Thursday, October 6, 2011

Magic as an Old Language

I know the idea of language being magic is not new- heck, it goes back to the bible being the Word, and I'm sure beyond that.  And I'm sure some of you might give me examples of this very idea: magic being the use of a older, more primal language.  But I want to think a little about what the implications might be.

So, what if spells were just sentences in the right language?  The language of the long lost elders?  You would need to find examples of that lost language: inscriptions, scrolls, books.  Even second-hand citations might be valuable.

You might find a book written in that tongue and use it to reverse engineer things: nouns, verbs, sentence structure.  What you could do would be very limited and simple.  Saying the word for light would create light.

You might find a dictionary written in the old tongue.  Now it is more clear what the names of things are.  Perhaps with its help you can learn more verbs too.  You can affect more things now.  When you say flee, foes flee.  When you say "light flee" light sources are extinguished.

You might find a grammar book, or rhetoric.  Now you can learn the structure of the language to make more complicated utterances.  You can have multiple effects happen to multiple things.  You can include contingencies and qualifications.  "Take me to safety." Or maybe: "Make the tracks of he who wishes me harm visible to me."

With a magic system based on this concept, all spell effects would essentially require some research.  Well, unless that's what guilds are, the accumulated, simple knowledge.  But leveling would be based on treasure.  Because to learn how to do more complex things would require the finding of the books in the old tongue, the grammars, etc.  This might be a kind of individualized achievement based leveling for magic-users.

That all being said, the more I write about it the less different this seems than the way the game is set up now: spells being kinds of arcane "recipes," and guilds being centers of recipe knowledge, and magic-users hunting the wilderness for lost and rare recipes.  Hmm. . .


  1. Perhaps the best "real world" source for this would be Laycock's Enochian Dictionary, compiled from Dee and Kelley's communication with angels via scrying stones. It's a delightfully incomplete lexicon, full of suggestive holes, and not that easy to construct useful sentences out of.

    Recently I saw a discussion trying to find in-universe reasons why the spells in Harry Potter should be in bad Latin. It's an interesting question - is the "bad" Latin the proper powerful language - have all our mundane documents been rendered "safe" by being magically misspelled? Or do the magic-granting entities deliberately choose encrypted (misspelled) versions of words to prevent magical misfires? Or are they simply incapable of producing anything uncorrupted...

  2. Interesting concept. As I recall there are some other areas where magic is handled with "real words", such as in the David Drake Island books, or in some of Dan Abnett's 40k books, where those that seek power are trying to re-create the language of the universe.

    In that later case, controlling the language allows one to make changes to the universe (mostly as effects), and handling the words poorly caused damage to the speaker.

    And isn't assembling a new magic from various word bits what the magic in Loom was like?

  3. The Game 'Shadow of Yesterday' by Clinton R Nixon has a language calle 'Zu' in which every stated thing comes to be.

    If you know the word for 'fire' then you can create fire. The word for snakes creates snakes. Learn 'huge' and you can make huge snakes. You can only learn new words through play.

    Only one person can know each word at any one time so the race that originated it is in a state of permenant conflict with word-thieves and with itself. Radicals and conservatives fight to control the use of the language.

  4. I believe that's similar to the concept behind the magic in Earthsea.

  5. The more common version of this seen in mythology is the power of names. Name something and you have power over it. That part has a lot of mythic resonance to it (since it's more or less true).

    When you add in a whole language with verbs and conjunctions and so on, the implication is not so much that it's some lost language of the ancients, but the language of the gods themselves, since someone fluent in that language would be essentially omnipotent. That part doesn't usually get acknowledged in fiction (although it brings to mind the word placed in a golem's mouth. Also, "let there be light...").

  6. Ars Magica used a kind of dog-Latin to produce simple, verb-object magical sentences, but I don't think the Latin tags actually represented the words being spoken - more like a shorthand.

  7. Donjon by Clinton R. Nixon has a magic system where you spontaneously combine words out of the PC's magical vocabulary during play to create spells. The difficulty and effect of the spell is defined by the number o words used:

  8. As I was expecting, you all have provided awesome examples. Thanks.

    I think the hazy memory of I had was of Earthsea, Joseph.

  9. The ultima games did this too.