the magic of language

Here’s JR Firth talking about the magic of language – an ancient notion which is still useful, he said.

“All the children of men learn to speak in an atmosphere of magic. When a baby’s bodily disturbances reach the ears of those around him, all sorts of feelings are mobilized in his service – motherly solicitude, paternal pride, and the obligations of hired servants or neighbours. When a baby speaks there is magic on the air. By means of this phonetic magic, which obviously moves people and makes things happen, his majesty soon learns he has a voice in the world and that it works miracles. It is not surprising that he apprentices himself eagerly to such a craft, and submits to the rule and ritual, and the practice of other members of the magic circle as a condition of practising it himself. It is no matter for surprise therefore that man should believe his cries create, and, having ‘created’, no wonder he ‘crows’ about the accomplishment. There is no doubt about this power of speech to mobilize strong feelings, common prejudices, common desires, common fears, and all the forces of public opinion. It also commands great forces, great alliances, and in writing has by its conquests created man’s new world. Throughout this book we shall keep before us this view of speech as a social instrument both for ‘sense’ and ‘nonsense’, work and play – practical, productive, creative.” Firth (1937), The Tongues of Men (ch 1.7.1)

I need to find out more about Firth, particularly his ideas about prosody. Meanwhile, I like the acknowledgement that at the end of the day we might as well still be talking in terms of “magic”, for all that we’ve learnt since the Sanskrit scholars. (Which reminds me, I need to find out more about them too.) Better get back to it.