I read the report in Sunday's Observer concerning the dispute between Tom Wolfe (author Kingdom of Speech) and Noam Chomsky (professor emeritus Massachusetts Institute of Technology) over their divergent views on the origins of human speech.

Whilst Chomsky maintains that people are born with a "universal grammar" which explains why children are able to speak so early, Wolfe takes issue with this claiming that language was "not the product of evolution, but a tool that man created".

The article dwells to a large extent on the personal quarrel that has arisen between Wolfe and Chomsky and it is difficult to discern from it the rudiments of the debate.

Is there a linguistics professional on the site who could perhaps outline, succinctly, in a few words, the two separate arguments? What does it all boil down to?

  • I have no idea what Wolfe really means by phrases like "a verbal trick," as I haven't read his book. You can find some second-hand explanations of the general position taken by Chomsky on the generative linguistics blog "Faculty of Language." Sep 15, 2016 at 14:10
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    For a linguists perspective, check out McWhorter's Vox article. Note that Wolfe is a non-fiction writer, not a linguist, so a bit of a (very educated) outsider to the issues.
    – Mitch
    Sep 15, 2016 at 14:53
  • @Mitch From a quick look, that is clearly a rather more insightful treatment of the argument. If you wanted to supply a short precis of it as an answer, I would be very glad to accept it. Anyway, thanks for the link.
    – WS2
    Sep 15, 2016 at 15:29
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    McWhorter does a good job of reviewing it. I think he hit the high points. And Everett agrees with him.
    – jlawler
    Sep 15, 2016 at 15:29
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    Wolfe's science is laughable. However, his book should provoke a greater interest in the debates around language origins - which would be a good thing. For example see this article in the <em>Chronicle of Higher Education</em>: 'The Chomsky Puzzle, Piecing together a celebrity scientist' by Tom Bartlett.
    – user14214
    Oct 7, 2016 at 12:26

3 Answers 3


It's complex at first but there's very little controversy to be found.

Noam Chomsky is a linguist and political activist famous for revolutionizing the study of all areas of linguistics via structuralist methods. He also has a second life as a political critic, bringing scientific methods to journalism, measuring coverage of topics to show the bias of news organizations.

Tom Wolfe is an author famous for the New Journalism movement in the 60's, writing a number of well-received novelistic non-fiction books about American culture. His most famous book is The Right Stuff about the American space program.

Wolfe recently wrote a book, The Kingdom of Speech critiquing two things, Darwin's theories of evolution and Chomsky's theory of Universal Grammar. To oversimplify considerably, "the ability to learn grammar is hardwired into the [human] brain". It is an overarching abstract theory, which also has a lot of very particular falsifiable details. Although there are academic alternatives to the big picture and to the details, it sets the program to explain the commonalities of human language (especially grammar). And there are controversies over some of the details e.g. possible lack of recursion (Everett/Pirahã), unfalsifiability (there are universals to language by definition of a word 'language' (but then there certainly are language specific areas of the brain)).

Wolfe's critique seems to boil down to 1) the single Pirahã questionable counterexample, 2) "language is not the result of evolution but essentially a verbal trick that was invented by human beings", and 3) "It's a memory aid – a mnemonic – that enables human beings to store away a piece of information and compare it to a new piece of information and draw conclusions." The first is a reasonable scientific critique, but has been judged by linguists not to be sufficient. The second is a broad nature vs nurture claim, which is an understandable but false dichotomy to make; it is obvious that there are components to be learned and also that there are parts where biology is necessary, and much interaction between. The third seems to treat language as simple vocabulary, and as such really hardly addresses any of the concerns actual scientists have about UG.

Wolfe also seems to compare externalities: theoretical linguists tend to pasty-skinned sunless armchair theorizing, Everett is the dashing revolutionary storming the barricades of the ossified ivory tower.

Also, there's no actual dispute between Wolfe and Chomsky, in the sense that there's little to no dialog between them. Wolfe has criticized some implications of Chomsky's theories and Chomsky has only made comments about the book saying the "errors are so extraordinary it would take an essay to review them".

In short, Wolfe makes for very entertaining intellectual reading but is not a good or even relevant source of the substance of the UG controversy.

  • I find it curious that Chomsky also believes simple Darwinian gradual selection can't explain language. In a book critical of Darwinism I'd expect the author to side with Chomsky's hypothesis of sudden mutation (what Everett has called the "X-Men theory" of language evolution); but Wolfe seems bent on rejecting both (I haven't read his book yet). Sep 30, 2016 at 15:43
  • @leoboiko I couldn't presume to say what Chomsky thinks of theories of evolution. However, there is a well substantiated theory of punctuated equilibrium (periods of not much (obvious) happening separated by short periods of a lot of change).
    – Mitch
    Sep 30, 2016 at 18:41
  • Despite a certain penchant for the provocative (cf. his remark about Plato's theory of reincarnation), Chomsky never contested the reality of evolution in general. He only denies that language could evolve gradually by natural selection, with selective pressures building it feature by feature. Rather, he thinks a random mutation enabled language all at once, when a key cognitive operation randomly popped up. See How Could Language Have Evolved?. Sep 30, 2016 at 19:05
  • @leoboiko I don't see how you could say those two things. Chomsky 1) doesn't deny gradualism, and he 2) doesn't demand a point mutation. He, or rather they, say that it is 1) more likely that language ability evolved over 2) around a thousand years (a few generations) similar to lactose tolerance.
    – Mitch
    Oct 1, 2016 at 1:55
  • I don't see how you don't; he's quite clear that language sprung from Merge, all of a sudden: "It looks as if — given the time involved — there was a sudden ‘great leap forward.’ Some small genetic modification somehow that rewired the brain slightly [and] made this human capacity available. And with it came an entire range of creative options that are available to humans within a theory of mind — a second-order theory of mind, so you know that somebody is trying to make you think what somebody else wants you to think. " Oct 1, 2016 at 2:16

Chomsky's argument for the Universal Grammar:

  • Children pick up language quickly because of a Language Acquisition Device (LAD).
  • While the LAD is hypothetical, Chomsky believes it to be innate and a part of the human brain.
  • There are journal articles about evidence for the LAD, such as this article in Language.
  • If there were an LAD, then one would expect to see certain patterns in all human languages. These patterns would show up as universals in grammar. (That is, almost all natural human languages would display certain characteristics and be generated by a similar set of rules.)
  • Chomsky believes in the Universal Grammar (UG) as evidenced by regular rules in many languages. See this PDF. The first rule stated: "Universal 1. In declarative sentences with nominal subject and object, the dominant order is almost always one in which the subject precedes the object."

I am not familiar with Wolfe's contention. However, here is an important Wolfe quote from the article you provided:

“My contention is that language is not the result of evolution but essentially a verbal trick that was invented by human beings. It’s a memory aid – a mnemonic – that enables human beings to store away a piece of information and compare it to a new piece of information and draw conclusions.”

To use a crude computer analogy, Chomsky would say you were born with certain hardware that ran built-in software. The software had an initial set of conditions that were toggled based on the language you heard (a database of rules, if you will). In contrast, Wolfe would say that you downloaded a software tool and started using it.

I suppose the essential difference would be that Chomsky thinks that you were born with the capacity to learn language, while Wolfe thinks that you picked up a trick or tool from those older than you.

  • 3
    "Universals" of the type that Greenberg lists are not actually relevant to the "Universal Grammar" research program, at least not according to Norbert Hornstein (see his post "Universals: a consideration of Everett's full argument"). In my opinion, both are confusingly named. Greenberg's "Universals" are actually mostly statistical tendencies about observed properties of languages. They show up around the world, but they are not universal among all languages. Sep 15, 2016 at 16:46
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    Universal grammar relates to the "faculty of language" that all human beings possess. As such, universal grammar (in Chomsky's sense) is not an observed property of specific languages. It is an inferred property of the minds of the speakers. Sep 15, 2016 at 16:47
  • Agreed, @suməlic, which is why I used weasel words when describing Universal (many, almost all). Indeed, Universals are statistical tendencies. I'm watching Korean dramas now and am wondering if the Korean language is an O-S structure or if they're simply doing a lot of Fronting.
    – rajah9
    Sep 15, 2016 at 16:51
  • Umm. Interesting stuff about the LAD. I have often wondered how people who are totally deaf from birth manage to acquire an understanding of language sufficient to be able to write and use sign-language. Thanks for the contribution, and the summary of the main points. I appreciate this probably has more to do with neuroscience than English language.
    – WS2
    Sep 15, 2016 at 23:57
  • You're quite welcome. Thanks for posting the article, @WS2. I would assert that ASL has a grammar that is compatible with theory of UG (and LAD). As to the neuroscience aspect, please try a search on Broca's area and UG.
    – rajah9
    Sep 16, 2016 at 13:52

Here is my summary (drawn from reviews of Wolfe's book -- I didn't read it). A correct view of this question about the nature of language would have to emerge from exposure to facts in the field. When you go out into the field, you get a good tan. This guy Everett is tanned and healthy, while Chomsky and those who follow him are pale and unhealthy looking. Accordingly, Wolfe concludes that Chomsky's theories must be wrong. Like Darwin, who spent so much time aboard The Beagle in an enclosed little room, sketching, analyzing morphology, thinking, the Chomskyans spend too much time indoors. Bad practice.

Non-linguists reading about this controversy about the language organ might get the impression that investigating the language organ, or looking for it, is something linguists do. It's not so. No one cares about the language organ.

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