This past December, during the frenzied buildup to Christmas, I was shopping for gifts for my brother when I decided to duck into a bookstore and look around there. He likes a good thought-provoking book and I like hearing about what he learns through them, so I figured this would be a good place to find a thoughtful gift. The book I ended up selecting was Tom Wolfe’s newest, The Kingdom of Speech, in which he discusses the development of human language and how powerful a role it has played for us as a species. It is a topic my brother would love. So I bought the book, took it home and before wrapping it decided to peruse its pages. After reading just a brief passage I decided to keep the book, apparently I was shopping for a gift for myself the whole time. (Apologies to my brother.)
The title is what first attracted me because language, specifically how it affects how we think, had been on my mind for the weeks leading up to that fateful bookstore decision. I had just reread Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and watched the 2016 film Arrival, two stories that involve an alien species with a radically different language and, as a result, different thought processes and outlooks on life. The Tralfamadorians, a recurring species in Vonnegut’s novels, see all of time at once, with no past, present or future, just everything as one, which mimics their language. As a Tralfamadorian explains to the protagonist Billy Pilgrim, “There are no telegrams on Tralfamadore. But you’re right: each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message – describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other” (88). Hence why they view time in a very nonlinear way.
In Arrival, written by Eric Heisserer and based on Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life,” an alien species lands on Earth and a linguist is called upon to try to decipher their language and communicate with them. I don’t want to spoil anything here, so I’ll leave it at that, but language is the centerpiece of the story. So with these two alien species and their languages on my mind, Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech was exactly what I needed. And I sure am glad I didn’t give it to my brother.
Wolfe deftly covers a dense topic, the study of language with wit and his characteristic storytelling approach. Beginning with Charles Darwin, making his way through Noam Chomsky and eventually settling on the current state of linguistics, Wolfe lets the story unfold as if it were fiction. Though obviously it is not. The major linguists come across like characters of a novel because Wolfe presents them in such a way that we start to understand their thoughts. For instance, Wolfe pored over numerous letters written by Darwin to his colleagues to get a sense of how the real life Darwin thought and then he presents those letters and thoughts in a humorous way that reads like Darwin’s very own inner monologue. It could very easily have been a simple list of dates and facts, but Wolfe gives it that special twist that he’s perfected for decades.
And that’s what makes The Kingdom of Speech such an enjoyable read. It is a thoroughly researched, scholarly book – there are 158 citations at the end – yet it doesn’t come across that way. It doesn’t have the stiff, academic tone often found in such scholarly articles and books about an arguably unsexy topic. Wolfe makes it sexy. He does this by maintaining a more conversational tone, as if he were talking to you in person so you get excited when he does because you can feel his excitement. You can almost see his eyes lighting up as he discusses Noam Chomsky’s reaction to an article that disagreed with his Law of Recursion. Wolfe writes, “By 2005 Noam Chomsky was flying very high. In fact, very high barely says it. The man was…in…orbit….He had discovered and, as linguistics’ reigning authority, decreed the Law of Recur—OOOF!—right into the solar plexus!” (108).
Wolfe’s lighthearted, playful writing style is what drives The Kingdom of Speech. He is not beholden to any rigid format so he skillfully plays around with word choice and structure, which is only fitting for a book about the power of language. Language has for Wolfe, as one of our foremost American writers, been integral in his life and he has harnessed it to tell vibrant stories in a way that few have. He does so once again in The Kingdom of Speech, getting to a deeper understanding of that which has been so important to him and will hopefully continue to be important to him in the future. Because if not, what am I going to get myself for Christmas?
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York, Dell Publishing, 1969.
Wolfe, Tom. The Kingdom of Speech. New York, Hachette Book Group, 2016.