Rhetoric, linguistics, and the movement to standardize language usage

In the 18th century, the British regency was held by the Hanovarian family and included the reigns of George I (1714-1727), George II (1727-1760) and George III (1760-1820). When George I came to the throne, England, Scotland, and Wales had just merged to become Great Britain (1707). This merger generated the establishment of uniform standards in vocabulary, and grammar and in what where then called “polite forms” (Goring, 2004). It also led to a desire among Scottish and Welsh citizens, to speak an understandable and acceptable form of English so that they could take their rightful place in the British politics and social affairs. William Benzie reports, for example, that there was “a stigma attached to the ‘vulgar’ Scottish accent and to Scotticisms in written English” (Benzie, 1972).

These social concerns were among the factors that led to an effort in Britain to regularize and change dialects. It also led to the creation of specialists, known as elocutionists, who could tutor people in polite and effective ways of speaking, their aim being to both standardize spoken English and help people learn and speak that standardized form. Elocutionists usually were people who had been or were still public speakers themselves (as actors or preachers) or who had been scholars specializing in the study of the English language.

These elocutionists focused much of their attention on oral delivery of speech, omitting from their focus the other classical aspects of rhetoric. This focus on oral production in speaking and oral reading became known as the elocutionary aspect of rhetoric.

Elocutionists specified rules for how to move, how to stand, how to pronounce, how to emote. These were parodied by Lawrence Sterne in his multi-volume novel Tristram Shandy. Trim, a character in the novel is described as follows:

He stood before them with his body swayed, and bent forwards just so far, as to make an angle of 85 degrees and half upon the plain of the horizon;--which sound orators, to whom I address this, know very well, to be the true persuasive angle of incidence;--in any other angle you may talk and preach; --‘tis certain,’’ and it is done every day;--but with what effect,--I leave the world to judge!

The necessity of this precise angle of 85 degrees and a half to a mathematical exactness,--does it not shew us, by the say,--how the arts and sciences mutually befriend each other? (Sterne, 1775, Vol 2, p. 98).

The elocutionist movement in the UK began around 1750 in response to a perceived concern among rhetoricians that there was too much attention paid to other divisions of classical rhetoric such as invention, arrangement, and style and not enough to delivery. Included in the ranks of these first elocutionists were Thomas Sheridan, Hugh Blair, John Walker, John Wesley, and William Enfield.

Thomas Sheridan (1719-1778) was an Irish actor and theater owner who was interested in upgrading the standards of English speaking. His focus was on the speech used on the stage, as well as in the pulpit. He founded a short-lived academy For the regular instruction of young gentlemen in the art of reading and reciting and grammatical knowledge of the English tongue. Sheridan emphasized the tones of emotion as a key in the creation of effective messages

Before you can persuade a man into any opinion, he must first be convinced that you believe it yourself. This he can never be, unless the tones of voice in which you speak come from the heart, accompanied by corresponding looks, and gestures, which naturally result from a man who speaks in earnest.

His attention to the natural or biological bases of speech can be seen from his description of how emotions are created:

The tones expressive of sorrow, lamentation, mirth, joy, hatred, anger, love, &c. are the same in all nations, and consequently can excite emotions in us analogous to those passions, when accompanying words which we do not understand: nay the very tones themselves, independent of words, will produce the same effects.

Sheridan believed that elocution was not restricted to the voice, but embodied the entire person with facial expressions, gestures, posture, and movement. His focus represented the Natural School of elocution (Bacon, 1964, 1).

Whereas Sheridan’s educational approach focused on oral reading, Hugh Blair (1718-1800) wrote about learning to write as well as speak. Blair, a Scottish minister and professor of rhetoric and belles lettres at Edinburgh, published his classic book Lectures on rhetoric and belles letters (1783). In it he drew from classical as well as modern writers to offer his students a guide for learning written composition and oral language. The audience was students who were aiming for upward mobility in society.

John Walker (1732-1807) was an English actor, lexicographer, educator, and elocutionist. He established a notation system for training actors. His system differed from earlier ones (e.g., that of Thomas Sheridan) in that Walker’s tied grammar to intonation. He presented an elaborate set of rules that he saw as governing the relationship between intonation and grammatical form.

Walker also designed methods for teaching elocution to young children (e.g., Walker, 1785/1971). His 1785 book, addressed to elocution teachers, identified the following common pronunciation errors that often need attending to. Much of his concern had to do with pronunciation in oral reading:

Another significant figure in the elocution movement was John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of Methodism. Wesley also was concerned with how best to speak by which he mostly meant how best to preach. He recommended that preachers be natural, as if they were engaged in an everyday conversation. He recommended too that they not be too loud, too low, too fast, or too slow in their delivery, that they not mumble, and that that they not to speak in an uneven voice or with an unnatural tone. Wesley was arguing against the flamboyant oratory styles of people such as John Henley, a public orator of the time who received much criticism and public attention for his rhetorical exuberances.

Elocutionist William Enfield was a British Unitarian minister. In 1774 he published the first edition of what came to be a bestselling book entitled The Speaker in which he included an introductory essay on rules of elocution:

  1. Let your articulation be distinct and deliberate.
  2. Let your pronunciation be bold and forcible.
  3. Acquire a compass and variety in the height of your voice.
  4. Pronounce your words with propriety and elegance.
  5. Pronounce every word consisting of more that one syllable with its proper accent.
  6. In every sentence, distinguish the most significant words by a natural, forcible, and varied emphasis.
  7. Acquire a just variety of pause and cadence.
  8. Accompany the emotions and passions which your words express, by correspondent tones, looks and gestures (Enfield, 1785, pp. 8-29).

The 18th century also saw an emphasis on the detailed study of language. One emphasis was the lexicon. Dictionaries that existed before the 18th century provided basic lexical information, with the lexical item presented along with a short definition and synonym. The emphasis of language scholars in the 18th century was to create dictionaries that contained information on pronunciation, meaning, parts of speech, etymology, spelling and usage. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language is a stunning example.

Dictionaries, including Johnson’s, were typically prescriptive, identifying usage errors and providing lists of preferred usage. For example, in a text written by John Baskerville (1706-1775), published in 1765, called A vocabulary or pocket dictionary, the author claims that his text “contains only those more difficult words which occur in sensible genteel company” (Anon, 1765, 3-4).

Along with dictionaries, there were 18th century English grammars that also focused on creating and prescribing speech and grammatical standards. Among these was the work of Alexander Crombie on the Latin origins of English syntax. But by far the most popular of these was written by Bishop Roberth Lowth (1710-1787), an Oxford professor and Bishop of the Church of England. In his book A short introduction to English Grammar, published in 1762, Bishop Lowth laid out a set of grammatical rules, mostly based on those of Latin grammar. For example, he created a long-lasting rule in which he says sentences or clauses should not end with a preposition. Noah Webster (1758-1843), some 66 years later, in his American English Dictionary, borrows heavily from Lowth.

The most successful of Lowth’s adapters was Lindley Murray (1745-1826) a Quaker who moved to England late in life. He was asked there to write a school grammar book. In his English grammar, published in 1795, he incorporated large sections from Bishop Lowth. His book was among the all-time most popular grammar books. It was used as a standard text in American schools for the next 50 years.

The study of language as a system was also of interest to 18th century enlightenment scholars. James Burnet, a Scottish philosopher better known as Lord Monboddo, was among the best known of these early linguists. He argued in his six volume study of language origins, that languages changed so as to achieve greater clarity, offering a pragmatic view of language evolution.

Another key student of language in this period was the British actor and teacher of oratory, John Walker (1732-1807), established a notation system for training actors in oratory to provide a way of codifying English grammar. In his 1781 book called The elements of elocution, Walker presented an elaborate set of rules that he saw as governing the relationship between intonation and grammatical form.

Besides the efforts that 18th century writers made to standardize pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar there was considerable effort in at that time to understand and represent the phonetic aspects of speech production.

John Conrad Amman (1669-1724), for example, studied the speech production of lateral and nasal sounds and their patterned substitutions. He proposed a hierarchical feature classification of speech sound substitutions, showing that substitutions tend to take place between sounds low in the hierarchy (between sounds involving place features, such as t for k) and not high (e.g., substitutions of consonants for vowels or nasals for fricatives) (Amman, 1700).

John Herries (d 1781) also emphasized the importance of phonetics in improving oration and speech correction. Drawing on the work of Johann Amman (1669-1724) and Thomas Braidwood (1715-1806), he identified the sounds of English, nine vowels, nine half vowels, five aspirates and six mutes and recommended that any regimen for improving speech should include learning these sounds and their articulatory foundations (Herries, 1773).

William Kenrick (1725-1779) was a British novelist and lampooner. In 1773 he published A New Dictionary of the English Language in which he used diacritical marks to guide pronunciation. He also marked syllabic structure of his entries. His 1784 book, called A rhetorical grammar of the English language had sections describing different vowels and consonants (1784, pp. 37-65).

Another approach to studying speech phonetics was that of Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734-1804), an Austrian phonetician, who created a mechanical speaking machine. He published a detailed description of his device and experience with it in 1791, in a book entitled Mechanisms of human speech (Mechanismus der menschlichen sprache). The first few chapters of his book were devoted to the existing literature on speech production and to representing the phonological systems of different languages. Von Kempelen’s device not only simulated articulatory movements but also represented perceptual aspects of speech (Ondrejovic, 1996, p. 9).

Prosody was another topic of interest to 18th century writers, orators and scholars. The earliest writings depict prosody in general ways with a strong focus on its use for expressing emotional content. For example, John Mason, a British educator and preacher, authored an essay on elocution in 1748 that focuses on the expression of sentiments conveyed by a text. When reading aloud, he recommends that the reader work to “express the full sense and spirit of your author”. Whereas, when speaking, the speaker must express what is “suitable to the nature and importance of [his own] sentiments”

The most significant and influential work of the time on the prosody of speech was that of Joshua Steele. In 1775 Steele published an influential work entitled An essay towards establishing the melody and measure of speech. In it he offers a way of representing the melody of speech, using a musical notation system. The system characterized pitch changes using curved lines (showing ascending and descending tones) on a musical scale. He also showed temporal changes using diacritics depicting pausing, lengthening, and syllable duration.

John Herries (d 1781), like Joshua Steele, also stressed that a good speaker needs to be cognizant of the prosodic aspects of speech production—or what he called the “obscure melody” of language (Herries, 1773). He recommended that orators in training be taught the different stress patterns (iambic, trochaic, dactylic, and anapestic meters) and suggested that they beat out the cadences of speech for practice. He emphasized pitch variation as well, recommending “an agreeable mode of raising or sinking the tone” at both word and phrase level.

Of most direct relevance to today’s speech pathologist was the elocution work of John Thelwall (1764-1834). Thelwall, said to be the first speech-therapist in Britain (Rockey, 1979), was an elocutionist specializing in the remediation of speech disorders. He used prosody as a key component in his therapies. His view of prosody was complex, as is seen from his 1805 representation of its components:

The first and most indispensable requisites of intelligible speech, are, of course, the complete formation and clear articulation of the respective elements. The grace and excellence of accomplished elocution, must depend, 1. upon measure, or the just proportion and clear articulation of cadences or feet. 2. on melody, or the proper adjustment of the accentual slides, and other musical qualities, to the successive elements and syllables. 3. on euphony, or the happy coalescence of those elements and syllables, and the due apportionment of quantities to every element of the respective syllables and words, according to their tuneable qualities, or harmonic capabilities; and 4. on expression, or the due assignment and distribution of the several kinds of emphases, with the proper intonation of pathos, emotion, sentiment, etc… 6. In all smooth and harmonious utterance, the time occupied by each cadence, in a given sentence, or passage, is to be the same, whether the cadence contain one syllable or several; but the momentum, in different passages, should vary, according to the sentiment and subject: as it may also, occasionally, according to the taste or convenience of the speaker or reader. (Thelwall, 1805 xxvii-lv).