Harry Potter and the Language of Magic

I’ve spent a lot of time reading Harry Potter, and I’ve spent a lot of time studying a foreign language. At some point, I was bound to notice the places the two collide.

Language is such an important part of the Harry Potter series. From meaningful character names, to spells based in Latin, to made-up words like “amortentia” and “veritaserum”, the books are truly fascinating from a linguistic point of view. I’ve written about that in the past, but today, I’m going to go farther. I’m going to talk about the magic itself.

The magic of Harry Potter is based in language. Aside from a few branches of magic such as potions or nonverbal magic, it is typically produced through speech. Magic is a language, albeit one that is all vocabulary and little to no grammar. In the same way that putting together real words in a real language will enable you to make yourself understood, putting together strings of Latin roots give the Harry Potter characters the power to accomplish almost anything.

Much like in real languages, pronunciation and intonation matter in Harry’s world. Mispronouncing wingardium leviosa might mean that nothing happens, or it might set your feather on fire rather than levitating it. As Professor Flitwick warns in Sorcerer’s Stone, a wizard once “said ‘s’ instead of ‘f’ and found himself on the floor with a buffalo on his chest”. The same is true of any language. For example, in French, there’s a big difference between poisson and poison. One means “fish”, and the other “poison”, but the only difference is that one is pronounced with an [s] sound and the other with a [z] sound.

And, just like in the real world, the language of magic doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Why are most of the spells derived from Latin? Probably because the English language was so strongly influenced by Latin. Despite being a Germanic language, about 60% of English vocabulary comes from Latin via old French. Perhaps wizards in other parts of the world use spells derived from other dead languages. To take it even farther, there are signs of an actual magical language in Great Britain: one of the classes Hermione takes is Study of Ancient Runes.

One could say that by the time Harry, Ron, and Hermione leave Hogwarts, they have become fluent in magic. They no longer struggle to produce spells, instead reacting instinctively with those they have perfected over the years. The words flow, and the magic works the way it’s supposed to. An odd analogy, perhaps, but I think it’s a fitting one.

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