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Does he get the linguistics right? That’s the question many may expect a linguist to answer about Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech, a chronicle in high Wolfean about — to put it narrowly — a debate between linguists about sentence structure.

Sound dull? On one level, it’s an intermural academic catfight — one that I confess I never expected to see cast in the behind-the-music format of Wolfe’s classics Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. But the debate is considered by some linguists to be one of the most important in the social sciences — with implications for evolutionary theory, neuroscience, and "human nature" itself.

To put it slightly more broadly, Wolfe’s topic is Noam Chomsky’s proposal that all humans are born with a sentence structure blueprint programmed in their brains, invariant across the species, and that each language is but a variation upon this "Universal Grammar" generated by an as-yet unidentified "language organ." In other words, we are born already knowing language.

Wolfe mounts a grand debunking — attempting to take down not just Chomsky-the-linguist but, as collateral damage, Chomsky-the-left-intellectual. Unfortunately, while Wolfe, as always, certainly keeps you reading, he barely scratches the surface of the rich topic of linguistics, and winds up caricaturing both the man he wants to knock off the pedestal as well as the insurgent academics who have questioned the very premises of his approach to language...

The bonfire of Noam Chomsky: journalist Tom Wolfe targets the acclaimed linguist - Vox

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