1.25.2006

We Will Talk Language

Looking through the languages that a friend and I are familiar with (and hungry for exceptions), we found no instance except in English of the practice of using the word for 'determination' or 'strength of purpose' to establish referral to future events.

As in "The Stock Market will collapse."
or "I will try harder next time."

Constructions like "have been" are reasonably common but what is this matter of the Will?

In considering that this peculiarity was English -as in "sourced in Great Britain", at least in partial origin, I struck a nerve and you will all have to forgive me now as I am going to stray farrrr out of the current academic philosophical canon and invoke our weird departed friend Aleister Crowley, a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain in the beginning and especially the middle of the last century.

Because the word "Will" has a strong connotation in the philosophy of this strange fellow, whose magickal system (which was simultaneously a total reworking and faithful torch-bearing of a long old tradition) was nothing more complex than a system of learning to focus the will to effect change. All additional trappings served as atmosphere.

The first and biggest thing when it comes to "Doing Magick" that you learn in this tradition is to create what're called "Sigils" - 'magickal symbols' with a connotation of meaning that you define yourself. They can stand for anything, even and especially concepts that aren't well-expressed in English. In other words... a sigil is a word you make up yourself.

Essentially, in doing sigil magick, you repeat to yourself in a state of serious mystickal focus:

"I will try harder next time." "The Stock Market WILL collapse." "I will find the emerald gate to the thirteenth heaven of et cetera and whatever"
And the experience that keeps these traditions going is the experience of having this work.

The 20th century British Occult traces its root/rotes/routes back a few centuries in the UK, branches through Europe on its way on down through Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, eventually even the nation of Israel and India. Little tendrils poking out into the Celtic traditions, solid foundation in the heart of Africa - A startlingly similar map to the one that I might draw if I tried to trace the path of the English that I'm speaking these days.

What is it about a word? Trace a word's geneology and you'll find it's rooted not in your brain, or anyone's brain but in the same place that your geneology terminates. The word you speak now is the end result, still in progress, of billions upon billions of sayings, and a long slow process of finding new ways of wording and new words for saying, new sigils and ways of sigil-making, and why is it called "spelling" the same as a magic "spell"? If a word's not just a flat dead token but one stop on an unbroken chain of growth, linking people across impossible gulfs of time, who's really doing most of the talking? What are we doing when we speak carelessly in matters of importance?

5 comments:

Cristi said...

well said!

this kind of thinking raises all kinds of interesting questions for linguistics:

how can we make a simple characterization of language and its uses while all this mystical stuff is tied up in it?

how can we priviledge presence over absence? clearly, the dead can speak.

how can a word be a certain part of speech, or contain a certain meaning given the nature of these glacial changes that arise from many decisions by many individuals?

nice post.

Seb said...

Obligatory deflationary analytic post:

I have a general skepticism about arguments about the significance of a word from a word's etymology, or apparent etymology (the ultrafeminist's call to change "history" to "herstory" comes to mind.) But I went to the OED on this one, and it looks like your etymological assertion is correct:

"[OE. *willan, pres. tense wille, willa{th}, pa. tense wolde, Anglian walde, = OFris. willa, wille, wilde, wolde, OS. willian, williu, williad, wolda, (M)LG. willen, (M)Du. willen, wilde, ON. vilja, vil, vilda, viljat (Sw. vilja, ville, Da. ville, vilde), Goth. wiljan, wiljau, wilda:{em}OTeut. *wel(l)jan, parallel with OTeut. *wal(l)jan, whence OFris. wella, welde, OS. wellian, welda, MLG. wellen, OHG. wellen, well, wellemes, etc., welta, wolta (MHG. wellen, wollen, wöllen, welte, wolte, gewellt, G. wollen, will, wollen, wollte, gewollt), ON. velja, vel, val{edh}i, vali{edh}r (Sw. välja, Da. vælge) to choose, (see WELE v.), Goth. waljan to choose; for other Teut. derivatives see WILL n.1, WILL v.2, WALE n.2 choice, WELL adv.: f. Indo-Eur. wel-: wol-: wl-, represented by L. velle, volo, (velim, volu{imac}), Lith. v{etilde}lyju, v{etilde}lyti to wish, pa-velmi to allow, viltis hope, OSl. vel{ebreve}ti to command, voliti to will, choose, volja will, W. gwell better, Skr. várati chooses, wishes, prefers, vára- wish, choice, váram better, v{rdotbl}{ndotbl}ati wishes, prefers.
The most remarkable feature of this vb., besides its many idiomatic and phrasal uses, is its employment as a regular auxiliary of the future tense, which goes back to the OE. period, and may be paralleled in other Germanic languages, e.g. MHG.
In some uses it is not always possible to distinguish this vb. from WILL v.2]"

I suppose MHG, whatever that is, would be another language that has the same remarkable feature?

The etymology of "will" predates Aleister Crowley and his Thelema system and comes from some old strand of German. The geneology of the occult that you draw seems to miss that area entirely, so I say that the link between the sigil magick usage of "Will" and its use as an auxiliary verb is specious.

However, I was delighted that you discussed the use of magick symbols "with a connotation of meaning that you define yourself. They can stand for anything, even and especially concepts that aren't well-expressed in English. In other words... a sigil is a word you make up yourself." (emphasis mine)

This is exciting to me, in the context of this blog, because it points at what I've been preaching for some time now: that we can have meaningful mental representations that are not linguistic, in the sense that they are not dependent on our natural language faculties. In the magick you describe, the sigil is arbitrary, and the monk of Thelema assigns it a meaning that may not have a word in their known language. That meaning must exist prior to the sigil--I would say as a non-linguistic concept.

As for the broad sweep of linguistic change, I'm far less romantic about my own words. My words are isolating. I heard other's use theirs, I imitated then, discovered how to grow my own out of the base of my brain, how to utter them with throat and tongue and lips. The communicative act is the compression and decompression of air, a blind and desperate signal: like a thousand messages in a thousand tiny bottles. It is just by luck that anyone discovers them, sees the scratches on the paper, and thinks they understand. They invoke their own concepts that may well be alien to mine--again, it is only by luck and the careful crafting of community that there is anything held in common.

My words are grown, yes, but not out of the depths of human time, but out of the timeless depth of my own Will.

Anonymous said...

>The etymology of "will" predates Aleister Crowley and his Thelema system and comes from some old strand of German. The geneology of the occult that you draw seems to miss that area entirely, so I say that the link between the sigil magick usage of "Will" and its use as an auxiliary verb is specious.

Adam was not claiming that Aleister Crowley originated the term 'will' but that his magick was "a total reworking and faithful torch-bearing of a long old tradition." i.e. that Crowley was drawing from and reworking an old system of magick in whose history the creation of the sigil "Will" arose.

Seb said...

I was refering to the connection between English etymology and the history of the occult implied in this passage:

"The 20th century British Occult traces its root/rotes/routes back a few centuries in the UK, branches through Europe on its way on down through Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, eventually even the nation of Israel and India. Little tendrils poking out into the Celtic traditions, solid foundation in the heart of Africa - A startlingly similar map to the one that I might draw if I tried to trace the path of the English that I'm speaking these days."

I brought up the etymology of "will" because it seems to be primarily Germanic, which did not seem to play a role in the spread of Occultism to England.

So I would disagree with the claim that "Crowley was drawing from and reworking an old system of magick in whose history the creation of the sigil "Will" arose."

On the grounds that the sigil (or sign, or morpheme) "will" did not get created in the long tradition of magick, but instead has a different history--one that passed through Germany, where occultism did not, apparently, take a strong hold.

Since it was from the etymology that "will"'s dual use as both the future tense auxiliary verb and the word for 'determination' or 'strength of purpose,' it seems likely that Crowley's special use of "Will" was his own invention, not one hallowed by etymology (to the extent etymology ever hallows anything...)

Adam said...

Seb Said:

...So I would disagree with the claim that "Crowley was drawing from and reworking an old system of magick in whose history the creation of the sigil "Will" arose."

yeah, I'd disagree with that too, in specific, because what this was really meant to be about was a phenomenon that might be described as "Different Family Trees with the same shape". Crowley is only there for decoration because he was the first Englishman I thought of in context of the word "Will."

The 'will' etymology is good, thanks very much for that as i haven't got ready OED access at present. The initial phenomenon i pointed to is illustrated in this etymology by the fact that while the word 'will' has its roots in Germanic languages and was even used for the future tense in older Germanic languages, in modern German, to say "ich will [verb]" simply means "I wish [verb] to occur".

The fact that in English we retain this but in other languages we do not was a jump off point for some loose circular musing. We are not a scientist over here but a playground detective.

The practice of a non-linguistic concept coming into linguistic expression is important to both of these family trees - that of language in general and mysticism in general, as well as probably a good million others we could list if we were listmakers.

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