The Graveyard

The Lair Of Gary James

Language,Words & Power

Posted by BigWords on April 3, 2016

There’s a long-held notion among varied peoples that words, specifically names, have a certain power – that by naming a thing you can exert power over the object itself. There’s a short story (Vernor Vinge, if memory serves) which has avatars in a Dungeons & Dragons type environment using words as spells, and NewWho has used the notion in “The Shakespeare Code” to rather spectacular effect. It’s interesting that so many cultures, across vast distances and throughout history, have come to the same ideas in amazingly similar descriptions.

Yet there’s something about that notion, the simple act of naming, which bothers me. For the last eight or nine years I have kept a little Latin grammar book near me. It is a reminder of an era in which these books used to be much more useful. I love the soft leather cover, the neat, orderly columns, the dainty, playful typeface which belies the utility of the text. It isn’t a flash book, or a particularly obvious text, but I love it all the same. Likewise, not three feet away sits a German dictionary from (I think) the fifties. Sturdy and utilitarian, it is everything that the Latin book isn’t – intended to be used for its purpose and no more.

I got my hands on an Italian phrasebook a few years ago which had the beautifully simple notion of illustrating words, and it was most likely the act of placing names to things in other languages which kicked off the trail towards a question which I still haven’t found an easy answer to: Is naming something the act of power, or is it the name? See, names are just a collection of sounds (or letters, which are illustrated depictions of sounds) which assist in everyone understanding that which needs to be communicated.

Lets back up a moment – the words you are reading here use the Roman alphabet, which comes to us through the Romans (no surprise there) who got their letters from the Etruscan people, who took inspiration from a flavor of the Greek alphabet, who got their letters from Phonecian texts. The words which the letters form are in English, which has a history that will make your head explode if you attempt to fully understand all of the various ways in which we got from Chaucer to here. Along the way we picked up arbitrary rules, style guidelines and (eventually) deconstructionist tendencies in *ahem* certain quarters.

Which is to say: the words we use, day to day, aren’t ours. Not on a personal level. We share these words, and combine them; we play with words and see how far we can move them until they break. The World Wide Web isn’t a web, the Internet isn’t a net (and isn’t it rather amusing that both webs and nets catch things?), but we accept these words to describe that which has no physical presence. And as we name these things, we take control over them.

While we share certain words with other languages, and accept translations, we are no closer to true names. Unlike those who posit Latin names as being authentic (no, they are the scientific names), and despite attempts by some at tracing the roots of words back to the earliest forms, I am still not convinced that anything we can use now has the power which supposedly comes from the naming convention.

Which raises the question: what kind of a name would inanimate objects call themselves? For that matter, do animals have names they call each other? Is an arbitrary name imposed externally as valid as a name which something innately possesses?

You can probably tell, by these posts, why it isn’t wise for me to be alone with my own thoughts for a prolonged period of time…


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