The importance of words

I’ve recently moved to Berlin, a city full of people from many different nationalities. Living in such an environment, I’ve learnt a couple of things by observing people’s behaviors. This city has provided me with a range of many different people to observe. One thing I’ve noticed is the way language can define people. Languages carry meanings with them. They carry the roots of a culture, with its history, its wars and its traditions. People tend to act like the languages they speak, it’s fun to look at them when they switch form one language to another. Some people are shier when they aren’t speaking their mother-tongue. Some become more agitated, more outgoing. I’ve seen people completely change their personality as they switch from Italian to German, for example. I change as well.  I’m more expressive in Spanish, more to the point in English. It all depends on the person and the language they’re speaking in. Languages are essential for muggles and so they are for wizards and witches. You need words to make magic and the Wizarding World has its own range of languages for the many different creatures it possesses.

Words in the Wizarding World equal power. It’s incredibly complicated to make magic without them, even nonverbal spells usually require that you think of the word for the spell you intend to perform. Children can make instinctive magic when they’re scared or under pressure. This magic does not require words, but its effects are unpredictable and difficult to control. Words control magic. Expelliarmus, Silencio, Expecto Patronum, Avada Kedavra… They can look like random words in Latin, but in the Wizarding World they are words that can protect you or even kill you, when used in the proper way.

Are spells the same in every language? Latin is an important language, it makes sense that Rowling chose it as a language for magic. It’s an ancient, imposing language full of history. Latin has conquered many places in the past, survived many wars and been mixed into world changing human affairs for a very long time. It’s language that has shaped many cultures by affecting other languages. Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, for example, are all languages with Latin roots. It would be a good common ground for many different magical communities in different countries. Though I wonder if it’s the same in Asian or African countries. I believe there’s not much Latin in Japanese or Korean. Would their spells be in Latin as well? Somehow it wouldn’t make sense. Latin doesn’t carry the same meaning and power it does for people who grew up speaking languages greatly shaped by Latin. Another question for Rowling, I guess. It’s also funny how Latin is the language of science and Rowling has used it as a tool to control magic. Magic opposes muggle science in many ways, I wonder if it’s pure sarcasm or maybe a way of pairing up magic to science.

You normally don’t think much about the languages you speak. They’re just there for you to communicate with other people, a way of transmitting ideas and desires. But just as magical words have power, words in any other language are powerful as well. They define people. A language isn’t just a combination of grammatical formulas, an alphabet and pronunciation. Languages carry more than you would think. They are roots, culture, history. There are words you can’t translate from one language to another, because they lose meaning. The culture surrounding a certain language affects the language itself. I think that one of the most important steps of learning a language is to understand the culture surrounding this specific language. They are supposed to be tools for communication, so they provide people with the words they need to express themselves such that the way they speak corresponds to the way they are. German is a very precise language, with incredibly long complex words and verbs that change their meaning depending on the preposition you use to accompany them. It fits the way Germans in general like to be precise and direct about things. They tend to be clear and go to the point when they speak. Spanish, on the contrary, is a language that allows you to be indirect and lie very easily. From my experience with Latin-American and Spanish people, I’ve noticed they like to sugar-coat things and take their time to get to the topic they really want to discuss (these are just generalities, of course). Their language gives them the tools they need to do so. Languages respond to the needs of the people who speak them.

The same thing happens with languages in the Wizarding World. Witches and Wizards require an imposing, ancient, strong language to give them the power of controlling magic. Latin is perfect for that purpose. Then you have languages like Mermish. Harry never said that Merpeople were beautiful, his description of them is not very flattering, but they do seem to be very imposing creatures. I believe there’s some degree of beauty in the strength they possess underwater and the elegance they must move with when they swim. That’s something that’s lost when they leave their medium. In the surface, they become clumsier and vulnerable, they lose their elegance. It happens with their language as well. While it sounds beautiful underwater, Mermish in the surface sounds incomprehensible and ear-shattering. Trolls are also mirrored by their language. They are simple creatures, violent and not very smart. Their language sounds rough and primitive, Fred once said that to speak Troll you just have to point and grunt, which complements the way trolls are. They have a language that mirrors their brute force and low intellect.

It’s amazing how languages and words can be so important and defining. They are like mirrors of one’s culture. Rowling must have thought of pairing her magical creatures with the way they spoke as she wrote about them. It’s also incredible to think how Dumbledore learnt so many of these magical languages. I wonder how he did it, if he took the time to understand both the language and the magical creatures who spoke it, he did seem to be that kind of wizard.

(Image taken from http://slytherincommonroom.tumblr.com/page/9 )