Mark Twain? Christian Nestell Bovee? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Recently I clicked on a link that led to a top business-oriented website and was greeted by an interstitial page that displayed a quotation attributed to Mark Twain:
Kindness is a language which the deaf and the blind can read.
I thought this ascription was implausible, and the remark was odd. A deaf person can read standard text, and a blind person can read Braille. Would you examine this saying?
Quote Investigator: Mark Twain died in 1910 and the first attribution of this saying to Twain located by QI was published in 1942. Hence, the supporting evidence was very weak. Details for this citation are given further below.
The earliest instance located by QI appeared in February 1861 within a New York newspaper column titled “Wit and Wisdom: Original and Selected” which contained a miscellaneous collection of sayings, aphorisms, and quips. The following version of the dictum referred to the “dumb” and “deaf” instead of the “deaf” and “blind”. The term “dumb” was used to describe individuals who were unable to speak, typically because of congenital deafness. This word choice is now less frequent because it is considered offensive: 1
KINDNESS is a language which the dumb can speak and the deaf can understand.
This adage suggested that acts of kindness transcended conventional sensory and communication pathways. These acts could be performed or experienced without recourse to speaking or hearing.
The author of the saying was unidentified. A nearly identical version with one word removed was printed in “The Ladies’ Repository” in June 1861. In the following passage kindness was designated a universal language: 2
THE UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE.—Kindness is a language which the dumb can speak and the deaf understand.
The expression was printed in other newspapers in 1861 such as the “Weekly Patriot and Union” of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. 3
In 1862 the Christian Nestell Bovee published a two volume compilation titled “Intuitions and Summaries of Thought” that included an instance of the saying in a section called KINDNESS. Bovee worked hard throughout his life to construct epigrams and memorable passages, and some of his phrases were reprinted by others. Parts of the 1862 work had already been published in the periodicals “Atlantic Monthly” and “American Review”. In later years Bovee often received credit for the adage, and it is possible that he originally crafted it: 4
A LANGUAGE which the dumb can speak, and the deaf can understand.
It speaks well for the native kindness of our hearts, that nothing gives us greater pleasure than to feel that we are conferring it.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1863 “Ballou’s Dollar Monthly Magazine” published a poem titled KINDNESS that was labeled original. The third stanza shown below incorporated the adage: 5
KINDNESS by Eva Alice.
O, the power of kindness!
So gentle, loving, meek,
It is indeed a language
Even the dumb can speak;
The deaf can understand it,
It sheds a shining ray;
Then let us strive to make it
Our guide from day to day.
In 1883 a Rockford, Illinois newspaper reported on an event during which school children performed music and delivered orations. One student’s speech titled “Key to every lock” included the following idea: 6
Kindness is one of the keys that unlocks many doors, a language the dumb can speak and the deaf can understand.
In 1903 a Syracuse, New York newspaper printed the expression and credited Bovee: 7
Kindness—a language which the dumb can speak and the deaf can understand.—Bovee.
In 1907 a tome called “Sunshine All the Year: or, Life at its Happiest and Best” published a more elaborate variant of the quotation that included the word “blind”. Modern instances often use the word “blind”: 8
Kindness is a language which the blind can read, the deaf can hear, and the dumb can speak. Even fools can master it.
In 1940 an instance credited to Bovee was printed in the “Kingsport Times” of Kingsport, Tennessee under the title “Times Daily Tonic”: 9
Kindness is a language the dumb can speak, and the deaf can hear and understand.
In 1942 the widely-disseminated syndicated columnist Walter Winchell attached a version of the statement to Mark Twain. Twain died in 1910, and this was the first assignment to Twain located by QI: 10
Mark Twain: Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind read.
In 1942 H. L. Mencken included an instance in “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources” but stated that the author was unidentified: 11
Kindness is a language the deaf can hear and the dumb can understand.
In 1960 a Winnsboro, Texas newspaper printed a version that used the word “mute” instead of “dumb”. No ascription was given: 12
Kindness is a language the mute can speak and the deaf can hear.
In 1967 a columnist in a Lawton, Oklahoma newspaper saw a version of the expression at a church: 13
Sign outside a church: “Kindness is a language that the blind can see and the deaf can hear”…
In 1974 Forbes magazine published a version of the adage ascribed to Mark Twain that matched the statement presented in the question which inspired this investigation: 14
Kindness is a language which the deaf and the blind can read.
In conclusion, this saying entered circulation by 1861 and the earliest instances were anonymous. The phrasing evolved over the decades and the disabilities mentioned changed. Christian Nestell Bovee has sometimes been credited with the saying, and he is a reasonable candidate. However, the earliest publication of the statement by Bovee known to QI was dated 1862. Perhaps Bovee employed the adage before 1862. Alternatively, he placed an existing adage into his text. Future discoveries may clarify this case.
Currently, there is no substantive evidence that Mark Twain wrote or said a version of this expression. He was connected to the saying decades after his death.
(Great thanks to David Weinberger @dweinberger whose inquiry gave impetus to QI to formulate this question and initiate this exploration. Special thanks to John Overholt @john_overholt who brought the question to the attention of QI.)
- 1861 February 2, New York Ledger, Volume XVI, Issue 48, Wit and Wisdom: Original and Selected, Prepared for The Ledger by Geo. D. Prentice, Quote Page 3, Column 5, New York. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1861 June, The Ladies’ Repository, Volume 29, The Universal Language, Quote Page 560, Published by A. Tompkins, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1861 October 24, Weekly Patriot and Union (Patriot), (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 3, Column 4, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1862, Intuitions and Summaries of Thought by C. N. Bovee (Christian Nestell Bovee), Volume 1 of 2, Section: Kindness, Quote Page 240, Riverside Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1863 February, Ballou’s Dollar Monthly Magazine, Volume 17, Number 2, Quote Page 165, Column 1, Published at Office American Union, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1882 May 24, Rockford Daily Register (Daily Register), Demosthenain Damsels, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1903 January 7, Northern Christian Advocate, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 10, Column 4, Syracuse, New York. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1907, Sunshine All The Year: or, Life at its Happiest and Best by James Henry Potts, Quote Page 432, P.W. Ziegler Co., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1940 December 30, Kingsport Times, Times Daily Tonic, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Kingsport, Tennessee. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1942 May 18, St. Petersburg Times, Walter Winchell On Broadway (Syndicated), Quote Page 10, Column 2, St. Petersburg, Florida. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken [Henry Louis Mencken], Section: Kindness, Page 630, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1960 June 9, Winnsboro News, Coldwater by Mrs. O. L. Latta, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Winnsboro, Texas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1967 March 5, Lawton Constitution & Morning Press (Lawton Constitution), Columnist: Bill Crawford, Start Page 1D, Quote Page 2D, Column 1, Lawton, Oklahoma. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1974 December 15, Forbes, Volume 114, Thoughts on the Business of Life, Quote Page 84, Column 2, Forbes Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm) ↩