“Language is itself the collective art of expression, a summary of thousands upon thousands of individual intuitions” (Sapir 1921, 246). When exploring rhetoric in relation to language we usually have in mind the nature and functions of the communication systems used by humans in different times and in different parts of the world. Some of the first important theoreticians of language were in fact rhetoricians, as well as philosophers. A major point of departure in exploring rhetoric is the rhetorical role played by language as a conceptualizing and persuasive tool, as a means of communication and as a bearer of values (Dumarsais 1825; Fontanier 1968; Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969; Groupe µ 1976; Barthes 1988).
The Concept Of Rhetoric
Rhetoric has always been difficult to define, since the term has multiple denotations and connotations. Dictionary definitions most often describe rhetoric as the effective use of language to persuade or as the study of the elements of style and structure in writing or speaking. Typical definitions clearly point to a dualistic nature of rhetoric as understood for much of the past 2,500 years: “rhetoric is the process of using language to organize experience and communicate it to others. It is also the study of how people use language to organize and communicate experience. The word denotes, as I use it, both a distinctive human activity and the ‘science’ concerned with understanding that activity. All human beings are ‘rhetors’ because they naturally conceive as well as share their knowledge of the world by means of discourse” (Knoblauch 1985, 29).
Rhetoric is currently used to mean: (1) a field of study and an academic discipline; (2) social, professional, and/or political skill in language use; (3) persuasive, stylistic features in language use; and (4) a form of “energy” transfer in language use (following Kennedy 1998). Needless to say, none of these ways of defining rhetoric is exclusive.
In ancient times rhetoric was a vast and influential branch of learning, closely tied to grammar and to logic within the famous medieval trivium. Grammar evolved into a vast field of linguistic studies, which examine and explore the nature, structure, functions, and evolution of language. Although linguistics is a much later development than rhetoric, experience and scholarly evidence show that the study of language and rhetoric have been intertwined when required by specific situations and purposes. Important issues of language analysis were addressed by grammarians and philosophers in ancient Greece, Rome, and India. The earliest linguistic debate is found in the pages of Plato (4th century bce). Further insights were later offered by Aristotle (4th century bce). When Aristotle first called rhetoric the counterpart to dialectic (Rhetoric 1354a), he situated the study of the persuasive functions of language alongside the study of philosophy and science as a vital scholarly endeavor.
The term “rhetoric” and its variations in European languages is derived from the Greek rhêtorikê (art/technique of a public speaker; from eirein, to say, speak), the earliest occurrences of which are in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias (see Dodds 1959). It is used there, somewhat pejoratively, of the technique of a public speaker or politician. According to Kennedy (1998), almost all cultures have a word for “orator,” someone with special skills at public speaking. A common brief definition of “rhetoric” in classical antiquity was “the art of persuasion,” or, in Aristotle’s formulation (Rhetoric 1355b) “an ability, in each [particular] case, to see the available means of persuasion” (Kennedy 1991).
Relation Between Rhetoric And Language
In order to understand the dynamic and complex relation between rhetoric and language it is essential to examine the role of natural language use and of human communication mechanisms in shaping and reflecting human thinking processes. This relation can be explored at three levels: (1) semiotic-evolutionary (the role of natural language in enabling distinctively human forms of thinking and communicating effectively); (2) structuralcomparative (the role of specific language codes in shaping habitual thought – the “linguistic relativity” of experience); and (3) functional-discursive (the role of linguistic conventions, specialized discursive practices, and particular ideologies in cultivating specialized forms of thought for various situations and purposes).
From a semiotic-evolutionary perspective, there is a strong interdependence between language systems and thinking patterns. A central feature of languages is that they are systems of symbols designed for the purpose of communication. It is hardly possible to formulate a meaningful thought without using language. The reason is that, when formulating a thought, we need a particular code to express it with and a corresponding network of meaning relations to enable the transfer of messages. Since language serves as both an instrument of thought and a means of expression, it reflects and shapes socially and culturally agreed meaning. This explains why one of the most salient characteristics of language by comparison with other communication systems is its flexibility and versatility.
The rhetorical dimension of language use is always present, though in different degrees, since we need to be relevant, both in writing and in speaking, when we communicate a message, so that we may capture and maintain our addressees’ attention. We are used to selecting from the wide range of linguistic devices and discursive patterns the register and style that is most appropriate in a specific situation. The much debated distinction made by structuralists between langue and parole (Saussure 1916), as well as the distinction between the competence and performance of language users (Chomsky 1965) acquire a new significance in rhetorical theory through a change of focus. Whereas linguistics examines the way in which language is used by human beings, rhetoric examines the active role of human beings when using language. Consequently, the two elements are regarded as complementary in the context-based, goal-oriented, and addressee/audiencetargeted process of communication.
From a structural-comparative perspective, the situation-adjusted language use involves understanding its persuasive potential as well as the speaker’s ability to influence beliefs and behaviors through the power of symbolic action. This viewpoint stood in contrast to the position of many philosophers who treated discourse as a neutral channel for representing an otherwise objective, independent “truth.” Rhetoricians argue instead that the manner and form of discourse is integral to the thing or phenomenon that is described or discussed. Moreover, they emphasized their central role in shaping and motivating collective identity and action. Modern rhetoric follows classical rhetorical theory in treating the relationship between language and meaning as contextual, i.e., the meaning of a particular linguistic usage derived from the particular experiences and understanding of a particular audience addressed by a particular speaker at a specific moment in time.
From a functional-discursive perspective, language acquires meaning and value in actual use depending on socio-cultural contexts and historical conditions. On examining language use, Halliday (1978) proposed three categories of meaning: ideational meaning (relating to overall situation in the world), interpersonal meaning (concerning the relations between communicators), and textual meaning (referring to the structured text/discourse). By emphasizing the functioning of public discourse, scholars of rhetoric have drawn attention to communicative acts that affected the entire community and are typically performed before the law courts, the legislative assemblies, and occasional gatherings of the citizens at large. The language of public discourse can thus be distinguished from the language of technical discourse addressed to specialized audiences and private discourse addressed to more personal audiences that did not directly affect the social and political community as a whole.
Rhetoric can also deal with the language conflict. There is an inherent conflict in communication through language. On the one hand, words can clarify, inspire, and articulate thoughts, feelings, and ideas. Thus, words can build bridges across chaos. On the other hand, they can oversimplify, conceal, and fail to communicate assumptions/ presumptions or to convey intentions/emotions. Trying to understand how language works is a stimulating, and often rewarding, intellectual challenge. The pursuit of rhetorical studies presupposes and/or fosters a respect for language while it unveils its limitations: our words are sometimes interpreted as articulating more than we intended, and sometimes less.
- Barthes, R. (1988). The old rhetoric: An aide-mémoire. In The semiotic challenge (trans. R. Howard). New York: Hill, pp. 11–93. (English translation of “L’ancienne rhétorique: Aidemémoire,” Communications, 16 (1970), 172–223.)
- Bitzer, L. F. (1968). The rhetorical situation. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 1, 1–14.
- Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Dodds, E. R. (ed.) (1959). Gorgias: A revised text with introduction and commentary. Oxford: Clarendon.
- Dumarsais, C. (1825). Des tropes ou des différents sens dans lesquels on peut penser un même mot dans une même langue. Paris: Dabo-Butschert. (Original work published 1730).
- Fontanier, P. (1968). Les figures du discours. Paris: Flammarion. (Original work published 1830).
- Groupe µ [Dubois, J., Edeline, F., Klinkenberg, J. M., Minguet, Ph., Pire, F., & Trinon, H.] (1976). Rhétorique générale. Paris: Larousse. (Original work published 1970).
- Halliday, M. A. K. (1978). Language as a social semiotic: The social interpretation of language and meaning. London: Edward Arnold.
- Kennedy, G. A. (trans.) (1991). Aristotle: On rhetoric: A theory of civic discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Kennedy, G. A. (1998). Comparative rhetoric: An historical and cross-cultural introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Knoblauch, C. H. (1985). Modern rhetorical theory and its future directions. In B. W. McClelland & T. R. Donvan (eds.), Perspectives on research and scholarship in composition. New York: Modern Language Association, pp. 26–44.
- Perelman, C., & Olbrechts-Tyteca, L. (1969). The new rhetoric: A treatise on argumentation (trans. J. Wilkinson & P. Weaver). Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.
- Sapir, E. (1921). Language: An introduction to the study of speech. New York: Harcourt Brace.
- Saussure, F. de (1916). Cours de linguistique generale (ed. C. Bally and A. Sechehaye, with A. Reidlinger). Paris: Payot.
- Whorf, B. (1956). Language, thought and Reality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.