In the early modern period there were dramatic changes in virtually all avenues of learning and life of Europeans. The period brought with it an emphasis on humanism, empowering man to take control of his world and destiny. The emphasis of this period was on the depiction and study of natural phenomena, including humans, which were seen as reflection of God’s overall design. This made the natural world worthy of considerable attention. The attention led to changes in the depictions of humans in art, to scientific discoveries that challenged ancient authorities and theories, and to a critical religious stance among followers of Catholicism.
These changes also generated shock waves in other fields, including medicine, rhetoric, disability, and education—each arena providing different renderings of communication and communication disabilities. Insights in anatomy and blood circulation led to new ideas about origins and treatments of adult communication disabilities especially those resulting from brain injuries or stroke. The studies of Hieronymous Mercurialis on speech disorders, offered a concentrated medical look at speech disorders, provided diagnostic categories, possible etiologies, and medical (physically based) remediation methods.
The rhetorician Peter Ramus created a new taxonomy of speaking and public oratory, one that focused on delivery and style, more than the other aspects of Cicero’s rhetorical model that emphasized meaning and conceptualization. Ramus’s taxonomy clear separation between speech and thought was to have strong reverberations in later generations of communication scholars.
And the move during this period from the use of Latin as the language of literacy and oratory to the use of vernacular languages led to a universal language movement. Those in this movement worked to design alphabets and languages that depicted natural language categories that tied closely to reality. In this way, they felt that their languages would be made more accessible to everyone, regardless of their language or language abilities.
The universal language movement also created a newfound interest in teaching speech to the deaf. People who were unable to learn oral language because of their hearing impairment were provided with new ways of learning language and communicating. Distinctions were made between speechlessness and lack of intelligence, offering new opportunities to the hearing impaired.
There were also important insights and innovations in the arena of education and rehabilitation. John Comenius advocated individualized education for everyone, an education that begins with what students know and proceeds in graduated steps to provide them with experiences for learning what they don’t know. Similarly, Port Royal teachers in France devised language training that began with the language the student was speaking, and taught new languages through discovery and translation from the first language. This was a major advancement over previous methods that involved memorizing language rules. Finally, alternate and augmented means of communication were designed and taught to non-speaking children and adults, especially those who were deaf. These included sign language, lip reading, written language, and pictures.