Figures of Speech

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 01 Mar 2019

Member Reviews

What if you could create a pronunciation guide to make speech more universal? Or a clock could teach us various sounds in our language rather than simply, “cuckoo-cuckoo?” Or, perhaps the United States should have its own unique language to really liberate itself from England. What about the effect of altering the appearance—or texture of the written word on paper? These are the kinds of questions that linguists were debating in the early 1800s, and they are some of the questions Tim Cassedy looks at in Figures of Speech: Six Histories of Language and Identity in the Age of Revolutions.

Cassedy introduces us to 6 people from very different backgrounds, born in 4 nations. They all had one thing in common—a passion for language. Each knew intimately that “language makes the difference between man and man.” The words a person spoke and the way they pronounced them could categorize that person and shape their life. But what if there was another way?

My favorite part of Figures of Speech was the chapter entitled, “Mary Willcock’s Caraboo Tongue.” In it, Cassedy shares the life story of a woman who used the “I don’t speak English” excuse to get out of legal trouble. She spoke a fake foreign language and found herself in far deeper than she ever imagined.
One of the most interesting things about Figures of Speech is how pliable and yet, enduring, the English language is. Many misconceptions (such as Noah Webster being lauded as the George Washington of the American lexicon in his day) were set straight. The author has included an abundance of in Figures of Speech, to complement the text.

There were some parts of the book that were a bit slow and meandering, but on the whole, Figures of Speech was very interesting and thought-provoking. The Coda was a particularly good way to end the book. The only thing I found particularly aggravating was the host of formatting issues in the Kindle (MOBI) format. The captions and footnotes were often in the middle of a random page, with no point of reference from which to connect them. Also, some of the unique images of text don’t translate accurately to the digital font, resulting in meaningless content that the reader can’t understand. I have seen the paperback format, though (thanks to the wonders of PDF) and it is absolutely stunning! I definitely recommend purchasing the paperback of Figures of Speech.

If you enjoy history, languages, and the interesting issues that surround evolving linguistics, this is a must-have book. Skip the Kindle format and invest in the paperback. The beautiful images in the book are worth it.
I give Figures of Speech 4 Stars!

Thank you, NetGalley and University of Iowa Press. They provided an ARC of Figures of Speech, in exchange for an honest review.
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Figures of Speech is a comprehensive analysis of the interpretation and evolution of the language through the history. Particularly the consequences of misinterpretations and the roots of this changes in the communication. 
Excellent book!

#FiguresOfSpeech #NetGalley
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Really enjoyed this .. author wears his erudition lightly .. its first discussion for example .. and it continues throughout ,  is that language makes a culture,  and we address speak within framework  by how our beliefs are articulated that way. He also points out that attention to language and I identity waxes and wanes .. very interesting ..   He cites scholars throughout the text (personally, I wished there were more Greeks and Roman rhetoricians).. this book could really take off,  and I intend to keep it available as reference.  Really intriguing.
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Figures of Speech was a good, but not great study of how "language was of intense interest in the nineteenth century." The linguistic idea that "language makes the difference between man and man," was the focus of Figures of Speech. Tim Cassedy explored this idea by looking at six people whose identity and lives were entirely dependent upon language.
I felt that the two strongest chapters were two and five, which delved into the lives and work of Noah Webster and Princess Caraboo/Mary Willcocks, respectively. 
I liked this book and came away with a much stronger understanding of how language was entwined with identity in the 19th century.
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I requested for this book from NetGalley because the idea of language being a marker of identity was fascinating. That said, despite reading the blurb, I didn’t actually realise the title was a pun until after I finished the book.

If you’re a bit quicker than me, you’ll realise that Figures of Speech is about people to whom language was an important part of their identity. The six are:

Nicholas Dufief: A French aristocrat who fled from France to America during the revolution. He started a new way of learning French – without formal instruction in grammar, but to repeat French and English phrases and thus ‘learn’ the language naturally. I actually agree with this sort of immersion/induction method, because that’s how I picked up Japanese slang (if you hear a word in different sentences enough times, you can pick up roughly what it means and how it’s used) and that’s how I used to teach English too.

Duncan Mackintosh: He wanted to make one standard pronunciation for English, thus binding America and England to the language, not to the country. This chapter also talked about Noah Webster, who was all for American English as an identity of American-ish. (And it turns out that the idea of ‘speaking American’ started around then – although they probably weren’t referring to English).

John Gilchrist: A teacher in India, he started by wanting to teach accurate pronunciation of Hindi and Urdu but ended up wanting to make a machine that could vocalise all the sounds in all languages.

Edmund Fry: A typewriter, he made a book called Pantographia which had writings from 164 languages. This was also a time where people thought language revealed things about culture and unfortunately, his selections pretty much reinforced everyone’s biases. There’s also a discussion

Caraboo or Mary Willcock: A young lady who took on a fake identity and made up a fake language in order to earn some money, and then got trapped as her made up identity. However, a look into her past shows that she was possibly troubled by mental illness, and her story is so much more than putting on a new identity. This chapter also looks at how the fake language Willcock made up is influenced by Western ideas of foreign languages.

Overall, this was a fascinating book. I’ve heard of Webster, but not the other five characters, and it was interesting to see how language and identity can intersect. The book reminded me of there’s a debate going about in Singapore about ‘losing’ our mother tonguage and what that means. Basically, some people think that because English has become the de-facto native language, we are losing a big part of our identity. The debate flares up every now and then, and it shows that we still think of language as a tie to another culture and perhaps an aspect of our identities.

Disclaimer: I got a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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Tim Cassedy’s “Figures of Speech” is a playful title, referring to the words we use but primarily to the figures in history who attempted to shape the destination of everyday writing and communication.

The author focuses on six personalities, ranging from those well known to the average person (Noah Webster for his dictionary) to those we might not have heard before (Nicolas Gouin du Fief, a successful author and instructor of the French language). Mr. Cassedy has completed his research admirably, detailing the lives of these students of language and fully explaining their theories and efforts to steer the populace toward what they thought would be best for the world.

There are many examples of their work, and the author shares their output along with the reaction from the people living at that time. Even in the 21st century one can have a strong opinion of what each was trying to accomplish. It boggles the mind how a person living in the early 19th century might have perceived their efforts.

The book can be dry at times, especially given the subject matter. However, just about when the author was beginning to lose me, an interesting story would grace the pages and I was once again hooked and compelled to continue reading. While one could say the book is aimed at linguists, it can certainly be entertaining and rewarding for those of us standing on the fringe of their world. Five stars.

My thanks to NetGalley and The University of Iowa Press for a complimentary ebook of “Figures of Speech.”
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In the 18th and 19th centuries, intellectuals commonly believed that language "made the difference between man and man." That is, certain characteristics of a language (phonemes, orthography, vocabulary, etc.) shaped its speakers' way of thinking and could allow others to draw valid generalizations about them. Tim Cassedy examines the lives of six individuals who tried to use language as a means of shaping identity (individual, national, or international). He seeks to show that the conclusions drawn from this line of thinking usually did little more than confirm existing biases.

The stories themselves will hold your attention if you have an interest in language, but there is some redundancy in their telling. For me, there was occasionally the feeling of "I think maybe he's reading too much into this," but that's pretty much par for the course in academic books ...and he's the expert so maybe it's just me. Overall, the book provided me with new historical information and kept my interest. I give it 3.5 of 5 stars.

Unfortunately, the advanced reader copy that I was provided was very poorly formatted and included occasional "words" or "phrases" of gibberish that were clearly placeholders for something else in the finished version. This made parts of the book hard to review. I suspect that some of the charts, illustrations, typefaces, and comments that were nearly unreadable in the ARC will be helpful in the original and probably bump this up from a 3.5 to a 4 star read.
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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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As a keen linguist, I found Figures of Speech a fascinating read. It's always interesting to consider both the development of language and the role it plays in any society. People such as Fry and Webster were already familiar to me; however, I had never heard the story of Princess Caraboo before, so that was a fun discovery. Although it was always insightful, I did find Cassedy's prose a tad dry and plodding at times. Therefore, I think this is a book for ardent linguists, rather than a general readership. Nonetheless, if it is an area about which you're passionate, you will find something to enjoy in this work.
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