I will stipulate up front that Tom Wolfe’s mannerisms can be annoying (especially if you read more than one of his books) and that no matter how much research he’s done, his view of linguistics is inevitably an outsider’s and will contain errors. Still, I was delighted to read Victor Mair’s Log post about Wolfe’s cover article in the August Harper’s, “The Origins of Speech: In the beginning was Chomsky.” The title caused me to fear the worst, but it turns out he (rightly, in my view) sees Chomsky’s revolution as a Bad Thing; here are a couple of snippets Mair quotes:
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.”
The article is a teaser for Wolfe’s forthcoming book, The Kingdom of Speech, which I hope sells like hotcakes. The Log comment thread has the inevitable quota of indignant responses from Chomskyists as well as one from Dan Everett, who says “I think that the main takeaway from Wolfe’s article and perhaps the book is that this is the opinion of someone who has looked carefully at the field for years. Some mistakes are likely his fault. Others are the fault of the field for having been unsuccessful in making itself understandable to the public.”