In the beginning was the Word. (Not the picture. Or the number.) We are now at the cusp of a movement into a new age when, for large masses of people, verbal images and verbal imagination seem gradually to be replaced by pictorial images and pictorial imagination. I shall attempt to describe one, perhaps seldom observed, aspect of verbal imagination. (“Aspect” is a word I do not like, but, in this case, it may be proper.)

Not only the sound but the visual impression of a word has a powerful, and durable, impact on our minds, indeed on our imagination. That impression, of course, is the consequence of literacy. And we must consider literacy not only a chapter in the long evolving history of human communications but also an increment of human consciousness. Still, I must begin with the sounds of words. That there is a difference between the spoken and the written word, and that in the historical evolution of mankind the first preceded the second, is obvious. (Consider only the origins of the word language, related in almost every language to the tongue. The manufacture—that is, the writing—of words came later.) Many of our earliest and basic words are onomatopoeic, sound-connected. This condition is more than an ancient survival or an aesthetic element. It gives an added meaning to words, a substantial dimension that numbers or scientific categories cannot offer.

There are still “progressives” who think that it is within the province of mankind to produce a universal and scientific world in which human communications will no longer be hindered by national and linguistic differences, which will give way to a universal and scientific language, with its formulas instantly recognized, accepted, and used by everyone. H2O is, of course, more scientific and more categorical than “water”; moreover, it indicates a scientifically fixed reality, with its potentiality of universality. Yet H2O has two shortcomings that are inescapable. One is that it refers to a condition which is abstract and which in reality does not exist, to a substance that consists of absolutely nothing but hydrogen and oxygen. Yet that is a desideratum (to be sure, a desideratum with all kinds of practical results) because, no matter how assiduous the process of its distillation, a 100 percent (and not a 99.9999 percent) H2O does not and cannot exist. And more important is the condition that “water,” while less precise, is more telling than H2O, because “water” (like “eau,” “acqua,” “agua,” “Wasser,” “viz“) sounds like water, while H2O does not.

More telling, because of its additional meaning. For words are not the symbols of things: They are symbols of meanings. And the meaning of meaning is that it carries our minds not only deeper, but further. Meaning is not mechanical or determined; it is spiritual and teleological. It is no longer sufficient for us to recall that the Greek word “logos” means both “word” and “reason.” We may have to understand that our recognition of the word as a symbol of meaning amounts to an enrichment of our reasoning.

Allow me to carry this argument a little further. Yes, we think in words—but not only because of their sounds. Yes, words may carry a sense of music, which is, of course, a (if not the) fundamental element of poetry. But there is even more to them. When I hear (or read) “multitudinous seas incarnadine,” the grandeur of the music of those words carries with it a (perhaps smaller but still existent) sense of sight: Those oceanic words, with their wonderfully majestic swells, rise up not only in my ears but before the very eyes of my mind. Conversely, when two or three bars of music, a snatch of a musical “phrase,” keeps humming in my ears, I do not necessarily see their visual notation; I do not associate them with the score with its keys and staves. But when I hear a sequence of words, their written or printed shape intrudes in my mind somehow.

I have often thought that there is a profound—and sometimes mysterious—relationship not only between words and their sounds but between words and their shapes. “Egg” is not the most beautiful but perhaps the most perfect of English words, because it not only sounds like an egg but also looks like one. “Awkward,” too, sounds as well as looks awkward. This is so for certain names, too: Consider a name like Balzac. Thinking of the meaning of words and their visual shapes, we must consider that sight is the most intellectual of all of our senses; that we experience the world—and its words—not only from the outside in but from the inside out; that there is more to seeing than what meets the eye, because seeing is not only inseparable from but simultaneous with (that is, occurring together with) our imagination: not merely a reaction to stimuli but a creative act.

All of this is—or ought to be—obvious. It also relates to the condition that all human communications are necessarily imprecise and imperfect—wherein resides much of their meaning, and also their charm. The dictionary tells us that the equivalent of the English “honest” is the French “honnête.” But they are not equivalent. Despite their common Latin source (“honor, honoris“), through history their meanings have become, however slightly, different: “Honnête homme” is not the same as “an honest man,” and it is the very knowledge of such differences that enriches the charm of our knowing another language, of understanding another people. But let me again carry this a little further. We may listen to a foreign language that we do not understand, and yet it may sound beautiful. Looking at an unknown language, it is not likely that we will find it beautiful. “Honest” and “honnête” may even sound alike, but not only are their meanings slightly different, they look different, too. (“Honest” does not only sound “honest,” it looks honest.) Another, vulgar example: Were a German, reading an English text, to pronounce “sheet” as “sh–” we would find that frinny; but then the German word “Scheiss” is also thicker than “sh–,” not only in sound but also in sight.

I was reading an English novel in which one of the main women is “Hyacinth,” an accomplished and elegant lady. Her name does not particularly appeal to me, perhaps because it is outdated —anyhow. Hyacinth may look better than it sounds (long-legged, early summer, a pale beauty even when in floribus). But what suddenly occurred to me—and I do not know why—is what would happen if Hyacinth were not only translated or pronounced but transliterated into my native Hungarian language. If a Hungarian who does not know English were to ask: What does this name mean? I would say the Hungarian word for the flower: “Jácint.” If he were to ask: How does this name sound? I would say “Hyacinth,” with an English pronunciation, not with an enforced Hungarian stress: This may strike my Hungarian conversant as a little odd, but I could assure him that it is not odd in English. But if he then were to write that pronunciation down, in Hungarian, there would be plenty of trouble. For “háj-szint,” in Hungarian, is a very ugly word, or compound of two words, both in their meaning and in their shape: “háj meaning suet or lard, repulsive fat, and “szint either “level” or the accusative of “color.” In sum: lard-colored, or something like that.

Within the constraints of our alphabet, of course. The Cyrillic alphabet transliterates. While “Churchill” has a wonderful shape in English, it looks terrible when rendered in Russian, and even worse when re-transliterated: “Tcher-Tchil,” as if it were the name of a Caucasian bandit. Terrible to me, of course. Were Russian my native language, would it look terrible to me? Probably not. I think that a Russian who does not know English would see (and perhaps even hear) that word differently from a Russian who knows English: To the latter, “Churchill” would still be Churchill. But back to “Hyacinth”—what would happen if it were written in Hungarian as “Hájszint”? Written, more than spoken, with the consequence that among its readers the idea would occur that the English language, that English names, that English women are ugly.

If words were only symbols of things (this is what the computer suggests they are) their meaning would have the equivalence of facts. “Her name is Hyacinth. That is a fact.” But I, as an historian, have often shocked—without really wishing to do so—some of my students (and, alas, some of my colleagues) when I said that history does not consist of facts but of words about facts, because no “fact” has any meaning by itself The meaning of any and every “fact” depends on our immediate association of it with other facts; moreover, its meaning also, and inevitably, depends on our statement (or call it “phrasing”) of it—whence there are statements in which the “fact” may be precise but its meaning may be untrue. And so the finding of the mot juste is the inevitable task not only of the poet or the novelist but of the historian, too, since his selection of every word is not only a scientific or aesthetic but also a moral choice.

Unlike his great adversary Churchill, who wrote better than he spoke. Hitler was not a master of the written word. He knew that; he said once that his Mein Kampf must not be read but spoken. He was right in that: There are long portions of Mein Kampf that are unreadable, rather than unspeakable. (But then “unspeakable” has a double meaning, too: Something that ought not be said.) On the other hand, 20th-century literature has plenty of examples of prose that are readable rather than speakable—an intellectual tendency that has, lamentably, seeped into the practices of modern or post-modern poetry, too: for poetry that is not speakable cannot be poetry at all.

Does this mean that the world is getting more and more prosaic, perhaps due to its evolving mechanization? No. If our images and our imagination are becoming more visual and less verbal, this does not mean that they are becoming less intellectual: to the contrary, since, as I wrote before, sight is the most intellectual of our senses. Of course, the increase of intellectuality is not necessarily a good thing. The sins of the spirit are worse than the sins of the flesh; a voyeur is no less of a sinner or a pervert than the men and women whose acts he watches (or wishes to watch). There is, undoubtedly, an increasing intrusion of mind into matter—but this does not mean that words are becoming less meaningful in our lives. One of the earliest symptoms, beginning more than 100 years ago, of the popular transition from verbal to pictorial imagination was the printing of comics in the newspapers, something ready-made for slow readers; but most comic strips are meaningless without words in their balloons. Then came the cartoons of the New Yorker type, where the artwork is (or, rather, was) superior to the comics but is also dependent on the words of its captions, much more terse and condensed than those of the comics, and therefore more intellectual and suggestive. And now we have the Internet through which, on occasion, men and women fall in love by reading each others’ disembodied messages in words. In sum: The Age of the Book may be coming to its end, but the Word was not only there in the beginning; it will be there until the end.

What this means is that we may become more sensitive to the quality of words, including their visual forms, their shapes. This has nothing to do with the future of typography (though it does have something to do with the future of spelling). It goes deeper. It occurs within the conscious, not the subconscious, functioning of our minds—at a time when we must begin thinking about thinking itself And thinking is inseparable from the words we know, including their various qualities. Quantities are definable and mathematically fixable. Qualities are not. Their sources lie deep in our minds. They are existential realities. Computers can do fabulous calculations of quantities—but not of qualities, in the sense in which Plato had recognized their existence.

The word quality is used by most educated people every day of their lives, yet in order that we should have this simple word Plato had to make the tremendous effort (it is one of the most exhausting which man is called on to exert) of turning a vague feeling into a clear thought. He invented the new word “poiotës,” “what-ness,” as we might say, or “of-what-kind-ness,” and Cicero translated it by the Latin “qualitas,” from “qualis.”

Thus wrote Owen Barfield in his History in English Words, which I consider one of the most important works of this century. And in this inadequate attempt of an essay, I have tried to take a step further, to suggest the association of words not only with their histories and with their sounds but with their shapes, with their meaning perceived not only with our ears but also with our eyes. But perhaps Shakespeare had already known this when he wrote about imagination:

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.