All The More Reason

Rhetoric and Phonetics
January 16, 2007, 6:03 pm
Filed under: Language

Mark Liberman, on this language log post, uses two specific examples of Martin Luther King’s speech to make some more general points about the relationship between rhetoric and phonetics. It’s perhaps too ambitious a piece for one post, but amidst the cluster of information we have a wieldy paragraph on the absence on this kind of analysis itself.

This little breakfast-time exercise in rhetorical phonetics is anecdotal and allusive at best, so I put it forward only tentatively, as an invitation to someone to do better. It’s a curious fact about modern intellectual life, though, that such analysis is not commonly done in a more systematic and scientific fashion. The people who are interested in rhetoric don’t (as far as I can tell) know how to use the methods of modern instrumental phonetics and statistical modeling, while the phoneticians don’t see rhetoric as within their purview. I doubt that this disconnection would have happened in any earlier era.

Another curiosity is how some graphs and charts have proliferated within popular consciousness, while the ones on his post remain relatively unknown. If we limit the scope of analysis to politics, and indeed the two speakers he chose had huge influence on politics in the States in the ’60s, then it is at least worth reflecting on the plethora of pie charts and vote tallies that have managed to grow in their own petri vacuum.

Jonathan Smith


2 Comments so far
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There was more of the ‘Minister’ than the ‘Doctor’ in Martin Luther King’s delivery. The evangelical ‘sing-song’ style (to use a distinctly non-scientific label) is certainly very effective or, at least, affecting; particularly when combined with King James Bible rhetoric.

George Galloway attempts a kind of ‘karaoke’ Martin Luther King when he speaks. I would be interested to see their rhetorical phonics side by side.

Comment by Michael P

interesting site

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