Verbal Pyramids

In vocabularies, most categories or nouns are more specific categories of a more general vocabulary. For example, one vocabulary will see humans as a specific species in the category of mammals, mammals again are a category of animals, animals are a category of biological life, which may be one of many larger categories of different kinds of life. Humans, seen in this light, get some of their meaning from the larger category of life. On the other hand, one could also see man from the perspective of Christian theology, where humans are set a little below the angels. In this vocabulary, the highest category is "God" and human is primarily defined as one of God's creations. One could easily see potential rhetorical implications for the two terminologies. For example, if one considers death or the death penalty, the Christian hierarchy of terms does not cease with death. In fact, death is a part of it and is actually a step up on the ladder. As such, a death penalty merely makes the judgment from God come faster, but it would come anyway. As seen from the perspective of life, killing a murderer simply means ending more lives, which would seem pointless.

Every vocabulary relies on such hierarchies in order to create meaning, so they can be found in different forms in all vocabularies. Kenneth Burke calls the process by which these hierarchies are formed and tracked "dialectical transcendence."


The way to uncover these vocabularies is generally to start from your equations and clusters. Then you start organizing the terms based on levels of abstraction and centrality.


There are generally three main levels: Positive, dialectical, and ultimate. The positive words have a specific referent in the world. Dialectical terms describe larger concepts and ideas of which the positive terms are concretizations. If originally positive words are found in this realm, it is because they have taken on a larger symbolic quality as a gathering concept. Ultimate terms are where we find the God-term. Ultimate terms function as the one term that can summarize the complex dynamics going on in the text, since it is both the foundation of these dynamics and the goal toward which all the other terms are reaching, much like the Christian God.


Practice finding verbal pyramids by going to hierarchy