June 01, 2004

The child or the savage orator...

I've recently been reading McGuffey's Fifth Eclectic Reader. 1879, Van Antwerp, Bragg & Co., Cincinnati and New York. (This is a revised edition of the book originally prepared by Alexander McGuffey in 1844. My copy was originally owned by one Myrtle Blackburn.)

This book starts from the premise that

The great object to be accomplished in reading as a rhetorical exercise is to convey to the hearer, fully and clearly, the ideas and feelings of the writer.

It aims to accomplish this by first inculcating twelve "rules", laid out in 30-odd pages of front matter divided into sections on Articulation, Inflections, Accent, Emphasis, Modulation and Poetic Pauses, and then providing 117 Selections in Prose and Poetry for the student to practice on.

The work starts out promisingly enough with

RULE I.--Before attempting to read a lesson, the learner should make himself fully acquainted with the subject as treated of in that lesson, and endeavor to make the thought, and feeling, and sentiments of the writer his own.

It further adds a helpful dose of Romantic ideology:

REMARK.--When he has thus identified himself with the author, he has the substance of all rules in his own mind. It is by going to nature that we find rules. The child or the savage orator never mistakes in inflection, or emphasis, or modulation. The best speakers and readers are those who follow the impulse of nature or most closely imitate it as observed in others.

You might think that this would lead to a sort of "method acting" approach, but you would be wrong. The remaining eleven rules, with their various paragraphs, sub-paragraphs and listed exceptions, are an amazing combination of sensible observation, invented prescription and incoherent fantasy, all presented at an extraordinary level of analytic detail. To give the flavor of this material, I've quoted below the first half of the section on "Inflections".

I'll have more to say later about the substantive ideas on intonation presented therein. As an attempt to "[go] to nature [to] find rules", it's just as faulty as the corresponding effort in the same tradition to analyze syntactic structure.

However, my first response to this material is not censure but awe. It's extraordinary that in 1879, it was thought to be reasonable to ask children in grade school to assimilate and apply explicit linguistic analysis of this degree of complexity.

Here's the first half of the section on "Inflections".


Inflections are slides of the voice upward or downward. Of these, there are two: the rising inflection and falling inflection.


Both inflections are exhibited in the following question:

Did you walkˊ or rideˋ?   

In the following examples, the first member has the rising the second member the falling inflection.


Is he sickˊ or is he wellˋ?
Did you say valorˊ, or valueˋ?
Did you say statuteˊ, or statueˋ?
Did he act properlyˊ, or improperlyˋ?

[* These questions and similar ones, with their answers, should be repeatedly pronounced with their proper inflections, until the distinction between the risinng and falling inflections is well understood and easily made by the learner. He will be assisted in this by emphasizing strongly the word which receives the inflection; thus, Did you RIDEˊ or did you WALKˋ?]

In the following examples, the inflections are used in a contrary order, the first member terminating with the falling and the second with the rising inflection.


He is wellˋ, not sickˊ.
I said valueˋ, not valorˊ.
I said statueˋ, not statueˊ.
He acted properlyˋ, not improperlyˊ.


RULE VI. -- The falling inflection is generally proper whenever the sense is complete.


Truth is more wonderful than fictionˋ.
Men generally die as they liveˋ.
By industry we obtain wealthˋ.

REMARK.--Parts of a sentence often make complete sense in themselves, and in this case, unless qualified or restrained by the succeeding clause, or unless the contrary is indicated by some other principle, the falling inflection takes place according to the rule.


Truth is wonderfulˋ, even more so than fictionˋ.
Men generally die as they liveˋ, and by their actions we must judge of their characterˋ.

Exception.--When a sentence concludes with a negative clause, or with a contrast or comparison (called also antithesis), the first member of the which requires the falling intonation, it must close with the rising inflection. (See Rule XI, and §2, Note.)


No one desires to be thought a foolˊ.
I come buryˋ Caesar, not to praiseˊ him.
He lives in Englandˋ, not in Franceˊ.

REMARK.-- In bearing testimony to the general character of a man we say,

He is too honorableˋ to be guilty of a vileˋ act.

But if he is accused of some act of baseness, a contrast is at once instituted between his character and the specified act, and we change the inflections, and say,

He is too honorableˋ to be guilty of suchˊ an act.

A man may say, in general terms,

I am too busyˊ for projectsˋ.

But if he is urged to embark in some particular enterprise, he will change the inflection, and say,

I am too busyˋ for projectsˊ.

In such cases, as the falling inflection is required in the former part by the principle of contrast and emphasis (as will hereafter be more fully explained), the sentence necessarily closes wtih the rising inflection.

Sometimes, also, emphasis alone seems to require the rising inflection on the concluding word. See exception to Rule VII.


RULE VII.--Language which demands strong emphasis generally requires the falling inflection.


§1. Command or urgent entreaty; as,

Runˋ to your houses, fallˋ upon your knees,
Prayˋ to the Gods to intermit the plagues.

O, saveˋ me, Hubertˋ, saveˋ me! My eyes are out
Even with the fierce looks of these bloody men.

§2. Exclamation, especially when indicating strong emotion; as,

O, ye Godsˋ! ye Godsˋ! must I endure all this?

Harkˋ! Harkˋ! the horrid sound
Hath raised up his head.

For interrogatory exclamation, see Rule X, Remark.


§3. A series of words or members, whether in the beginning or middle of a sentence, if it does not conclude the sentence is called a commencing series, and usually requires the rising inflection when not emphatic.


Wineˊ, beautyˊ, musicˊ, pompˊ, are poor expedients to heave off the load of an hour from the heir of eternityˋ.

I conjure you by that which you profess,
(Howe'er you came to know it,) answer me;
Though you untie the winds and let them fight
Against the churchesˊ; though the yeasty waves
Confound and swallow navigationˊ up;
Though bladed corn be lodged, and trees blown downˊ;
Though palaces and pyramids do slope
Their heads to their foundationsˊ; though the treasures
Of nature's germens tumble altogetherˊ,
Even till destruction sickenˊ; answer me
To what I askˋ you.

§4. A series of words of members which concludes a sentence is called a concluding series, and each member usually has the falling inflection.


They, through faith, subdued kingdomsˋ, wrought righteousnessˋ, obtained promisesˋ, stopped the mouths of lionsˋ, quenched the violence of fireˋ, escaped the edge of the swordˋ, out of weakness were made strongˋ, waxed valiant in fightˋ, turned to flight the armies of the aliensˋ.

REMARK.--When the emphasis on these words or members is not marked, they take the rising inflection, according to Rule IX.


They are the offspring of restlessnessˊ, vanityˊ, and idlenessˋ.
Loveˊ, hopeˊ, and joyˊ took possession of his breast.

§5. When words, which naturally take the rising inflection, become emphatic by repetition or any other cause, they often take the falling inflection.

Exception to the Rule.--While the tendency of emphasis is decidedly to the use of the falling inflection, sometimes a word to which the falling inflection naturally belongs, changes this, when it is emphatic, for the rising inflection.


Three thousand ducatsˋ: 't is a good round sumˊ.
It is useless to point out the beauties of nature to one who is blindˊ.

Here sum and blind, according to Rule VI, would take the falling inflection, but as they are emphatic, and the object of emphasis is to draw attention to the word emphasized, this is here accomplished in part by giving an unusual inflection. Some speakers would give these words the circumflex, but it would be the rising circumflex, so that the sound would still terminate with the rising inflection.

RULE VIII.--Questions which can not be answered by yes or no, together with their answers, generally require the falling inflection.


Where has he goneˋ?         Ans. To New Yorkˋ.
What has he doneˋ?   Ans. Nothingˋ.
Who did thisˋ?   Ans. I know notˋ.
When did he goˋ?   Ans. Yesterdayˋ.

REMARK.--If these questions are repeated, the inflection is changed according to the principle stated under the Exception to Rule VII.

Where did you say he had goneˊ?
What has he doneˊ?
Who did thisˊ?
When did he goˊ?


Posted by Mark Liberman at June 1, 2004 06:01 PM