Reading Wesley Today : a Discourse Approach. Jean-Pierre van Noppen

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Reading Wesley Today : a Discourse Approach.

Jean-Pierre van Noppen

Université Libre de Bruxelles, Brussels, Belgium

Why should a linguist be interested in John Wesley today ? Because language is the main instrument of communication that we have, and because it must (like all our gifts and talents) be used efficiently. In this respect, John and Charles Wesley were inspiring examples. Their discourse was a form of multi-media communication avant la lettre (field preaching, hymns, writing (tracts, books, magazines), societies, schools), and they made some far-reaching linguistic choices (lay assistants who addressed his audiences in their own social and regional dialect, memorizable rhyme and rhythm, inclusive imagery), ...
Actually, the Methodists’ discourse was so efficient that they have been accused of resorting to “linguistic magic” to manipulate the working masses into obedience to capitalist interests at the time of the Industrial Revolution. The Methodists themselves still proclaim that Wesley helped avoid a bloody proletarian revolution in Britain; his Marxist critics, among whom E.P. Thompson (1963) has been the most vocal, have turned the argument around and claimed that Methodism acted as an obstacle to the emancipation of the working classes, and thus contributed to the oppression of the proletariat. Without posing as a revisionist, I would like to take issue with this interpretation by studying Methodist discourse in a CDA (Critical Discourse Analysis) perspective, which ventures beyond the “words” to study co-text, con-text and inter-text, and thus allows to do better justice to Wesley.
George Lawton (1962) made an earlier attempt at describing Wesley’s language. It was a good book, but the approach was mainly vocabulary-based, with hardly any recourse to considerations of frequency: Lawton successfully substantiated the claim that Wesley’s vocabulary was rich and varied, but he failed to distinguish between genres (and thus argued for simplicity and complexity at the same time) and was totally impressionistic in his judgments about favourite terminology (Dekoninck-Brossard & van Noppen 2004).

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