Wingardium Leviosa. Expecto Patronum. Many of the incantations in J.K. Rowling’s works are derived from Latin. In fact, there are only a handful of incantations that have different origins, such as Episkey, which comes from Greek. Thus, it’s clear that using Latin as the source of incantations was a deliberate choice, but is it one that makes sense?
Looking at the world-building, Hogwarts was built a thousand years ago, which puts it roughly at AD 1000. This dates it after the fall of the Roman Empire, right when various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were starting to unify in Britain, which does explain why a central school for the British Isles was being built. But back to the point of Latin.
Latin would not have been the most widely spoken language at that time and place, especially since the Romans had long since left. Anglo-Saxon would have been much more common. And yet, while there are a few spells of Anglo-Saxon origin, such as Scourgify, the Anglo-Saxon root is not the most predominant; the more unfamiliar Latin is.
One possible explanation for this is that at the time, Latin was the language of power and education. The common people didn’t speak Latin, but the rich and powerful did. Furthermore, academic works at that time were primarily written in Latin, and knowing Latin was a requirement to be considered knowledgeable and well educated.
Therefore, by using Latin, those spells are calling upon that sense of power. They hearken to the idea that simply knowing Latin words imbued you with power and knowledge. That sounds useful for magic. Being able to change the world with a word and a flick of your wand definitely makes you powerful, and Latin allowed for that to be shown off.
However, there is one thing about using Latin as the source of spells that still baffles me. In the Roman Empire — the empire responsible for the spread of Latin across Europe, the one responsible for it becoming the language of power and influence — magic was illegal.
Yes, under Roman law, you could be tried and punished if you were found to be doing magic, and there are court records to prove it. Also, when you look at Rome’s myths and legends, most of the magic-users in them are foreigners, not Romans. Rome consistently portrays magic as something that comes from outside the empire, not within.
So why, then, are the spells in Latin? Looking at myth and societal perception, you might expect the majority of spells to be in Egyptian, Norse, or one of the Celtic languages since those were the societies considered to be more steeped in magic than Rome. But instead, Latin has somehow come to be the one associated with magic in the modern day, given that Rowling is not the only fantasy author to use Latin for her spells.
So herein lies the question: why Latin? On one hand, its history of power does make it an attractive choice for those searching for a language that can reshape the world. But on the other, the Roman history and culture attached to Latin reject magic as something foreign. In the end, I suppose, whether or not it makes sense for Latin to be the language of spellwork is just a matter of opinion. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to think about, though.