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Eloquence as Power

Where communication of information or reference are not the main focus of speech, the classical rhetoricians conceive of language, broadly speaking, as serving the ends of persuasion, but they do not speak of language as power. However, it is obvious that speakers vary in the degree to which their utterances are adjudged to be well-formed stylistically, and not just grammatically. When speech is acknowledged as rising to the level of ELOQUENCE, it becomes an instrument of power, specifically as a means of establishing the speaker’s PRESTIGE. Practically, then, prestige as power can be increased linguistically in the measure of the speaker’s eloquence.

Contemporary American speech, both public and private, is characterized, however, not by eloquence but by DISFLUENCY or DYSLALIA. What is meant here by these two terms is not their clinical sense (‘impairment of the ability to produce smooth, fluent speech’; ‘a speech defect caused by malformation of or imperfect distribution of nerves to the organs of articulation’), but a species of linguistic INEPTNESS (‘an interruption in the smooth flow of speech, as by a pause or the repetition of a word or syllable’); more specifically, by the inability to speak well, which involves word choice more than delivery.

The analogy with musical performance is particularly apt. A musician who does not have a superior technical command of their instrument will produce a disfluent, inarticulate, ineloquent performance, just as a speaker who does not have a superior command of their language’s vocabulary and syntax will produce inarticulate utterances (without any necessary violations of grammatical well-formedness).

Casting aside clinical terminology and expressing oneself in Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, those who habitually speak their mother tongue in a TONGUE-TIED manner––their number is now legion––not only subvert the referential function of language but, more importantly, lessen their prestige and hence their power.

It is interesting, in this connection, to compare Russian to American English. Notably, where English has no such designation in ordinary speech, Russian has a specific word for inarticulacy, косноязычие, which is a Church Slavonic compound noun consisting of the two lexical elements ‘stagnant’ + ‘tongue/language’. The very fact that such a word exists in the ordinary lexicon of Russian connotes a different SOCIAL SET (attitude) by speakers of Russian toward their language from those of English speakers. In practice, there is no gainsaying that even Russian children and adolescents––not to speak of adults with a fully developed command of vocabulary and syntax––are typically much more articulate than their American counterparts and exhibit none of the disfluencies that mar the latter’s utterances.


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