- Figures of Speech: Six Histories of Language and Identity in the Age of Revolutions by Tim Cassedy
Cassedy's Figures of Speech is framed as a "recovery project . . . [for] a lost disciplinary moment when language served as a framework for understanding selves and a tool for refashioning selves" (5). It focuses on six unique late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century linguistic figures, five of whom are men closely connected with the study and teaching of languages: Nicolas Gouin du Fief, a refugee of the French Revolution and author of a well-known series of French textbooks; Duncan Mackintosh, a Scottish-Caribbean type designer; Noah Webster, inventor of the phonetic alphabet and author of the canonical Blue Back Speller (New York, 1824) and a well-known dictionary; John Gilchrist, British chronicler of Indian sub-continent languages and developer of a universal alphabet that pre-dated the international phonetic alphabet; and Edmund Fry, another type designer and author of Pantographia (London, 1799), a compilation of language samples from around the world. The sixth figure is an indigent British woman named Mary Willcocks, who invented an undecipherable babble of a language and called herself Princess Cariboo in order to avoid being arrested for vagrancy.
This reviewer, a linguistic anthropologist and historian from a family of historians (E. Jennifer Monaghan, my mother, is cited in the book for her work on Webster), was delighted to see Cassedy emphasizing the importance of language in constructing both the culture of historical epochs and individual identity. He correctly identifies the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century as a time of international turmoil and linguistic mixing: France was in revolution, and Europeans were colonizing the Americas, India, and elsewhere. Cassedy presents his case studies as reactions to an era of great linguistic shifting. Dufief, after his exile from France, spent his life teaching French to others and developing methods to teach large numbers of people in a systematic fashion. Webster tried to develop a new form of English for a new nation. Gilchrist taught Urdu to new British employees of the East India Company, invented a new [End Page 599] alphabet to capture the intricacies of English, Urdu, and every other language he encountered, and tried to invent a speaking clock to pronounce these varying sounds. The strength of the book is in the intricate and often delightful details of new teaching methods, new typefaces, and new ways of trying to understand and catalog the ever-growing number of recognized languages in the world. Fry not only compiled language examples in his Pantographia but also hand-cut "about two hundred different typographic alphabets" (146). The smaller case studies between the longer ones are also fascinating—for example, Cassedy's discussion of the development of the historic 1730s Caslon typeface, which The New Yorker still uses today.
The story of Mary Willcocks reflects Cassedy's strength as a chronicler of small details. Willcocks was living hand-to-mouth when she began identifying herself as an exotic princess, only later to be revealed as a fraud. Later, in Philadelphia, she was celebrated again for having duped the British. Cassedy captures the odd history of a working-class woman fighting against the restricted roles of the early nineteenth century by reinventing herself through a new language. But the disconnectedness of Willcocks' story from the other case studies also reflects the weakness of the book; it is more a fascinating grab bag rather than a well-sustained general argument about a framework in which to discuss language experimentation. At the beginning of the book, Cassedy briefly mentions the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis in its connection to cognitive psychology and neurolinguists, but he does not discuss its central position in the field of linguistic anthropology.1 The omission of the connection to anthropology is unfortunate. Attention to the ideologies from an anthropological perspective would have strengthened Cassedy's arguments and provided more ways to tie together his rich case studies.
1. See Benjamin Lee Whorf, "The...