Tom Wolfe wrote a book called The Kingdom of Speech in 2016. I recently reread it. Its most basic premise is that what differentiates man from animal is the ability to speak. 

What differentiates man from animal is the ability to speak

Tom Wolfe, The Kingdom of Speech

He writes extensively about Daniel Everett, a linguist who studied a remote Amazonian tribe, whose language is the simplest and smallest one ever studied. Everett ultimately believed that language was an artifact. That is, that language was the first tool that humans constructed. This is partly why there are so many languages, he says.

Sometime ago I read an article about accents that people have, and whether they change. I came across it because, on a blog about writing, there was considerable argument about how to deal with accents in different characters. Can you write about a spy who has perfect command of a language that is not his native one? Does this spy have to have begun learning the second language as a child?  One person argued in comments that accents don’t ever fully change in adults and others said yes they did. The comments were generally driven by personal experience or examples from people in public spaces. 

My personal examples include Mom’s mother, Marie Larsen, who was said to have spoken very well in English. Mom’s father Axel, on the other hand, was quite still difficult to understand when I was 13 or 14, around 1967. At that point he had been in this country for sixty years. However, when he returned to Sweden, taking Mom along for a visit, he had retained his Swedish perfectly, along with a very particular, upper class accent, causing the Swedes to treat him with an extra bit of deference. An eye opener for Mom. But it certainly raises a question about why his English was so bad. 

I’m fascinated by this topic. And by this topic I mean language in general and how it changes or doesn’t. Why can the Italians still read Dante (seven hundred years old) but we can’t easily read Chaucer who is somewhat younger?

I wonder whether that remote Amazonian tribe was really primitive, that is, untouched by history. Or whether they were a regression from a higher state. In the North American continent I’ve heard that there were something like 5000 languages. Is that because the terrible weather that can strike the Midwest disrupted people’s association so severely that isolated groups developed their own languages? 

I wonder how the question of language interacts with my belief in the Word made flesh. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that God, the Father, spoke only one Word, a formulation I had never seen before. 

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