Signs of Light

Signs of Light: French and British Theories of Linguistic Communication, 1648–1789

Matthew Lauzon
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Signs of Light
    Book Description:

    In Signs of Light, Matthew Lauzon traces the development of very different French and British ideas about language over the course of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and demonstrates how important these ideas were to emerging notions of national character. Drawing examples from a variety of French and English language works in a wide range of areas, including language theory, philosophy, rhetoric, psychology, missionary tracts, and literary texts, Lauzon explores how French and British thinkers of the day developed arguments that certain kinds of languages are superior to others.

    The nature of animal language and British and French understandings of the languages of North American Indians were vigorously debated. Theories of animal language juxtaposed the apparent virtues of transparency and wit; considerations of savage language resulted in eloquence being regarded as an even higher accomplishment. Eventually, the French language came to be prized for its wit and sociability and English for its simple clarity and vigor. Lauzon shows that, besides concerns about establishing the clarity of introspective representations, questions about the energetic communication of sincere emotion and about the sociable communication of wit were crucial to language theories during this period. A richly interdisciplinary work, Signs of Light is a compelling account of a formative period in language theory.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5894-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    In 1740, the French literary historian Claude-Pierre Goujet (1697–1767) published the first volume of his massive history of French literature. This volume reviewed a century of controversy over the merits of the French language and defended it from critics like the seventeenth-century magistrate Jean Belot, who “held our language responsible for the errors of recent times, the furors of the Wars of Religion, the seditious opinions that were spreading at that time, and the revolt of the people.”¹ Goujet, who insisted that languages and national characters “are so closely tied together that they have the same beginnings, the same...

  5. Part I. Animal Communication

    • 1 Bestial Banter
      (pp. 13-39)

      The idea that clarity is a virtue in communication is hardly unique to the early modern period. The desire to communicate as clearly as possible is no doubt as old as communication itself. Throughout history, however, there have been various motives that have driven people to worry, even to obsess, over how communication might be clarified. Ideas about what forms an ideally clear communication should take, therefore, have a definite history. Concerns about language and communication naturally arise during periods of acute controversy and discord. The unprecedented levels of religious and civil controversies and violence in seventeenth-century Europe no doubt...

    • 2 Homo Risus: Making Light of Animal Language
      (pp. 40-66)

      While a number of early modern language theorists accepted that in order to guard against abuses of ambiguous and equivocal words, abstract terms had to be clarified by scrupulously regulating their definitions, others embraced the notion that certain kinds of verbal ambiguity were precisely what made human languages superior to those of sociable animals. These thinkers argued that a fundamental virtue of human languages was the polysemous and equivocal quality of words that generated a potential for the kind of ambiguity that Hobbes and Rousseau sought to correct. This chapter will argue that some early modern thinkers celebrated human forms...

  6. Part II. Savage Eloquence

    • 3 Warming Savage Hearts and Heating Eloquent Tongues
      (pp. 69-101)

      John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) reported in his Memoirs that in July of 1794 he attended a smoking ceremony between American dignitaries, including then American president George Washington (1732–1799), and members of the Chickasaw Nation.¹ “Whether this ceremony be really of Indian origin,” Adams commented, “I have some doubt. . . . These Indians appeared to be quite unused to it, and . . . it looked as if they were submitting to a process in compliance with our custom. Some of them smiled with such an expression of countenance as denoted a sense of novelty, and of frivolity...

    • 4 From Savage Orators to Savage Languages
      (pp. 102-132)

      As the previous chapter shows, missionaries, both Jesuit and Puritan, drew on Augustinian psychological and rhetorical theory to construct a representation of the converted savage as supremely eloquent in a passionate but plain key. In these cases, eloquence was taken to be a function of individual inspiration rather than the result of a study of the art of rhetoric. The tradition of the inspired Christian Indian orator continued into the eighteenth century. Dying speeches that represented Christianized American Indians as graciously inspired orators who moved their audiences to tears also continued to be published in the eighteenth century. One such...

  7. Part III. Civilized Tongues

    • 5 French Levity
      (pp. 135-175)

      The claims that animals communicated with greater clarity and that savages communicated with greater energy than did speakers of European languages could be described as fantasies that projected certain early modern European thinkers’ wishes and worries about their own speech communities. In fact, the concerns about clarity, wit, and energy that the preceding chapters have sketched played important, if frequently overlooked, roles in the ways that early modern French and British thinkers thought about their own languages. Early modern French and English speakers sought to redescribe certain classic linguistic defects as being in reality the properties that contributed to making...

    • 6 English Energy
      (pp. 176-215)

      Rivarol shared his Berlin Academy essay prize with Johann Christoph Schwab, who also ended with a note on the French invention of ballooning. Schwab’s remarks, however, were markedly different from those by Rivarol, who saw the invention as a shining example of French levity. Schwab, by contrast, insisted that “whatever honor it gives to the French,” Germans had a “superior talent for invention.”¹ After noting that the French invention was as much the result of luck as it was “the work of wisdom and calculation,” Schwab insisted that the invention of the aerostatic machine was much less significant than many...

  8. Coda: French Levity and English Energy in the Revolutionary Wake
    (pp. 216-230)

    By the time Rivarol composed his essay for the Berlin Academy’s prize, Britain had already lost its struggle to retain control of its thirteen American colonies. Rivarol could therefore point directly to the American Revolution and write that “Britain, witness to our successes, has no share in them. Its last war with us has left it doubly eclipsed in literature and in its preponderance, and this war has given Europe a grand spectacle. We have witnessed a free people driven by Britain into slavery, and brought back to liberty by a young monarch. The history of America can be reduced...

  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 231-244)
  10. Index
    (pp. 245-256)