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Questionable Classification of Figures of Speech

As fundamental to the need for powerful rhetoric in governance (Part #1)


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As fundamental to persuasive rhetoric, it is curious, but potentially significant, that the variety of styles of speech is so notably framed by the term figures of speech. As a term which has both aesthetic and geometrical connotations, how are such "figures" to be understood -- especially in relation to imagining the great game of Castalia? This is discussed separately in a paper of which this is effectively an annex Evoking Castalia as Envisaged, Entoned and Embodied (2016). The implications of the following are discussed there in terms of metapoetics and musical-rhetorical figure theory (Musica poetica).

Figures of speech are of course fundamental to discourse -- and to the public discourse central to governance, the processes of persuasion through argument, and to confidence building. The phrase "talking things up" is noteworthy in this respect.

For Stephen Adams (Poetic Designs: an introduction to meters, verse forms, and figures of speech, 1997):

Far from being artificial distortions of language, the figures have developed from patterns that naturally appear when language is used with great emotion and energy. As such they provide one means for identitying patterns that emerge in free verse and help give it formal organization... (p 108)

Especially pertinent, at a time when arguments presented in English are challenged by those presented, in Arabic is the reflection on figures of speech by Hussein Abdul-Raof (Arabic Rhetoric: a pragmatic analysis, 2006):

The traditional meaning of "figurative" has always involved a contrast with the "proper" meaning of a given word, its supposed meaning, the idea which comes to mind when the word is employed. Figures of speech twist the meaning of the word -- the Greek word for figures of speech is trope which means "turn, twist". The figurative system of language has rhetorical and political force. The word is as powerful as a bullet. Thus figures of speech have psychological force and are the chief element of eloquence and the skill to convince your audience of the truth of your thesis.... [emphasis added]

In presenting a catalogue of the more common schemes and tropes (noted below), Adams specifically focuses on those to which reference is made in the "working critical vocabulary". He notes:

In the long history of rhetoric, different classifications of the figures have been used. One essential distinction is between schemes and tropes, that is between "figures of speech" and "figures of thought". In Brian Vickers' words, a trope "involves a change or transference of meaning and works on the conceptual level" while a scheme "essentially works on the physical level of the shape or structure of language... A trope affects the meaning of words: a [scheme] only affects their placing or repetition". Tropes have received abundant attention. The study of metaphor alone has reached staggering proportions. The lowlier schemes, however -- more closely related to patterning of the physical language like meter, rhyme, and stanza -- have been slighted (p. 108)

Recognizing the distinction, or conflating the two as virtually synonymous, remains a matter of continuing interest, perhaps best succinctly stated by Silvae Rhetoricae as:

  • figures of speech are artful deviations from the ordinary arrangement of words.
  • tropes are artful deviations from the ordinary or principal signification of a word.

Classification of figures of speech: The following exposition of approaches to the classification of figures of speech is lengthy and tedious. It is howevr significant in that it highlights what is so systematically neglected at a time when rhetoric has seemingly a vital role to play. A useful introductory summary is provided by Zhang Xiu Guo (English Rhetoric, 1991):

Literary interest in, and use of, figures of speech reached its zenith in the Renaissance: [Henry] Peacham's handbook [The Garden of Eloquence, 1577] lists nearly 200 different types (400 are listed in [Lee A.] Sonnino, 1968). Although a decline in the study of classics and a growing suspicion of the rhetoric have led to a decline in their use in literary composition and public speaking, a "hard core" of figures still persists, and some are known reasonably well by name. For example, devices of repetition are common in public spending: and figurative language is generally characteristic of advertising.

In the second half of the twentieth ccntury, rcnewed interest in figures of speech came from French structuralism influenced by the earlier Russian formalists and from stylistics in work on text analysis, speech act theory and pragmatics -- modem fields traditional rhetoric in many ways anticipated. As a result, there have been several attempts at classifications of figures on a more rigorous, linguistic basis.

lt is true tbat the Greek forms of figures of speech are admittedly difficult to pronounce and remember. Many of tbem confusingly overlap with others in meaning, or appear to have more than one mcaning. Undoubtedly, however, certain knowledgc of rhetorical figures is of considerable importance for both our understanding of stylistic effect in literary language of earlier periods and our verbal communication in today's world.

Main categories: The problematic issues of classification (anticipating those implied below), are introduced by the main categories presented by Wikipedia as the classical rhetorical operations (quadripartita ratio):

  • addition (adiectio), also called repetition/expansion/superabundance
  • omission (detractio), also called subtraction/abridgement/lack
  • transposition (transmutatio), also called transferring
  • permutation (immutatio), also called switching/interchange/substitution/transmutation

As the four categories of change in Silva Rhetoricae, these become another means of mapping the forest of rhetoric: "a way of finding motifs, habits of mind, or simply similar approaches operating on multiple levels across the breadth of rhetoric".

By contrast, according to Zhang Xiu Guo (1991), figures of speech, according to their function, fall into three categories, those involving:

  • emphasis, association, clarification, and focus:
  • physical organization, transition, and disposition or arrangememt, and
  • decoration and variety.

As noted by Zhang Xiu Guo:

... sometimes a givcn figure of speech will fall mainly into a single category, as, for example, an apostophe is used mostly for emotion. But more often the effects of a particular figure are multiple, and a single one may operate in all three categories. Parallelism, for instance, helps to order, clarify, empbasize and beautify a thought. Occasionally a figure has certain effects not readily identifiable or explainable, so it is not always easy to tell why or when certain ones are good or should be uscd. (p. 89).

How many, of what kind, are required for competence -- beyond the simple 4-fold set of classical rhetorical operations?

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