issue 04: craft
finding the wordszach whitworth
In Judaic and later Abrahamic theology, the Word is suggested to have predated humankind, as God spoke the universe and life into being.1 We could associate the Word with DNA, perhaps—a code that designates the qualities and character of all life on Earth. But the biologist who unravels an organism’s genome finds more of themself within it, for they decode to understand the nature of their own life. That is, the Word has less significance for the named than the spirit of the namer.
The California poppies blooming in my yard would, of course, be called something else when speaking a language other than English, but any name hinges upon the naming culture and its relation to the flower. If we are to presuppose that language predates culture and life itself, the poppy perhaps has a name that many people have attempted to determine (and maybe have come close), but it is far more of an inherency—an ineffable name that only the flower and cosmos can utter.
The poppy was originally cultivated in Europe, where its blood-red colour led to its association with death. Following the armistice that brought an end to the First World War, some nations adopted the poppy as an official symbol of remembrance. It is still worn today as a reminder of that catastrophic conflict and its victims—a representation of the death of the war itself.
Though we call the flower a poppy, its extended name and nature seem to appear in its form and locality. One would still call the flowers outside my window poppies, but the bright orange California poppy is so far removed from its ancestor and point of origin that it is something almost entirely new. Now adapted to the Pacific coast of North America, this poppy was a journeyer that came from faraway lands, beyond the mountains of the east and over the great span of the Atlantic Ocean.
Yet, we can recognise this orange poppy as having the same inner alphabet as the red poppy. In a place so distant from the latter’s origin, the wanderer is still able to name it, as they have already come to know the poppy in their being. It communicates itself to the human, who in turn names it. That naming is not for the sake of addressing another human but a communication of one’s own being—of one’s experience of the universe—to the divine, to the very elements that breathed life into us.
The namer is the subject of Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Earthsea” fantasy novels, analogised as a practitioner of magic.2 Le Guin based her laws of spellcraft on language: on knowing the true names of the objects and energies of the universe. One could learn to weave small charms and brew potions by reading old tomes of magic, even harnessing the knowledge in one’s regular activities.
This lifestyle of applying ancient magic to accomplish daily chores had a crudeness to it—a village witch in the first chapter of A Wizard of Earthsea was said to have no understanding of the balance of nature, and in that ignorance, she was more able to concoct poisons than cures.3 The understanding of the sea, stones, and sky through language could be used with altruistic purpose, or it could be used to manipulate the world for one’s own desires.
Le Guin’s conception of the wizard was one who knew the true names of the trees and floating breeze, who was versed in old words and incantations, but who only ever spoke them when absolutely necessary. The wizard was a journeyer, a wise wanderer who found the names of fluffy clouds and sprouting plants through patience and observation. The practice of spellcraft—of communing with matter and its binding forces by name—was inseparable from speech: to whip up an eastward wind that could fill the sails of a ship crossing the ocean, a wizard conversed with the air, addressing it as a familiar friend or close cousin.
This kind of speaker, as exemplified by the wizard, is not demonstrated as an instructor who preaches to an audience. It is not merely a happening outside oneself (to oneself) that is experienced. It instead comes from an internal experience—from tradition, memory, and existence. The understanding, the experience emanating from the internal, is central to the wizard’s practice.
In his 1936 essay, “The Storyteller,” Walter Benjamin recognised a decline in storytelling ability in Europe, pointing to a loss of experience as the culprit.4 He recounted the indescribable calamity of the First World War, from which surviving soldiers returned home speechless, unable to spell out what they had seen. Mechanised war and its sponsor, (industrial) imperial progress, had destroyed linguistic, reflective ability, and Benjamin believed this decline had not ceased.
Holed up in the muck of snaking trenches, the soldier loses their hearing in the shock of raining shellfire. Tanks roll across the trench gaps where the soldier hunkers down, watching in terror as the mobile, armoured machines loaded with bullets barrel over the terrain above. Fighter planes buzz high overhead, machine guns blasting one another out of the sky nearly as soon as any aircraft had left the ground.
The horrors witnessed by the soldier were so far removed from what had once been reality that their vision blurred. No matter what was conveyed, no words could ever properly depict the experience of the War. One might be able to explain the literal sights and sounds, but the understanding, ruled by post-traumatic distortion, disorientation, and destruction, was as demolished as every bombarded cathedral now lying in ruins. Where could wisdom or understanding be found in such apocalyptic atrocities?
Benjamin believed the storyteller was connected to a sense of place, particularly noting craftspeople, who would spend much of their lives settled in one town. But at some point, likely in their youth as they learnt their trade, the craftsperson had travelled to faraway lands, returning with the tales and lore of the places to and through which they had ventured.5
The journeyer who becomes the storyteller has also frequently been the soldier, who travels to a faraway battlefield in a foreign land, perhaps having never before stepped foot out of their home village. But the War eliminated the possibility of this storyteller emerging, despite warcraft having always been a bloody, horrendous affair, because in this modern, mechanised war, land itself was made oblivion.
The impacts of artillery launched dirt and crude iron into the air like geysers, and the dead were so mutilated that some could no longer be identified as human. No matter how complex a tale of this could be, there is still no proper way to describe the experience of the War, for all understanding, history, and humanity was blown to pieces. The next 25 years of radical political shifts in Europe proved to be even more catastrophic for language, as if genocide and a Second World War were needed to reaffirm the barbarism of the First.
The telling and retelling of old stories of a particular locale or people, especially those with more of an oral than visual culture, can become inarticulable, or they may be wiped out altogether along with their speakers in mass acts of violence. The Shoah practically obliterated the Yiddish language, the mother tongue (“mameloshn”) of Ashkenazi Jews, as the greater portion of those who spoke it were systematically murdered.
The everyday use of Yiddish continued in some pockets around the world, but many Ashkenazim relegated it to slang—Yinglish in English-dominant countries—or stopped speaking it altogether. My own grandfather, who was born in the US to immigrant parents, originally spoke Yiddish before assimilation and fear of antisemitism stole the majority of his ability. Yet, even the sprinkling of Yiddish within English or another regionally dominant language is not unrelated to its own emergence.
In its millennium of evolution, Yiddish blended its classical Hebrew roots with the languages of central and eastern Europe as Jews traversed the continent. Every settlement had its own grammatical and aphoristic nuance, shaped by the lands and other peoples these Jews encountered and came to know. Yiddish was a place-based language defined largely by who and what the people came into contact with.
My grandmother has told me of linguistic and sentimental differences within her own lineage: her father’s family were Galician Jews, while her mother’s came from the Grodno region (in what is now Belarus). Even though Yiddish was their common conversational language, distinct variations in both their vocabulary and attitudes set them apart, each attributable to the conditions in which they lived.
According to my grandmother, the Galitzyaners of central-eastern Europe were more emotional and made their food sweeter, while the Litvaks from further northeast were a rather serious bunch. “To live” was “leybn” for the former and “lebn” for the latter. While the modern movement of Yiddish revivalism is commendable in its efforts to repopularise the language for new generations, it sometimes loses those nuances, missing the character of diaspora in favour of a standardised vernacular.
Yiddish is a product of Ashkenazic stories, jokes, and spirituality, not merely a descriptor.6 The sentiment of Yiddish is less invested in the literal information of the universe than knowing it and feeling it within oneself, in collaboration with one’s community, determining sounds and script for those feelings as they well from the soul. It bears historical experience, embodying the journeys of Jews from land to land as each expelled them or sent them to their deaths over thousands of years. Yiddish is a language of searching, yearning, wandering.
It is in a language of wandering that the common belief in the purely informational purpose of speech breaks down. A modern take on this variety of speechcraft can be found in fantasy (video) games such as “The Elder Scrolls” series, the fifth and most recent entry of which—Skyrim (2011)—differentiates the Speech skill from the ability to Shout, which is considered to be a form of magic.7
In many role-playing games, the Speech skill has traditionally been designed for acts of coercion and acquisition, haggling with merchants being the most typical. As one deals, barters, and swindles, their numerical Speech level rises, providing options for extra abilities—cheaper prices and more convincing lies. It is the skill of exchange, of gaining and attaining, thus placing it under the Thief class of skills.
The Shout, referred to as “Thu’um,” uses an archaic local tongue (spoken by dragons) to call upon powers of nature, some of which can be used to quell rage, spit fire, or even slow the passage of time. It is not a skill that develops with practice; rather, one’s knowledge of the Voice expands as one explores the region.
Words can be found in crypts sunken in roots and vines, the dark reaches of ice-carved caves, wooded groves tucked in the grooves of a canyon, or the summits of snow-capped mountains. Many Words may be learnt but never spoken. A Word has no power until the knower has come to understand its truest meaning in their very soul, a self-education that demands deep contemplation.
This kind of speechcraft can, like the traditional game skill, be a tool for manipulation or violence, but there is far more possibility than that, for it recognises the uselessness of esoteric knowledge to exchange. It is the silencing of silence, the quieting of quiet. The Shout has intention, but it comes with no particular goal—it is pure means; an extension of oneself; a speaking of listening.
Speechlessness is the Shout’s prerequisite. It is experience expelled with unrelenting force. Its presence arrives amidst its absence, bursting suddenly from an equally weighted stillness. The Shout is the inverse of the universe, the verse of an inner-verse, the adversary of the unversed universal. It undoes through understanding, destroying destruction itself.
Crucial to the plot of Skyrim is a Shout used to summon a dragon, the Words of which comprise the name of said dragon, Odahviing.8 Similarly in “Earthsea,” it is not only objects but beings who have true names.9 To know another’s name is to understand them. It can be a form of trust and intimacy, of deep connection, but, if known by nefarious forces or used carelessly, it can bring about the demise of the named.
Naming a child after a living relative, according to Ashkenazi folklore, is said to cut short the life of the elder. Perhaps this supposes a latent ancestral energy in the soul, which is most obvious in repurposing the name of the deceased for another generation.10 Those of the present are not merely the future of their past but live concurrently with that past. To speak in understanding, in experience, is to let that past flow from the present: the force of a hundred generations in a single verse.
Rather than discovery, this speech comes from recovery. It sometimes can emerge from studying texts, but it lives in the experience of, and is passed down through, a place and people. Where discovery sets its sights on a direct horizon of the future, recovery traverses, transverses, translates, and reverses. It circles back, around, and every which way, resisting the easy temptation of efficiency. It is a path that retraces, recounts, and retells history.
War attempts a literal and historical demolition with bombs, napalm, and nuclear missiles, stripping the place from people. For every building that scrapes the sky, there is an emptied pit of equal depth scraped into what was once a place. To be a storyteller can be to hold fast to one’s place and people, to keep the ground beneath one’s feet and deny the powers of war the satisfaction of destruction. The storyteller is the passer of words, the preserver who provides their people safe passage as the great smiting storm passes over.
Speech, storytelling, spellcraft—whichever you’d like to call it—is not of market exchanges nor of social demolition. Speech is a force of ancestry and ecology, a redemptive vocalisation of those burned, buried, and trampled in the name of progress. War is where the appropriation of speech leads to enslavement and annihilation, the antithesis of the story. It is an impatience, a speech treating the universe only as information to be harnessed as a resource for acceleration.
The Word is a fire and flower to be found, a holy tongue that binds the strands of the cosmos together. It answers war like the poppy, rooting itself in place as its seeds are scattered. As the deep codes of every grassy field and solar system are sought after by those hungry for power, we must again set to wandering. To drive back the rapid obliteration of space and time, the carnage of capitalistic cataclysm, the long-lost storyteller, the wizard, the journeyer, the craftsperson must bloom again in reincarnation. Against progress, meander.
1 Leo Rosten, Hooray for Yiddish! A Book About English (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982), 13–14.
2 Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea (New York: Bantam Books, 1975), 15–17.
3 Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, 5.
4 Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Mariner Books, 2019), 26–27.
5 Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov,” 27–28.
6 For more information, see Rosten, Hooray for Yiddish! A Book About English, 14–15.
7 Bethesda Game Studios, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Rockville: Bethesda Softworks, 2011).
8 Bethesda Game Studios, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
9 Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea.
10 Michael Wex, Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All Its Moods (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005), 99–108.