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Speech I: Oliver Kamm vs. Tom Wolfe

Tuesday, 16 August, 2016

The Kingdom of Speech is published by Jonathan Cape but might as well have been issued by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose tracts at least have the merit of being funnier.” So writes Oliver Kamm in a devastating put-down of the latest book by Tom Wolfe. Along with being the author of Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage, Kamm is a leader writer and columnist for The Times and it was in that newspaper on Saturday that he took Wolfe to the reviewing woodshed.

The Kingdom of Speech Tom Wolfe argues that speech, not evolution, sets humans apart from animals and is responsible for all of our great achievements. He targets Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky in The Kingdom of Speech when arguing that there is no evolutionary explanation for language, particularly abstract language. Kamm differs, however: “Wolfe’s theory that words are a memory aid — a mnemonic system — likewise falls apart on a moment’s reflection. Words like cat and dog and run and jump might help us to remember things in the world, but what about words like not and very and whether and however?”

Readers who purchase The Kingdom of Speech in the hope of acquiring an invigorating clarification of the big ideas at the heart of the debate about morphology, syntax, phonetics and semantics will be misled, claims Kamm, who shows no mercy in his critique:

“It’s a celebration of ignorance: a vain, sneering and calumnious piece of fluff in which Wolfe misunderstands his subject and misrepresents leading thinkers, notably Darwin and the linguist Noam Chomsky. It’s not even stylishly written. What I learnt from it is that a crotchety celebrity of vaulting hubris and small mind doesn’t feel constrained by canons of evidence and accuracy.”

Tomorrow, here, Wolfe attacks Chomsky.


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