Performative Language and Magic




We here at the Ling Space are pretty good-sized fans of Halloween, and also of fantasy stories, so I think it’s natural to think of magic this time of year. But when we think of doing spells, what does this actually mean linguistically? Like, we figure there’s magical incantations, those words…

I love performative language! There’s this real human urge to believe that saying a thing makes that thing real. And the thing is, almost everyone does this.

Most of us don’t believe that, I don’t know, saying Bloody Mary in the mirror three times causes anything at all, or that you can literally Wingardium Leviosa that sandwich out of your friend’s hand. But we still take things like vows and verdicts and resignations seriously, and it’s virtually the same thing. We’ve socially encoded speech acts into actual events that permanently alter the reality they’re spoken into. 

I think signing documents is pretty similar, too, even if it’s not spoken per se. Putting your name on a thing makes that thing official. Or, you know, checking that you have read the terms and conditions makes you legally bound to what they contain, whether or not you’ve actually read them. We have this whole performative structure based around the things we say.

And this makes sense, right? I mean, we’re using language all the freaking time. It’s this huge part of who we are as a species, and a huge part of what we do every day. I think it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that word use ends up being some of the most socially biding stuff we have. It’s tied to notions of agency and social contract and consent. In a lot of ways, saying things is what makes them real.

And I think this is one of the fundamental human attitudes towards the world! I mean, a bunch of mythologies include the first humans or gods going around and naming things, or words that create and destroy. It’s not much of a step to go from there to magic spells, on the one hand, and marriage vows on the other. It’s all part of the same picture, something that we carry with us as a species that speaks.

Just some follow-up from our director, Adele, that broadens the discussion out, too! The mythological examples are a great point.

I didn’t talk about this in the original post, because it’s slightly different than the immediate changes in the world, but the contractual stuff is also stuff we do all the time. We create all these bonds to people using our words, to carry out tasks or to show up on time for the meeting next time or to use our favorite electronics.

And some of these acts are really binding – even if you don’t read that Terms of Service deal, you still have to do what it says – and some aren’t. Saying you’ll buy your friend a burrito next time you see them doesn’t obligate you to do that, although no one likes burrito renegers. But it does create that extra tie, when you promise.

Language – creative in so many different ways. ^_^


Performative Language and Magic

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