Rhetoric and Oratory

The humanist movement placed considerable importance on the the study and analysis of ancient rhetoric writings. Using the works of Quintilian and Cicero, they developed a rhetoric that was different from that of the medieval scholastics. Their rhetorical studies included a critical approach to the ancient sources with the criticism replacing reverance.

The early modern rhetoricians portrayed human speakers as being powerful and confident in their own right rather than as being subservient to rhetorical principles or to an omniscient god. They human condition was one involving dignity rather than obsequiesness, and as being proud rather than miserable.

Peter Ramus (1515-1572), a French academic associated with the University of Paris, followed the lead of the Dutch humanist Rudolph Agricola (1444-1485) in emphasizing the area of rhetoric called dialectics. In his effort to streamline the university curriculum, Ramus created a hierarchical organization for the study of rhetoric. For example, he classified invention, organization, and memory under dialectic and he grouped style and delivery together. This resulted in then tendency to associate rhetoric with stylistic and surface features neglecting its functionality. Ramism was most popular in northern Europe and England during the last half of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

Latin, which had been the dominant language used in scholarly and literary discourse in medieval times, began to lose ground in the 17th century being replaced by local vernaculars. This led to a problem with communication between people in different parts of Europe. As a result, language scholars began to look for another language that was universal. They aimed to replace the different vernacular languages (French, English, Italian, etc.) with a single language, as described in Genesis (“of one language and one speech.”). Their intent was to systemize diverse language systems and to create a single language that was unambiguous and regular. There was also a felt need from scientists and religious reformers from different parts of the world to be able to communicate with one another using a universal, transparent language.

Written language was seen at this time as having the potential of conveying meaning more directly than spoken language. Spoken words need to go through an extra step of interpretation from arbitrary sounds. Written symbols, such as Chinese characters, it was thought, were more “real” and potentially universal, and independent of the arbitrariness of “vocal” language. This view led to an interest in finding out whether the deaf could learn language through written form, as well as to look into where deaf signs were “real characters” like the characters in the Chinese alphabet.

Further, the biblical tradition influenced 17th century scholars as can be seen from their beliefs that language differences originated in the tower of Babel as a result of a curse of God. Because languages resulted from a curse, language differences were seen as in need of remedy. The development of universal alphabets, universal languages, and universal scientific taxonomies were designed to take care of the curse originating at Babel.

Some writers created artificial languages to achieve their goal. The hope was that the artificial language would represent both thought and things directly, and would be consistent with the natural categories of the human mind. It would thereby reduce ambiguity and attain a more regular organization.

Francis Bacon, for example, created a group of symbols he called radicals (ideas about the simplest observed components of nature) and another a system of characters, marks, signs, or pictures to modify the radicals and demonstrate their relationships.

Drawing from Bacon, Francis Lodwyck, in his 1647 book on A common writing, created an artificial language from hieroglyphs. He represented what he called “radical” words, or roots using single characters, with the derivatives characters being added to depict modifiers. Each radical, or “radix” was altered slightly to show its various derivatives. So, in Lodwyck’s system the radical verb drink is depicted by itself in the shape of a phonetic schwa, with tense and grammatical markers attached.

Cave Beck (1623-1706), a 17th century British schoolmaster, also published a book, The universal character (1657), in which he forwarded another system of language universals. The system revolved around a numbered list of English words, arranged alphabetically. The numbers allowed Beck to a means of for translating the words into other languages. The word boy in different languages, for example, was assigned the same number. Beck also provided ways to indicate universal grammatical features.

In this same vein, George Delgarno and John Wilkins, worked to create new semantic systems with already existing words. Their aim was to develop systems that were consistent with the natural world, with every word associated with every thing in the world. Delgarno’s universal language was called Ars Signorum (1661). It involved the hierarchical classification of ideas into genera, species and specific differences.

Wilkins in his Essay towards a real character and a philosophical understanding (1668) approached universal grammar as if he were re-ordering the world by reclassifying and renaming its contents. In his he arrived at forty groups of objects (e.g., rock, bird, fish, tree). He then created symbols or “real characters” and spoken sounds for each of the semantic units in his system. His aim was to (1) create a taxonomic knowledge system consisting “real characters” found in the world; (2) to create a written form of his knowledge system and (3) and to create a spoken language isomorphic to the real characters.

The study and use of gesture in the universal language movement was also strong at this time. John Bulwer (1606-1656) a British physician and rhetorician, regarded gesture as universal and as a central element in communication. He followed the philosophy of Francis Bacon who treated gesture as a “transient hieroglyphic” a way to bypass natural language by symbolizing things directly. In 1644 Bulwer published Chirologia or, The natural language of the hand, in which he described how the hand can be used to express both words and abstract concepts.

Another effort to solve the multiple language problems was exhibited by a group of religious figures at the Port Royal abbey in France. These teachers studied the underlying commonalities in the grammars between different languages and arrived at what has been described by Noam Chomsky as a universal grammar which they took to be a deep structure governing the organization of all languages. Their aim was to make use of the vernacular language, or first language, to teach Latin, the language of higher education and religious tradition. Their efforts were manifest in what is now known as the Port Royal Grammar.

Finally, there were efforts on the phonological level to create and discover language universals. In 1667 Francis Van Helmont, a Belgian physician, published his The Alphabet of Nature. In it he argued that Hebrew was a proto-language and one that was closest to how the speech organs were intended to be used. He worked to show that the sounds of Hebrew were the ones most easily reproduced by the human vocal organs.