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A lot of fantasy novels use words to control magic. There's no real reason for this that I can see, other than the author's desire to show off the cool new language they've created. That works.

Words do not work so well if the author (like me) is attempting to make his magic firmly based in science. Once we start explaining how magic works and why it works, using mystical words to control it seems underdeveloped and cliched. Which it is.

Is there any way in science that a spoken word could control magic?

Description of the magic: I realize most of you will want to know the nature of my magic in order to answer the question. Please keep in mind, though, that the more generic your answer, the more likely it is to help someone else.

I do not want to fully explain my magic here, where the idea can be seen and copied by anyone. For the purposes of this question, think of magic as an altered type of energy. Wherever you find energy, you'll also find magic. The two can be separated from each other for a short period of time. During that time, the wielder can shape the magic using words (this is the area I need help in) and then allow it to mingle with the energy of another object. This mingling changes the targeted object to fit the magic.

I realize the description is rather vague, so if you absolutely require more, let me know.

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closed as too broad by Aify, user5083, Serban Tanasa, Frostfyre, ArtOfCode Jun 5 '15 at 17:19

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a hard question to give a 'definitive' answer...all 'how does magic work' questions are. Simply because Magic is not a real thing, and so it operates according to whatever rules you want. If you want singing 'Hello My Baby' while wearing a top hat and dancing like Michigan J. Frog to cause an explosion...well, it's magic. It does what you write it to do. The best we could do is idea-generation. Which is not really the point of the stackexchange sites. $\endgroup$ – guildsbounty Jun 5 '15 at 16:00
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    $\begingroup$ The definition of magic is "the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces". The moment you put too much of a scientific explanation to why it works, it stops being magic - it's just advanced technology. However, I point you to the Inheritance cycle. The words in that series merely help the caster to focus his energy instead of directly controlling the magic. $\endgroup$ – Aify Jun 5 '15 at 16:01
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    $\begingroup$ @ArtOfCode Ideas cannot be owned, exempting patents. Only direct usage of material is licensed, such as reproduction of the question or answer. That still doesn't make OP's concern reasonable, though; I am betting there are already several examples of whatever it is in scifi. $\endgroup$ – user5083 Jun 5 '15 at 17:56
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    $\begingroup$ @ArtOfCode: How is the answer "yes" ? Tommy Myron specifically said that he did not want "the idea" to be "seen and copied by anyone". A magic system is an idea, and as such not copyrightable. $\endgroup$ – sumelic Jun 5 '15 at 18:48
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    $\begingroup$ @ArtOfCode: the explanation (the specific wording, and "derivative works" like translations of it) becomes licensed. The magic system, as an idea, cannot be licensed, which is what William Kappler is saying. $\endgroup$ – sumelic Jun 5 '15 at 19:20
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It's pretty preposterous that a sound alone could summon forth magical energies, especially when you start to think about what would happen if you recorded an incantation and then played it back. Or, even in a more low-tech example, if a parrot learns a few spells, can they turn the bars of their cage to rubber and their owners into statues of sunflower seeds?

The answer to this, unfortunately, is no. This wouldn't really work in very many stories. What this means, then, is that there's something about humans that makes magic work. Where this gets interesting, though, is that one of the many things that makes humans superior to beasts of the air or radios is the well-developed speech centers of our brain (like Broca's area). There's a lot going on in our heads solely devoted to figuring out what people are saying, and then figuring out what to say in response (to realize how hard this is to do, just try holding a conversation with Siri, or a dog). As a result of many generations of evolution, we're now the best species in the world at talking, and expressing complex ideas, using the world's most highly developed brains.

Thus, it's pretty simple to say that whatever lets us do magic sits right amid those speech centers of our brains. There are some really interesting brain injuries where people become unable to speak(look into Broca's aphasias); a sort of reversal of this could explain why most people can't use magic. As for how speaking the words actually leads to the effects, think of it like learning to move; syllables and phonemes are like nerves, flexing and extending magical muscles. With practice, eventually you can learn what words lead to the right magical movements to produce useful results; once you know the words, though, you can teach them to others. Plus, continuous use of your magical speech skills should lead to a better understanding of how things fit together, and you should be able to formulate more complex magical sentences to produce even larger and more nuanced spells.

The point here is that it's not the words that have the power, it's your brain (or, by extension, your soul, if your world has souls). Words are more like an involuntary reflex, like how some fingers can't be moved on their own without moving the other fingers with them, or how British people insert 'r' sounds between some words. With practice, spellcasters should be able to fire the right neurons in their speech/magic centers without actually pronouncing the words, but again that would come with practice.

As for what this language would sound like, its structure/syntax/etc., that really depends on how the magic works. This is really just more of an interface; just like how our brain interacts with our bodies through the cerebellum, it can interact with magic through the Broca's area.

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    $\begingroup$ This answer gave me the inspiration I needed. I ultimately ended up utilizing neuron firing patterns. The combination of accessing the magical language, focusing on the desired effect, and actually speaking the words, all serve to activate the magic. From there, it was merely a matter of adding in the already-present rules. Thank you. $\endgroup$ – Thomas Myron Jun 5 '15 at 18:42
  • $\begingroup$ @TommyMyron Glad to help. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Jun 5 '15 at 18:46
  • $\begingroup$ I must say it bothers me somewhat to see a great deal of Vedic ritual and mantra practice dismissed offhandedly as "preposterous." They do claim precisely this, that sound as such, and specifically the sound of Sanskrit words and chants, have extraordinary power. There are related notions within Kabbalistic speculation. $\endgroup$ – CAgrippa Jun 10 '15 at 14:12
  • $\begingroup$ @CAgrippa I gave some examples as to why it didn't make sense. I suppose it could work, but then you'd have to deal with magical parrots and tape recorders.To me, though, that seems like a slippery slope, and most magical scenarios are already full of suspension of disbelief. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Jun 13 '15 at 15:57
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Terry Pratchett's idea, from The Science of Discworld II: The Globe, is that magic words come from children. They learn that they can get what they want by saying so. If they say "I want milk," milk will appear (brought by the parents). They're even taught the magic words that make it all work more reliably.

The concept of magic words is then carried in to fantasy where saying the right words can continue to get you what you want. Perhaps this could be for the same reasons, namely that you're asking the universe/fairies/spirits to do something for you. Of course, you need to speak their language and phrase the request correctly. (If it's a proper language, that would explain both why repeating the same words will get close to the same result as well as why saying slightly different words can also get close to the same result.)

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  • $\begingroup$ I agree. Words can have power if the world itself responds to them. Whatever magic force is behind the scenes hears the request, and grants it provided the wielder has the will/stamina/whatever drives magical ability. If you wanted science behind it, say the caster needs correct pitch as well, and the certain wavelength activates/awakens whatever primal force controls magic in your world. This might explain why D&D bards are good at magic ;) $\endgroup$ – Shollus Jun 5 '15 at 17:06
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Words as a mental focus.

There's nothing magical about the words themselves. Instead, they're being used as a mnemonic device, to help the mage/wizard remember the proper mental focus. So words aren't strictly necessary, but they help you recall the correct mental steps to cast a spell.

Note that in this setup, Mage Alice and Mage Bob could use different words for the same spell - it all depends on how they were trained.

You will generally cast spells using a dead/created language because you don't want to accidentally fireball your aunt when you say the wrong thing at thanksgiving.

An extension of this, depending on your magic setup, could be that magic in general has some sort of global memory. So the first time anyone says "Abracadabra" to pull a rabbit out of the hat, it's very hard. But the next time they say it it's easier, and the next time after that even easier again. And now when you say Abracadabra, you activate that same groove that's been worn into magic by thousands of mages before you, and it creates the proper mental focus in your mind for you. This makes it very easy to cast spells using words that others have created and casted.

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  • $\begingroup$ Isn't this the exact solution i suggest via my first comment? The Inheritance cycle does exactly what you described... lol $\endgroup$ – Aify Jun 5 '15 at 16:20
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Magic is alive. It is a playful presence which frolics around in our simple little world, ignoring the rules and doing what it will. It is blind and mute and therefore mostly unaware that we, corporial beings are here, but can hear our voices and our dreams... and it likes the sound of some of our words.

The being I am discussing is a non-corporial puppy-like mentality, which from our point of view, is omnipresent, existing in all points of our reality simultaneously. It can effect our universe in corporial ways, manifesting either kinetic energy or physical substance, in any scale of size or complexity. It is effectively a god, but a very lazy one; rarely interacting with "the real world" in any replicatable way. Science cannot see it, because it has total control over its interactions with every form of perceivable energy or measurable characteristic; and it thinks that its fun to hide from stuffy scientists. It does however love music and it considers some of the most beautiful music to be the meaningless utterances of human vocal cords. It longs to hear more of that music and like any good puppy, it has come up with a series of tricks which it performs whenever someone sings its favorite songs.

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  • $\begingroup$ While a nice image, I'm not sure this really answers the question... $\endgroup$ – ArtOfCode Jun 5 '15 at 17:24
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    $\begingroup$ Why not? It's really just a rewording of Joshua Taylor's answer (which he posted a minute later). He gives the playful presence a bunch of names such as "universe", "fairies" and "sprits", while I leave mine unnamed; but the idea is the same. The OP is looking for scientific magic. If an entity exists which science can only preceive by its non-causal effects on reality, we would call it "an unknown influence", but only because calling it "a fairy" would cost us tenure. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Jun 5 '15 at 17:37
  • $\begingroup$ As I'm seeing it, the question is asking for a scientific explanation of why words might control magic. "Unknown fairies" who "like some of our words" isn't really scientific. $\endgroup$ – ArtOfCode Jun 5 '15 at 17:39
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    $\begingroup$ Ok. I will add some science to my sophistry. ...but it will only make it uglier, not more true. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Jun 5 '15 at 17:44
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    $\begingroup$ @ArtOfCode: explaining the actions of a thinking entity by likes and dislikes is not unscientific. It is compatible with science. This is the best that can be hoped for in an explanation of this sort; there is no way to actually explain magic through real science, because we don't know how to do magic. $\endgroup$ – sumelic Jun 5 '15 at 18:51
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It's not scientific, but you could correlate your magic to a biblical reference, namely Genesis 1:3. Apparently the method by which the divine created what we think of as reality, involved the speaking of particular words which somehow caused the manifestation of everything.

Science-Fiction-asizing that verse, you might imagine that nearly omnipotent pan-dimensional beings have constructed a reality toolkit by which new dimensions can be created, and that that toolkit is voice controlled. If this toolkit was accidentally left behind by the universe-architect who caused our big bang, then the utterance of key phrases in that architect's native tongue could activate some of the individual tools.

How the tools operate is based on a set of physical laws which are outside and bigger than our universe and would thus be non-causal and scientifically unexplainable... a.k.a. magic.

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