Arjan Nijk

The Linguistics of Engagement. Demosthenes' "On the Crown" and the Evolution of Attic Oratory

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How does an orator engage the audience with their speech? Not having the opportunity to enter into a real dialogue with the audience, the orator must find other linguistic means to safeguard the integrity of the common ground and avoid estrangement. This project investigates how Demosthenes employs these linguistic means in On the crown against the backdrop of the evolution of a ‘linguistics of engagement’ in Attic oratory.

The aim of this project is threefold. First, to identify the linguistic means by which the Attic orators manage the audience’s engagement with their discourse. These linguistic elements can be divided broadly into two categories: elements that foreground the interaction between the orator and their audience (particularly forms of address and discourse particles) and elements that manage information by distinguishing presupposed material from newly asserted material (definiteness, subordination and topicalization). Such features turn the discourse from an abstract monological argument into an engaging speech that is anchored in the communicative situation.

Second, this project seeks to identify particular rhetorical strategies involving the ‘linguistics of engagement’ in Demosthenes’ speech On the crown. This speech has always been regarded as the pinnacle of Classical Greek oratory, but as studies have tended to focus on traditional methods of rhetorical analysis, the peculiar linguistic brilliance of Demosthenes’ style has remained underappreciated. In the most general terms, what seems particularly cunning in Demosthenes’ use of linguistic means is how he manages information status in order to anchor controversial opinions in uncontroversial ones. He does this by asserting what is commonly accepted and hiding dubious claims as presuppositions. For example, if he says something like ‘Surely the one who is singularly responsible for our downfall should be put to death’, he appeals to a generally accepted sense of justice while taking for granted that there actually was one individual singularly responsible for Athens’ defeat (and that this was, of course, his opponent). Making the audience mentally assent to uncontroversial assertions is Demosthenes’ anchor for sneaking into the common ground.

The third question this project will seek to answer is to what extent Demosthenes’ use of the elements of the linguistics of engagement is innovative in the context of Attic oratory. The hypothesis to be investigated is that the pressures of the courtroom catalyzed a linguistic-stylistic evolution where interactive and information-managing linguistic elements came to be used more frequently and in more creative ways. This will be investigated both from a qualitative perspective (for example, Demosthenes’ use of the vocative is more variegated than that of other orators) and from a quantitative perspective (for example, Demosthenes uses composite particles with the interactive element τοι much more frequently than his opponent Aeschines). This will deepen our understanding to what extent Demosthenes’ art constituted an innovation within the rhetorical tradition.