My Father, the Provocateur

Alexandra Wolfe, "My Father, the Provocateur," Wall Street Journal, September 1, 2016.

Alexandra Wolfe writes:

Yes, at some point in interviewing my father, I probably say “Daaaaaaaaaaaaaad!!!”—and he’d style it just that way if he were writing about our chat himself. Tom Wolfe loves to have characters reveal themselves with that sort of noisy exclamation (think of “The Right Stuff” and “The Bonfire of the Vanities”), but his own mode of talking is quiet and deliberate. In our home growing up, yelling from room to room was akin to talking with our mouths full or putting our elbows on the table.

Still, in recent years the family has had to impose a new rule for mealtime talk: If one of us thinks we’ve heard a particular story or argument at least five times before, we get to raise our hand as a signal to stop. The rule was created for one reason: to manage my father’s enthusiasm for the topic of his new book, “The Kingdom of Speech.”

Whenever I’ve gotten together with my parents and brother over the past decade, my father, who is now 86, usually manages to turn the conversation to the research he has been doing on language—where it came from and how it makes us distinctive. Charles Darwin held that the human brain and language evolved together, but my father thinks that speech is an entirely separate phenomenon, unrelated to our physical development.

And unlike the linguist Noam Chomsky, against whom my father also contends in the book, he doesn’t think that language is an innate part of our makeup. He sees it instead as our greatest invention—the code that has made possible all of our other inventions, from the spear to the internet.

“The heart of my thinking is that language is man-made,” he tells me. “It’s not a result of evolution, and it is only language that enables human beings to control nature.”

When I share these ideas with others, they often give me a look that says, “Is he crazy?” and then ask, “Is he a creationist?” He’s neither of those things, but he does like to make trouble, especially by poking fun at cultural gatekeepers. His targets over the years have included liberal political posturing (“Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers”), pretentious modern art (“The Painted Word”) and harsh modern architecture (“From Bauhaus to Our House”).

Wall Street Journal