cover image The Kingdom of Speech

The Kingdom of Speech

Tom Wolfe. Little, Brown, $26 (160p) ISBN 978-0-316-40462-4

Wolfe (Back to Blood), who began his career as a journalist, delivers his first nonfiction book in 16 years. In lively, irreverent, and witty prose, he argues that speech, not evolution, sets humans apart from animals and is responsible for all of humankind’s complex achievements. Speech, Wolfe explains, was the “first artifact,” the first instance where people took elements from nature—sounds—and turned them into something completely constructed. Wolfe evaluates the theories of the early evolutionists, such as Charles Darwin; self-taught British naturalist Alfred Wallace; and present-day linguists, psychologists, and anthropologists who, despite 150 years of effort, still struggle to understand how language evolved. Zeroing in on two scientific rivalries that pit an outsider against the establishment, Wolfe slyly skewers Darwin for grabbing all the glory from Wallace for the theory of evolution, and Noam Chomsky for ignoring, yet later tacitly acknowledging, fellow linguist Daniel Everett, who disagreed with Chomsky’s theory that language, in all its complexity, is hardwired in humans. Everett spent 30 years studying the Pirahãs, an isolated tribe in the Amazon basin, whose language revealed no conception of past or future, and no comprehension of numbers. Wolfe is at his best when portraying the lives of the scientists and their respective eras, and his vibrant study manages to be clever, funny, serious, satirical, and instructive. Agent: Lynn Nesbit, Janklow & Nesbit. (Sept.)