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Mon 2015-08-10 12:55
Magic and language in fantasy fiction

Since I've been musing about fiction recently, here's another thought that crossed my mind.

Fantasy fiction often has a magic system involving spells cast in spoken language. But what language? Why does that language work and not another? Or would another language work? Would it depend on the spell? On the caster? On the location? It seems to me that there are quite a few plausible ‘cosmologies of magic’ which would cause different answers to those questions, many of which have specific examples in existing fiction, and I wonder if there are any more I've missed out.

A special Language Of Magic embedded in the universe. In this model, there is some particular language (or language-ish thing – at any rate, producible by human vocal apparatus), to which the underlying nature of the universe responds or resonates directly. So spells must obviously be cast in that language, or they won't work; and the language of magic won't (typically) correspond to any normal human language, but will instead be an extra one that mages have to learn. Examples: the Logrus magic in Roger Zelazny's later Amber novels, Patrick Rothfuss's ‘The Name of the Wind’.

Magic consists of asking a powerful entity to do something. In this model, a ‘spell’ is nothing more than a particular kind of request or prayer. So you must use whatever language is acceptable to the entity you're entreating to help you. (Though in some cases it might speak all languages, and not care.) Examples: David Eddings's ‘Elenium’, Katharine Kerr's Deverry novels, and surely a great many examples involving summoning of demons.

Magic words are just a way to get into the right kind of concentration. In this model, the real means of casting the spell is just a matter of being in the right frame of mind; the act of mumbling strange words is indirectly helpful in achieving that frame of mind, but not directly relevant to the spell working. So here the language you use for magic is a property of the caster, not of the spell or the universe: different casters will quite likely find that different languages (or plausible-sounding non-language mumblings) happen to work best for them. Examples: Stephen Donaldson's ‘Mordant's Need’.

Magic depends on the intent behind your speech, not the words themselves. In this model, it doesn't matter what language you use, but you do have to speak something in your chosen language that you recognise as a meaningful expression of your magical intent. I can't think of an example in which this is specifically stated in the text, but I always have the impression that Neil Gaiman's magic for one gravitates towards this mode; I think it's a natural sort of model to be implicitly intended by authors who didn't care very much about this sort of detail.

Magic words are totally at the whim of the caster. It doesn't matter a bit what language or word you choose, but for some reason there has to be a word. Pick anything you like and it'll work just as well. Examples: David Eddings's Belgariad.

Magic is a function of large numbers of people. In this model, words become magical by virtue of lots of people using them, or caring about them, or believing in them, or similar. So the language of magic is not an inherent property of the universe itself, but neither is it completely up to the caster to choose it: instead, it's determined by the population who gave rise to the magic, and you might find that different languages or wordings are needed in different localities with different supporting populations. Examples: Kate Griffin's series of Matthew Swift books, and the Artifice in Juliet E. McKenna's Einarinn books.

Magic spells are originated by specific people. In this model, every spell works by virtue of some originating mage in the past having created it somehow (presumably using some deeper order of underlying meta-magic), and arranged for it to work for all mages henceforth. So the language used for a given spell will be at the whim of the mage who originated that particular spell, just as the language used for a given computer program is at the whim of its author. I don't know of any definite examples of this model, but any system in which spells are named after people (e.g. D&D's ‘Bigby's Crushing Hand’) strongly suggests it. Also, in my head this really ought to be how the Harry Potter universe works, because it would so neatly explain why all the spells are in bad Latin – clearly they were originated by past wizards who had paid about as much attention to their Latin lessons as their modern counterparts pay to other Muggle subjects :-)

The author never bothered to work it out, or wanted to keep the magic mysterious. Of course there has to be one Doylist explanation in this list, to go alongside all the Watsonian ones. Sometimes the nature of magic and its relationship to language just didn't strike the author as an important aspect of the story, or they felt it would have specifically gone against what they were trying to achieve with having magic rather than technology in their universe in the first place. Examples: Lord of the Rings (‘naur an edraith ammen!’), and surely many universes in which magicians are simply described as ‘incanting a spell’ or similar, without it ever being mentioned what words are being used.

So, what have I missed?

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[identity profile] atreic.livejournal.comMon 2015-08-10 12:17

This post reminds me of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, particularly the start of chapter 6 and the bit in chapter 25 :-)

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[personal profile] simontMon 2015-08-10 12:34

It's hard to be sure, but I think this entire pondering might well have originated in my head (some years ago) from HP's bad Latin; one of the first questions, if not the first, that made me start thinking in this direction was wondering whether I could possibly justify the bad Latin by an in-universe explanation rather than 'Rowling got it wrong'.

(On which subject I also have to give a shout out to ho for hoggwarts!, for its perfect fusion of the HP spell schema with Molesworth. "But surely sir lumos hav a greek nom. ending whereas the root come from lat. lumen luminis a lite as any fule kno?")

I see that chapter 25 suggests some counterarguments, but then, its version of the concept is more mechanistic than mine was anyway...

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[identity profile] cartesiandaemon.livejournal.comMon 2015-08-10 13:09

Yeah, I was thinking of HPMOR. After some frantic re-googling, there's some more detail on language specifically in

Specifically, Harry finds some spells which are easy to cast but Hermione doesn't already know (from a joke book), and describes them to her. If he gives her the instructions, but she doesn't know at all what the spell is for, it doesn't work. If he gives her the wrong instructions, nothing happens at all. If he gives her the instructions very slightly distorted, she gets a spell which partly works. If he gives her the instructions correctly, and an inaccurate description of what it does, it works perfectly the way it's supposed to.

What I think is interesting, is that that description is pretty close to how it works in the books. (I don't think the books stick to it perfectly.) But I doubt JKR thought it through like that: that's just how you'd EXPECT magic to work. Enough to predict the outcome, even if it depends on woolly concepts like what someone "expects" to happen. But not enough to formulate a law of physics about it.

(continued in response to main post)

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[identity profile] naath.livejournal.comMon 2015-08-10 12:18

In Seanan McGuire's October Daye books it is explicitly stated that it is the intent rather than the words that matter; doesn't seem to be the case that the words have to mean the thing you intend although the same people seem to use the same words for the same things a lot.

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[identity profile] cartesiandaemon.livejournal.comMon 2015-08-10 13:15

I can't easily think of more, though I can think of some variants or combinations of two options.

One common idea is that there WAS a language of magic, and various ancient languages are a corruption of it. Hence, many spells being in latin.

Another, which I've not heard spelled out, but is my interpretation of how it often works implicitly, is something like this. A spell is found by some unspecified sort of magical research, combining together various elements including a verbal incantation. In principle, a similar effect could be achieved in a completely different way. But the way found by research and trial and error, experimented with various verbal components, and tried faux-latin ones first, because we have some vague generalisations about which words might be useful from their use in other spells, and moved on to other languages, meaningless sounds, etc later, all the time experimenting with other components. That explains why most spells are faux-latin, but some are something else. If we had a completely different language, we would have discovered different combinations of ingredients to make different spells.

Although that's kind of an excuse, enough to justify the world-building, but without any real predictive power.

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[personal profile] simontMon 2015-08-10 13:21

there WAS a language of magic, and various ancient languages are a corruption of it

This would be particularly amusing in the Potterverse for the implication that the bad Latin grammar in the spell incantations is actually right, and the thing we think of as 'correct Latin' is the wrong, corrupted, half-arsed version!

(And, just as when I half-remember a tune my brain will make up a plausible version of the missing parts that then turns out not to match the original, the Romans constructed a basically consistent grammar around their corrupted bits and pieces of spell-speech, it just wasn't the same as the one they were trying to recall.)

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[identity profile] cartesiandaemon.livejournal.comMon 2015-08-10 13:29

Following on from my other two comments, I don't think it's completely arbitrary, I think the way it works often follows some vague guidelines people have absorbed subconsciously. That is, I think most of the time, books succeed in subtly conveying what is possible and what isn't (and which things, if the protagonist poked at, would reveal the holes in the worldbuilding).

And I always LIKE trying to come up with consistent underlying rules for the worldbuilding. But I think trying to justify the magic usually doesn't actually help. Like, for the story to work, you need to know what things are easy, what things are possible with a lot of diligent research or luck, which things are sufficiently touch-and-go it's reasonable for two mages to struggle rather than one just winning automatically, etc. And you need to know in a bit more detail than is actually explained in the book to keep things consistent.

But I think that usually, trying to build up all that from first principles, rather than "one step removed from what's in the book", doesn't usually help. I'd love it if it did. I love books where someone takes a small number of physical differences and extrapolates society, etc from it. But I think it usually doesn't work. It'd be like saying explaining electrons and expecting someone to extrapolate all of consumer electronics. They might guess which sorts of things might be possible, but will never easily guess the specifics of "all books from the last 10 years are on google, before that it's hit and miss" or whatever. That takes more worldbuilding, which wouldn't be much worse if instead of electrons it was just "magic".

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[identity profile] cartesiandaemon.livejournal.comMon 2015-08-10 13:40

Oops, this is spilling into _another_ comment. But taking my description of how it appears to work in HPMOR, that's... not completely inconsistent with how some tech works.

Like, instead of a spell, imagine it was something like "a set of instructions for running a particular command on a computer". What features are there in common?

* You have to get all the details of spelling right or it doesn't work.
* If some SMALL details are wrong, it may sort-of work, work, or not work.
* If you don't know what it does AT ALL, you usually won't be able to use it at all. If you don't know whether it's "run at the command line" or "run a particular GUI program" or "something at the bios start-up screen" etc etc, you probably won't be able to follow the instructions. But if you have the idea it's a command line to run, you'll probably be able to muddle through even if you don't understand it.
* Someone who understands it very well, will be able to tweak things by making small changes.
* Someone who understands it very very very well will be able to improvise and combine spells on the fly. Someone who doesn't will probably need to treat them all as black boxes.

To a lesser extent, the same applies to physical concepts -- eg. instead of "a set of instructions for running a command line" you have "a set of instructions for building a smelting plant/a transistor/a bicycle".

But the difference is, you can break down those parts and see some of the intermediate process. Whereas in magic it's all a black box, even though it's hinted greater wizards see underlying order.

And it probably HAS to be a black box, else the seams show and people ask "why can't you do X"

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[identity profile] steer.livejournal.comMon 2015-08-10 23:35

You may also enjoy "Master of the Five Magics" by Lyndon Hardy.

Fantasy written by a physical scientist -- the universe envisaged has five different types of magic spanning many of the types you specify. Some of them are like slightly different forms of science we know (e.g. they have Alchemy which is like alchemy but works and sort of like chemistry, they have thaumatergy which is sort of like physics) and they have others that involve supernatural powers but are still bound by laws and principles.

It's not great writing but it is the best attempt I know to create a set of laws for magic that have rationale and consistency.

There's (trying to avoid spoilers) a sixth magic that isn't any of yours but is pretty much what you'd come up with once you'd enumerated yours. There's a sequel "Secret of the sixth magic" that goes into more detail. I think there's a third in the trilogy but I never read it.

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[identity profile] xraycb.livejournal.comTue 2015-08-11 01:24

Another interpretation of the "bad Latin" effect might be that spells are a bit like cooking. The exact quantities of the ingredients are not too important as long as there's some sort of balance, and you can leave out some ingredients entirely, but others are important.

So the creator of a spell starts with a complex 'recipe' for a spell with a long phrase of magic words and a complex wand-waving motion. Then the work of spell-creation is to reduce this into something memorable and usable by first year students. The outcome wouldn't have to be unique, just balanced, and will therefore be influenced by the style and preferences of the creator. Since early spells might have actually been named in real Latin, that style could have been retained to match the expectations of the wider wizarding world, where people thought that spells should sound that way. Perhaps the same spell might be invented several times, and it's only the most fashionable name which becomes common and taught to students.

This now gives me the silly idea that maybe in the Harry Potter universe, there could be a trend for Hipster-Wizards who recreate spells from scratch using different or 'ironic' magic words - who wants a wand-flick with the words "Wingardium Leviosa" if you can hold your wand between your Fedora and your beard and say "Cornflakes" instead?

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[identity profile] hairyears.livejournal.comTue 2015-08-11 06:58

Another alternative: the Nam-Shub of Enki, in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash.

Here, the conceptual basis of a 'spell' is that the Sumerians were aware of a foundational language (an Ur-language, if you will) or an 'Assembly Code' layer of cognition which can be compiled or scripted from repetitive phrases and recursive narratives uttered (or heard) in the correct tones and rhythm.

A properly constructed Nam-Shub programs the individual: their loyalty, or motivation, or their actions in surprisingly complex directions for agricultural labour. It is binding on the subject - or subjects, a labour gang or an entire village - and it may be permanent; or it may require reinforcement in a daily chant led by the village priest.

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[personal profile] simontTue 2015-08-11 14:09

Mmmm. That one did spring to my mind while I was making notes towards this post, but I discarded it for not quite being magical in the sense of supernatural. If I'd left it in, I probably would have considered it to be an honorary member of the 'one true Language Of Magic' category; that's where I had it listed in my notes.

But now you point it out, I suppose it does count as different, because the Language Of Magic in this case is not a property of the universe as a whole, but rather it's a property of the people at whom you're aiming the spell. If the human race of Snow Crash made contact with aliens, then the question would doubtless arise of whether the aliens had a similar cognitive substructure with an analogous back door; and if they did, then (barring some exceptionally implausible cosmic coincidence) there'd be a different language of magic depending on who you were aiming the magic at – which puts it outside all my categories in which the LoM is universal, or varies with the caster, or with the location. This one would vary with the victim!

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[identity profile] hairyears.livejournal.comTue 2015-08-11 19:39

Yes, I think your argumenrt stands up: there won't be a common 'programming language'...

...Unless 'cognition' is a very special, well-defined, unique algorithm. I consider that unlikely, but I could explore some ideas around it:among them, a fairly high probability that there's a universal 'stop' or 'factory reset' command.

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[personal profile] sraunTue 2015-08-11 13:55

In Patricia Wrede's Mairelon books, the important thing was to NOT use your native tongue. There was something about all the nuances of your native tongue that made spells give responses that were inconsistent. Which produced the amusing side-effect of magicians coming from foreign lands to learn English to do their spell-casting.

IIRC, modern theories regarding learning language have it that there is one center in your brain for your native tongue, and one for all the other languages you have learned. This could tie that together nicely.

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[personal profile] simontTue 2015-08-11 14:10

I've not encountered those books, but that sounds quite fun :-)

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