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Magic Language?

Hyzaleia

Dreamer
I'm wondering what makes more sense to use. Let's say somebody is a magician of sorts and uses a certain phrase to summon their power. Should it be based off the language I'm writing in, which is English, or should I make it up entirely? That might mean I have to actually flesh out a whole fantasy language though, which I don't want to do for this story. I know authors do a mix of both, or they sort of base it off another language like Latin (seems a popular choice for magic words).
But what makes most sense to YOU when you read a book? Would you prefer reading a phrase made up of English words? Or something gibberish? Or words inspired by another real language? If it's going to be used multiple times throughout the story, maybe with slight variations, which option do you personally find most realistic? I don't want to use something that literally pulls the reader out of the world/story/realism every time I use it.
Is there any of those above options that you dislike when reading a story?
 
If a wizard yells during battle, Burn to cinders! ... that doesn't have the same gravitas as this might: Llosgi i ludw!

Roughly, Welsh for something like "Burn to ash." I used Google Translate; sue me.

Could have been Adolebitque contritum quasi cinis!

...OR just about anything else.

I think our minds are tricked. The simple English is mundane. Therefore, a bit boring. But the unusual words, the foreign words...these are exotic. We don't really know them well—most of us—so...maybe there is more hidden in them than we know? Like, power, magic?

This is an old effect, really. Back in the day, Latin was used by the Catholic Church but not understood by the commoner, and it seemed to have supernatural power. So witchcraft and spells were often thought to be in Latin. The term hocus-pocus is probably corruption of "this is my body" in Latin, from the Bible. But even if it isn't, it sounds Latin, right? Then there are words like abracadabra, which may come from old Hebrew or old Greek, no one knows for certain—except that it sounds foreign, mysterious, right?

I always prefer the mysterious and exotic for magical utterances, although I'm sure there might be some exceptions I don't quite remember at the moment.
 

Lynea

Sage
I like languages that fit the setting of the story nicely. If a story is based in Russia, the most suitable language for spells and magic would be Russian. Latin is good for stories that are set in England or worlds that are based off of England. Personally, I don't mind languages that are made up, but it does take a lot of extra research to craft them into your story.

There are some factors that can help you decide which approach is best:

Where is your story set in? This is important to lay down because it affects the way characters implement language.

Is your world realistic or more on the abstract side? There is a spectrum to how relatable a magic system is. If you have an urban fantasy, I'd say use the language that your characters already speak. If you have a mythic-based world with thousands of years worth of lore, then you might want to go with an older language than our modern English.

Does your audience need simplicity or depth? Factoring in who you're writing a story for is also good to keep in mind. I've found that older audiences tend to enjoy Latin or Greek based languages because they're already so common and relatable. I think that younger audiences will drink up any crafted language you inspire.
 

Queshire

Auror
Hmmm... let's see... I tend to associate English spell names with works that draw heavily from games regardless of if they're say, D&D or an RPG.

I think English could do well if you try to get sort of a prayer type feel from the spell casting though.

---

At the same time the effect that Harry Potter has had on pop culture can make gibberish or using another language risky.

In the Dresden Files series casting spells using a language you're not as familiar with serves as a safeguard so that you don't light something on fire just because you accidentally say the word fire while in a bad mood or something.

Eragon had its language of magic, but they made it clear that the form of the magic depends on what the user wants. The same caster could say the word fire in the magic language to light their sword on fire as easily as using it to shoot an arrow of fire.

Harry Potter lack any explanation of mechanics like those, but the setting as a whole is soft enough that it doesn't need an explanation... normally.

From my experience with Harry Potter fanfics it's easy to make fun of the faux Latin there or fanfic writers coming up with their own explanations.

From that, my suggestion would be to not have it just be gibberish or another language. Give it a reason.

---

However, there's other options.

Runes, circles, a hissed word without writing what the word actually is or snapping your fingers to light a fire can all work.

At the moment I must say that I'm rather fond of the mix of dynanism and simplicity found in the magic system of the Owl House (though naturally it's a cartoon and not writing.)


I imagine it's harder in traditional publishing, but especially for webnovels I think there's good potential in painting the medium. It could be as something as simple as "He snapped his fingers and the candles flared to life," but there's all sorts of colors and formatting that one could play with. There's a series called Anachronauts I read that I believe originally out digitally. In it the "gibberish" used for the spells was (I think) reversing the english word and flipping the letters so that they were upside down.
 

Penpilot

Staff
Article Team
IMHO, for the most part, it doesn't matter, especially if it's just a few phrases. I tend to just go with what sounds cool. I tend to draw upon Latin and derive stuff off of that, but you can use whatever you want. It doesn't have to be overly complicated. Often simple is better. A DC comic's character named Zatana spell template is simply saying the words of the spell backwards. For example "Etativel reh!" which is "Levitate her!" with the letters reversed in each word. Not exactly earth shatteringly original, but it does the job.
 

Hyzaleia

Dreamer
I like languages that fit the setting of the story nicely. If a story is based in Russia, the most suitable language for spells and magic would be Russian. Latin is good for stories that are set in England or worlds that are based off of England. Personally, I don't mind languages that are made up, but it does take a lot of extra research to craft them into your story.

There are some factors that can help you decide which approach is best:

Where is your story set in? This is important to lay down because it affects the way characters implement language.

Is your world realistic or more on the abstract side? There is a spectrum to how relatable a magic system is. If you have an urban fantasy, I'd say use the language that your characters already speak. If you have a mythic-based world with thousands of years worth of lore, then you might want to go with an older language than our modern English.

Does your audience need simplicity or depth? Factoring in who you're writing a story for is also good to keep in mind. I've found that older audiences tend to enjoy Latin or Greek based languages because they're already so common and relatable. I think that younger audiences will drink up any crafted language you inspire.



I totally see what you're saying. My story definitely isn't an urban fantasy at all, so using just plain English words as a command might feel a little out of place... If I formed it as less of a command and just instead used English words as lone words, like 'Burn' or 'Summon' and either used them on their own or combined with a word I created, I could see it working better.
Thanks for replying!
 

Hyzaleia

Dreamer
Hmmm... let's see... I tend to associate English spell names with works that draw heavily from games regardless of if they're say, D&D or an RPG.

I think English could do well if you try to get sort of a prayer type feel from the spell casting though.

---

At the same time the effect that Harry Potter has had on pop culture can make gibberish or using another language risky.

In the Dresden Files series casting spells using a language you're not as familiar with serves as a safeguard so that you don't light something on fire just because you accidentally say the word fire while in a bad mood or something.

Eragon had its language of magic, but they made it clear that the form of the magic depends on what the user wants. The same caster could say the word fire in the magic language to light their sword on fire as easily as using it to shoot an arrow of fire.

Harry Potter lack any explanation of mechanics like those, but the setting as a whole is soft enough that it doesn't need an explanation... normally.

From my experience with Harry Potter fanfics it's easy to make fun of the faux Latin there or fanfic writers coming up with their own explanations.

From that, my suggestion would be to not have it just be gibberish or another language. Give it a reason.

---

However, there's other options.

Runes, circles, a hissed word without writing what the word actually is or snapping your fingers to light a fire can all work.

At the moment I must say that I'm rather fond of the mix of dynanism and simplicity found in the magic system of the Owl House (though naturally it's a cartoon and not writing.)


I imagine it's harder in traditional publishing, but especially for webnovels I think there's good potential in painting the medium. It could be as something as simple as "He snapped his fingers and the candles flared to life," but there's all sorts of colors and formatting that one could play with. There's a series called Anachronauts I read that I believe originally out digitally. In it the "gibberish" used for the spells was (I think) reversing the english word and flipping the letters so that they were upside down.


Wow I'd never heard of the Owl House before, but I really like that style of magic. I like that it's a bit more physical rather than just saying a word and using some 'magic brain power'. But yeah, I'd probably have a really tough time trying to put something as physical as that into writing without overdescribing. But it's given me some ideas so thanks for sharing that lol, it was really cool to watch.
 

WooHooMan

Auror
I used English but my twist to give it a little gravitas and mysticism was to add wordplay.

For example, a character I have has control over a demon due to tattooing some English words to his left hand.
If the tattoo just said “do what I say, demon”, that would be dumb. Instead the tattoo says “live, o devil, live - do evil“ which is a palindrome and that, in theory, makes it more mystical.
A lot of spells and incantations are done with palindromes, rhymes and clever phrasing. It creates a distinction between normal spoken English and magic incantation English.

So, between the options you’ve given, I’d recommend going with the made-up language. With magic, it’s sometimes better to make it feel mysterious, obtuse or grand rather than logical or easily understood.
 

S J Lee

Inkling
Three examples of some "plain English" spell-casting that worked pretty well.
1 Jesse Custer using his "word" in the Preacher comics - "Burn, you f--ers!" is pretty hard to top. And stuff like "Tell me the truth." BUT JC's powers didn't work on people blocking their ears or not speaking the same language...

2 S King's Doctor Sleep (movie) - that girl with the "push" powers was creepy with her "no need to worry, just relax", or how she makes the hero's sidekick kill himself as she lies dying. "F---- shoot yourself!" Did she NEED to talk / be heard, or was it just the way she was used to delivering her powers?

3 in 2000AD, the comic, in a Judge Dredd story, an evil magician called Sabbat raised millions of zombies. In the final fight, he killed one hero by screaming "Eyes!" (eyes exploded) then "Ribs!" ribs popped out through the skin. Top that.



IF you use pompous Latin you WILL now be compared to Harry Potter, I am afraid.... "Expecto blah blah..."

I would say the RIGHT English would be fine. Don't explain to the reader in too much detail unless it matters , but make up your OWN mind (yes, RPG wise) how spellcasting works.
You are a wizard. What else do you need? To see the target? Can you set fire to something you cannot SEE due to mist or night? Do you need to have a hand free to point?

Do you NEED to speak at all? So, if you are gagged / have a broken jaw, is it true that you CANNOT cast a spell? Just decide this for your OWN benefit.

IF the words are not needed at all, they could be anything just to scare the peasants. Are you saying that the spell "doesn't work" in mere English? So you are saying that before your "Latin" was invented, magic was impossible? These are not good or bad things... it is your execution that counts.

Gandalf used words sometimes, but it was never explained if a special word was NEEDED. Gandalf never said he NEEDED to speak. Sometimes he just lifted his staff (, eg and used Telekinesis on Gimli's axe, etc....and broke Saruman's staff with words - did the lack of a staff stop Saruman's magic? Or was the staff-breaking merely the PROOF that Gandalf was now strrong enough to cut Saruman off from his power?) Prof Tolk never answered the Q, and may not even have had his own answer. Did Gandalf keep his staff in hand all the way down the pit to continue the fight with the Balrog? It is unclear....
 
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I think that in the grand scheme of things it matters very little. No one will stop reading your book because you did or did not use an english term for a magical spell. Which means that it's mainly down to what you like and want.

With that in mind, some more concrete thoughts.
- How many spells do you plan on having? If it's more than 2 or 3, then having made up words makes it much harder to keep track of what is going on. Personally as a reader I just remember there was this word that powered a spell and it had some effect. I rarely remember the word itself, unless there's just one or two in the book. Harry Potter is a great example here. In each book there's only a few spells actually used and they are used throughout the book.
- How long are the spells? 1 word is fine. But if I come across a whole sentence with words I don't understand then my eyes just glaze over and I just think "weird language I don't understand, on to a part I can read again". I'm sure some people like this sort of thing, but I just skip them.
- How important is the exact meaning of the spell? If you want to differentiate between light a fire, cast a fireball, gently warm something and so on, and the difference is important, then going with something the reader understands is maybe the way to go.
- How does the magic work? If simply saying the word casts the spell, then having it be in a different language might be smarter, simply to prevent a character from accidentally casting a spell. Or from preventing you as a writer from using a bunch of words in your book.
- How good are you in making up words? If you're not good at it at all, then it might be better to don't do it, because it might just sound silly and random. It's the reason I try to invent as little words as possible.
 

Insolent Lad

Maester
A few times I have had an 'unschooled' wizard use phrases from the semi-dead language of earlier enchanters. This is mostly to suggest he doesn't really know what he is doing and his knowledge of magic is, at best, empirical. The skilled magicians I have confidently speaking their enchantments in plain (if formal) English (well, actually their native tongue).

Now there are occasions when a demon has to be addressed in its own language for things to work. There we have to make up some words!
 
I think it depends on your style of writing in the story, as well as the mood of the story your writing, and is up to you. If it is a deep, mystical, "enchanting" kind of story, the gibberish would make more since. If it is more light hearted then do the language of choice. if there are stronger boundaries to the magical system you are using, you would want to play to the rules of you magical system. As far as the English not-English, I would probably train myself to use a certain non-english language, for practical reasons. because if there were real magic and they were cast by words I use day to day, I know I would accidentally set my A#% on fire.
 
VE Schwab uses a second language well in, Darker Shade of Magic. The book is English, of course, and its premise is that there are four Londons, parallel, but very different. The Antari are travelers/magicians, they look like anyone else with one exception and they are the only ones capable of travel between the worlds. Schwab has a glossary of their Antari phrases and meanings. These are all short, two word commands: As Travars is "to travel", As Hasari is "to heal". For me it was effective to have that language used only by the Antari. It added something to my suspension of disbelief while not requiring me to understand the whole of it as a language. It's clear, through her narration and descriptions, when a phrase it uttered, what it is intended to do. So it never gets in the way or stops the flow.

Good luck with your story!
 

S J Lee

Inkling
Not 100% on topic, but in Sci Fi etc some authors like to add a few pages of glossary as to what the bizarre words mean. If you had an appendix at the back you would actually be in good enough company?
Bury it at the back somewhere. F Herbert (Dune) has Jom Gabbar and Kwasitz Haderach, A A Attanasio (Radix) has Voor, Sensex, etc
 
Instead the tattoo says “live, o devil, live - do evil“ which is a palindrome and that, in theory, makes it more mystical.
A lot of spells and incantations are done with palindromes, rhymes and clever phrasing. It creates a distinction between normal spoken English and magic incantation English.

Good point. The palindrome, rhymes, clever phrasings and so forth can create that sense of "other" that I called exotic in my previous post. Like a foreign or unknown language, but not quite. This might even help sell it; to the degree that we can understand the utterance while still being aware of how different it is to normally spoken English, it can seem extra-meaningful. Rowling did this with her Latin-ish spells—Petrificus Totalus looks like, "Totally petrify" for instance—but English used in an unusual way would have the same general effect.

Someone else has mentioned not "accidentally" casting spells, e.g. just saying the word burn in casual conversation could kill someone. Incidentally, that could make a great character flaw or obstacle, heh. But in general, having the odd phrasing etc. works around this issue of accidental spell-casting, in addition to serving as a focus for the caster (and reader, I suppose.)
 

A. E. Lowan

Forum Mom
Leadership
In our urban fantasy series we're pretty straight forward with magical commands. They can be cast in any language, it doesn't matter. What matters is intent. So we have one character who is profoundly deaf and casts in gibberish. No one knows if this is the language he hears in his head or if he's just messing with everyone. He's not telling.
 
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