True Names

Wizards, in the world of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea stories, know the true names of things.  And of the powers that are in the world.  And sometimes of each other, or of the persons they deal with.

The true speech is primordial; in that language it is impossible for a wizard to lie.  Dragons can lie, however, even in the true speech; it is their native language.

Do we have anything analogous to this in our world?

Maybe.  Surely, for example, a toddler’s first language is like this.  His speech is a near-miraculous power over things; each new word, all by itself, is an incantation, a spell that creates a new thing in the world.

Roy Rappaport, in the introductory chapter of Ritual, Religion, and the Making of Humanity, noted that our acquisition of language, both as individuals and as a species, furnishes us with two important powers:

  • lying
  • imagining alternatives to what is

But before a child achieves either of those, there is perhaps a brief time in which all speech is the true speech of Earthsea: words make things exist, parents enact things into existence by the power of their voice alone,

This is the magical time, before one learns falsehood.

Remnants of true speech are left to some among us, I think.  Those remnants cannot be written down.  There is no dictionary.  There are only ostensive definitions.

Denise Levertov’s poem The Elves comes to mind.  It has bound Rosemarie and I together from the beginning, forty-six years ago.


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