Wednesday 10 October 2018

Book Review: Figures of Speech by Tim Cassedy (Non-Fiction/History/Linguistics)

Title: Figures of Speech
Author: Tim Cassedy
University of Iowa Press

Publication Date: 3 January 2019
eBook - PDF
ARC via NetGalley


Tim Cassedy’s fascinating study examines the role that language played at the turn of the nineteenth century as a marker of one’s identity. During this time of revolution (U.S., French, and Haitian) and globalization, language served as a way to categorize people within a world that appeared more diverse than ever. Linguistic differences, especially among English-speakers, seemed to validate the emerging national, racial, local, and regional identity categories that took shape in this new world order.

Focusing on six eccentric characters of the time—from the woman known as “Princess Caraboo” to wordsmith Noah Webster—Cassedy shows how each put language at the center of their identities and lived out the possibilities of their era’s linguistic ideas. The result is a highly entertaining and equally informative look at how perceptions about who spoke what language—and how they spoke it—determined the shape of communities in the British American colonies and beyond.

This engagingly written story is sure to appeal to historians of literature, culture, and communication; to linguists and book historians; and to general readers interested in how ideas about English developed in the early United States and throughout the English-speaking world.

As a keen linguist, I found Figures of Speech a fascinating read. It's always interesting to consider both the development of language and the role it plays in any society. People such as Fry and Webster were already familiar to me; however, I had never heard the story of Princess Caraboo before, so that was a fun discovery. Although it was always insightful, I did find Cassedy's prose a tad dry and plodding at times. Therefore, I think this is a book for ardent linguists, rather than a general readership. Nonetheless, if it is an area about which you're passionate, you will find something to enjoy in this work.

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