vanities). What I like most about his non-fiction is that, as a leader and exponent of the New Journalism, he writes with a flair that captures the reader's attention without sacrificing accuracy and objectivity. What attracts me to his novels is that they convey the impression of having been based on a huge amount of research, without in the least being turgid or dull.
I forget exactly how it happened, but about twenty years ago I became aware of Wolfe's interest in Chinese language issues, so we exchanged a couple of letters on that subject. I do recall that he asked some very intelligent questions about how Chinese characters worked. (I still have in my file cabinet his elegantly handwritten message on fine stationery.) Nonetheless, I would never have expected that he would one day apply his powers of critical investigation directly to the whole field of linguistic science. This he has now done in the following cover article in Harper's (August, 2016): "The Origins of Speech: In the beginning was Chomsky". And so it begins:
Nobody in academia had ever witnessed or even heard of a performance like this before. In just a few years, in the early 1950s, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student — a student, in his twenties — had taken over an entire field of study, linguistics, and stood it on its head and hardened it from a spongy so-called “social science” into a real science, a hard science, and put his name on it: Noam Chomsky.
At the time, Chomsky was still finishing his doctoral dissertation for Penn, where he had completed his graduate-school course work. But at bedtime and in his heart of hearts he was living in Boston as a junior member of Harvard’s Society of Fellows, and creating a Harvard-level name for himself.
As an aside, I might add that Wolfe, although a Yalie through and through, did some of the research for the last novel by him that I read, I am Charlotte Simmons (2004), at UPenn.
Here's a complete list of the tags for the article in Harper's, so you can get a pretty good idea of what it's about:
[20th century] [21st century] [Amazon River Region] [Comparative and general] [Daniel Leonard Everett] [Generative grammar] [Grammar] [Knowledge] [Language acquisition] [Language and culture] [Language and languages] [Linguistics] [Noam Chomsky] [Pictorial works] [Pirahã dialect] [Pirahã Indians] [Recursion theory] [Research] [Social life and customs] [Study and teaching] [Syntax] [United States]
Pretty serious stuff. Yet that's just for this article, which is but an extract (albeit a long one, fifteen two column pages) from Wolfe's forthcoming book, The Kingdom of Speech. Now 85, Wolfe is still sharp as a tack. So, once he decided to write a book about linguistics, he went whole hog and made a probing investigation of the entire discipline.
Here's the publisher's official description of the book:
Tom Wolfe, whose legend began in journalism, takes us on an eye-opening journey that is sure to arouse widespread debate. THE KINGDOM OF SPEECH is a captivating, paradigm-shifting argument that speech — not evolution — is responsible for humanity's complex societies and achievements.
From Alfred Russel Wallace, the Englishman who beat Darwin to the theory of natural selection but later renounced it, and through the controversial work of modern-day anthropologist Daniel Everett, who defies the current wisdom that language is hard-wired in humans, Wolfe examines the solemn, long-faced, laugh-out-loud zig-zags of Darwinism, old and Neo, and finds it irrelevant here in the Kingdom of Speech.
The two paragraph excerpt quoted above is all I could read online, so I ran off to Barnes & Noble to buy the August Harper's. I was prepared to buy the book too, but the B & N staff told me it wouldn't be available till the end of August.
Now that I have the Harper's in hand, I'll give two more excerpts, one that reveals Wolfe's clear preference for fieldwork and data collection over Chomsky's philosophizing and theorizing, and another from near the end that recapitulates the final results of 60 years of confident conjecturing.
Only wearily could Chomsky endure traditional linguists who thought fieldwork was essential and wound up in primitive places, emerging from the tall grass zipping their pants up. They were like the ordinary flycatchers in Darwin's day coming back from the middle of nowhere with their sacks full of little facts and buzzing about with their beloved multi-language fluency. But what difference did it make, knowing all those native tongues? Chomsky made it clear he was elevating linguistics to the altitude of Plato's transcendent eternal universals. They, not sacks of scattered facts, were the ultimate reality, the only true objects of knowledge. Besides, he didn't enjoy the outdoors, where "the field" was. He was relocating the field to Olympus. Not only that, he was giving linguists permission to stay air-conditioned. They wouldn't have to leave the building at all, ever again … no more trekking off to interview boneheads in stench-humid huts. And here on Olympus, you had plumbing.
In August of 2014, Chomsky teamed up with three colleagues, Johan J. Bolhuis, Robert C. Berwick, and Ian Tattersall, to publish an article for the journal PLoS Biology with the title "How Could Language Have Evolved?" After an invocation of the Strong Minimalist Thesis and the Hierarchical Syntactic Structure, Chomsky and his new trio declare, "It is uncontroversial that language has evolved, just like any other trait of living organisms." Nothing else in the article is anywhere nearly so set in concrete. Chomsky et alii note it was commonly assumed that language was created primarily for communication … but … in fact communication is an all but irrelevant, by-the-way use of language … language is deeper than that; it is a "particular computational cognitive system, implemented neurally" … there is the proposition that Neanderthals could speak … but … there is no proof … we know anatomically that the Neanderthals' hyoid bone in the throat, essential for Homo sapiens's speech, was in the right place … but …"hyoid morphology, like most other lines of evidence, is evidently no silver bullet for determining when human language originated" … Chomsky and the trio go over aspect after aspect of language … but … there is something wrong with every hypothesis … they try to be all-encompassing … but … in the end any attentive soul reading it realizes that all 5,000 words were summed up in the very first eleven words of the piece, which read: "The evolution of the faculty of language largely remains an enigma."
[VHM: All of the ellipses (…) in the above quotations are Wolfe's own]
What happened between the decades when Chomsky dominated linguistics with assurance and when he co-authored the questioning "How Could Language Have Evolved?" may, I think, in large part be explained by his gradual realization that maybe, just maybe, after all we are not hard-wired to speak when we come out of the womb, and that those Martians who come down to earth would not immediately realize that all the languages on this planet are basically the same, with only minor local variations, and that Daniel Leonard Everett and his beloved Pirahã had a lot to do with that Chomskyan transformation.
I will go back to Barnes and Noble as soon as I hear that they have The Kingdom of Speech in their store.
[Thanks to Mary Erbaugh]