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The Kingdom of Speech
The Kingdom of Speech
Tom Wolfe
Little, Brown and Company, 2016
192 pp., $26.00

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Andrew Zwart


The Kingdom of Speech

Fly-catching with Tom Wolfe.

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Rather than engage with these questions, Wolfe simply reiterates his belief in speech as "the primal artifact" and ends his book with what he takes to be an original insight related to this. He writes, "One bright night it dawned on me—not as a profound revelation … but as something so obvious, I could hardly believe that no licensed savant had ever pointed it out before. There is a cardinal distinction between man and animal … namely, speech."

Of course, plenty of people have made this observation, and doing so hasn't forced them to take a definite stance on the origins of language. Christians—both evolutionary theists and non—have long believed that as a gift from God, language allows humanity to share in God's creativity and binds us together as bearers of God's image, distinct from other creatures. Not coincidentally, the more Daniel Everett studied the Pirahã language and understood it as so dissimilar from other languages, the less he believed, until his faith evaporated completely. For Everett, unable to even conceive how to translate the gospel's message into Pirahã, believed this tribe's worldview to be definitively incongruous with his own faith. Something had to give, and it wasn't his belief in Pirahã's unique properties.

In The Kingdom of Speech, Wolfe writes that Everett is the only outsider to ever have mastered Pirahã, but that's not entirely accurate. In 2002, Daniel Everett left the wilderness and returned to academia; his wife Keren, however, remained, continuing to try to understand this difficult language.

In the aforementioned New Yorker article, Daniel Everett discusses his ex-wife's work trying to dissect Pirahã by paying special attention to its prosody: "Keren has made tremendous progress, and I'm sure she knows more about musical speech than I do at this point … . There's probably several areas of Pirahã where her factual knowledge exceeds mine." According to him, though, Keren's insights are skewed because of her "missionary impulse." That is, she continues to try and make sense of the language as a path toward communicating the gospel. Given Wolfe's views on religion, I doubt he would approve of Keren Everett's motivation. Still, he'd have to admit: she avoids staking a claim in the kingdom of power. Or to put it more bluntly, amid all the academic posturing, she makes a pretty good fly-catcher.

Andrew Zwart is Instructor of English and Interdisciplinary Studies and Director of Academic Support at Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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