Book Review — Figures of Speech: Six Histories of Language and Identity in the Age of Revolutions

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Figures of Speech: Six Histories of Language and Identity in the Age of Revolutions by Tim Cassedy is an intriguing study of a small portion of language. Cassedy specializes in American and transatlantic literature, the cultural history of reading, and the history of readers’ relationships with texts. He earned his Ph.D. from New York University and is an assistant professor at Southern Methodist University.

One of the themes in the book is how language defines a person. If one hears French spoken it is, and had been, assumed that a person of culture is speaking. When I was younger and living in Germany, I asked my language instructor why does German use die, der, and das. Wouldn’t it be simpler to have a single article and what is the pattern or the purpose of those articles? He replied that there was no pattern or rule. You learned the proper article over time and by using three articles it is easy to tell who is the auslander (foreigner). Language there not only served as communication but also identity and security.

Cassedy opens with the story of Princess Caraboo a woman found in England who spoke a language that no one could identify. She claimed to be a princess from Javasu, and it was determined that the language she spoke was not jibberish, but no one could decipher it. The townspeople identified her and formed an image of her life by the language she spoke.

Through the book, there are examples of people trying to create a universal phonetic alphabet. The idea was that if everyone used the same phonetic alphabet pronunciation would be easier. If one was preparing to go into service overseas for the British Empire, learning the local language before departing was important, however, if the texts didn’t offer the proper pronunciation one would have wasted their time learning jibberish.

There are also biographies of Noah Webster, who was not always seen as a brilliant creator of the American dictionary and Edmund Fry, the creator of the Pantographia. Dwight Mackintosh’s phrase “language makes the difference between man and man” is explained. In the time of revolutions, Frenchman, Nicolas Gouïn Dufief, who experienced revolution on two continents and settled in a third, created his own revolution in teaching French to Americans.

Figures of Speech although about linguistics is more of a cultural history of the language of the people of England and the United States. The information is presented in mostly a biographical form creating interest in the person as well as their work. A well-done history filled with information but written in a manner that someone outside the field can enjoy.

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