(Part I introduced the idea that in the course of exerting control some persons may use manipulative language, including language formed up as narrative, to achieve their ends. Language framed to control another blinds its target to everything except what the attacker wishes him/her to see. Such “deadly words” may trap, bring a range of illnesses upon, or “kill” their intended victim by creating an illusion of limited options. Part III may be found here.)
How is it that words–incorporeal entities that they are–may threaten another’s wellbeing? Jeanne Favret-Saada, who studied witchcraft in the Bocage region of France, said the most important truth she learned in her research was that words and acts are the same. “Now witchcraft,” she says,
is spoken words; but these spoken words are power, and not knowledge or information. To talk, in witchcraft, is never to inform “¦ For a single word (and only a word) can tie or untie a fate, and whoever puts himself in a position to utter it is formidable. Knowing about spells brings money, brings more power and triggers terror … (Favret-Saada:9-10).
How does language achieve these affects? The answer may be surprisingly simple.
When an angry child shouts, “I hate you!” the speaking of such words is an act of self-defense and perhaps hate. Shot at a vulnerable target, these words may do damage if their intended victim believes he or she is, indeed, hated, and if it matters. A discerning person might recognize that actually in speaking these words the child is attempting to wield power. The child speaks the words I hate you to defend herself or get back on her feet–she’s struggling for control of the situation. In this imposition of will, she shoots arrows of language and unwittingly attempts a primitive spell. It’s a spell because it is an attempt to gain the upper hand through wielded language. It’s primitive because in this case the spell is cast wildly, usually without knowledge of the intended victim’s susceptibility to the poison on the words’ barbs. Knowledge of the victim’s susceptibility to verbal poisons is essential for acquiring control; it’s what informs the spell’s word choice.
Another reason such spells are primitive is because phrases like “I hate you” and “I wish you were dead” aren’t spoken to mean exactly what they say. During a momentary flare-up of emotions where a child reacts to a sudden, short-lived, and common frustration, these words mean something more like, “Stop making a fool of me, I can’t bear it,” or “Stop preventing me from doing what I want to do.” The fact that parents, the usual targets of such darts, don’t sicken with sorrow or die mysteriously afterward relates to their knowledge that the child doesn’t really want them dead. Such words shot forth without skill or real intent fly wide of their apparent marks–and so they may be intended to do.
Of course, some children do become skilled marksmen, having learned early the advantages of manipulative language, and some parents do sicken and die physically, psychologically, or both. Even simple language in the mouths of the immature is activity with varying capacities for power; that is, even simple language is action taken and not commentary upon action or mere information. Because language does things to and for us, it’s a potent element of the animation of our species. As the physical acts of a person may injure another or help another to safety, so may language work either for the good or the evil, for the health or the sickness, and for the wholeness or the fragmentation of an individual and of his or her society.