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Note: this is an in-universe explanation, not media in general.

Media in general tends to have magic written in archaic, usually dead, languages. In my world, magic is best described as fickle; most known spells are "iffy" with many having unintended consequences. For example, a spell to cure a lame limb might also turn it ghostly pale or a spell to cure one's cow might cause it to also grow another tail.

The spells themselves are written on tablets, scrolls, etc., passed down from generation to generation within the 'Mage Families'- people who bought spells in the market, happened upon an ancient library or wizard's tower, or accumulated them over the years.

While new copies of spells can be made, only a few select spells are seen as worth copying due to them having been used enough times to have a clear outcome and side effects. However, the spells can only work if they are transcribed exactly as written, which means writing in the ancient "Magic Languages".

What would be a good in-universe justification for the "Magic Languages" to be a series of dead languages while contemporary languages are unable to have any ability to make spells work?

Note: by dead language I mean no one speaks it as their native language, and the Mages themselves have a very minimal understanding of it.

In this world dreaming is a very important part of the Theology so tying in dreaming would be nice, but isn't necessary.

Brand new spells are very, very, very hard to create with only a few being made every hundred years or so. However, finding new spells is rather common.

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    $\begingroup$ How are spells triggered? Do you have to read the words aloud, or is writing them down enough to trigger the spell automatically? $\endgroup$ – F1Krazy Jul 1 at 23:02
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    $\begingroup$ Your mention that brand new spells are hard to create makes me wonder if that would be an acceptable answer in itself? Back when most spells were created, English didn't exist and no one in present time knows the fundamentals well enough to create a spell in English. $\endgroup$ – JollyJoker Jul 2 at 7:17
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    $\begingroup$ @JollyJoker true that could be an answer. I mainly put that in to prevent answers like "just write them in english", but also as balancing in my world. $\endgroup$ – Celestial Dragon Emperor Jul 2 at 11:55
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    $\begingroup$ Wouldn't the fact that the language inacts magic would make it dead promptly? If you can't write a loveletter, bill or diary in a language without casting dozens of spells with effects and side effects, you won't be writing in that language anymore. You also don't want to speak that language since dreams are important in your world and if you dream in that language, that might cast powerfull and potentially draining spells that can kill you or destroy everything around you. Possible plot tool: a powerful wizard that is able to willingly uses dream magic by lucid dreaming. $\endgroup$ – hajef Jul 2 at 15:52
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps it's the other way round: The language is dead because it can be used for spells - and there is that one strange looping spell that kills all active speakers of the langugae it is written in ... $\endgroup$ – Hagen von Eitzen Jul 2 at 21:57

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Let me ask you this: why would magic be tied to a particular language? Think about it, when you compare different languages like English and French, they have unique sounds, symbols, ligatures, etc... why would magic care?

To answer this, I first recommend researching phones and phonemes. When it comes to all the different sounds and combinations of sounds, no language is comprehensive. This is where a dead language comes in. The dead language could in fact be a comprehensive language! It would be so complicated, that for general usage (i.e., conversation) it is impractical and fell out of favor for simpler languages. It would also explain why spells are "finicky." Anyone raised under a modern language will have difficulty learning all the different possible sound combinations, and have difficulty incorporating a broad enough set to create new spells.

  • Note: I am not an expert on linguistics, so my terminology leaves a lot to be desired.
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  • $\begingroup$ No natural language ever "fell out of use" for being too complex. It has to do with politics, colonization, and death of the users (in the case of languages unique to small isolated communities). Also no language uses all possible phonemes. Part of language learning is "pruning" such things (neonates respond to close phonemes as different but older children and adults do not). Language just doesn't work like you are positing. $\endgroup$ – Cyn says make Monica whole Jul 4 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post. - From Review $\endgroup$ – EDL Jul 4 at 16:23
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH, I disagree because your answer makes specific declarative statements. This answer uses interrogatives to suggests ideas. it could easily be reworded and make specific statements that address the question. $\endgroup$ – EDL Jul 4 at 18:13
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH, I always try to help and encourage new users. Suggesting I am being capricious or flippant is counterproductive. And, I am certainly not 'slapping' anyone. I exercised my judgment when asked for an opinion on a poor quality post. If your concern is that I used a stock answer that you regard as unhelpful, then take the topic meta and have the stock answers revised. $\endgroup$ – EDL Jul 4 at 20:31
  • $\begingroup$ @EDL I didn't say "slap" and didn't imply it. I did disagree with the stock answer because it did not help the respondent in this case. I did not suggest you were being capricious, but did suggest that you take greater care with new users. Officially, this chain of comments now has little value. I've deleted my previous comments and will delete this one shortly. Hopefully you will too. $\endgroup$ – JBH Jul 4 at 21:08
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Phrase structure is different

Someone can make links between spells and the objects they affect (if all spells involving cows have the word "frakx" in them, "frakx" is probably the word for cow), but even once you find the meaning of every word it's not as simple as switching them to the English equivalent.

For example, in French the adjective follows the noun. If I wanted to say "The green apple" in French, I would say

La pomme verte

which, keeping the same sentence structure, would translate to English as

The apple green

which is grammatically incorrect in English.

Suppose something similar for your spells: the spell needs to have a certain structure/order of nouns, adjectives, verbs adverbs etc and it would be incoherent to pronounce them in that order in English.

Another aspect worth mentioning from the above example is the article

La

placed in front of the word pomme (apple). The use of "La" instead of "Le" indicates that the word pomme is a feminine noun, a concept which is not present in English ("The" does not have a gender associated with it, neither deos "apple") - making the phrase impossible to translate without losing some meaning.

Option 2:

No one knows how to translate the spells into modern languages.

After all, they are written in a dead language. Maybe there's nothing specifically stopping the spells from being cast in, say, English, but no one knows which words to say.

People just found old tablets, guessed the pronunciation and observed the effects, this can also be the cause of the iffiness.

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It is the process of dying that makes languages magical

When we as people die, so many of our secrets simply cease to exist. All that knowledge and information disappears, and much of it can never be recovered.

When a language dies, when it truly dies, the same thing happens. The meanings of the words are gone from the world. Sure, we may be able to scrounge up enough ancient Egyptian texts and use the Rosetta stone to figure out what various blocks of text are trying to communicate, but because no one can be a native speaker/reader, no one really fully grasps the full meanings, and all the cultural weight and context behind them, the way an ancient Egyptian would.

When a language dies, and all that meaning disappears from the world, it needs to go somewhere. And when a language ceases to mean anything to speakers, it starts to mean something to the universe.

When magicians cast spells, they don't entirely grasp the meaning of what they say. They may figure out "hey, chanting this makes a fireball, and chanting that makes a fire go out, so this word probably means fire," but they don't know if it's a general word for fire, a word for a specific kind of fire, or if it means something entirely different that is somehow related to both fireballs and fire extinguishing. They are able to infer approximate meanings of words in order to invent/discover new spells, but they are never certain that their definitions are correct, and those definitions never come with an understanding of the connotations behind each word.

Particularly skilled magicians may be able to create their own private languages, but those don't become magical until their inventors die, which makes it mostly a moot point.

This becomes problematic if through some mechanism native speakers of the language are re-introduced to the world, whether through raising the dead or time travel. But the problems that arise from that might make for some even cooler aspects of your world.

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I suppose because if they were written in languages that everyone understands, then it would be too easy for everyone to cast them. Besides, the spells are ancient, so their languages must be ancient as well as native to their original cultures.

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No one knows

All the other answers here are speculation, inserted as overheard debate between sages, read by the protagonist in books, written as extra flavor text between each chapter etc.

As the language of spells is unlike any spoken by humans, the question arises what manner of beings originally spoke such a language, and whether powers without limit are hidden in words unpronounceable by man

  • Musings of Court Sage Alisandrius, in the Year of Unintentional Fireworks
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    $\begingroup$ dragons, duh. Joking besides I currently have dragons as the guardian's between the waking and dreaming world. Maybe they had a hand/claw in the magic language. $\endgroup$ – Celestial Dragon Emperor Jul 2 at 14:52
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You could do something like the Thu'um in Skyrim, according to https://elderscrolls.fandom.com/wiki/Thu%27um the Thu'um or the Voice is a form of magic that some people possess which utilizes the dragon language to form dragon shouts. It can be taught to anyone, but it takes time to master and the knowledge can be passed from one to another.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site F Negri. As EDL states, links get broken over time, we intend this site to last for decades, maybe centuries. - Links don't. Please write answers that are complete in themselves, adding links is great as as a supplement , but a complete answer is necessary to pass muster here. Please take the tour and read up in our help center about how we work: How to Answer. $\endgroup$ – We are Monica. Jul 4 at 0:33
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Magic words gain their power by becoming "dead" words.

Magic is fueled by the psychic energy of people. When people make "damn it" taboo and replace it with "darn it", then "damn" gains magical power through the psychic energy it triggers when spoken.

The words don't have to be taboo, however. For example, "grog" gains magical power as well, because its disuse means that it evokes deep feelings when invoked, triggering the same psychic energy.

A dead language is thus an entire language of words with magical power, and thus the optimal way to craft spells, which are more complex concepts built out of magical words.

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Because the languages are dead when their native speakers are, well, dead, or they stop speaking their language.

What can make people stop speaking their language? Imagine asking your neighbor if he happen to know where your pigeons flew away ( a vada [go away] ka [where] davra [pl. davr - pigeon] accidentally kills him and makes you murder being executed afterwards. It's quite discouraging to continue chit-chatting with anyone. And the people continuing anyway will sooner or later win Darwin awards.

In that way languages accidentally containing dangerous words will die and be replaces by safer variants. In the same time the dangerous words would be noticed, written down and taught to magic scholars, more interested in powerful magic than linguistic, building impression that the unfortunate languages are built exclusively out of deadly spells.

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Look around at various languages--translation isn't perfect. Why? Because different languages have different word concepts, a one-to-one translation might not exist. (Look for patterns where speakers of a certain language tend to select the incorrect English word--those are almost always because they have one word where we have two {or more}.)

The magic languages have the nuances needed for spellcasting, other languages do not. When you try to translate a spell you lose nuances of meaning and thus the spell fails or does something other than what you wanted. This is also why creating a new spell is extremely hard--if you're not truly fluent in the magical language you're trying to translate and will have the same problem with nuances.

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I find it likely that you would enjoy Ursula K Le Guin's concept of magic in the "A Wizard of Earthsea" trilogy (the first and third volume contain most of the theory as it is explained to apprentices).

Basically, the "Old Language" in which spells are done is the language of creation, the language the great song bringing the world into being has been sung in by the God creating it and thus intertwined with the reality of every being's existence. One cannot lie in this language, but it is the native language of dragons (who consequently only find wizards worth talking to) and while they don't technically lie either, their mastery of the language is such that they can deceive humans by catching them in a maze of mirror words (something like that was how her protagonist expressed it) leading nowhere. Dragons don't do magic as much as they are magic.

Ao at any rate, her language/magic concept pretty much corresponds to how you see yours working out, with a garnishment of dragons on top.

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It's not the language, but the shape of the letters. the ancients discovered these magical symbols and gave them meaning to use as words and to make memorizing spells easier because its much easier to remember that the spell for "rain" is made by using "cloud" "water" and "break". But then why can't you just transcribe it into your language? because as I mentioned, the symbols are the magical ones, you have to envision them as you "cast" the spell. A good reference language could be Japanese or Chinese (each kanji is made out of several radicals etc..)

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Magic doesn't need a dead language, but you definitely can't use words from a language you know, and dead languages are the best source for "meaningless" words.

When you cast a spell, you're using spoken words to focus and release the energy associated with a mental pattern that channels the effect. While spellcasting is theoretically possible without language, human thought is heavily tied to language; without a spoken word (or words) to tie an effect to, it's too hard to keep the necessary mental focus. In order to master a spell, you always tie it to a spoken word (or words) that helps differentiate the effect from all the others you know.

But you definitely don't want to use a language you know to do this. If you know what the words in your spell mean, then they have meaning independent of the magical effect for you; you'll unconsciously apply word connotations, context and associations in ways that disrupt the precise mental pattern the spell requires. When that happens, the spell could fail, or worse, change its target, power level, or effect (e.g. using the word "fire" might make you think of the "fire" of the diamond in your wife's ring, and now you're fireballing your wife, not the enemy troops).

So as a matter of convenience, people tend to pick words from dead languages; the words may be direct translations of words in their native languages, but they don't have meaning to the caster beyond their use in magic, so the interference doesn't arise. You could equally well use modern languages you don't know (though if you hang out with people who speak the language, you might ruin your spellcasting by accidentally learning bits of it) or use entirely invented words, but it's hard to invent your own magical language from scratch (and inventing it yourself makes it too easy to make fake words that are too similar to the real words you're trying to avoid, with the same pitfalls).

Note: I didn't invent this idea. As Andrey confirmed in the comments this is the rationale behind the use of dead languages for spellcasting in the world of The Dresden Files.

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    $\begingroup$ Yes Dresden Files is the source of this. It was also the first thing I thought of when I read the question $\endgroup$ – Andrey Jul 3 at 14:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Andrey: Thanks for the confirmation! $\endgroup$ – ShadowRanger Jul 3 at 14:16
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A visual component is needed

I feel like a lot of answers a missing an important point. If it was only about the right pronounciation, I could write it anyway I want, as long as it was clear how the letters are to be pronounced. I could transcribe it in my mother tongue, and thus making it readable for more people. I am unable to read Cyrillic, yet, if properly transcribed I can manage to speak it, although I still have no idea, what I am saying.

Thus, it is not enough to only say the magic words, you also need to have a visual image of the ancient writings in your mind (or must even read it). This allows your body to channel the required Qi, Mana, Astral Energy, ... to cast the spell.

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  • $\begingroup$ This also reminds me of certain Japanese meditation rituals I read about which require you to "write kanji" in the air with your fingers. $\endgroup$ – Muuski Jul 3 at 21:10
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The demons and archons must be called by their names/titles or they won't manipulate reality for you.

You haven't specified if your mages manipulate reality on their own or if they ask for Things to do that for them. If there is a Celestial Bureaucracy responsible for controlling the reality then the mage do magic by dealing with these spirits. To create fresh water in the desert X he needs to deal with the spirit of water of the desert X, not of the desert Y nor of the high seas. Precision matters. Context matters.

The names and titles of the spirits were discovered by both trial and error and the spirit itself giving the information, both methods quite dangerous. Due to this danger mages would rather use tried-and-true names and titles in their correct context. Given enough time the language in which the mages of old did the hard working of mapping became a dead language. It is possible, in theory, to do the same hard work they did in the past and map spirits' titles and names to modern language but it is dangerous, hard work and the mages that could do would rather not, as they see no worth in the task.

For example, using real-world languages. To deal with the spirits that the ancient chinese shamans dealt with you have to write your petitions in Bone Oracle Script, not in simplified chinese, nor in traditional, because the chance of error, if you try to adapt their names to modern chinese, would increase. So, masters would teach their disciples to use Bone Oracle Scripts, even if there are words that almost one-to-one equivalence. The situation would be even worse if your masters derive from a dead civilization with no direct continuation, like old Egypt. At least BOS has many characters that have direct successors in modern chinese. The same can't be said of the egyptian hieroglyphs.

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All words are magical. Eventually. The more a word is used, the more the link between those sounds and their meaning is engraved into the universe by the thoughts of those using them. I would teem this “psychic erosion”.

This, however, takes centuries - it works more like erosion than by carving. The more magical words become, though, the more worrying it is to use them (per lots of the other answers here), and speakers will drift away from using them them. This means most old languages have a bit of magic in them - enough that cursing someone to death might make them have bad luck for seven days, but for real magic you need to go back to the same languages that wizards have been using for eons, which have steadily carved deeper gashes in the psychic landscape over the course of millenia.

Note: this opens up a few other avenues that you could play with. Deific entities might have such a powerful psychic presence/pressure that merely speaking a word once and meaning for it to do something is enough to create a new word of power. People might have associated breaking mirrors with bad luck so much that that is almost like casting a spell. Saying “something really quite bad” in the ancient language R’lyehian (best transcribed “Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn”) enough might summon something really quite bad...

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You answered your question in your question.

People only use dead languages

because magic is hard.

Lots of answers before me have drawn parallels with programming. Programming is hard. People use old code they don't understand every day. That's why you see things like this (javascript):

/* Magic! */
({ [{}]: { [{}]: {} } }[{}][{}]); // -> {}

So people only use dead languages because spells have been carefully crafted through experimentation and the intuition of people long dead. How it works is not something someone alive since the language you speak today was born knows. And by this logic, magic should be in a wide swathe of different languages, especially since in older times languages weren't nearly as ubiquitous.

Alongside programming, compare magic to music. Every culture has it. Everyone experiments with it. Few are truly excellent at it. But its effects are not to be doubted.

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Magic works like D & D Clerics, where spells are written in the language of the god

In D & D / Pathfinder games, the Cleric characters are magic users who derive their power from devotion to a specific god. In your world, magic spells could be prayers to a god. One would want such a prayer to be the language that god understands. But these are prideful gods. A god shouldn't need to its servants' languages; the servants should learn the god's language. A servant who can't be bother to do so won't have any prayers answered.

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Throw out the semantics answer...

By definition, any language older than 10 generations is pretty much a dead language as it's nearly unrecognizable by current speakers. Language evolves relatively rapidly. Yes, it was called middle English 400 - 600 years ago (around 10 generations), but it'd barely be recognizable by todays speakers (especially if you go prior to the great vowel shift https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Vowel_Shift) any more than someone speaking ancient latin would be understandable now.

Silly enough, around 60% of English descends from Greek and Latin, there's a decent chance a Latin speaker would make more sense than a middle English speaker. For example...Foot. Latin uses Pedes, which is the root for pedestrian, pedicure, and a few other foot related terms. I'd recognize it's use to mean feet if I knew a latin speaker today. Old and Middle English...the word 'foot' actually meant 'person' and descended from Nordic 'Fot'. Fet would have been used for Foot. I cast a spell to encase a persons foot in cement so they could not flee (I want them alive after all), only to have the entire person encased in cement as the word foot means person in the magical language.

Pre-mass communications days (lets say pre-radio), regional dialects were also far more prolific and these dialects could so heavily vary that two people speaking the same language would hardly understand each other. Even today...you can find in Belgium, people that speak heavy Flemish dialects that although technically Dutch, no fluent modern Dutch speaker could understand them. Even todays English has some pretty varying dialects. My North American English can barely understand a good Cardiff English speaker. The language spoken by Brad Pitt in 'Snatch' is English too. A person today could cast a spell to animate a Barbie Doll, only to unintentionally animate the nations barbecues because the spell was in Aussie English.

So to your question...

Note: by dead language I mean no one speaks it as their native language

Language is not a constant and is in constant flux. Any spell dating back to a language more than 10 generations old pretty much guarantees it is no longer spoken by anyone today and therefore guarantees it now comes from a dead language. Just because middle English and modern English both contain the same word 'English' does not mean that the two could communicate, in fact "false friends" like "male" (which means bag in middle English) would make miscommunications much more likely.

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protected by Separatrix Jul 4 at 8:37

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