Tom Wolfe rules this ‘Kingdom of Speech’

'The Kingdom of Speech' by Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe wastes no time clarifying in The Kingdom of Speech (Little, Brown, 169 pp., *** Out of four stars) what motivated this insightful smack-down of the “scientific” pursuit of language’s origins.

One night, his octogenarian visage aglow at the computer screen, the legendary New Journalism pioneer experienced an enlightening intellectual whiplash. A White-Suited Wham! In a 2014 academic research journal, eight of the world’s leading linguists and “heavyweight evolutionists” had owned up that, after more than 150 years trying to solve the elusive mystery that divides mankind from the rest of the animal kingdom — namely, how language began — they and their predecessors had learned only one irrefutable truth: It is an enigma.

“An enigma!” You can almost hear Wolfe’s ecstatic cackle waking his Upper East Side neighbors in the City That Never Sleeps. This guy knows a story when he sees one. “A parade of certified geniuses had spent lifetimes trying to figure it out — and failed,” he writes. And not just failed miserably, but as he details throughout this blistering book, some had failed imaginatively, heroically and boldly, while others unethically, viciously and vengefully. Yeah, this is Tom Wolfe’s milieu.

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And so begins Wolfe’s provocative and winding tale that attempts to demystify the mystery that has baffled the world of linguistics and, arguably, makes what we think we know about the origins of speech and human evolution wrong.

He presents that intriguing case in his inimitable, casual-chatty, captivating storytelling style. His trademark rich reporting is unmistakable throughout his first non-fiction endeavor in 16 years, since Hooking Up, his 2000 essay collection. But The Kingdom of Speech is much more a legacy of his brilliant 1981 lambasting of modernist architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House, and his fascinating 1975 assault on modern art, The Painted Word.

Wolfe starts with retelling the what-the-hell story of the Theory of Evolution from its starting gate, when “Charlie” Darwin and his British landed-gentry lads filched the theory of natural selection from far-afield naturalist Alfred Wallace. Going forward, he identifies many rogue evolutionaries gone wild, from anti-Darwinian Robert Chambers to the Darwin-cheerleader Thomas Huxley, to the first-geneticist Gregor Johann Mendel.

Wolfe’s diversions include everything from Apache cosmology to “gestural theory” (the standing man’s freed-hand gestures evolving into speech). The second half of the book focuses on pompous, nasty, but conversation-changing Noam Chomsky versus mosquito-bitten, neck-deep-in-Amazon-primitiveness, anthropologist Daniel Everett, whose life story is a splendidly cinematic read.

Sure, Wolfe-ish annoyances persist. Too-many repeated words (“talk talk talk it was, and endless theory theory theory”) and slam-bang semantics (“Bango!” And “OOOF!”). One of his detours — where he lists historic oddball charismatic leaders just to prove that, like Chomsky, many were in their 20s — makes you want to say, “Stop it, Tom.”.

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Still, he brings to this academic debate the same irreverence and entertaining quality that lit up Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test — without the trippy, ’60s, Merry Prankster craziness. You’ll find here the same manic prose, the hip rhythms and cleverly crafted arguments of the genius Tom Wolfe. Which you must read.

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