Words as Things

By De Grazia, Margreta | Shakespeare Studies, Annual 2000 | Go to article overview

Words as Things


De Grazia, Margreta, Shakespeare Studies


IS A WORD A THING? It depends, of course, on what is meant by thing. If sensible properties constitute thingness, then a word is certainly a thing. It exists either as a sound to be heard or a mark to be seen. There is a long tradition, however, of denying words the status of things. In the short essay that follows, I will suggest that this tradition begins when words are required to represent things or matter. If words are to give a clear representation of things (empirical or notional), they must forego their own thingness.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Bacon draws a strong line between words and things. To emphasize the inferiority of words to things, he compares words to three forms of representation:(1) a flourish on the initial letter of a patent or limned book; the statue Pygmalion fell in love with; a painting like Zeuxis's famous still life of grapes that looked so real a blackbird tried to peck them.(2) This mistaking of the unreal for the real is what Bacon terms "Pygmalion's frenzy," a madness like idolatry that fixates on the image rather than the thing the image represents. In all three instances, the forbidden graven image is imagined as being itself immaterial. It offers up nothing of its own to read, to embrace, to eat. But, of course, all these forms of representation do have substance of their own, though it is not the same as that of the thing they represent. The flourish is made of ink on paper, the statue of stone, the painting of canvas and pigment. If these images were granted materiality, they would themselves become things worthy of the desire (to study, love, eat) that is the due of what they represent. Their pursuit then would be impelled not by a mad "frenzy" but by perfectly reasonable interest.

If words are to serve as transparent representations of things, their own thinglike or sensible properties must be overlooked. Or else remade in the image of what they represent. Thus Bacon hinted at an alternative system of notation that would work "without the help or intervention of words."(3) Its characters, he speculated, would resemble the things they represented, either physically as pictographs or conceptually as ideographs. In the second half of the century, Bacon's suggestion materialized in the project sponsored by the Royal Society to devise an artificial language. John Wilkins, for example, in his 800-page An Essay Toward a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language (1668) describes a set of characters intended to represent directly the objects or notions common to all men.(4) Each character stands for a thing or an idea, and when properly distributed and combined they are to correspond with empirical observation or philosophical ordering. In these attempts, characters are designed in the likeness of the things they represent; their own material attributes are forged to match what they stand for. Words, it might be said, have been phased into things. Indeed it is not much of a leap to Swift's satire of the Royal Society's linguistic projects. Gulliver stumbles upon an academy whose members have abolished words altogether and communicate solely by brandishing things. If a long conversation is anticipated, huge bundles are assembled; for shorter ones, a few items under the arm will do.(5)

The Royal Society was also concerned with improving the use of ordinary language. In his History of the Royal Society (1667), Thomas Sprat commends the Society's commitment to aligning words with things; he reproduces several of its reports, which are exemplary in their description of "so many things almost in an equal number of words."(6) John Wilkins's first consideration is to assign marks or names to all things and notions in order to attain "a just Enumeration." Ordinary language is riddled with two defects that upset this ideal balance: homonyms and synonyms. Either there are not enough words to match things or else too many. In the case of homonyms, one word is used for many things: bill, for example, is used to mean weapon, bird's beak, and written scroll. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Words as Things
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.