New Worlds: Language as Magic

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Language is a truly remarkable thing. We know now that many animals have complex systems of communication, but to the best of our knowledge, we Homo sapiens are still the only species on the planet with so extensive a capacity to share information, to describe the world around us and even invent things that don’t exist.

It’s no surprise that the idea of “language as magic” can be found in so many parts of the world, in so many periods of time.

In Jewish and Christian scripture, God brings the world into being through language, through statements such as “Let there be light.” In Japanese religion the idea shows up as kotodama, the “spirit of language,” and Sanskrit mantras have spread throughout a variety of Asian religions. We see the descendants of these concepts all over fantasy, in the form of magic spells or other types of speech with supernatural effects.

Backing up for a moment to the realm of the inarguably mundane: the social sciences have a concept of the performative speech act, an utterance which does not merely describe something but literally enacts a change in it. If you’ve ever said “I do” (or equivalent) during a wedding ceremony, you’ve altered reality with your words, creating a marital bond by the power of your speech alone. The same goes for naming ceremonies, bets, and wills that bequeath property to someone. The words are themselves the act performed.

It isn’t hard to see how you get from that to the idea of an incantation that shapes reality in a more extraordinary fashion. Uttering a curse upon someone feels very much like the same type of thing, regardless of whether your enemy drops dead as commanded or not. But obviously not all speech has the power to alter the world that way — not even in a fantasy novel, outside of limited circumstances (such as Diana Wynne Jones’ Witch Week, where a character is placed under a spell that doesn’t simply force him to speak the truth, but causes everything he says to become true . . . and yes, that’s exactly as dangerous to the fabric of reality as you might think). In both real-world cultures and fiction, there are constraints that prevent everyone from altering the cosmos every time they open their mouths.

Sometimes this takes the form of a special language, the tongue of angels or the gods or the universe itself. This divine language — not to be confused with a mere sacred language, e.g. Latin or Sanskrit, that’s used extensively in religious ceremonies — is usually assumed to be unavailable to mortals, or only available to a limited few or in limited form, because it does have the power to shape reality. The Tower of Babel story not only relates why human societies speak different languages, but is sometimes interpreted as describing how the original Adamic language (the tongue either used by God to address Adam, or used by Adam to name the animals) was lost. The Renaissance occult philosopher John Dee made use of what he called the Enochian language, with which one could address the angels. Someone with access to such words has power not available to those speaking ordinary tongues . . . which means that access to them is usually quite strictly controlled.

Alternatively — and more democratically — ordinary language does have power, but only when employed correctly, or by someone with the correct ability. Folk magic abounds with charms of this type, often small poetic verses that are meant to achieve a particular effect, e.g. healing illness, inviting luck in love, or banishing evil influences. Under this system, power is obtained not by learning a new language that communicates directly with divine beings or the universe, but by learning specific formulas within the language you know. Sometimes they’ll work for anyone; sometimes you need training or inborn talent to invest them with the proper force.

Mentioning the Adamic language above points us at another, closely related idea, which is the power of names within language. As we all know from A Wizard of Earthsea, to know the true name of a thing is to be able to command it. What constitutes a “true name”? Well, that depends on the belief system. Sometimes it’s the name of the thing in the aforementioned divine language, and no mere human words will suffice. Other times a mundane language will work just fine, provided the speaker knows how to use it properly. This leads to traditions of names being hidden, so that what you’re called on a daily basis is just a mask over your real identity. European fairy folklore echoes this when it suggests that knowing Rumpelstiltskin’s name allows the heroine to escape her deal with her helper.

Harry Potter notwithstanding, modern fantasy seems to have generally moved away from magical incantations toward other conceptions of supernatural power, which can be enacted through the use of symbols and tools, particular non-speech actions (e.g. the martial arts-based bending of Avatar: The Last Airbender), or just sheer force of mind, a la psychic powers. I wonder sometimes how much of this is due to decades of doggerel poetry that rarely if ever carried the numinous effect it was supposed to achieve, and sometimes provoked outright eye-rolling. But when it’s done right, such things can still strike a chord of wonder: witness the use of “The rain shall make a door for me and I shall pass through it” in Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Certainly it’s hard for me as a writer to entirely dismiss the idea of language as magic. After all, with it I create worlds from nothing, which, for the span of time you read them, come to seem real to you (if I do my job effectively). But I’ve written almost nothing that requires me to represent the language of magic on the page, either as comprehensible real language or made-up syllables. Much easier to just say it’s happening, and not try to show it directly — because I suspect that doing it well requires a degree of poetic ability I lack. I welcome recommendations of stories you think have struck the right note where this kind of thing is concerned.

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New Worlds: Language as Magic — 19 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: Language as Magic - Swan Tower

  2. Patricia McKillip has run a number of variations, more and less literal, on the idea of knowing and naming a thing to have power over it. I like best the blend of true names and sympathy she uses in the Riddle-Master trilogy:

    “Look at it, in your mind, until it’s not twine anymore but a path, looped and wound and twisted around itself, that will bind the one who touches to its turnings . . . See it. Then put your name to it [. . .] Know that you are yourself and the thing is itself; that’s the binding between you, that knowledge.”

    I don’t know why the concept in general has become unfashionable in literature; current events are busily proving that the way we talk about the world shapes what becomes thinkable, and enactable, within it.

    • Ah, yes! It’s been years since I read her books, so they don’t leap to mind anymore, but they should.

      I don’t know why the concept in general has become unfashionable in literature; current events are busily proving that the way we talk about the world shapes what becomes thinkable, and enactable, within it.

      Definitely. I just suspect that decades of cheesy, badly-written incantations have turned us off “spells” as such, and writing about speech as magic in more subtle ways requires a deeper understanding of the concept.

      • It’s been years since I read her books, so they don’t leap to mind anymore, but they should.

        McKillip was a formative writer for me; I read her even before Le Guin’s Earthsea, which I really think codified the modern fantasy concept of true names. It’s present in Tolkien, but Le Guin built the entire system of a world around it. I also got it from Diane Duane’s So You Want to Be a Wizard?, with its explicit link between language and wizardry, the Speech, the crucial passage in Nita’s manual that I happened to read as bedtime reading, sealing me to the novel for life:

        “Wizards love words. Most of them read a great deal, and indeed one strong sign of a potential wizard is the inability to get to sleep without reading something first. But their love for and fluency with words is what makes wizards a force to be reckoned with. Their ability to convince a piece of the world—a tree, say, or a stone—that it’s not what it thinks it is, that it’s something else, is the very heart of wizardry. Words skillfully used, the persuasive voice, the persuading mind, are the wizard’s most basic tools. With them a wizard can stop a tidal wave, talk a tree out of growing or into it—freeze fire, burn rain—even slow down the death of the Universe. “

        • I think I got the “true names” idea from Elfquest, with the soul names the Wolfriders apparently evolved in order to protect themselves telepathically. Never actually read Duane’s work, but it’s on the list of lacks I should remedy at the first opportunity . . .

          • I think I got the “true names” idea from Elfquest, with the soul names the Wolfriders apparently evolved in order to protect themselves telepathically.

            Elfquest definitely reinforced the importance of the concept for me, although to be honest I got it absolutely first from being Jewish and having a Hebrew name. In that sense Earthsea was very normal for me. I have had a use-name and a true name all my life.

            Never actually read Duane’s work, but it’s on the list of lacks I should remedy at the first opportunity . . .

            I hope you enjoy them! The first three Young Wizards novels were very important to me and I find they still hold up to re-read. Most of the series comes in two versions, the originally published texts and the “New Millennium Editions,” and in most cases I prefer the original versions despite the eventually irreconcilable internal timeline, but the revised edition of A Wizard Alone is indispensable for the reasons detailed by Ada Hoffmann here.

            • Well, I’ve put a hold on whatever version of the first book is available in ebook from my local library. Probably the “New Millennium” one, but I think ease of starting will, for the time being, take precedence over tracking down an older version.

          • I suspect that I’m too much of a nerd: I don’t remember whether I first encountered “true names” in Earthsea… or The Golden Bough… or Benjamin Whorf’s essay on the connotative meaning of “fan.” So my middle-school pleasure reading was weird.

  3. If you’ve ever said “I do” (or equivalent) during a wedding ceremony, you’ve altered reality with your words, creating a marital bond by the power of your speech alone. 

    I was at a friend’s wedding last year, and the groom got horribly tongue-tied during the vows and kept mispronouncing something. In the end the registrar made him start again because “if you don’t get this right, you might not be legally married”.

    • Interesting! I can’t remember if we had to say very specific words when my husband and I did the legal part of getting married; I mostly remember signing the license.

    • The very opposite of Napoleon’s marriage to Josephine: both lied about their ages and addresses, the witness was not in any way official, and the government issuing said licenses was no longer in force. There were other anomalies as well, I believe. Sheer force of will held it to be legit.

  4. I suppose in theory one can perform ritual without any spoken words, but for the most part words are an integral part of any magical ritual because they allow the participants to coordinate their actions effectively, and also communicate what’s going on to those who are watching, or participating passively. Even if you don’t understand the meaning of the individual words, as in the Latin mass for most uneducated parishioners, the flow of the words is a known pattern.

    I was part of a discussion on ritual vs. theater in a non-writing context recently, and someone there proposed a concept that really resonated for me – the idea that ritual was theater with consequences. When you finish that ritual, such as the marriage example previously mentioned here, there are changes in the world as a result of the ritual. That language makes those changes clear to everyone is very much part of the magic, at least for me.

    • That’s an interesting point about consequences! I tend to come at the ritual-vs-theatre idea from Victor Turner (whose book From Ritual to Theatre wound up having an unexpected effect on how I view roleplaying games), but the idea of enacting something that’s meant to persist after the event ends makes sense.

  5. reminds me of a long-ago history program, showing how, from Classical Rome to Israel and all thereabouts, you could write in a bowl (write either a prayer asking a deity to heal you, or a verse from a holy text), fill the bowl with water…and then drink the water, which would have the ink in it – and your healing would begin.

    • Not related to words, but I always liked the medieval recipe for wound treatment that involved making some kind of nasty ointment . . . and then applying it to the weapon that caused the wound. Given what was in most medicines in those days, that probably did increase your chances of healing, compared to if you applied the ointment to the wound itself . . .

      But yeah, using written texts in magical actions is all over the place. Similar thing with cursing, where you might scratch it on an ostracon and then use that ostracon as an offering — though in that case you aren’t consuming the words themselves.

      • hm, write the blessing or curse on a scrap of paper (as people also used to do) and put it in someone’s soup. 🙂