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When exploring rhetoric in relation to language we need to examine the diverse ways in which people use language to reach their goals, by shaping, reflecting, and changing societal practices, and thereby making an impact on our commonly shared perceptions, values, and beliefs. Some of the most influential ideas about the rhetorical use of language were effectively expressed by famous philosophers in ancient Greece and Rome, and later updated in the modern age (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969; Groupe μ 1976). The Greek philosopher Aristotle is frequently quoted for his definition of rhetoric as “the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion.” This is a basic rhetorical use of language meant to achieve far-reaching effects like changing reality by changing our perceptions through the intermediary of discourses that affect our modes of thinking and acting (Bitzer 1968).
In ancient times rhetoric was a vast and influential branch of learning, closely tied to grammar and to logic within the famous medieval trivium. As a field of linguistic studies, grammar examines the nature, structure, functions, and evolution of language. Although linguistics is a much later development than rhetoric, scholarly evidence shows that the study of language and rhetoric has been intertwined. The earliest linguistic debate is found in Plato (4th century bce), whereas the study of the persuasive functions of language was situated by Aristotle alongside the study of philosophy and science as a vital scholarly endeavor.
The complex relation between rhetoric and language can be explored from three perspectives: (1) semiotic-evolutionary, i.e., the role of language in thinking and communicating effectively; (2) structural-comparative, i.e., the role of specific language codes in shaping thought; and (3) functional-discursive, i.e., the role of linguistic conventions, discursive practices, and 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. Since language serves as both an instrument of thought and a means of expression, it reflects and shapes socially and culturally generated meaning.
The rhetorical dimension of language use is always present when we communicate a message since we need to capture and maintain our interlocutors’ attention. 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 approaches are regarded as complementary in the context-based, goal-oriented, and audience-targeted 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. Rhetoricians argue that the manner and form of discourse play a 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 a particular speaker’s understanding of a particular audience addressed 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.
By emphasizing the functioning of public discourse, scholars of rhetoric have drawn attention to communicative acts that affect the entire community and are typically performed in law courts, legislative assemblies, and occasional gatherings of citizens.
- Bitzer, L. F. (1968). The rhetorical situation. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 1, 1–14.
- Bizzell, P. & Herzberg, B. (2000). The rhetorical tradition: Readings from classical times to the present. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
- Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Fahnestock, J. (2011). Rhetorical style: The uses of language in persuasion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Groupe μ [Dubois, J., Edeline, F., Klinkenberg, J. M., Minguet, Ph., Pire, F., & Trinon, H.] (1976). Rhutorique gunurale [General rhetoric]. Paris: Larousse.
- Perelman, C. & Olbrechts-Tyteca, L. (1969). The new rhetoric: A treatise on argumentation, J. Wilkinson & P. Weaver. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
- Saussure, F. de (1916). Cours de linguistique generale [Course in general linguistics], C. Bally & A. Sechehaye, with A. Reidlinger. Paris: Payot.
- Warnick, B. (2007). Rhetoric online: Persuasion and politics on the world wide web. Berne: Peter Lang.