Photo by Hannah Wright on Unsplash

First, what it’s not. In his last book, the late author Tom Wolfe, known for his iconoclastic journalism in works such as The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Right Stuff, took on language. In The Kingdom of Speech,[1] Wolfe skewered Charles Darwin for plagiarizing the theory of evolution from Alfred Wallace. He also pointed out that Darwin never showed that human language evolved from anything else — birdsongs, mother’s coos, animal grunts, and so on — though he desperately wanted to. No one has credibly argued for an evolutionary origin, since, as well.

Encoded memories?

Wolfe posits that the words we use are sounds that encode a memory. In other words, they function like mnemonics, the sayings that help memorize things. He thinks that words are compressed mnemonics, in other words, <yecch!> in some language could actually mean “delicious”. He does not attempt at all to account for the development of hieroglyphics, ideograms, and varieties of alphabets that one reads either right to left or left to right, or down. I find his explanation of the origin of language underwhelming. It just isn’t that simple.


The more we discuss language (using words, of course), the more elusive the notion is. Everyone has one, so why haven’t humans come up with a way to mash them all together, or successfully create a new language for all, like Esperanto? As Rowan Williams points out, speaking (and by extension, reading and writing) is a good bit stranger than we usually think it is.[5] Besides the odd sounds of every language (ˈwɝd) there is the fact that speaking never really comes to an end: “even when we come to a fixed agreement about some disputed question — a problem in physics, say, or a disputed date in history — that is simply the platform on which more, and more interesting questions can be pursued.” So, there is no end of conversations.

Bishop in charge, Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, 2001–2019. French-American. Musician, composer, author, happily married.

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