Talking as a Tool – A Review/Scholarly Meditation on Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech

Three weeks after I dropped my dissertation off at the IOE Applied Linguistics/TESOL administrative office, I did something I thought I’d give myself another few weeks of leisurely trashy novel-reading and beach lounging before doing again: read a book about linguistics.

Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech (2016) reads more like a breezy, exuberant TED talk or podcast than a scholarly tome, which is refreshing after a year of reading practically nothing but scholarly tomes. At breakneck pace, he takes the reader through the history of scientific and philosophical theories about the evolution of language, from Darwin to Chomsky to the new crop of linguists in a post-Chomsky academic landscape. I must confess that I felt a few pangs of jealousy as I read The Kingdom of Speech, since Wolfe, this giant of contemporary American literature, is pretty much doing exactly what I hope to do on this blog, but far more elegantly, in an actual book, and while wearing a very nice white suit.

Damn-he-beat-me-to-it aside, I’m thrilled that Wolfe is quite publicly adding to a conversation that I first encountered in the fall of last year in my Sociolinguistics and Sociocultural Theory class about the nature of language. I’m even more thrilled that Wolfe is discussing the concept of language as an artifact or tool — an idea that is gaining traction currently in the world of linguistics, and was quite succinctly (and not so succinctly) discussed in some of the scholarly tomes I was reading last year.

Simply put, language-as-artifact posits that language is no different (well, OK, it’s a bit different) from a spear to stab a mammoth, a match to light a fire, or a telescope to see things that are far away. Language is just one of the many tools humans use to interpret and understand — or mediate — the world around us. As Wolfe (2016) puts it, language helps us plan ahead and carry out more complex tasks, and build — and teach others to build — more complex tools than the ones some of our ape cousins have mastered.

And of course, we need tools and artifacts to mediate language itself. We need dictionaries to tell us what all those words mean. We need to take classes in school or learn from a more experienced adult to learn how to read, write and string sentences together in our L1s and in any subsequent Ls. We need to expand our linguistic toolkit and think of new words to denote or describe new concepts; to survive and thrive in the public conscience, those new words need to catch on and be durable, especially in the maelstrom that is popular culture today.

Wolfe (2016) seems to dance around just how language came to be the wonderfully versatile and complex tool/artifact we know it to be today, but I don’t think that’s to his detriment. Linguists and neuroscientists with far more training  and expertise than he haven’t reached a consensus on that. Nevertheless, Tom Wolfe makes some of the central debates and topics of linguistics accessible and downright fun to read about. Definitely pick up The Kingdom of Speech if you want to get an enjoyable and decidedly un-technical perspective on the role of language in human history.

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