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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.4 (2003) 635-636

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A Revolution in Language: The Problem of Signs in Late Eighteenth-Century France. By Sophia Rosenfeld (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2001) 410pp. $60.00

At the heart of Rosenfeld's fresh and intelligent study of language in eighteenth-century France is the elusive quest for a perfect match between word and object. The vision was stated most emphatically by the century's philosophes—one of whom, the Marquis de Condorcet, dreamed of a scientific language of such geometric precision that all misunderstanding would give way to perpetual peace. But the French revolutionaries were the ones who attempted to achieve it. The abuse of words, they believed, was responsible for injustice, warfare, and social discord. "One can be sure that the earth has been drenched in the blood of more than one hundred million men," the revolutionary-era Chronique de Paris wrote, "only as a result of disputes over words" (159). Words had to be reformed, but the revolutionaries soon realized they must use the very medium that they found wanting, the aristocratic linguistic inheritance, to denounce its corruption. How to articulate reform when the very words might betray you?

Rosenfeld's exploration of this central question takes readers into a number of otherwise unrelated areas in politics and culture during the late eighteenth century. A substantial strength of this study is its clear-headed exposition of dance, drama, sign language, and several esoteric eighteenth-century semiological systems. All flowed into the language debates of the Revolution, which, without Rosenfeld's careful groundwork [End Page 635] in the early chapters, would seem yet more puzzling (and some might add naive) than they were. After the invasion of the Bastille but well before the Terror, a writer imagined the perfect language producing "uniform sentiments" in the nation; later, legislators undertook to eliminate all dialect and regionalisms on the logic that linguistic plurality was seditious (130). The Jacobins, intent on recapturing the natural language of humans, were convinced that it lay in some combination of simplicity of expression and sincerity of gesture. They erected a series of equivalencies to denounce grammarians and stylists who looked to common usage for norms: Tradition meant counter-revolution, and sophisticated diction meant insincerity. Continued faction since 1789 could mean only that verbal signs still lacked a complete accord with reality.

Rosenfeld traces each strand of this pursuit of the perfect language back to its origins. The century's most fertile ground for linguistic discovery and speculation—and the area of Rosenfeld's most original contribution to scholarship—concerned the deaf, who were elevated by the philosophes as exemplars of natural nobility and later presented as model patriots by the revolutionaries. Rosenfeld traces the development of a new language of gesture that first appeared onstage in pantomime and in novel ballet styles; its supporters claimed that it could convey emotions and depict ideas. She follows the thread from the Charles Michel de l'Epée, who developed sign language to teach two deaf girls the essence of Christianity, to the deaf author Pierre Desloges, who demonstrated to the disbelief of l'Epée's critics that sign language could communicate abstract ideas in the subtlest of terms. For many in the Revolution, sign language was the language to break the stranglehold of traditional speech. Some urged its adoption among the general population, as Rosenfeld writes, "not just to improve communication but also to transcend faction and eliminate political conflict and dissent once and for all" (179).

In Rosenfeld's view, the Jacobins' failure to achieve this social and linguistic ideal is tied to their overall political failure and the rise of more moderate forces. Provocatively, she argues that only when French thinkers addressed the inherent problems in the Enlightenment's utopian linguistic vision did an alternative political arrangement—one that embraced pluralism and viewed democratic dissent as healthy—become thinkable. Her conclusions in this well-argued and superbly researched book will cause readers to think broadly about the underlying connections, both immediate...


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