Words Mean Absolutely Nothing and Yet Old White Dudes Still Manage to Use Them to Abuse Us?

I accede that I’m probably pretty biased against this selection of readings–as an English major, a reader, and a writer, the concept that someone could be so steadily against “eloquence” is confounding to me. I personally find that poetry, and well-written eloquent prose, is one of the most human things in the universe. To err is human; to lament that error in eloquence is humanity.

The Royal Society’s fixation on inductive reasoning to discover the mythos of human existence and experience is also at heavy odds with their greater fixation on scorning verbosity and eloquence. Basically, at the core of true philosophical exploration of all languages, is the idea that words mean fuck all. In a part of the preamble to The New Atlantis, Bacon claims that “speech… is the consent of the learned.” To some degree, that is absolutely true. Speech and language are absolutely nothing but a complete and innate societal agreement to an arbitrary and complex series of signifiers and signified, which have nothing to do with the actual signified besides what we as humans ascribe them. It is literally only through the consensus of humanity that words mean anything at all. So that part of his claim is doubtless; the part that rubs me wrong (and that constantly discomforts me in all of these readings) is the claim that it is up to the Royal Society and men of their unmarked-norm ilk to decide on those signs and their use for the people at large.

As a person of color, the impact of this concept seems to me to be a contemporary inability of white scholars to perceive scholars of color as their academic equals. Obviously, of course, I’m not saying that every single white student or professor considers every student of color automatically academically inferior. But take, for example, Tiffany Martinez, author of the moving article “Academia, Love Me Back.” She used the word ‘hence,’ in an essay and was shamed before her classmates because it was “not [her] word.” Her professor demanded to know exactly how much she had plagiarized. But Martinez is an incredibly bright, dedicated, proven student and scholar. A brief survey of her resume to that point would have proved it to be so. Nevertheless, her race occluded her intelligence in her lame-ass professor’s eyes. Or, ask a black student about the difference between their “black people voice” and their “white people voice.” Ask me about it. There’s a marked difference between AAVE (African American Vernacular English) and “Standard English,” but those differences are only disparaged because they are not set as recognized signs and signifieds by the privileged arbitrators of our language. So is there a disparaged difference between French and Creole (as if the French forgot that the Gaullians forged their language out of Latin just like the Creole forged their language out of French). Dig deeper into the concept of “We speak English here,” but most Americans feel free to go to other countries without knowing their language. Dig deeper into the insidious and inherent bigotry in the way English has been built before us and continues to be built. Men like those in the Royal Society set out to create a binary opposition that put unflowered language above and eloquence below, but contributed to the one with which we deal even now, that puts “Standard English” above, and every other dialect below.

That is the legacy the Royal Society has (maybe inadvertently?) passed down: the arbitrary arbitration of intelligent language being put in the hands of the already powerful, and being used to abuse the marginalized as they try to work their way up and fix the oppression of said language.


-TaNayiah Bryels


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