Tom Wolfe takes on linguistics

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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]


  1. Mark Liberman said,

    July 24, 2016 @ 5:26 pm

    Your (and Wolfe's) suggestion that "How Could Language Have Evolved?" represents a fundamental change from Noam Chomsky's earlier positions is wrong — see "Chomsky testifies in Kansas" (5/6/2005) and "JP versus FHC+CHF versus PJ versus HCF" (8/25/2005), for a discussion of his earlier views. (And for a different perspective on recent Chomskyan views about language evolution, see the guest post by Herb Terrace and Michael Studdert-Kennedy, "Commentary on the 'The Mystery of Language Evolution" (11/3/2015.)

    In fact, the suggestion that the development of any of Chomsky's views might have been influenced by Dan Everett is, for good or ill, just as wrong. A list of earlier LLOG posts on various aspects of this topic can be found in "Squabble", 3/28/2012.

    Finally, readers who are not familiar with Wolfe's oeuvre might take a look at James Wood, "Muscle-bound", The New Yorker 10/15/2012, which begins like this:

    Tom Wolfe writes Big and Tall Prose—big subjects, big people, and yards of flapping exaggeration. No one of average size emerges from his shop; in fact, no real human variety can be found in his fiction, because everyone has the same enormous excitability.

    For some similar evaluations, along with comebacks from Wolfe, see Julian Borger, "A feud in full", The Guardian 2/10/2000.]

  2. Z. S. said,

    July 24, 2016 @ 5:30 pm

    It was pretty entertaining to read. I was distracted a bit by Wolfe's stylistic mannerisms which seem to me to have hardened into reflexive tics—such as his insatiable need to self-correct "Indians" to "Natives" to "aboriginals" with a stagey italic "er" interposed in the process. (To say nothing of the paragraph that begins with "—shazzzzammm—Chomsky's language organ in all its para-anatomy, if that was what it was, disappeared…")

  3. Vance Koven said,

    July 24, 2016 @ 5:53 pm

    Z.S., to object to Tom Wolfe's mannerisms of expression (and expressive Mannerism is probably what it comes down to) is like objecting to his wearing white suits in winter, which is to say it's being unclear on the concept. I for one will be buying the book when it comes out, as the excerpts suggest he's about to do to Chomsky what he did to Clement Greenberg in The Painted Word.

  4. Z. S. said,

    July 24, 2016 @ 6:06 pm

    Yeah, I mean, I get it. My objection ("if that was what it was") is not to the mannerism itself but its quality, which seems to me to have gotten a bit stale.

  5. Ken Miner said,

    July 24, 2016 @ 11:59 pm

    I have not been impressed with Tom Wolfe's starry-eyed judgments. He once proclaimed E. O. Wilson "a new Darwin". It was in a 1996 essay titled "Sorry, but your soul just died". It's worth a full quote:

    "Neuroscience, the science of the brain and the central nervous system, is on the threshold of a unified theory that will have an impact as powerful as that of Darwinism a hundred years ago. Already there is a new Darwin, or perhaps I should say an updated Darwin, since no one ever believed more religiously in Darwin I than he does. His name is Edward O. Wilson.”

    The “unified theory” was Wilson’s sociobiology.

    I devoured Wolfe's novels up to Back to Blood, when his unvarying style finally got to me and I couldn't finish.

  6. Neil said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 12:18 am

    Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House was a well needed piss take on the establishment built by the old gods of modernism, but "accurate and objective" is not something I would grant it.

  7. JPL said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 4:48 am

    It looks like Tom Wolfe does not really come to grips with the issues. (BTW, it's the abstract to the article that says, "The evolution of the faculty of language largely remains an enigma. In this essay we ask why.", forecasting the logical structure of the essay; so what is Wolfe complaining about?) Chomsky has indeed said repeatedly over the years that the evolution of language, and in particular the lexicon, if that is what is at issue here, is a mystery. Chomsky identifies "language", as the phenotypic trait in question, as being defined by the essential feature of the "computational system for human language", namely the syntactic operation called "merge" (or "unbounded merge"). I could well be wrong, as I am not a Chomskyan, and I haven't yet read that article, but he seems open to the possibility for the origin of this feature to be outside of the language faculty itself, via what they call "third factor principles". (I am not considering, i.e., I'm ruling out, as a possible explanation "random mutation" as the origin for the "unbounded merge" property.) How his views may have changed seems to me to be (and any Chomskyan can correct me here) that now his position on what is innate is abstract and "minimalist", rather than concrete and substantive. If there is such a change, he would probably see it as a reflection of the evolution of his own views in the direction of his "Minimalist" approach. In my view, what continues to be a problem is his doctrine of the autonomy of syntax (what the Studdert-Kennedy post called "syntactocentric") and his neglect of the important features of language in a broader sense, namely meaning and reference.

  8. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 5:14 am

    Could anyone recommend a good primer on the main categories of grammar developed by Chomsky and others since the 50s, how they relate and differ?

    I did some basic Phrase Structure Grammar in the syntax part of Comparative Linguistics back in college, but I've never got an overview of the subject as a whole. It's one area where I've found Wikipedia and other web explanations are lacking – you need a lot of prior knowledge to get a sense of the terrain.

  9. DWalker said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 1:15 pm

    The article in The Atlantic is pretty interesting. The link does not let you read the whole article; I subscribe to the magazine.

    From the article itself, I didn't quite get that Chomsky himself was actively questioning the earlier theories; rather, it seemed that others had begun (or been) questioning those theories, and Chomsky himself eventually recognized that.

    Some scholars never agreed with Chomsky's theorizing. If you are at all interested in this stuff (and I think most LL readers are) then the article is well worth reading, or purchasing from The Atlantic's site.

  10. Mary Erbaugh said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 1:59 pm

    Harper's Magazine published it (not the Atlantic). 'I hate experiments' is how Chomsky dismisses 40 years of psycholinguistic evidence for usage-based theory of language acquisition (e.g. Tomasello).

  11. Dan Everett said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 2:02 pm

    I saw the article in Harper's the same time as anyone else. I knew Wolfe was writing it and the book. I still have not seen the book, though apparently someone on the Chronicle of Higher Ed's staff is reading it now. 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.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 5:24 pm

    I am especially grateful for the comments of Mary Erbaugh and Dan Everett.

  13. Chris C. said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 9:31 pm

    Does anyone in the linguistics community take Bickerton's application of niche construction theory to this problem seriously?

  14. Cameron Desautels said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 6:57 am

    This post, while nicely written, seems to be running a bit low on facts; I hope the same won't ultimately be true of Wolfe's book, but, from the quotations included here, I'm a bit concerned.

    Chomsky certainly never claimed that we are "hard-wired to speak when we come out of the womb." He instead said that we possess specialized machinery which makes language acquisition easier / feasible. Or, put differently, language capacity is not simply a function of our generalized reasoning abilities. (Perhaps the former was intended as a shorthand for the latter, but the way it's written in the post certainly evokes a different image in my mind.)

    This line of thinking stems from Chomsky's "poverty of the stimulus" argument which, if disagreed with, deserves to be challenged on its merits and not dismissed out of hand or with vague insinuations that linguists wanted to "stay air-conditioned" rather than do fieldwork in "in stench-humid huts."

    Wolfe is right that "Chomsky made it clear he was elevating linguistics," but one would do well to remember the state of pre-Chomskyan linguistics—certainly great work had been done, but it lacked any semblance of a unifying framework. Chomsky's exploration of formal languages is important, as is his observation (IMHO) that formalizations of language should relate to their representation in the human mind—otherwise we're rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

    As for the idea that Chomsky has had a "gradual realization" that he was wrong in the time since he "dominated linguistics with assurance," all I can say is *I don't see it.* I recently read two of his books from the 70s and was amazed how similar his thinking *was* to how it is today. Sure, generative grammar has evolved, but wouldn't you expect it to, as it seeks to find the commonality in all languages? That evolution is a hallmark of science—it's hardly a criticism. But his rejection of structural linguistics, belief in innate language abilities, the relationship between language and cognition—these things seem remarkably stable.

    I hope that Wolfe's book presents something novel and substantive, and I certainly won't shed any tears if Chomsky's ideas are invalidated in the process—not least of all because that would allow us to end this decades-long cycle of standing up Chomsky strawmen and triumphantly swatting them down.

  15. JPL said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 6:55 pm

    Re: Pflaumbaum, @25Jul16, 5:14

    Howard Lasnik is a clear writer and knowledgeable Chomskyan who has several books that might be of help to you. One that I found to be particularly useful is Syntactic Structures Revisited: Contemporary Lectures on Classic Transformational Theory, (MIT Press, 2000).

  16. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 5:12 am

    Thanks, JPL.

  17. Eskandar said,

    July 29, 2016 @ 1:23 pm

    Although you might agree with the criticisms of Chomskyan linguistics, don't mistake Wolfe's piece for anything other than politically-motivated hatchet job. That's made clear enough by his attacks on Vietnam war protesters and stale, trite jabs at PC language, if you didn't already know what Wolfe's beef with Chomsky was about. This isn't really about linguistics for Wolfe, at least not as far as it has to do with Chomsky.

  18. Lee Corbett said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 5:55 am

    I'm just an interested reader that knows nothing of the details of the debate between Chomsky and his critics.

    It's an extraordinary article, that I have to think if submitted by someone without Wolfe's byline wouldn't be published by a serious magazine. It's incredibly vindictive, and personal.

    I guess as a journalist Wolfe knows his story needs a baddie and a goodie to sell. it's interesting for sure, but I'd avoid the book on the basis of it. If you want to understand the field, the obvious simplifications for the purpose of storytelling would be apt to mislead.

  19. JAL said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 12:04 pm

    Clearly this article values style over substance, publicity over science. (Note for example the validity of the arguments in Nevins, Pesetsky, & Rodrigues' rebuttal is treated as irrelevant; all that's relevant is the level of medial attention.)

    I limit myself to commenting on one crucial error in the piece:

    "in 2002 with his and two colleagues’ theory of recursion. Recursion consists, he said, of putting one sentence, one thought, inside another in a series that, theoretically, could be endless."

    Assumedly, he's referring to the Science article with Marc Hauser and Tecumseh Fitch. Crucially, nowhere in that article is recursion limited to sentential recursion. (In fact it is explicitly indicated to apply to words.) Indeed, the notion of recursion intended (as is clear from Noam's other writings from the late 1990s onwards) is Merge, an operation that takes two units and creates a new unit consisting of the initial two in an unordered set. Merge itself is recursive, in that its may apply to its output.

    This means that whether or not Pirahã has sentential recursion is indeed absolutely irrelevant.

    Now, there has in fact been an interesting and important change in the conception of the innate faculty of language over the years. It has gone from a rich set of specific parameters (does the verb move to INFL yes/no), to only Merge itself. Pirahã has played absolutely no role in this change. The most important motivation has been reasoning about evolution: the language faculty seems to have evolved once and recently, and the language faculty is uniform across humans. This suggests the need for a very simple innate faculty of language triggered by a single mutation — the addition of Merge. This conceptual change has radical implications, which are only beginning to be worked out…

  20. JAL said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 12:08 pm

    PS I must add if he's looking for a swashbuckling field linguist, he need look no further than the famous polyglot Ken Hale, who also happened to be a Chomskian linguist from MIT.

  21. paca said,

    August 4, 2016 @ 4:18 am

    I just finished the article. I thought it quite uncharitable to Chomskyan linguistics, and I am a person who has written a couple items challenging Chomskyan linguistics (at least I think most arguments from the poverty of the stimulus do not work and work in psycho and cognitive ling myself). Wolfe essentially presents a story of total Chomskyan domination for 40 years until Everett's 2005 work threw a sledgehammer in the Chomskyan Big Brother movie screen, finally allowing linguists to think freely again. Since then, the entire theory has collapsed except for a few devoted monks still toiling away.

    Of course, Everett's work with the Piraha has indeed brought up a lot of great data that's been debated, sometimes hotly, but as every linguist knows there have been extensive critiques of Chomskyan linguistics before then. I have heard stories of non-Chomskyan article submissions having a hard time getting published in the 70s, but, if even that is true, there have been robust competing theories for at least 30 years with international research programmes and departments devoted to them.

    As an example of the framing, he portrays Tomasello as finally being free to challenge UG in a 2009 article after Everett's shattering of the glass. But of course, Tomasello had been highly critical of the nativist account of acquisition and UG years and years before this. Wolfe actually contradicts himself by first saying Everett's 2005 work opened the door and later quoting Larry Trask in 2003 declaring UG "a huge waste of time".

    Essentially, Wolfe paints a great story. A man becomes king. He rules with an iron grip for two generations. Then a lone hero comes and reveals that the king was a fraud, that nothing was true, and it was all a waste of time. Now, the populace rejoices and gets on with real science. This of course is a fun read, but not an accurate portrayal of the field.

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