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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.

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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.

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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 and The Power of Acting, 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 also Language Tropes, Dialogue, Narrator Tropes.


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

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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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    Literature 
  • The Bible:
    • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 Con Langs 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

    Music 
  • In the Missing Persons' "Words" ("What Are Words For?"), 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?
  • 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
  • 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 protagonists 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 ...

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