Origins of Speech
How Tom Wolfe Gets Us Talking
October 17, 2016
Tom Wolfe, Noam Chomsky (inset) and Charles Darwin (inset)
Noam Chomsky would seem an irresistible figure for lampooning by Tom Wolfe, whose career has been devoted to eviscerating the preening of America’s bien pensant class. Since the Vietnam war, when he looked like nothing less than Dennis the Menace's father, Chomsky has been the very model of left-wing indignation. In The Kingdom of Speech, Wolfe places him among the brave intellectuals of that era "willing to leave the office, go to the streets, and take part in antiwar demonstrations"—yet whose arrests "were of the token variety that seldom caused the miscreant to miss dinner out." Beginning with his essay "The Responsibility of Intellectuals" (1967), Chomsky has churned out hundreds (make that thousands) of grim, anticapitalist pronouncements and accusations of the United States as a murderous one-party state ruled by a managerial elite.
Yet it is not Chomsky's role as a left-wing gadfly that is Wolfe's major brief here. Before there was Chomsky the political icon there was Chomsky the linguist. His current outsized status is a case of what economists call the multiplier effect. Beginning in the late 1950s, Chomsky awakened the world to the issue of language, providing "the entire structure, anatomy, and physiology of language as a system." His authority moved linguistics from its position as "a satellite orbiting around language studies" to "the main event on the cutting edge." By 1960, linguists were reduced "to filling in gaps and supplying footnotes for Noam Chomsky."
Why the fuss over language, anyway? And why on earth does Tom Wolfe care? It comes down to evolution, a theory embedded in "the very anatomy, the very central nervous system, of all modern people." Wolfe grants the opposable thumb, but not the notion that human speech sprang from the loins of orangutans. Language, in Wolfe's account, is an artifact created by man and, like all of man's tools from slingshots to iPhones, has allowed Homo sapiens to take control of the world. It is the sine qua non of being human. Wolfe's final words, literally, on the subject: "To say that animals evolved into man is like saying that Carrara marble evolved into Michelangelo's David."
Before reaching that point, Wolfe tells two interconnected stories. One concerns the way an idea comes to hold an exalted position over men's minds and changes our ways of thinking about the world. Wolfe's examples of such power are Jesus, Muhammad, John Calvin, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Charles Darwin. The second story is about the institutional power that transfixes, multiplies, nails down the idea in men's minds—and marginalizes, Palinizes, and slanders those who emerge from low-lying swamps with a different narrative.
Darwin's big idea was the Theory of Evolution. Darwin didn't dare to go so far, but everyone knew that On the Origin of Species (1859) concerned the evolution of humans. Despite the outrage of clerics, the idea was massively promoted by individuals such as Thomas Huxley, who didn't even believe in evolution but was an out-and-out materialist, i.e., atheist. (Understanding the power of language, Huxley wisely coined "agnostic" to describe himself.) Before long, "At the higher altitudes of society, as well as in academia, people began to judge one another socially according to their belief, or not, in Darwin's great discovery." Sound familiar?
It was, of course, language itself that promoted, then institutionalized, Darwinism in newspaper reviews, learned societies, and scholarly articles. Nothing in the fossil record, however, explained the miracle of human communication. Even Alfred Russel Wallace, whom Darwin finessed on the priority issue, denied an animal genealogy for speech. From the get-go, the size of the human brain—which allowed people to think abstractly, to plan ahead (of which no animal is capable), to comprehend space and time—"was so far beyond the boundaries of natural selection" as to render that term meaningless "in explaining the origins of man." In The Descent of Man, his sequel to Origin, Darwin sought to prove that humans were simply very smart parrots, hardwired for speech, thereby bringing the missing Homo sapiens into "the big picture of evolution." The Oxford linguist Max Müller, although without ever naming Darwin, referred to the notion that language had evolved from animal sounds as the "bow-wow theory." Despite his name and birthplace, Müller was also a certified English Gentleman and insisted on a "hard and fast line between man and brute," a "Rubicon." There the matter rested, and studies of the origins of language fell into dogmatic slumber by the turn of the 20th century.
Enter Noam Chomsky, who revived the notion of the biological origin of language by identifying—eureka!—the device in the brain where the capacity for speech was stored. Maybe not an actual device, or gadget, or thing-amabob, but it had a name: language acquisition device, or LAD. Again, we are in "hard-wired" territory, as the LAD represented an "innate" capacity of the human brain. The instant a child, whether in Timbuktu or in Paris, is exposed to human speech, the hypothetical LAD goes into operation. It is programmed with a universal grammar, which likewise does not have to be taught. In the early 1960s, Chomsky's theory acquired the name transformational grammar, or TG, as linguists worked out the theory by churning out analyses that described the rules by which ever-more-complicated linguistic constructions are generated. Thus, "Mary is liked by John" might be considered a transformation of "John likes Mary," generated from an underlying deep structure. All languages, whatever their surface structure, work the same way, and humans easily recognize such variations and are also able to distinguish and to disambiguate—"What annoyed John was being ignored by Mary"—all because of that little LAD.
Chomsky's theory, like Darwin's, was based on what Wolfe calls an "uncontroversial" assumption: that language had evolved, that the human mind had an innate capacity for language, and that all languages share certain universal forms. Chomsky's institutional power has been such that no one has been able to weaken that edifice—even if, Mao-like, Chomsky has revised and retrofitted his doctrine to the point that it resembles a Rube Goldberg device. Despite millions of dollars in funding and decades of research, however, a "language organ" has never been located, while Chomsky's earlier oracular pronouncements simply fall into a deep well of oblivion.
One of Chomsky's updatings to the arsenal of universal linguistic features was recursion, unveiled in 2002. An example: "Mary suspected that John's failure to arrive for their date meant that he could not be counted on to get them to the airport on time." By my count, that sentence nests at least five separate thoughts.
Enter Daniel Everett, who, beginning with a 25,000-word article in 2005, debunked Chomsky's language organ, along with LAD, universal grammar, and deep structure. Unlike Chomsky and his acolytes, Everett actually went out into the field—indeed, into the remotest Amazonian rain forest—where he lived for several decades with the exceedingly isolated Pirahã tribe. Their isolation is reflected in the archaism of their language: Not only does it lack recursion, but it also has no words for "yesterday" or "tomorrow," no way of expressing the past or the future. Thus, while the Pirahã sing and dance and hunt, they create no epics and, aside from the bow and arrow and a primitive scraping tool for making arrows, they produce no artifacts. They do not draw and have no conception of gods or of numbers. (This state of affairs led the Smithsonian Channel to produce a documentary entitled "The Grammar of Happiness" in 2012.) The Pirahã are fully evolved in the physical sense, but in their remarkable isolation, they represent "the most basic prototype of Homo sapiens."
Like the clerics in Victorian England, Chomsky's bulldogs sought to shoot down Everett; but he outflanked them with a bestselling account of his life among the Pirahã (Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes) in 2008, followed by Language: The Cultural Tool in 2012, which, according to Wolfe, shows that language did not evolve from anything; it was "a 'cultural tool' man had made for himself."
Wolfe advances a theory of mnemonics to explain how humans created this artifact. I have not seen any references in the linguistics literature to such a theory, and Wolfe offers no notes; but to my mind, it suggests a very cumbersome way of language processing. I am one of those folks more impressed with a theory that is simple. Yet there may be something to it: Humans, after departing East Africa, did have 100,000 years or so to work out the details, not forgetting that ancient peoples had more prodigious memories than us moderns, even larger than Victorian polymaths.
Although Tom Wolfe does not connect the two, it strikes me that the notion of a linguistic deep structure tells us much about Noam Chomsky's politics. A century ago, Chomsky would have been an unorthodox figure among linguists: Aside from his native English, he is proficient in only a single foreign language, Hebrew, learned as a child. Before the so-called revolution in linguistics that he inaugurated, the field was mostly devoted to recuperating and describing the world's languages. Scholars, and missionaries in particular (such as Daniel Everett), spent their lives traveling in the most wicked and inhospitable terrains—if not to bring the Word, at least to document the rich variety of the earth's tongues. Chomsky, in contrast, disdains fieldwork: As Wolfe notes, he sits instead up high, "very high, in an armchair in an air-conditioned office at MIT, spic-and-span . . . [and] never leaves the building except to go to the airport to fly to other campuses to receive honorary degrees . . . more than 40 at last count."
Thus, the theory of transformational grammar rests on not a single natural language, but purports to offer insight into the functioning of the mind itself. Deep structure, in this theory, is a place in the mind where abstract linguistic functions (nouns, verbs, subject, object, passive voice, etc.) live. These functions resemble Immanuel Kant's conceptual categories, also constituents of the human mind—of all minds, thus "universal." Chomsky has acknowledged his indebtedness to the 18th-century rationalist philosophers, and, of course, the power of their thinking lives on in one of the greatest affirmations of Enlightenment universalism: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Very beautiful—but very abstract, and the United States has spent two-and-a-half centuries seeking to realize these truths.
When he inveighs against the United States, Chomsky is resurrecting Voltaire, railing at the obscurantism of the church or at people who believe in witches. For such hyper-rationalists, there are truths that the mind knows, indeed all minds know: that we should be tolerant of others, should practice what we preach, should love others as we love ourselves—and would do so if our minds were not distorted and diminished by the lying propaganda we so willingly imbibe from self-serving authorities.
Chomsky's vicious attacks on America draw on what is apparently a lifelong revulsion at the disparity between the democratic ideals on which the United States is founded—our deep structure—and what he considers the murderous hypocrisy of our actual behavior—our surface structure. And although Chomsky repeatedly says that he is against all authoritarian governments, his vast linguistic provincialism has blinded him to the full variety of the world. He can only see the sins of the United States of America. His legacy has been misanthropic, indeed antihuman.
Elizabeth Powers is the author of the forthcoming From Velveeta to Brie: A Memoir of How We Had It All.