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The Power of Language

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"Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts."
Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

The Power of Language is a common theme focused on the concept of language itself and how it can be used.

Language as a construct is an essential part of human culture. In primitive forms, it predates our species, and many other sentient creatures have been documented using verbal communication. This means that it's also probably the oldest medium of fiction, and almost all forms of fiction today rely on it. As such, in the same way Most Writers Are Writers, fiction is often extremely interested in language and its capabilities.

Just how powerful are words?

Answers to this question vary by universe and by story. In some, language is so unnecessary that none is used at all, at least not by background characters. In ours, you'll notice we have phrases like "they're all talk" and "actions speak louder than words", yet we also have many tropes based on the idea that you should Be Careful What You Say because words do have power, as well as the pervasive idea that Language Equals Thought. And certain settings take this idea much farther, resulting in tropes like Weapons-Grade Vocabulary or its magical counterpart, Words Can Break My Bones. Any one of these conclusions can be drawn by a work using this theme.

It's quite common to find exploration of this theme in High Fantasy settings, where magic is often based on or at least invoked by language. It's also fairly common in Dystopian Fiction, where language can be used for public mind control and literacy is frequently banned.

While this is most often a Central Theme running throughout a work, it can appear briefly as a Discussed Trope. Sister Trope to The Power of Creation, The Power of Acting, and In Defence Of Storytelling, as well as New Media Are Evil if books are what is portrayed as powerful. A common focus of Meta Fiction, especially in poetry. Frequently found in Speech-Centric Works. A favorite tool of the Cunning Linguist and The Philosopher, as well as the Manipulative Bastard prone to delivering Breaking Speeches and Hannibal Lectures. Related to the concept that "the pen is mightier than the sword", though not to the trope, which is about stabbing people with pens.

Not to Be Confused With Word Power, an index of phrases used to activate/accentuate powers and attacks. See the Index of Prayer and Meditation, about communication with divine beings,

See also Language Tropes, Dialogue, Narrator Tropes. Compare Formulaic Magic, where math and numbers have power.

There are many tropes reliant on the idea that language either is or is not powerful.

These are tropes about language being powerful or impotent in and of itself, not general tropes about words.

    Tropes on this scale 

Note that just employing one of these is not enough to be this trope: the work must reflect on language as a medium.

Examples of this trope:

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    Films — Live-Action 
  • Arrival: The central conflict of the film involves humans attempting to understand the Heptapods' language and establish communications with them. The two main characters, scientists on the front-line of the American effort, have differing opinions on whether language is a mere extension of thought or, as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis posits, thought itself is actually influenced by language. As it turns out the latter is proven true, to the point that learning the Heptapod language allows one to experience time itself in an entirely different manner. In a more mundane example, the Chinese attempts at communication failed because they used mahjong as a basis for their 'language' with the Heptapods, and since it is a zero-sum game the Heptapods' responses to the Chinese queries took on a more aggressive tone than the Heptapods intended.

  • The Bible:
    • The creation narrative in the very beginning of Genesis describes God creating the world by speaking it to life, word by word, beginning with "Let there be light". (The variant narrative in the second chapter instead describes God "fashioning" creation, like an artisan, then delegates authority to Adam and Eve to name everything.)
    • The Gospel of John similarly opens with "in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God", emphasising the divine creative power of language and then connecting Jesus to it by declaring him its physical incarnation — "the Word made flesh".
    • In most versions of the Jesus story, much is made of Jesus's ability to gain followers after they simply hear him talk.
    • In a meta example, many people believe the Bible to be the word of God, and irrefutable because of that.
  • The Book of Mormon: Language is powerful when speaking on God's behalf.
    • Nephi the son of Helaman is commended by God and told that for his faithfulness, "all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word, for thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will." That is to say, Nephi can now command anything to happen—famines, plagues, casting down mountains, you name it—and the Earth will obey him as it would obey God. He uses it to stop a war, and to preach repentance without being killed.
    • Moroni mentions that the Brother of Jared once commanded a mountain to move.
  • A central theme throughout The Case Files of Jeweler Richard, although the anime touches on it a bit less. The novels even have long descriptions of the a sea of words a person can drown in when they're fluent in too many languages.
  • Terry Pratchett's Discworld series has the power of words, stories, and even literal books and letters as literal centers of supernatural influence on the disc.
  • This idea is central to the Earthsea series. It starts out fairly simply, as a world with a Language of Truth that doubles as a Language of Magic reliant on the memorization of things' True Names, but as the story progresses, it questions the origins of this magic and reveals that words only have so much power—language-based magic is a relatively shallow, masculine form of magic, and there are deeper forms of magic and understanding that do not rely on the imperfect medium of speech.
  • Fahrenheit 451: The government has banned books and literacy so that it can keep the public complacent and misinformed via television. Language is thematically tied to thought throughout the book, as various individuals rebel by hiding or even memorizing books.
  • As the creator of Newspeak, George Orwell was extremely interested in the power of language to control thought.
    • Nineteen Eighty-Four seeks to show how language can be used politically to deceive and manipulate people. "The Party" has mandated Newspeak be used as a way to further control the thoughts of the populace, and writing has been banned altogether. Winston's job involves going through old documents and periodicals and carefully replacing words to suit whatever new narrative is being constructed by the Party, and one of his first acts of rebellion is to hide a notebook he finds and begin recording his thoughts in it.
    • Animal Farm: The pigs, especially Squealer, become skilled at reading and writing and use this power of literacy to exert control over the other animals on the farm. One of the most obvious ways is that the farm's laws are recorded in writing on the side of the barn: only the pigs can read them, so only the pigs can interpret them—or know when they have been subtly changed.
  • J. R. R. Tolkien was a noted linguistics freak, notorious for creating his own conlangs and Artificial Scripts. His works tend to reflect this interest.
    • This is one of the main themes of The Hobbit. From the Dwarves' song which first inspires Bilbo to go on his adventure to Gandalf's verbal spellcasting to the eventual hero Bard being saved by his inherited ability to communicate with rooks, great narrative emphasis is placed on the power of the right words at the right time. Bilbo himself, as a Guile Hero, learns how to effectively Talk His Way Out of sticky situations—first by imitating the voices of a group of trolls to turn them on each other, then by winning his life in a riddle contest, and later by talking circles around a dragon he accidentally wakes up.
    • According to the Creation Myth at the beginning of The Silmarillion, the first language is a song begun by Illuvatar, with which He creates the universe. He eventually allows His angels to join in, and what they sing is also brought into being. One of the angels rebels and attempts to create discord in the music, but Illuvatar warns him that everything he creates will be a part of the whole because Illuvatar created the medium.
  • The Walt Whitman poem "To the Sayers of Words" (from Leaves of Grass) takes a Treachery of Images approach to language, exploring the relationship between the word and that which it represents.
    Were you thinking that those were the words—
    those upright lines? those curves, angles, dots?
    No, those are not the words—the substantial words
    are in the ground and sea,
    They are in the air—they are in you.
  • Verge: Stories: A theme in "Second Language" and "A Woman Signifying" especially—the importance of having language to describe one's experiences is stressed in both, and the women in both eventually resort to self-harm as an alternative form of expression when they are unable to speak their truths.
  • Voices from Chernobyl: Many of the survivors interviewed claim they have difficulty putting their experiences into words at all, as though there were no language to capture what they had seen in the wake of a catastrophe the like of which had never occurred in history. One particularly philosophical subject expresses this explicitly:
    Question: Is the world as it's depicted in words the real world? Words stand between the person and his soul.
  • In the online story Wielder of Words, the narrator talks about how words can be dangerous if you use the wrong one or use them in the wrong way, and how studying them to try and figure out what to say can make you feel weak, but it also talks about how words are used in the correct way, they can be good.
  • The Russian poem "The Word" by N. Gumilyov is about this:
    By the Word they stopped the sun’s inferno,
    And destroyed the towns by the Word

  • Much of Pink Floyd's work is preoccupied with the theme of communication and language's relative effectiveness at facilitating it.
    • The Division Bell is a Concept Album with this as the central theme. The album's tracks alternate between instrumentals and lyric songs, and most of the tracks with words explore the motif of speech vs silence—especially "Keep Talking", which features the voice of Stephen Hawking, who can only speak with the help of a computer:
      For millions of years mankind lived just like the animals
      Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination:
      We learned to talk
    • Communication and language are also a motif in The Wall, tying in with the isolation/connection represented by the central metaphor of the wall itself. The protagonist's early exploration of his talent with words is brutally shut down by his teachers, and later the failure of his marriage is blamed on his refusal to just talk to his wife. He eventually twists his power over language to influence others, essentially starting a neo-Nazi cult—with him at the forefront, toting a megaphone.
      I can't explain, you would not understand ...
  • The theme of "Say It Right" by Nelly Furtado is this, as the attraction between the singer and the listener remains in limbo until the listener makes a move and speaks out about what they want.
  • In "The Sound of Silence" by Simon & Garfunkel, the singer recounts a dream in which he traveled to a silent world where communication was impossible and tried to speak to others in vain.
    People talking without speaking
    People hearing without listening
    People writing songs that voices never share
    And no one dared
    Disturb the sound of silence
  • Taylor Swift shares her take on the power of words in the introduction to her album Speak Now, a compilation of open letters to people from her life:
    Words can break someone into a million pieces, but they can also put them back together. I hope you use yours for good, because the only words you’ll regret more than the ones left unsaid are the ones you use to intentionally hurt someone.
    • "Mean": Following the album's theme, the bully's words are "knives and swords" to torment the narrator, and the song is her retaliation against the guy.
  • In the Missing Persons' "Words", the singer expresses frustration at her words' apparent lack of power.
    My lips are moving and the sound's coming out
    The words are audible but I have my doubts
    That you realize what has been said
    You look at me as if you're in a daze
    It's like the feeling at the end of the page
    When you realize you don't know what you just read ...
    What are words for when no one listens anymore?

  • A theme throughout the science fiction podcast SAYER. All the main characters are A.I.s without physical forms, present only as voices, to which the name of the eponymous main character, SAYER, is an allusion. SAYER's job is to talk employees of a MegaCorp through their daily duties, and its powers of persuasion (often relative to its counterpart entities, one of whom is named SPEAKER) are frequently discussed. One of its catchphrases is "Can you hear me?", and at a crucial moment a human character delivers the Wham Line to it:
    You are incapable of anything more than words.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In the world of The Madness Dossier, the horrific Anunnakku can use language to control human beings. They made us that way; we’re supposed to be a Slave Race. The heroes of the setting, Project SANDMAN, can and do borrow some of that power to fight back. Human free will is sometimes collateral damage.

  • Dear Evan Hansen: A major theme of the play is how Evan thinks he has nothing to offer the world, but his words end up making him the most powerful character in the show, for better or for worse. (This is played with from the very beginning, where Evan's letters to himself are joked about as a therapeutic tool and a sad kind of thing to have to do, and yet his one stray letter kicks off the whole plot and ends up changing thousands of lives.)
  • The power of language/writing is a motif throughout Hamilton, closely tied to the concept of stories and who tells them. Alexander Hamilton's superpower is writing, and the play chronicles how he uses his persuasive words to help and harm himself throughout his life. The song "Hurricane" discusses this:
    I wrote my way out of hell
    I wrote my way to revolution
    I was louder than the crack in the bell
    I wrote Eliza love letters until she fell
    I wrote about the Constitution and defended it well
    And in the face of ignorance and resistance
    I wrote financial systems into existence
    And when my prayers to God were met with indifference
    I picked up a pen, I wrote my own deliverance
  • This is one of Hamlet's many Central Themes. Language is Hamlet's weapon, used to pen incriminating plays and run punny rings around his enemies, and he is deeply interested in its power and limitations. He is famously verbose, with the greatest line count of any character in a Shakespeare play, yet frequently expresses frustration with his apparent ability to talk about the murder he has been told to avenge (to the audience, at least) but not to do anything about it.
    Hamlet: Words, words, words.

    Video Games 
  • Typoman is all about words and language. The hero is literally made of the letters H.E.R.O. and traverses a landscape where many objects are constructed from the letters that describe them. Moving these letters around to create and altar physical space is a central gameplay mechanic, and the game's narrative revolves around the effect of words on reality—there are even Book Burnings and a literal "PROPAGANDA" machine piloted by a creature made from "LIE."
    DOOM is chasing me and war is calling my name. The only thing I have is the power of words.

  • Kill Six Billion Demons: Existence itself is a lie spoken into being by an omniscient, omnipresent narrator (YISUN) using language to convince Themselves that anything exists that is Not YISUN. 'Magic' in the setting is known as the Art of Lying to the Face of God (and is subdivided into the Black, White and Red arts) and involves using a combination of words and willpower to similarly convince reality that you - and not God - know how things work right at the moment and that's why, say, you are holding a fruit when a moment ago your hand was empty, or why that house is actually a rose bush. YISUN Themselves illustrate this in the Lie of the Iron Plum, by speaking an otherwise indestructible object into a regular plum.
    YISUN: I told you of this and, believing it, it was so. We are all secret kings of our own tower. In truth, it is whichever you prefer. In truth, there is no plum at all, just as there is no YISUN. A plum has no shape, form, or color at all, in truth, but these are all things I find pleasing about it. A plum has no taste at all for it has no flesh or substance, but I find its sweetness intoxicating. A plum is a thing that does not exist. But it is my favorite fruit.