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Tom Wolfe’s Reflections on Language

By E.J. Spode.

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And here we are. We’ve had our laughs at the expense of Wolfe and Everett and the journalists that fawn over them, but if you think about it, it really isn’t funny.

One of the greatest scientists of our lifetime has embarked upon a fascinating research program. The program is exploring a property of human nature – the language faculty – and he is attempting to show how a half-century of research by thousands of linguists from around the world can be grounded in low-level mathematical and biophysical properties of our world. And whether that program is successful or not, it is a vision of remarkable beauty – the recursive patterns of our languages and their variety and complexity could be understood perhaps as well as we now understand the spiral patterns in the nautilus shell or the recursive patterns of the snowflake.

He came to us with that gift. He did not ask us to believe him, nor did he insist that we engage in that project ourselves. He simply told us what his project was and invited us to join him. And all we as a culture could do in our upscale magazines and newspapers and blogs was shit all over the man and clog the conversation with an endless stream of transparent gibberish from obvious charlatans. This is why we can’t have nice things.

Tom Wolfe’s most recent book – The Kingdom of Speech – is nothing if not iconoclastic. And the icons he has chosen to smash are impressive: Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky! I have no problem with smashing icons, but this effort is an embarrassment for Wolfe, for his publisher, and, because of its largely positive reception, for our broader culture. It is a literary Sharknado of error and self-satisfaction, with borderline racism and anti-Semitism mixed in. It careens between being hilariously bad and tragically bad. It is irredeemable.

Let’s start with the part of the book about Darwin. Darwin may be one of your scientific heroes and you may even consider him to be one of the great geniuses of the 19th Century. Well, wake up sheeple, because Tom Wolfe has got a story to tell you.

We are first informed that Darwin is a sort of dandy British gentleman. You know, the kind of guy who reads The Times while his scullery maids are plucking pheasants. But… and you can almost feel Wolfe’s revulsion here … Darwin wasn’t just a vanilla British gentleman. No, he was exactly the worst kind. You see, his father started as a mere doctor, and his money came from his true passion, which was “investing, lending, and otherwise dealing in the Industrial Revolution’s money markets.” He was, to put a label on it: nouveau riche. Darwin’s father then added to his nouveau-richiness by marrying into more money. And he didn’t marry into the good kind of money – the old kind— no, he married into new money, and not even good new money – he married into the Wedgewood family, and those are the Wedgewoods of Wedgewood china fame. In a nutshell they got their wealth by marrying pottery makers. The shame.

Now you might be thinking, who cares how Darwin’s father got his money and what does that have to do with the theory of evolution, but the real question is, why does Wolfe care, and the answer seems to be — as near as I can make it out — that Wolfe is using this as a foundation for his claim that Darwin was just the kind or not-to-be-trusted nouveau riche character that might lay claim to another person’s work. And therefore he was also the kind of person who would not properly understand the theory with which his name was associated.

Yes, you got that right. Darwin just didn’t understand the theory of evolution. Perhaps you, like I, were under the impression that Charles Darwin was some sort of genius. Well all Wolfe has to say about that is… Pish. Posh.

We are informed that Darwin, after dropping out of medical school and divinity school, ends up as an undergraduate at Cambridge University, which Wolfe appears to consider a safety school, “barely getting a bachelor of arts degree” (I looked it up: he scored the 10th highest grade out of 178 candidates on his final exam at Cambridge. Whew. Close call!)

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Perhaps you, like I, read The Voyage of the Beagle and found it to be a remarkable triumph of literature and naturalism and science and, dare I say it, the intellect. The fact that you think this, however, just makes you a homer for the Victorian upper class. Wolfe is here to set us straight. In a rare moment of empathy towards the Darwin family, Wolfe imagines what it must have been like for Charles’ poor father, who “begrudgingly paid for the boy to enjoy a five-year voyage or exploration, or sightseeing, or something, aboard a boat named for a dog, His Majesty’s Ship Beagle, to prepare him for a career in the field of—as far as Dr. Darwin could tell—nothing.”

Yes, it was a veritable Spring Break at sea. Charles could just as well have spent those five years in the basement playing Call of Duty on an Xbox.

Well, now that Wolfe has, he hopes, woven together enough innuendo to get you thinking that that Darwin was a simpleton, he’s going to show you just HOW MUCH of a simpleton Darwin was — sooo stupid his students leave him baffled with really just the most simple questions

“[Darwin’s students] wanted to know some small but fundamental details about the moment Evolution got under way and how exactly, physically, it started up—and from what? Darwin had apparently never thought of it quite that way before. Long pause…and finally, “Ohhh,” he said, “probably from four or five cells floating in a warm pool somewhere.” One student pressed him further. He wanted to know where the cells came from. Who or what put them in the pool? An exasperated Darwin said, in effect, “Well, I don’t know…look, isn’t it enough that I’ve brought you man and all the animals and plants in the world?'”

You may be wondering, just how did Wolfe come to witness this humiliation of slow Darwin at the hands of his much brighter students? Was it a steampunk time machine that took him back to the 19th Century? Or was it a secret NSA surveillance tool – a Jules-Verne-o-scope – that allowed him to spy on Victorian classrooms? And did Darwin actually hold a teaching position ever? Well, no, it seems that the whole passage is a riff on a letter from Darwin to the naturalist J.D. Hooker. Fortunately for us, Joshua Leach took the trouble to look up what Darwin actually said, and it went thus:

“It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are now present, which could ever have been present.— But if (& oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia & phosphoric salts,—light, heat, electricity &c present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter wd be instantly devoured, or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.”

This is the language that Wolfe has glossed as “I don’t know.”

But hey, who wants to hear about ammonia and phosphoric salts and proteins and complex changes? That is just window dressing for what we all know is the core of Darwin’s actual position: No clue. But it wasn’t for lack of trying! “Darwin often thought about it, but it made his head hurt.” Wolfe goes on to tell us that Darwin’s hypothesis about the origin of life is “typical of the more primitive cosmogonies.” Indeed, we are assured that Darwin’s idea is precisely the structure of an Apache creation myth.

Yes, all this is actually in Wolfe’s book. Let’s set aside the part about Darwin’s hurting head and focus on how Darwin’s proposal was “typical of primitive cosmogonies.” The Apache creation story, Wolfe tells us, is this: “Way up in the void arrives a disk. Curled up inside the disk is a little old man with a long white beard. He sticks his head out and finds himself utterly alone. So he creates another little man, much like himself.” Long story short, they play with a ball of dirt, and then a scorpion appears and the scorpion starts pulling things out of the ball etc. Now if this is or was someone’s creation story I have no quarrel with it. My only point here is that it is decidedly NOT the same proposal that Darwin made in is letter to Hooker. For one thing, Darwin left out the agency, and yes that kind of is important. He is talking about life emerging from undirected chemical processes (more on this later).

Next, Wolfe wants you to know that even though Darwin was slow slow slow, he did have a gift — a gift typical of those British aristocrats that got their money by marrying into families of rich china makers. You see, he was “smooth.” Actually, not just smooth: “He was also a slick operator…smooth…smooth and then some.” (Apparently this smoothness was not the kind that worked with the Victorian ladies, as Wolfe is eager to describe Darwin’s spouse, Emma, as a “perfectly nice, if plain, thirty-year-old spinster first cousin.”)

Now, all of this talk of Darwin’s dumbness and smoothness is leading up to something — the idea that if you are that dumb but also that smoothie smooth, there is a natural path for you to take to achieve fame as a naturalist — obviously, you take credit for someone else’s work! And here Wolfe introduces us to Alfred Russel Wallace, a hard-working non-aristocrat laboring away in the Malay Archipelago, sweating through his sheets as he struggled against Malaria, and coming up with his own theory of evolution, which he then sent to Darwin for consideration in 1857.

At this point Wolfe invents (again of whole cloth) an imaginary conversation in which it is not the students, but the naturalist Charles Lyell who must deal with poor simple Charles. He must help dumb Charles concoct a CONSPIRACY!, and it goes like this:

“Oh, Charlie, Charlie, Charlie,…Who was it who told you you’d better get busy and publish this pet theory of yours? The main thing, Charlie, is to establish your work and Wallace’s. Now that’s fair isn’t it? Even-steven and all that? Well, to be perfectly frank, there is one slight hitch. You’ve never published a line of your work on evolution. Not one line… You don’t even have a paper to present at the meeting…hmmm… Ahh! I know! We can help you create an abstract overnight! An abstract. Get it?”

And here I guess we are supposed to imagine Lyell giving Darwin a noogie or something as he wonders if Darwin does in fact know what an abstract is and whether he will be up all night helping poor dumb Darwin write it.

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In point of fact, however, in 1844 Darwin had corresponded with Hooker about his idea and by July of that year had written – not an abstract – but a 230 page essay outlining his theory of evolution. As Darwin correctly surmised, it was dangerous stuff and he locked it away with instructions that should he die, it be published with selected research of his. In 1847 Hooker read a copy of the manuscript, and wrote Darwin back, offering helpful feedback but also questioning whether Darwin really was really serious about getting rid of all continuing acts of creation.

When the Wallace paper arrived and forced the issue, Darwin wrote a paper outlining his own theory AND he helped arrange for Wallace’s paper to be published with his paper in the very same issue of the Proceedings of the Linnaean Society. You might think that was kind of him. Wolfe wants us to know that only sheeple think that way.

In the 1980s there were a pair of books that argued that Darwin did not give proper credit to Wallace, or perhaps worse, he took a key idea from Wallace and claimed it as his own. One of them claimed that Darwin sat on Wallace’s letter for two weeks (cleverly using the time to write up his own version of the theory of evolution) before sending it on to Lyell. The conspiracy claim was subsequently researched to death by scholars who even looked at Victorian shipping schedules (tracing potential paths of the letter on steamers and camels) to show that Wallace’s letter to Darwin could not have arrived prior to the day Darwin forwarded it to Lyell. None of this seems to matter to Wolfe, who has gone full Darwin truther. Wolfe would have us believe that the hard working little guy has been given the shaft once again by those smooth cultural elites.

What seems to convince Wolfe that Wallace was the brighter bulb is that he did not make the chump mistake that Darwin did — for example, thinking that human higher mental faculties were the product of evolution. Wallace knew just where to draw the line. He knew where to draw the line on the beginning of the process too – Wallace rejected the idea that life could have evolved from inorganic matter. None of that nonsense about ammonia and phosphoric salts for Wallace! Hilariously, it never occurs to Wolfe that perhaps these are two of the reasons that Darwin has the bigger place in our history books.

At this point we should pause and take a breath, because … well because now it is time to talk about Chomsky. You see, Wolfe assumes that by now you are just livid – livid I tell you! – at how the cultural elites gave poor hardworking Alfred Wallace the shaft. But wait! What if history is repeating itself and cultural elites are shafting some other regular guy even as you read this? Mind you, this new elite isn’t a dandy Victorian rich person elite – but a worse kind of elite. You know…the kind of elite that is into math and numbers and thinks that he is smarter than you and me.

Wolfe begins part two by carefully laying out the case for Chomsky’s greatness, for this is going to be another David and Goliath story and he wants his Goliath to be extra super gigantic. And it is all there: Chomsky the boy Genius, Chomsky taking down Skinner, Chomsky revolutionizing linguistics, the quotes saying he “is the most important intellectual alive,” the citation indices that put him at eighth most cited person on the all time – right between Freud and Hegel – and finally the Minimalist Program and which has something to do with recursion in language (we’ll get to that).

Then Wolfe starts chipping away at Chomsky in his classic Wolfean way. Not really chipping at anything Chomsky said or did; he just starts carefully layering together a picture of Chomsky just as he had for Darwin.

“Noam Chomsky, all ten years of him, was in Philadelphia when Barcelona fell. … His political outlook – anarchism – appears to have been set, fixed forever, at that moment. Or perhaps the word is pre-fixed … pre-fixed in a shtetl in Russia half a century before he was born.” Chomsky, Wolfe informs us, is one of those MIT indoor linguists “relieved not to go into the not-so-great outdoors.” He prefers “looking at learned journals with cramped type” and he “never left the computer, much less the building.” No, Chomsky is someone “very high, in an armchair, in an air conditioned office, spic and span,” one of those MIT intellectuals with “radiation-bluish computer screen pallors and faux-manly open shirts,” steering well clear of the “muck of life down below.”

Let’s set aside the point that Chomsky achieved his fame before computers or air-conditioned offices; these descriptions are designed to set us up for Alfred Russel Wallace 2.0 – a good son of a cowboy who is toiling away in the jungles of the Amazon, studying the language of an isolated group of peoples known as the Pirahã. His name is Dan Everett. And the first thing Wolfe wants you to know is just how different Everett is from Chomsky.

“Look at him! Everett was everything Chomsky wasn’t: a rugged outdoorsman, a hard rider with a thatchy reddish beard and a head of thick thatchy reddish hair. He could have passed for a ranch hand or a West Virginia gas driller.”

Wolfe is nothing if not the master of literary description, and right now you are probably imagining the two men looking something like this:

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[Image credit: Taylor Carman]

But back to the narrative: What did Everett do? Why is he so important?

Well, in 2005, Everett published a paper in Current Anthropology that described a group of people that, as Wolfe tells it, had “not only the simplest language on earth, but also the simplest culture. They had no leaders let alone any form of government. They had no social classes. They had no religion. …They had no rituals or ceremonies at all. They had no music or dance whatsoever. They had no words for colors…” And all that is interesting, but it has nothing to do with Chomsky. No, what REALLY makes the Pirahã interesting is that their language apparently did not have a property known as recursion. Crudely (we’ll get to the details later), recursive structures involve patterns that are repeated “within themselves” – like the branching patterns in trees or the fractal patterns in snowflakes. Everett imagined (for some reason) that this fact (if it is a fact – see below) had refuted Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar.

Wolfe, having read Wolfe’s claims, wants us to know that (a) he is persuaded, and (b) he LOVES boxing metaphors.

“OOOF!—right into the solar plexus!”

Everett to Chomsky:
COME MEET THE TRIBE
THAT KO’D YOUR THEORY

But is it true? Did Everett and their Amazonian tribe really lay waste to seventy years of hard work by Chomsky and thousands of linguists around the world?

The short answer is no, first, because Chomsky never said every language has recursion. Indeed what he had been claiming for decades is that he was interested in the properties of the biological system – the Language Acquisition Device — that makes it possible for us to learn languages that have properties like recursion.

More specifically, what he was interested in were the low level biophysical properties that might make this possible. We can illustrate this idea by talking about snowflakes. There are different kinds of snowflakes all over the world and some of them exhibit very interesting recursive patterns and some are just very boring. But the Chomsky-like project for snowflakes would be to ask, what are the properties of water that give rise to these recursive patters when they occur. One property would be that the hydrogen atoms are at 104.5 degrees to each other, and so the water molecules can bind with each other and form interesting hexagonal structures…and… well, that is just the beginning of the story. The point is that not all snowflakes have recursive patterns, but we want to understand the principles that explain WHY they do WHEN they do.

Not surprisingly then, when people started claiming that Everett and the Pirahã had murderdeathkilled his research program, Chomsky seemed to be more baffled than he was in that Ali G interview – especially the part where Ali G pretends to confuse “bilingual” and “bisexual.”

I imagine Chomsky’s first encounter with the devastating blow went like this:

Chomsky is working at his computer when a student rushes in.
Student: “Professor Chomsky! They’ve discovered an Amazonian tribe that has a language without recursion!”
Chomsky (slowly turning from his computer): “Can they learn Portuguese?”
Student: “Well… yes.”
Chomsky slowly turns back to his computer.

While Chomsky just could not be bothered with more Ali-G-level idiocy, others felt the need to respond – not because it mattered to generative linguistics if the claims were true, but because the claims about the Pirahã language and culture were FALSE. And they weren’t just false, and they weren’t just ridiculous, they were REDONKULOUS! And some academics felt it was just wrong to let this dumpster fire of misinformation go unchallenged.

I should add that it wasn’t just that The Truth needed to be defended; some people felt that the Pirahã people should also be defended from what was, in effect, an attack on them from a Western scholar – one who was, in their view, primitivizing and exoticizing them for his own personal fame. And while Wolfe seemed enamored with Dan Everett’s missionary background, it was not lost on some that this was a man who originally went to these people, not to learn about them, but for the harvest of souls. So, as it turned out, it was not so much the generative linguists who had it in for Wolfe so much as the field linguists and the cultural anthropologists. Charges and insults were exchanged, and then scholars did what scholars do. They studied the language and culture closely.

In 2009, Andrew Nevins, David Pesetsky, and Cilene Rodrigues published a paper in which they closely examined Everett’s claims about the Pirahã culture and language. It was a monumental piece of work that was a clinic in academic dispassion, thoroughness, and rigor. Unsnappily titled “Pirahã Exceptionality: A Reassessment,” it called into question nearly every claim that Everett had made.

Cue the would-be scientist Wolfe, who rushes to the aid of Everett the red-bearded regular guy. With exactly zero background in syntax or field linguistics (so far as we know), Wolfe dismisses the Nevins et. al. paper as “a swollen corpus of objections — cosmic, small-minded, and everything in between”. In Wolfe’s view, all the dreary loathsome facts in that paper just made the case for recursion in Pirahã even better, for what is a more reliable sign that you are right than that people start arguing against you with things like facts. Screw facts!

We will get to the recursion business in a minute, but first it is instructive to take a closer look at some of the other claims made about the Pirahã by Everett and Wolfe – Wolfe in particular (since this is his book, after all). Here is Wolfe on the Pirahã culture.

“You couldn’t call them Stone Age or Bronze Age or Iron Age or any of the Hard Ages because the Ages were all named after the tools prehistoric people made. They were pre-toolers.”

Yeah, “pre-toolers.” Did you see what he did there? Except, it seems, they had bows and arrows, which YOU probably thought were tools. Silly you. And their non-tool arrows, it seems, were shaped by what Wolfe calls “a scraping tool,” which…apparently… was not a tool.

Bows and arrows don’t count as counterexamples to the “pre-tooler” claim? No! And to show this Wolfe embarks on a soliloquy in which his goal appears to be distracting us from the question by poking fun at the political correctness of anthropologists. I’m going to pick up with the discussion of the bow and arrow just so you know I left nothing out.

“They made no artifacts at all — with the exception of the bow and arrow and a scraping tool used to make the arrow. So far no one has been able to figure out how the bow and arrow — artifact if there ever was one — became common to the Inuit (the new “politically correct” name for Eskimos) at the North Pole, the Chinese in East Asia, to the Indians —er—Native-born in North America, and the Pirahã in Brazil.”

Wow. You are probably so distracted from that Wolfe paragraph — wondering, you know, whether he really thought the Inuit were at the North Pole, or whether he really thought the expression for Native American was “Native-born in North America”— that you didn’t notice the beginning, which is perhaps the most messed up part of the whole paragraph: “They made no artifacts at all”. This astounding claim is then immediately followed with the following.

“Occasionally some Pirahã would sling together crude baskets of twigs and leaves. But as soon as they delivered the contents [of the basket], they’d throw the twigs and leaves [i.e., the basket] away.”

I would have thought that even if the baskets are made of leaves and twigs instead of paper or plastic and even if they throw them away after their contents are delivered, they are still, for all that, ARTIFACTS. Wolfe then goes on to explain why their “domiciles” — only a few of which “had reached the hut level” — were also not artifacts. Apparently for a home to count as an artifact it needs to have three bedrooms, one and a half baths, and a two-car garage.

But let’s go back to tools, because I just cannot let this go. Suppose we say, “well, you know, bows and arrows and temporary baskets are just cosmically small-minded exceptions to the rule that the Pirahã are…smirk… ‘pre-toolers’.” Perhaps, but then then I am perplexed by Everett’s very own 1986 publication in the Handbook of Amazonian Languages, in which he informs us (p. 322) that the Pirahã word for ‘saw’ is similar to their expression for “toucan beak.” Oh, and he also reports that they have words for ladders, and shoe leather, and canoes, and… well the way this is going it wouldn’t surprise me if they had a word for the plastic tips on the end of shoe laces.

Wolfe’s desire to believe that the Pirahã had no tools or artifacts is a perfect metaphor for the rest of Wolfe’s first world exoticizing of the Pirahã. And he doesn’t stop with remarking on their “pre-tooler” ways.

“They spoke only in the present tense. They had virtually no conception of “the future” or “the past,” not even words for “tomorrow” and “yesterday,” just a word for “other day,” which could mean either one.”

Now let’s just put this in a pipe and smoke it for a minute. They don’t have a conception of the future or the past but they have a conception of “the other day” which could be either in the future or the past. Neither of which exists. And let’s go back to that bow and arrow. Why did they want to use a scraping tool to make a bow if they weren’t planning on using it to hunt in the future. And why did they plan on hunting if they weren’t planning to kill an animal in the future? And why did they want to kill an animal if they weren’t planning on eating it in the future? So Wolfe and Everett would have us believe that these people could use a tool to make a bow to use to hunt and kill an animal to have something to eat, but had virtually no concept of the future.

That is pretty messed up, but so is the claim that the Pirahã had no color terms. We are told that to say ‘green’ they use an expression that, translated literally, would yield ‘it is temporarily being immature’. Nevins et. al. complain that this just is the Pirahã’s expression for ‘green’, and that to literally translate the expression so as to reveal it’s etymology is another way to exoticism and primitivize the Pirahã. On the flip side, however, what charmingly primitive people our interior decorators must be, using expressions like ‘egg shell’ and ‘cream’ and (in the case of my patio) ‘lazy lizard’ to describe colors, whereas if they were civilized people they would give those colors proper color names, like ‘black’, from the Proto-Germanic ‘blakaz’. Which meant “burned.”

We’ve been down this path before. In the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin Lee Whorf claimed that the Hopi tribe of North America had no conception of past or future or, more generally, time itself. It was all bullshit of course. It just came to a first worlder encountering people so exotic — so other— he fantasizes that they don’t have things like the concept of the future. (The Hopi may or may not have a future tense, but it doesn’t follow that they have no concept of future. And, by the way it is not disputed that English has no future tense.)

The same thing could happen to us. An alien planet might send their own Tom Wolfe to write about us. I imagine his report home would be epic.

“Those Anglophone Americans are the most primitive people in the galaxy! They have no future tense and hence concept of the future — instead they just express possibility or desire by using the word “will” as in “I will pay you back”. They have a very limited color vocabulary. Their Crayola Crayons thus have mere descriptors like ‘burnt umber’ and ‘flesh’ and ‘tropical rain forest’ instead of proper color names. And get this, they have no artifacts at all — everything they make they eventually throw away!”

We’ve talked about the future, so perhaps it is time to talk about the Pirahã having no concept of past, for if you have no conception of past, that really limits what you can talk about with friends and family. This leads us to the remarkable claim, made in Everett’s 2005 paper, that “[t]he Pirahã do not create fiction, and they have no creation stories or myths.”

That is a pretty astounding claim to make, and as Nevins et. al. (392) point out, it is itself a work of fiction. It seems that “a wealth of information about Pirahã mythology can be found in two extensive studies by Gonçalves (1993, 2001), an anthropologist who lived with the Pirahã for eighteen months over a period of eight years (1986–1993), documenting and analyzing their cosmology (initially in the context of the conventions for naming children).” Here is the beginning of one story about the recreation of the world by the demiurge Igagai after a cosmic cataclysm:

“In the beginning of the world, the first level immediately above that of the Pirahã was situated much lower than it is today. It was situated very close to the level in which they live. The moon, when it rose, appeared very low. One day, at night, a man decided to shoot arrows at the moon. He climbed a high tree and released the arrow. He hit the moon in the middle and its blood began to spurt. With all the blood that ran, the moon perished. The sky above began to fall. The men ran and cut long and thick tree-trunks to support the upper earth that was descending upon them…”

And yeah, it is not strictly speaking a creation story but a RE-creation story, but that is ok because it is still for that a MYTH (which they allegedly don’t have), and it still for all that takes place IN THE PAST (Which they allegedly have no conception of).

The whole thing reminds one of Geoffry Pullum’s essay “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax” in which he describes work anthropologist Laura Martin on how we came to believe that the Inuit have hundreds of words for snow when in fact they have two verbal roots (one for snow in the air, and one for snow on the ground). Pullum summed it up in a way that speaks to our current situation.

“And the alleged lexical extravagance of the Eskimos comports so well with the many other facets of their polysynthetic perversity: rubbing noses; lending their wives to strangers; eating raw seal blubber; throwing grandma out to be eaten by polar bears; “We are prepared to believe almost anything about such an unfamiliar and peculiar group,” says Martin, in a gentle reminder of our buried racist tendencies.”

The Pirahã were the perfect group to be exploited for this exercise in scientific disinformation — a group so exotic that we can attribute (the lack of) any property at all to their language and culture. They have no future tense, no past tense, they have no tools or artifacts, or creation myths, or—and this is supposedly the big point—recursion.

I’m going to talk about recursion now, but first a reminder is in order. Chomsky never said all languages have recursion. The phrase “Universal Grammar” does not refer to features of languages that are universal; it refers to the module of the mind/brain that makes language learning possible. So the research project is this: What must that system be like so that it allows us to learn the different languages of the world – including those that have recursive structures.

With that reminder out of the way, feel free to skip this part because it doesn’t matter. But, for the record, the Pirahã language HAS recursion – lots of it. To explain this I’m going to illustrate with examples of recursion in English, starting with this.

“This is the cat that ate the rat that ate the cheese…”

As most people know from the childhood game, this can go on forever. This is what linguists would call NP recursion, for noun phrase recursion. It means there is an NP within an NP within an NP and so on. But NP recursion is not the only kind of recursion. There is also clausal recursion. Here is an example.

“Fred believed that Wilma said that Betty ordered Barney to make brontosaurus burgers”

In some languages we also have possessive recursion. So, in English, we can say things like “Mark’s cousins’ gastroenterologist.”

We also get recursive patterns of noun-noun compounds. For example: ‘Minnesota salad bar cheese ball appetizer’. The noun ‘cheese’ is combined with the noun ‘ball’ and thus forms a new noun, which is then combined with ‘appetizer’ to form yet another noun, and ultimately we end up with the description of a Minnesota salad bar offering. It has a hierarchical structure, like this: [Minnesota [salad bar]][[cheese ball] appetizer]]].

Now the fun part of this is that we can combine these recursive patterns into each other, yielding a symphony of recursive structures inside of a single English sentence.

“My mom said her cousin’s veterinarian believes that this is the cat that ate the rat that ate the Minnesota salad bar cheese ball appetizer”

What is also interesting is that different languages of the world allow different kinds of recursion. So, for example, while English allows noun-noun recursion (e.g. ‘cheese ball appetizer), some languages (Romance languages like French and Italian) do not. So, just as snowflakes can form in different ways under different conditions, so too the recursive structures in natural language will vary from place to place.

With that little review, let’s go back to the supposedly non-existent words for the supposedly nonexistent tools that the Pirahã don’t have. Everett 1986, points out that their word for ladder was originally a noun-noun compound built from the words for foot and handle. The word for bowstring was from a noun-noun compound built from the words for vine and bow. But if they have noun-noun compounds…they have recursion (remember ‘cheese ball appetizer’?).

This isn’t the only recursion that shows up in that 1986 paper. There is also clausal recursion. Nevins et.al. point to example 210a from Everett’s original paper:

ti xibı´ib-i-hiab-iig-a´ kahaı´ kai-sai

for which Everett gives two glosses.

(i) ‘I am not ordering you to make an arrow.’ or
(ii) ‘I will not let you make an arrow.’

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Now, let’s focus for a minute. Let’s ignore the fact that this example – Everett’s own example – talks about the future (the concept of which they don’t have) and let’s ignore the fact that it seems to suggest a boss giving orders (which they don’t have). What is interesting is that it appears to have a sentential clause embedded within a sentential clause. This is the embedded one: [you to make an arrow]. Now elsewhere Everett suggests that this clause is not embedded but is just tacked on as another sentence, but this cannot be. We know this because the utterance does not mean this:

(iii) I’m not ordering you. Make an arrow!

The negation can take scope over the whole thing (yielding Everett’s gloss 1) and it can take scope over the inner clause (yielding Everett’s gloss 2) but it cannot take scope over just the first clause and not the second (because the second is tucked inside the first).

Weirdly, this and all the other recursion that Everett reported in that 1986 paper seems to have slipped his memory when he wrote the 2005 paper – you know, the one that made him famous. We don’t need to rely on fieldwork done 30 years ago. For example, Uli Sauerland (2015) reported recent fieldwork that shows that false belief reports are attested in Pirahã and that in such reports the content of the beliefs are be embedded under the expressions meaning ‘said that’ and ‘believed that’ (yielding clausal recursion).

One form of recursion that Pirahã appeared not to have according to Nevins et. al., was possessive recursion – not remarkable, in their view, because neither does German. But subsequent fieldwork conducted by Raiane Oliveira Salles (2015) recorded constructions like ‘Kapoogo’s canoe’s motor is big’. Once again, setting aside the points that, hey, I guess they have the concepts of tools and personal property after all, there is the key point that this is a possessive embedded within a possessive.

So now we have something to ponder. Given that we haven’t even looked at it that much but have already discovered that Pirahã has all kinds of recursion running through it, and given that German is missing at least some kinds of recursion that Pirahã has (i.e. possessive recursion), why not seize on German as your big counterexample? For, after all, Germans wear lederhosen and they scare the shit out of their children with tales of Krampus and they are fond of impossibly large words. However, recursion-deprived as it may be, it is really hard for us first-worlders to imagine that these strange beer-chugging peoples have a language so weird that it undermines Chomsky’s program. But the Pirahã, those mostly naked brown people living in the jungle – who knows, maybe wearing penis gourds and lip disks – are perhaps sooooo exotic that their language is a living counterexample to the idea that our minds/brains have a language acquisition device. Sigh.

At this point you might be thinking, well, Wolfe’s criticism of Chomsky might be bogus (and maybe that is Everett’s fault anyway), but Wolfe is a man of letters who has spent his life immersed in language. Should we not hear out his positive thesis on language? Sure, why not. And as it turns out, Wolfe is more than happy to share it with us.

“One bright night it dawned on me—not as a profound revelation, not as any sort of analysis at all, but as something so perfectly obvious, I could hardly believe that no licensed savant had ever pointed it out before. There is a cardinal distinction between man and animal, a sheerly dividing line as abrupt and immovable as a cliff: namely, speech.”

Wait…what? It has been Chomsky’s position forever that language is a distinctively human phenomenon. This is taught in linguistics 101. It is in every popular and not-so-popular book Chomsky has ever written about language. It is in all the secondary literature about Chomsky, and, if you are too lazy to read any of that but are writing about him at least take the time to Google “Chomsky” and read his freaking Wikipedia page, I mean, since you are supposedly writing a book about the man and his work and… what am I saying? —you don’t even have to read an article; there are memes with this on it ALL OVER THE INTERNETS. Here’s one. It’s free. Enjoy.

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I swear I just found that. What the hell, have another. Like I said, they are free!

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I simply cannot fathom how Wolfe can claim this idea for himself without slitting his wrists in a fit of self-loathing. How else could he write entire book criticizing Chomsky’s method and his mathyness, and his shtetl Jewishness, and his faux-manly shirts (cf the picture above) and his politics and his spic and span air conditioned office and then, at the end of it all announce that he, Wolfe, has this brilliant insight – an insight that heretofore no licensed savant has ever had — and it turns out to be… a Chomsky Internet meme. And oh yeah, I almost forgot: He does this just a few chapters after accusing Darwin of not properly crediting someone else for their ideas. (For the record, Chomsky also argued that the language faculty is not the product of natural selection, but we can only sort out so many Wolfe confusions per paragraph).

All of which leads to the question, how on God’s Green Earth did this crap even get published? I understand that the author of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test could walk into any publisher with scribbling on a piece of toilet paper and they would publish it. The question is, why didn’t they clean this mess up? Steven Pool, writing in The Guardian, wonders too:

“An author less famous and bankable than Wolfe would surely have been saved from such embarrassment by more critical editorial attention. Even a cursory fact check could still have prevented howlers such as the statement that “Einstein discovered the speed of light” (no he didn’t).”

It’s a lovely thought, but the problem is that if a fact checker had a go at this book and removed all the howlers, there would be absolutely nothing left. As I said in the beginning, Wolfe’s goal in this book was to smash one or two of our intellectual icons, and an icon did end up smashed to pieces. The problem is that Wolfe is that icon.

But the book and Wolfe’s unintentional auto-iconoclastasy aren’t the tragic part of this. The real tragedy is in what this tells us about our anti-intellectual facts-to-the-flames culture. We now live in the wake of George W. Bush “I go by my gut” anti-intellectualism, which has subsequently given way to Trumpian super-duper anti-intellectualism, which is like the Bush variety except that the false claims are Yuuuuuger! Joshua Leach, writing in the blog Six Foot Turkey, also saw more than a little bit of Trump in Wolfe’s new book:

“…Wolfe’s affinities for the casually demagogic style, the indifferent bombast and boasting of the Trumpian national (and perhaps global) mood, is evident throughout the book. We have seen that Wolfe’s anti-intellectualism is, like Trump’s, founded in the belief not only that he is a man of the people, but also that he could be — nay, is — smarter than all the effete intellectual toffs anyways. Wolfe’s fact-dumping, as well as the dismissiveness of his account of those “perfectly obvious” insights at the end of the book — the ones that no educated dunce had ever managed to perceive before — is a slightly higher-browed version of Trump’s insistence that he is his own best foreign policy advisor, because, as he memorably put it, “I have a very good brain.”

Leach is onto something here, for if you think about it, Wolf is the long form master of the techniques that Trump has managed to distill into tweets.

For example, Wolfe tries to communicate to us that he is the friend of the common man (defending poor Wallace against that elitist Darwin) even though the reality is that Wolfe is more of a class elitist than Darwin could ever be. Wolfe, like Trump, is a man that SAYS WHAT’S ON HIS MIND and you know this because he says “Eskimos” instead of “North Pole Inuits” and he says “Indians” and not “the North American Native-born” and he thereby shows that he STANDS UP to political correctness. Like Trump, Wolfe drops little orthogonal disparaging remarks into the discussion (hmmm, Darwin’s wife was plain looking?), just so that weighs in the background as you process everything. And in the spirit of Trump’s negative-connotation naming strategy, “Crooked Hillary” and “Low Energy Jeb” give way to Wolfe’s “Smooth Smooth Darwin” and “Noam Charisma.” Finally there is the othering of his targets. Just as Obama is possibly deep down really a Kenyan, Chomsky is stuck in a perpetual state of Ruskie shtetl Jewyness, even though he was born and raised in Philadelphia. For sure Chomsky is not like you and me and that red-bearded son of a cowboy that is Dan Everett.

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The Trumpiest undercurrent of it all is the idea that the empirical evidence and logical argumentation is an invention of the elites — designed to bamboozle you into believing what your guts tell you is wrong. And by God, gut instincts are far betters arbiters of truth — not just in politics but in science as well. Ignore those pointy-headed intellectuals and listen to your gut my friends, because your gut is telling you the obvious truth that man’s higher faculties did not evolve from the ape and we have the super-duper-primitive people to prove it.

As I said, this anti-intellectualism is a cultural tragedy, but there are layers of tragedy and the top layer (or bottom, I guess) is that our alleged liberal media, which rightly recoils in horror at Trump’s nonsense, cannot contain their squeals of delight when Everett and Wolfe hand them a similarly constructed shit sandwich. They eat it up.

The list is long and depressing here, but we can begin with Barbara King at NPR, who uncritically parrots the nonsense about Pirahã having no color terms or embedded clauses (see Everett’s own counterexample above) and then salutes Everett for “challenging a dominant discourse.”

Does it occur to King that by joining the parade of those primitivizing the Pirahã, she has added her support for a dominant discourse too? – a very old colonial narrative that, to borrow the words of Geoff Pullum, perhaps hides “our buried racist tendencies?” Perhaps yes, as she rallies to defend Everett: “The racism charge is plainly baseless; in his books Everett portrays the Pirahãs as clever people.” Well. That settles that.

As for The Kingdom of Speech and the fine scientific reasoning therein, Dwight Gardner, in the New York Times informs us that Wolfe’s book successfully “tars and feathers Mr. Chomsky before sticking a clown nose on his face and rolling him in a baby stroller off a cliff.” What? Just in case that wasn’t enough Wolfe boosterism, the Times added a second review of Wolfe’s book – this by Caitlin Flanagan – in which we are assured that Wolfe has “shank[ed]” Chomsky “with characteristic wit and savage precision.”

Parenthetically and weirdly (even more weird than the image of a witty shanking), Flanagan uses her review to completely invert Chomsky’s point in “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” saying Chomsky argued intellectuals were “people whose opinions on American foreign policy were inherently more valuable than those of the common men and women whom, ironically, they claimed to champion.” That is, of course, the exact opposite of Chomsky’s point in that essay, as he claims intellectuals don’t have special insights into morality and accuses intellectuals of pseudo-scientific justification for the crimes of the state. Did the New York Times fire all its fact checkers?

Meanwhile we have those journalists that recognize the Everett/Wolfe stuff is all a bunch of hokum but simply don’t care. Why? Because, in this day and age, it isn’t about finding the truth; it’s about winning the news cycle. This attitude is pristinely reflected in a review of the book in Canada’s Globe and Mail.

“Wolfe is a reporter and an entertainer, an opinionated raconteur rather than a scientist, and that is why we will always report on his jocular provocations. And if they serve as an excuse to explain what universal grammar was in the first place – as it has done – then Chomsky should be thrilled.”

Right. Because what could thrill Chomsky more than to have the media fraudulently misrepresent his theory using a facts-be-damned line of anti-intellectual argumentation that exoticizes another human culture? Chomsky must be “thrilled” about that, because, my God, his whole life he has been complaining that the media is too serious and too concerned with getting the facts right, when it should be, you know, writing about the Kardashians and otherwise using misinformation to bring eyeballs to advertisers. THRILLED I tell you!

And here we are. We’ve had our laughs at the expense of Wolfe and Everett and the journalists that fawn over them, but if you think about it, it really isn’t funny.

One of the greatest scientists of our lifetime has embarked upon a fascinating research program. The program is exploring a property of human nature – the language faculty – and he is attempting to show how a half-century of research by thousands of linguists from around the world can be grounded in low-level mathematical and biophysical properties of our world. And whether that program is successful or not, it is a vision of remarkable beauty – the recursive patterns of our languages and their variety and complexity could be understood perhaps as well as we now understand the spiral patterns in the nautilus shell or the recursive patterns of the snowflake.

He came to us with that gift. He did not ask us to believe him, nor did he insist that we engage in that project ourselves. He simply told us what his project was and invited us to join him. And all we as a culture could do in our upscale magazines and newspapers and blogs was shit all over the man and clog the conversation with an endless stream of transparent gibberish from obvious charlatans. This is why we can’t have nice things.

I’m not worried about Chomsky, however, no more than I’m worried about Darwin’s position in future histories of science. Chomsky’s position too will be just fine. I do worry about how we will look in those histories, however. Because from where I sit the rampant anti-intellectual responses and the failures to distinguish nonsense from solid science in the attacks on Chomsky’s work look more like harbingers of a new dark age, one that rejects thoughtful scientific probes into human nature and levels charges of a new kind of apostasy– the apostasy of using one’s mind instead of gut instinct. And I suspect that, from the perspective of future intellectual historians, Chomsky’s ability to produce this last great piece of work against the backdrop of our new dark age will make his achievements seem all the more impressive.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

E.J. Spode knows his shit!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, October 1st, 2016.