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The bonfire of Noam Chomsky: journalist Tom Wolfe targets the acclaimed linguist

Tom Wolfe, photographed in 2014 at a film screening in New York
At 85, Tom Wolfe decided there was one more ‘60s icon to take down: Noam Chomsky.
Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Does he get the linguistics right? That’s the question many may expect a linguist to answer about Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech, a chronicle in high Wolfean about — to put it narrowly a debate between linguists about sentence structure.

Sound dull? On one level, it’s an intermural academic catfight — one that I confess I never expected to see cast in the behind-the-music format of Wolfe’s classics Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. But the debate is considered by some linguists to be one of the most important in the social sciences, with implications for evolutionary theory, neuroscience, and "human nature" itself.

To put it slightly more broadly, Wolfe’s topic is Noam Chomsky’s proposal that all humans are born with a sentence structure blueprint programmed in their brains, invariant across the species, and that each language is but a variation upon this "universal grammar" generated by an as-yet unidentified "language organ." In other words, we are born already knowing language.

Wolfe mounts a grand debunking — attempting to take down not just Chomsky the linguist but, as collateral damage, Chomsky the left intellectual. Unfortunately, while Wolfe, as always, certainly keeps you reading, he barely scratches the surface of the rich topic of linguistics, and winds up caricaturing both the man he wants to knock off the pedestal as well as the insurgent academics who have questioned the very premises of his approach to language.

According to Chomsky’s revolutionary view, first introduced the 1950s and early '60s, we need only learn which words our particular language uses for things; the variation in vocabulary is trivial compared with the deep machinery of universal grammar.

One might object that languages seem to differ mightily also in how they put words together, but Chomsky hypothesizes that these differences all come down to a few "switches" that flip in a toddler’s brain. Flip one this way and you get a language where the verb comes at the end of the sentence, flip it that way for languages like English where the verb sits in the middle of the sentence, and so on. Chomsky famously believes that a Martian would see all 7,000 of the world’s languages as a single one — universal grammar — with variations.

But in 2005, linguist Daniel Everett, then at Illinois State University, announced that the language of a tiny group in the Amazon lacks a fundamental feature of Chomsky’s proposed universal grammar: "recursion," or the ability to nest ideas inside one another. ("Recursion" is what lets you stack clauses to say something like, "The man / whose boat I saw / said / that he couldn’t imagine / why anyone would try that"). And since these tribespeople are Homo sapiens like everyone else, this absence proves that no universal grammar could exist. Needless to say, Chomskyans didn’t like this.

Does the language of a small tribe in the Amazon upend Chomsky’s life’s work?

Wolfe casts Everett as the deus ex machina saving the world from a Chomsky whose hermetic linguistic geekery would have fooled no one without the reflected glory of his fame as a political pundit. To Wolfe, Everett is a "rugged outdoorsman, a hard rider with a thatchy reddish beard and a head of thick thatchy reddish hair." In contrast, Chomsky and the gang are pale, computer-bound geeks:

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.… What difference did it make, knowing all those native tongues? Chomsky made it clear he was elevating linguistics to the altitude of Plato's — and the Martian's — transcendental 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.

Passages like this are rife in the book and inevitably fun, but overall the book is a baggy splotch, seemingly a padded version of the section, focusing on Chomsky and Everett, that recently appeared in Harper’s. The entire first half of the book, for example, recounts Charles Darwin's grappling with the fact that Alfred Russel Wallace hit upon natural selection before him, but the connection between this and the Chomsky-Everett dustup is tenuous, at best. This part comes across as a disproportionately lengthy throat clearing.

However, a more serious problem is that Wolfe’s portrait of the linguistic aspect of the issue is so superficial that participants on both sides of the debate end up looking silly. One comes away with an impression that Chomskyan syntacticians are a puerile bunch simply insisting that there is a literal, regional "language organ" in the brain despite having zero evidence for it. The (exaggerated) weakness of their position makes Everett’s supposed victory seem trivial.

The meat of the debate is not whether or not these language organs exist. (The Chomskyans have long meant "organ" as shorthand for what would actually be assorted mechanisms and connections that allow speech.) Chomskyans believe that adaptations have arisen in the brain that serve exclusively to allow speech. Their opponents tend to say that speech merely piggybacks on equipment that had already evolved to allow advanced thought. The rub here is how these language "regions and linkages," as one might put it, supposedly work. Those are the kinds of details that are essentially absent from the book.

Now, Wolfe is hardly alone in maintaining an airliner’s height away when writing about Chomskyan syntax for the general public. Even Everett, in a book arguing against the whole paradigm in favor of his own (Language: The Cultural Tool), merely notes in passing that Chomskyan syntax is "highly technical." Indeed, the jargon and mechanisms are so reader-unfriendly that few would even seek to get them across to laymen. But without at least a drive-by of this rather occult framework, one can’t even begin to understand the contours, tone, and current state of the debate Wolfe covers.

Moving linguistics from the field to the lab

Chomsky "drove the discipline indoors and turned it upside down." That’s Wolfe’s description of what Chomsky did to linguistics, starting in the late 1950s, with what began as a modestly complex but also intuitive way of looking at how sentences work. The basic idea is that each language drifts away from the basic template of universal grammar, but the grammatical bedrock can always be gleaned through various quirks a syntactician is trained to tease out (just as a geologist can identify colliding tectonic plates from the surface features of a landscape).

For example, in English we say, What do you want? But Chomskyan theory suggests that when our brains first assemble such a sentence, it structures it as You want what? This hardly seems implausible, since what is the object of want and objects usually come after their verb in English (I kick the ball). Besides, we can even actually say, "You want what?" depending on the tone we intend.

Thus, Chomskyan syntax has it that — in English, although obviously not in all other languages there is a special rule for a word like what, which moves it from after want to the beginning of the sentence.

So far, fine. But from one academic generation to the next, this method of parsing language has mission-crept into a strangely complicated business, increasingly unrelated to what either laypeople or intellectuals outside of linguistics would think of as human language. It is truly one of the oddest schools of thought I am familiar with in any discipline; it intrigues me from afar, like giant squid and 12-tone classical music.

Under the Chomskyan paradigm, we are to assume that human language is built up from what we will call little widgets, just as bodies are built from cells, cells from atoms, and atoms from particles. But in the Chomskyan world, widgets are built out of widgets, which are themselves built out of widgets. All of these language widgets have the form of pairs of a subject and predicate. That much will sound familiar from school days, but only that much.

Consider The angel found him asleep, which, to a Chomskyan, contains multitudes you could never imagine. First, deep down, the sentence does not consist of an object him and then an asleep that describes the him. Rather, deep down, The angel found him asleep is two sentences: The angel found and then a defective little sentence Him asleep. That’s one subject-predicate combination. But the subject-predicate widgets can be traced all the way down to the very fundamentals: In the angel, the is a "subject" to angel’s "predicate."

This, ladies and gentleman, is the kind of thing Everett was up against. (And this is just the very beginning of what a Chomskyan can do to a sentence.) The approach is a little exhausting, perhaps, but, depending on one's predilections, pleasingly intricate. The bristling tree diagrams all of this is illustrated with are also fun to draw — beginning students often get a kick out of them.

An illustration of a Chomskyan syntactical tree
Chomsky’s syntactical "trees" can be daunting to the uninitiated.
Linguistic Grammarian

To many, this kind of thinking takes linguistics from the "soft" and musty to the "hard" and clean. And as to whether the density of the jargon (which I have spared the reader) is deliberately fashioned for an air of profundity, the charge is as unnecessary as it is against the lingo of literary criticism. The jargon accreted gradually and imperceptibly over decades, and is readily comprehensible to practitioners.

But do those elegant diagrams tell us anything about the brain?

The question is whether there is independent evidence that justifies assuming that speech entails these peculiar mechanisms for which there is no indication in, well, how people talk and think.

And the problem is that this independent evidence does not seem to exist; anyway, outsiders would find it peculiar how very little interest practitioners have in demonstrating such evidence. Rather, they stipulate that syntax should be this way if it is to be "interesting," if it is to be, as the literature has termed it, "robust" or "rich." Yet where does the idea that how we construct sentences must be "robust" or "rich" in the way this school approves of come from? It’s an assumption, not a finding.

One senses a field of inquiry that is, today, treading water more than making progress. Biochemists have discovered gene switches; physicists have discovered Higgs boson; paleontologists have discovered that saurischian dinosaurs were feathered. Yet asked what they have uncovered after 60 years, Chomskyan syntacticians might mention concepts such as — and here comes some of the jargon — Split IP, Merge, phases, and something called "little v," none of which correspond meaningfully with cognitive research or evolutionary theory. Many of the fundamentals remain controversial even among the scholars themselves. These days even the idea that language differences are about flipped switches is debated.

Noam Chomsky speaks at Harvard, in 2002
Noam Chomsky, whose fame as a politically engaged intellectual rose in tandem with his renown as a linguist, speaks at Harvard in 2002.
William B. Plowman/Getty Images

The problem has not gone unnoticed. Various linguists have leveled reasoned critiques of Chomskyan assumptions. For example, a fundamental indication of universal grammar is supposedly that children learn to speak "so quickly," but many parents of young children might question that the process is so very "quick."

More to the point, linguist Gregory Sampson notes that children also learn the awesomely complex operation of pouring one container of liquid into another early in their lives and yet no one marvels at the "quickness" here. Claiming that language is more "complex" than that feat is like saying that "War and Peace is twice as long as the River Nile," Sampson has written. There have been book-length critiques of Chomskyan syntax by Sampson as well as, more recently, Vyvyan Evans (who has written a useful article-length version). However, the enterprise marches confidently on.

In some of the mission’s members, "confident" understates the attitude. The bile from some quarters against Everett’s questioning universal grammar was chilling, and Wolfe describes these reactions with sad accuracy. I recall syntacticians insisting to me that Everett's informants must have hated him to the point where they fed him a nonsense language. (Everett lived with the Pirahã for several years.)

Rarely have I been so struck by the contrast between a boogeyman figure of discussion and the actual human being. Everett minds fame no more than anyone would, but the callow huckster figure some Chomskyans describe is actually a low-key, affable, intellectually omnivorous person, simply eager to share things he finds fascinating.

Wolfe’s stories about the arrogance of Chomsky’s acolytes ring true

Yet many linguists were not surprised by all of the vitriol, as there is a sense among some Chomskyan syntacticians that someone looking askance upon their enterprise simply doesn’t understand the jargon and arguments, and is perhaps incapable of doing so.

Armed with this attitude, the Chomskyan takeover of the field in the '60s entailed the new guard gleefully eviscerating their elders at conferences. In response to the attack, the éminence grise linguist Charles Hockett memorably intoned, "We do not enjoy being told that we are fools." That attitude has been passed down unconsciously as a kind of in-group cultural tradition, even if it is less overt and hardly universal.

Linguists often have their stories about the type. A leading Chomskyan is invited to give a presentation for a linguistics conference in a department focusing on language as a product of human cognition, and on how language changes over time. The department includes an array of founding figures of schools of thought long established as textbook canon. Yet asked his verdict on the conference by one of his graduate students, this gentleman replies, "Bullshit." Another Chomskyan dismisses any linguist not working on the syntactical paradigm as unaware of what "the real question" about language is — and wrong to think of themselves as linguists at all.

Sociolinguistics explores how speech varies according to class, gender, and race in systematic and often counterintuitive ways, analyzed via statistic analysis. Yet a crack Chomskyan teaching syntax in the department I was trained in cockily remarked to students that he had thought the whole subfield would have been abandoned years ago. His student fans fondly quoted him on this for years.

Of course, most Chomskyans behave nothing like this, but there does exist a current of opinion within the Chomskyan syntax orbit that considers most other kinds of linguistic inquiry as beside the point.

Now imagine Everett taking on this school of thought with a claim that language is simply an expression of culture, created not with a "language organ" but through basic human thought processes. (We don’t have an "organ" that, say, chimpanzees lack, but we have more cognitive horsepower.)

Everett agrees that there is some kind of genetic specification for language in a general sense — there’s a reason chimpanzees do not talk and do not even use sign language on a primitive level unless painstakingly taught to by humans. But he dismisses the idea that it calls for quietly shifting subjects, verbs bouncing around, or exercising the mental muscles that perform math and create computer programs. Language is just saying what you are: "Our identities and our cultural cloaks," as Everett has put it. For those dedicated to Chomsky’s syntactical tree diagrams, this could only sound simplistic, uninformed, and even dangerous — distracting the public from science with feel-good pablum.

Book jacket of Daniel Everett's "Don't Sleep There Are Snakes," an account of his work with the Pirahã tribe, in the Amazon

You wouldn't catch Noam Chomsky doing this.

However, Wolfe, for all of the rhetorical fun — there’s barely a dull sentence in The Kingdom of Speech — ultimately misses the essence of the debate from various angles. A trope of his, for example, is pale-skinned Chomskyans at their desks seeing no need to go to the trouble of consulting indigenous languages spoken in faraway, rural locations, and even rather despising such languages and the humble fieldworker types like Everett who slog around in the actual world under the impression that there is any need to gather data on "primitive" tongues, when English can tell us all we need to know.

This conception of Chomskyans as John Cleese sorts is good for comedy. But in fact, these scholars are as fascinated by "exotic" languages as other linguists, and if the stereotype of them building their theories on their own English was ever valid, it was 40 years ago.

Wolfe starts correctly, for example, in zeroing in on an iconic significance in the oft-reproduced photo the New Yorker used for a 2005 article on Everett: He’s submerged in river water up to his neck, grinning, with a Pirahã tribesman sitting up behind him smiling in a boat.

However, the significance of the photo is not, as Wolfe has it, that Everett is out working out in the wilds as a kind of linguist Grizzly Adams while Chomskyans are huddled at their desks dismissing indigenous languages as primitive. That photo's larger statement is about language as culture: that Everett got down with the Pirahã, so to speak — he was up to his neck in their waters participating in their activities.

Crucially, this perspective tends to be deeply attractive to educated observers in our times. Here is what language really is, many are inclined to think: a vocal rendition of culture and personhood, especially and most vibrantly demonstrated in the languages of people living close to the land who are so, well, real compared to us.

Indeed, the language-as-culture position attracts the educated in channeling awareness that indigenous people are not lesser than us but just fascinatingly different. In the talk Everett gives about Pirahã to general audiences, one of the moments when he most dependably delights the crowd is in describing how the men can spear a fish by throwing a spear down into the water, while when he gave it a try he could barely get the spear to pierce the surface and the men laughed at him.

The anecdote places Everett as the dear, overeducated Western boob who, if left to fend for himself for longer than about a day in the Amazon, would starve to death (or, as the photo nicely hints, "go under"). Then also, to many, the idea of language as mirroring culture is attractive in being simply easier than the dense obscurity of Chomskyan writings.

But was Everett right about that Amazonian tribe and their "simple" speech?

Wolfe, meanwhile, thinks the Chomskyans clearly lost the debate, with Everett emerging as an obvious victor. This is untrue, or at best oversimplified.

On the Chomskyans, Wolfe misunderstands what they consider important. What Wolfe considers important — understandably, since it is what would be most immediately interesting to laypeople — is how language evolved. Hence the lengthy prologue on Darwin; hence Wolfe mocking Chomsky for not knowing just what this uniquely human "language organ" that has purportedly evolved even consists of, after all of this time. "So in thirty years," Wolfe writes, "Chomsky had advanced from ‘specific neural structures, though their nature is not well understood’ to ‘some rather obscure system of thought that we know is there but we don’t know much about it.’"

But Chomsky doesn’t see this as a problem. Wolfe seems to suppose that today's generative syntacticians operate under the 19th-century scholar's cultural assumption of natural history, evolution, and development as key to the investigation of any scientific matter. But the Chomskyan is mainly interested in the present-day mechanisms that (supposedly) produce sentences, and that we don't know how they came to be worries them no more than it would a cancer researcher who found the cure but couldn't explain just how natural selection generated it. The evolution of the ability to create language is a rich subject, but it’s not Chomsky’s subject.

Meanwhile, Daniel Everett did not "slay" his adversaries. Wolfe has Everett as a towering hero, finally giving those pasty Chomskyans a black eye using the media and a best-selling book (the delightful Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes). However, the outcome of all of this was, as typical of such encounters, nasty but inconclusive.

Wolfe describes how three die-hard Chomskyans penned an almost obsessively detailed rebuttal to Everett’s claims about Pirahã in linguistics’ flagship journal Language, making them seem like hapless, sputtering refugees from The Revenge of the Nerds. The truth is that even someone more inclined to Everett's claims than the Chomskyans' – e.g., me — who slogged through that rebuttal plus the response from Everett and a riposte from the syntacticians, ends up unexpectedly finding the syntacticians largely convincing. It seems quite plausible that Pirahã is not as quirky a human language as Everett proposed.

For example, a major sticking point was Everett’s claim that Pirahã doesn’t have this thing called recursion — that instead of The boat that I use is broken, with that I use as a kind of mini sentence of its own within The boat is broken, a Pirahã can only say I use that boat, it’s broken. From the Chomskyan perspective, this stacking of clauses is one of the fundamental traits of universal grammar.

However, the three syntacticians made a plausible case that Pirahã does have this clause stacking. Indeed, any linguist would be highly skeptical of a claim that any language didn’t. Even Everett has of late allowed that the case on recursion is not closed.

Especially tricky is where Everett takes his ideas about language as culture, where the Pirahã are concerned. He argues that the Pirahã put it as I use that boat, it’s broken because as a small group living as hunter-gatherers, they live mainly in the present and engage only with facts before them.

In contrast, to say The boat I use is broken entails a reference to your having used the boat in the past, something not in the immediate – i.e., it means to use more abstraction. In Everett’s defense, the Pirahã genuinely seem to be an unusually incurious people, with no narratives, origin stories, benevolent gods, music, dance, or interest in learning other groups’ languages. Yet it’s not really clear whether someone who says I use that boat, it’s broken is thinking any less abstractly than other people.

And although he intends nothing of the sort, Everett comes perilously close to calling the Pirahã idiots — to the point that Brazil’s National Indian Foundation barred him from further work with the Pirahã, calling his views racist. That was excessive, to be sure, but Wolfe’s portrait of Everett as a victorious gladiator in this scholarly clash is clearly drawn with overly broad strokes.

In the end, the grand old new journalist misses the target

In a weird, brief conclusion, Wolfe appears to think he himself has solved the mystery of how language evolved: Words, he says, evolved as memory aids for objects and actions. However, this hardly qualifies as an insight. It no more solves the evolution problem than saying "eating provides fuel" explains how digestion works.

The debate Wolfe covers is over nothing so simple as sequences of mnemonics. There are schools of syntax besides the Chomskyan one, more attendant to human cognition (and sometimes, evolutionary principles), which also have a good bit of jargon and require a class or two to understand (my money is one pioneered by Peter Culicover and Ray Jackendoff).

Few linguists, including Everett, would wave away all of these alternate syntax models and claim that language is nothing but tossing words together in culturally rooted ways. In 50 years, when we know more about how the brain actually works, I highly suspect that neither the "The angel-found / He asleep" nor the "cultural cloak" positions on language will turn out to truly "pop the lock" on how language is configured in the human essence. Linguistics is more truly interesting than either position implies, and to find out why, one must — after the laughter — seek sources beyond The Kingdom of Speech.

John McWhorter, a linguist, is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. His most recent book is Words on the Move: Why English Won’t — and Can’t — Sit Still (Like, Literally).

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