In the Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, Adso quotes the Bible, more specifically John 1:1:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
Authors and language-shapers are worldbuilders. Their words create characters and universes, but also question the power of words and names within our own universe through the lens of fiction.
Meta World Building
“The Book of Nature is written in the language of mathematics.”
Computer science and algorithmics do allow everyone to shape things by writing lines of code. Some programming languages dwell into worldbuilding, such as educational language Logo and its MicroWorlds program, which has a constructionist learning approach.
Authors may make words and languages the basis of their stories too. J. R. R. Tolkien was a philologist and created a lot of constructed languages in The Lord of the Rings universe, such as Elvish languages or the Black Speech. He said:
“The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes ﬁrst and the story follows.”
J. R. R. Tolkien
To explore the links between language and creation, authors like to create “meta-worlds”. Indeed, as realistic as it appears to be, I think a story always takes place in a fictional world of its own, even if it’s supposed to be ours. And as authors create a world of their own by writing words, sometimes their fictional characters can also manipulate words, literature and languages to change their worlds.
In French manga series City Hall by Rémi Guérin and Guillaume Lapeyre, writers have a real power. Paper has been banned because good authors can create monsters or weapons when writing about them. Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle help London deal with such monsters. The whole series is a brilliant metaphor for authors’ worldbuilding, set in a Steampunk universe.
Similarly, in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series (not read yet), fiction and reality can collide.
In The Purple Rose of Cairo, Woody Allen asks what is real as a movie character steps out of the screen and falls in love with a “real” woman. She soon is torn between the character and the real-life actor who played him… Are fictional characters real in some world of their own? Could they have a consciousness?
This movie was inspired by Luigi Pirandello’s theatre play Six Characters in Search of an Author, where characters step into the real world searching for an author to finish their story.
This can be linked with Buddhist’s Tulpa – meaning thoughtform, or the ability to create an object or being through mental will.
Highlight to read Spoilers about The End of Mr. Y, by Scarlett Thomas (in white): In the End of Mr. Y, Scarlett Thomas goes farther and says the world we live in is an actual creation of consciousness./spoiler
Other texts link creation and believing. For some beings to keep existing, you have to believe in them.
In Peter and Wendy by James M. Barrie, Peter Pan says:
“every time a child says, “I don’t believe in fairies,” there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.”
J. M. Barrie
On a larger scale, American Gods by Neil Gaiman says Gods and Spirits’ powers are diminishing as people’s belief in them is fading, while new Gods arrive, reflecting the new beliefs and obsessions.
“People believe, thought Shadow. It’s what people do. They believe, and then they do not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjuration. People populate the darkness; with ghost, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock solid belief, that makes things happen.”
Neil Gaiman, American Gods
Naming and Controlling
Some religious faiths give similarly conjuring powers to names. In Hinduism, chanting a name can give power. To some extent Judaism and Islam have taboos over pronouncing God’s True Name or Greatest Name, so no one can control God or His creations.
To make a link with computer science, True Names can also be found in shape of UUIDs for example. An UUID would allow you to identify an object clearly, but you could still use more user-friendly (or translated…) names for your objects. You can have two objects named Thingy. If Thingy 1 is actually truly called thingy01-1111-1111-1111-aaaaaaaaaaaa and Thingy 2 thingy02-2222-2222-2222-bbbbbbbbbbbb, you can still call them Thingy. But if you want to manipulate them, you need to use their IDs. You won’t knock on the wrong Thingy’s door.
Such ideas are developed in fictional works, such as The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss.
Knowing the True name of things gives power over them. As young Kvothe manages to utter the name of the wind, he becomes able to control it.
In Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling, Voldemort is referred to by epithets such as “He Who Must Not Be Named”, and indeed a Taboo spell cast upon his name allows his followers to trace whoever uttered his name.
In Doctor Who’s The Shakespeare Code, Carrionites manage to have control over someone if they know their name.
Similar patterns can be found in Skulduggery Pleasant book series by Derek Landy.
Each person is born with a True Name. If they happen to discover it they can become very powerful, but other people could control them too. As your Given Name also allows people to control you, most sorcerers take a name to seal their given name.
Taken Names are supposed to reflect who the person is. As Derek Landy said, all began with Skulduggery Pleasant’s name:
“His name popped into my head first – Skulduggery Pleasant – and it told me everything about him. I knew who he was, what he was and what he was like. His first name alone told me he was a skeleton detective— I mean, that’s pretty obvious to ANYONE, right? Right?”
This power of suggestion is actually a real power of names:
We tend to link unknown words with apparently unrelated shapes according to the way the words sound. This synesthesia-like power can influence us in many ways.
In the Bouba-Kiki experiment, people were asked which shape was a Kiki and which one was a Bouba. 95 to 98% answered Kiki was the spiky shape and Bouba the curvy one. Please read more about the Feelings of words in this very interesting article, and this research paper.
Some authors try to embody this power of words.
For instance, in Un Lun Dun, China Miéville creates the Utterlings, that are born when Mr Speaker pronounces words. Young Londoner Deeba makes the monster utter more creatures by telling him London slang words. Then some utterlings rebel and accompany her on her quest.
‘Out of all the words in the whole language, how—’ ‘Cauldron,’ Deeba said, looking at the utterling with her head on one side. It jumped up and down and nodded and threw up its four arms and spun in a jig. Hemi stared at Deeba in open-mouthed delight.
‘How could you possibly tell?’ the book said.
‘I dunno.’ Deeba shrugged airily. ‘Doesn’t it look like the world cauldron to you?’
China Miéville, Un Lun Dun
In real life, the Bouba-Kiki effect can be used in marketing and branding, as stated in this article. More generally, words and communication can change the world. Spin Doctors and other communication professionals know words influence people.
The Power of Books
“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
And why not use books to change the world – for the better? Fiction can help us think about how the world could be and make us aim higher.