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.