Magic in Language

Discussion in 'General Discussion' started by Steerpike, Jul 11, 2013.

  1. I've been fascinated by language for some time now. Even as I struggle to learn a second language myself, I find myself more and more drawn to the idea of language and its use in art. I want to start by talking about language a little and then share some of my thoughts on using it in magic.

    First of all, I tell people a lot that if you're going to describe yourself as a performer, remember that the English language contains more verbs than anything else. Think about it for a second. Run is a pretty general verb that refers to any fast-paced forward locomotion. But there are specific verbs about running. A dash is different from a sprint. Both are different from bounding. And all imply different things than if you were to bolt or streak. The choice of word really makes all the difference.

    Consider also that the nature of a language, its morphology and syntax, tell you a bit about the culture that created it. Did you know that in Germany, they're more likely to slam two words together than use a loan word? English refers to someone who creates a business as an entrepreneur, a loan word from French. Germany calls such a person an unternehmer (one who undertakes a task), or at more of a stretch the incredibly awesome sounding existenzgruender (one who founds or creates the existence of something). It's a very utilitarian language prone to describe something according to its function. Japanese is similar. There's no direct translation for carousel in Japanese. They call it by the idiom kaiten mokuba, which roughly means "pony toy go round." Knowing their language works that way, you get a rough idea of some of the roots of the culture.

    By the same token, there are numerous words that translate poorly to other languages or don't have any good analogs. One of my favorites is the Portuguese desenrascanco. It means literally to disentangle yourself but refers specifically to the act of improvising a solution using only resources immediately at hand. There's also the Korean concept of nunchi, the ability to read a person or persons and instinctively know what words and actions are not appropriate in that context. It implies an understanding of social dynamics much subtler than even simple tact. In Russian you have toska, which is the spiritual anguish of longing for something that isn't there. In Spanish, the word duende has evolved from referring to a mythical creature to describing the way a very a powerful work of art moves a person. Think about the kind of cultures that would feel the need to create specific words for such things.

    Spoken language has itself been assigned mystical power over the ages. Many cultures at one point or another believed that knowing a person's true name gave you power over them. Some Native American tribes would give their people a true name known only to the family and a different name for public use so it would be more difficult for evil entities to find them. Speaking of Native Americans, the Iroquois Nation formed a 200-year-long confederacy between five tribes with only oral tradition to pass down laws. Oral traditions also produced The Iliad and The Odyssey, two of the most significant works of literature in history. Joseph Campbell points out that many myth cycles begin with a prime mover speaking the world into existence. Speaking and chants are still a fundamental part of modern day prayer and magic in world religions. There was some friction among scholars and the faithful when the Vedic verses of Hindu were first written as many adherents believed that the words were originally spoken by a god and thus should remain spoken and never written.

    Written language itself has great power. Think about how the movable type printing press revolutionized Western society and culture and paved the way for literacy for the masses. In some Chinese dynasties, holding the holy text was vital to maintaining political power. Writing sometimes became a monument unto itself, such as Hammurabi's Code and the Viking runestones. King Sejong the Great of the Choson dynasty of Korea commissioned the scholars of the Hall of Worthies to create Hangul, the written language of Korean, which is still the easiest alphabet in the world to learn. With only a few hours of study, any non-native speaker can read Korean phonetically in this alphabet. South Koreans to this day still celebrate Hangul Day on October 9, the original date of the alphabet's publication.

    So where does all this lead into magic? I have a few thoughts. Most of them no longer suit my performing style, so it's my hope that someone will make use of them. So in no particular order, here's a list of ideas and half-thoughts I came up with for using language as the theme in magic.

    -King Sejong invented Hangul so that his people could be literate without relying on the complicated Chinese Hanja script. He had the laws of the land written in Hangul and placed in full public view with scholars travelling from village to village to teach people how to read. Consider the idea of the hundred dollar bill switch to turn random scratches into a message written in Hangul. Change it again into an English translation with the Roman alphabet, giving a positive affirmation to the audience.
    -Learning someone's true name changes the tone of a stage hypnosis or mind control act and makes it feel more primal and awe-inspiring.
    -The French have a phrase "l'appel du vide" meaning "call of the void." It refers to that discomforting feeling of wanting to leap from a great height. Makes for a rather eerie presentation for the PK pen or telekinetic timber or similar demonstrations.
    -Has a magician or mentalist ever attempted some sort of "universal translator" effect before?
    -Can words be so powerful that they can never be committed to paper? Possible use for billet switches or the hundred dollar bill switch to erase writing spontaneously.
    -Nothing saying that spirit writing can't be done in different languages and alphabets than what the audience might be expecting. It might lend a note of authenticity to a seance if you're contacting the spirit of, for example, a Russian man and the spirit writing is all in Russian and the Cyrillic alphabet.
    -In the Yagan language, the word mamihlapinatapei refers to the look between two people who really want to talk to each other but are too hesitant to start. Interesting possible presentation for the linking rings.
    -Scottish Gaelic uses the word tartle to describe the act of hesitating when introducing someone because you've forgotten their name. Possible variant on Luke Jermay's Reverse Gestalt Moment.
    -Taking a page from Uri Geller's book, having the audience shout commands at an object in order to achieve the desired result (PK effects being the most obvious application). Thus is revealed the power of the spoken word to reshape reality itself.
  2. It's odd, Steerpike, how often you and I seem to be thinking about the same thing. Just this morning I was going over ideas on how to use Irish Gaelic in performance.

    Matt Sconce has Powerword: Fall which suits your last idea there perfectly. You look at an object and tell it to fall, and it falls. I've been thinking of working this into some performances myself.

    Language has always fascinated me and I've dabbled in many. Working language into performance can have some really powerful effects, particularly if you can use it for part of your character. I'm sure a lot of people have known someone from another country who would occasionally slip back into their native language without realizing it. It happened all the time to me when I worked for a Punjab restaurant. This is something to keep in mind if you ever play a character who's not from your country (or time). Occasionally slipping words that are the character's native language will instinctively make people believe you're actually who you are saying you are.

    Also, slang is incredibly important in performance. Particularly for the close up worker. If you really want to connect with people you have to talk to them in a way that doesn't separate you.

    Tricks aside, I think far too many people take language for granted and don't realize the power it has in communication. Obviously we have to use it to talk, but the words we choose tell the observant person a lot more than just what they mean.
  3. It's ironic to think that most of us speak English (could be any language obviously) and barely communicate it through proper patter for an effect without explaining exactly what we are doing. As for other languages, my sister is fluent in Spanish and always tells me you can't translate literally. I'm sure you can use that for patter talking about how the cards have different cultural aspects, as do so many languages, etc.
  4. Of all the people I've had in my life as guides, mentors and special friends most of the more successful encouraged two key things when it came to language -- speak in a clear and commanding manner so as to radiate confidence by way of voice and wordage. Initially this requires us to rely on a script but over time we learn how to use this discipline as a kind of "standard" in life; it becomes second nature which I find to be odd, when the public school system is supposed to make it a primary part of our education early in life (by the 5th grade -- which is why the lower grades are referred to as "Grammar School"). The second thing these successful souls encouraged with "trivia" -- learn as much as you can about words and "things" so you can have a conversation about that term or item or ritual, etc. You don't need to be an expert, but when you can trace the history of a term and show how, for an example, many Germanic words a rooted in the original Gaelic, that which was spoken by the first or second wave of true Aryan peoples who migrated from the Indus regions to the western European continent . . . and no, these Aryans were not blond haired and blue eyed, quite the opposite -- smooth brown skin, usually brown to black eyes and of small build. But these people were genius when it came to the command of language, rudimentary science, engineering and the art of war.

    As a Numerologist I look at the power of words and particularly Names all the time. I can pretty much tell the course of a young persons' like just by knowing their 3 primary names and date of birth and freakishly, those projections are pretty right on the money. This includes issues of health and what parts of the body are most likely to fail the individual as they mature. Sounds strange but look at the taboo of Egypt when it came to keeping certain aspects of your birth name secret and away from all others. Should someone learn the full essence of your name they would have power over you. . . just consider how fast your body tightens up and chills run up your spine upon hearing your mother or father call out your full name when looking for you. . . the utterance of those three words (usually) can make us freeze in our steps and become filled with dread.

    I encourage a lot of my students to invest in the WONDER WORDS system offered via the WonderWizards team & Kenton Knepper. While some of the material leans a bit heavy on NLP, which is a very questionable "science" the essence of what the system teaches is viable and can, if you honestly work at it, deliver you as a showman, exceptional control over your audience participants and more so, it will help you cultivate a unique sense of confidence within yourself the more you find success via the simplicity of these concepts.

    One of the most potent tools we use when doing Readings has nothing to do with Barnum Statements and Forer's Theories but rather, the spelling of a person's name; study Richard Webster's PSYCHOMETRY FROM A-Z and you'll understand why. But this system is a blunt demonstration as to the power and potential of words. It likewise encourages the aspiring Mentalists to LEARN; to pick up a dictionary and actually learn the meaning and proper use of a given word.

    I'm one of those old guys on these forums that *****es about the use of internet slang and short-hand text when making posts in that a lot of us (most of us) that are old enough and experienced enough to actually HELP YOU don't understand such rhetoric and as such, you push away the voice of experience . . . again, a great demonstration as to how powerful words can be, even when they are misused and misapplied.

    ENTERTAINERS, especially those of us in the Variety field, MUST have a genuine command of and for words. If we don't. . . if we are not attracted to this simplest of elements, we will find our ability to move forward "wanting". When we become solid orators, we are able to create magic within a person's mind by invoking their imagination; no props are needed just words and a proper choreography for them to dance by.

    Great topic!

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