The Beauty of Words

In 1890, after living and working in the U.S. for 20 years, Greek-born Lafcadio Hearn moved to Japan and immediately fell in love with a culture and language about which he would then write until his death fourteen years later. In 1893, he sent the following wonderful letter to his friend and occasional editor, Basil Hall Chamberlain, and eloquently defended the use of unintelligible but physiognomically beautiful Japanese words in his English-language work.

(Source: The Life and Letters of Lafcadio Hearn, Vol. III; Image: Lafcadio Hearn, via.)

June 5, 1893

Dear Chamberlain,—

Thanks for strictures and suggestions. I changed the text as you desired, except in the case of the word Kuruma. That has been fully explained in preceding articles. (By the way, I never heard a Japanese use the word jinrikisha.) My observations about the sailors were based upon police reports in the Japan “Mail.” I killed the word gwaikokujin; as you said, it is an ugly word. I revised, indeed, the whole paper.

Recognizing the ugliness of words, however, you must also recognize their physiognomical beauty. I see you and the Editor of the “Atlantic” are at one, however, in condemning my use of Japanese words. Now, I can’t entirely agree with either of you. As to the practical side of the question, I do. But as to the artistic, the romantic side, I don’t. For me words have colour, form, character; they have faces, ports, manners, gesticulations; they have moods, humours, eccentricities;—they have tints, tones, personalities. That they are unintelligible makes no difference at all. Whether you are able to speak to a stranger or not, you can’t help being impressed by his appearance sometimes—by his dress—by his air—by his exotic look. He is also unintelligible, but not a whit less interesting. Nay! he is interesting BECAUSE he is unintelligible. I won’t cite other writers who have felt the same way about African, Chinese, Arabian, Hebrew, Tartar, Indian, and Basque words—I mean novelists and sketch writers.

To such it has been justly observed: “The readers do not feel as you do about words. They can’t be supposed to know that you think the letter A is blush-crimson, and the letter E pale sky-blue. They can’t be supposed to know that you think KH wears a beard and a turban; that initial X is a mature Greek with wrinkles;—or that ‘—no—’ has an innocent, lovable, and childlike aspect.” All this is true from the critic’s standpoint.

But from ours, the standpoint of—

The dreamer of dreams
To whom what is and what seems
Is often one and the same—

To us the idea is thus:

“Because people cannot see the colour of words, the tints of words, the secret ghostly motions of words:

“Because they cannot hear the whispering of words, the rustling of the procession of letters, the dream-flutes and dream-drums which are thinly and weirdly played by words:

“Because they cannot perceive the pouting of words, the frowning and fuming of words, the weeping, the raging and racketing and rioting of words:

“Because they are insensible to the phosphorescing of words, the fragrance of words, the noisomeness of words, the tenderness or hardness, the dryness or juiciness of words—the interchange of values in the gold, the silver, the brass and the copper of words:

“Is that any reason why we should not try to make them hear, to make them see, to make them feel? Surely one who has never heard Wagner, cannot appreciate Wagner without study! Why should the people not be forcibly introduced to foreign words, as they were introduced to tea and coffee and tobacco?”

Unto which, the friendly reply is—”Because they won’t buy your book, and you won’t make any money.”

And I say: “Surely I have never yet made, and never expect to make any money. Neither do I expect to write ever for the multitude. I write for beloved friends who can see colour in words, can smell the perfume of syllables in blossom, can be shocked with the fine elfish electricity of words. And in the eternal order of things, words will eventually have their rights recognized by the people.”

All this is heresy. But a bad reason, you will grant, is better than—etc.


Lafcadio Hearn