The Witchcraft of Grammar
Although you may be a skeptic concerning the occult, the history of grammar offers a clue to the very real power of magical symbols and words. The word ‘grammar’ has its roots in the Latin words ‘grammatica’ and ‘gramma’ which mean a written mark or letter. When the word arrived in English in the14th century, a new word emerged alongside it: ‘grammary’, meaning occult learning and necromancy. This led to the word ‘glamour’ which originally meant ‘enchantment’ or ‘spell’. Devils and wizards were said to ‘cast the glamour’. In medieval Europe, the word ‘grammar’ was often used to talk about the study of the occult. This history acknowledges the very real power that words and marks have to alter the world. What is the nature of this magical power?
In medieval Europe, the power of words and symbols was much more evident than it is today. This was not just the power to express authority and demand allegiance. People who could read and write were an elite group who had a unique ability to make sense of the world and to make reality appear, literally, in new and unique ways. Because our world is now saturated with symbols, words, and language, it is difficult to imagine the power that words had to make things appear. But in an undereducated world without a formalized language, the introduction of new words, and the new concepts they conveyed, had the power to change how one perceived the world. Like a Gestalt-image suddenly becoming visible, a new word or concept crystallizes the world in a new way and creates a new reality.
Although a new word can crystallize a new reality quite suddenly, words can also have a slower, sometimes insidious ‘effect of truth’ in the sense that people will so consistently act on an idea conveyed by a word that it becomes true over time. For example, a child is born with a sign or mark upon its body and is rumored by a superstitious community to be possessed by a demon. The child is shunned, disrespected, unloved and thereby becomes demonized over time. Because of the expectations created by the mark, she comes to be possessed. The mark or ‘gramma’ creates its own reality. Today we still see this power at work when child is labeled, now with a word rather than a mark, is subtly ostracized, and is then gradually criminalized or psychiatrized. The label creates its own reality.
This is the magical power of symbols and words. Words simplify and reify a complex, ambiguous reality. The left-brain latches on to words and word-patterns as conceptual short cuts and the right-brain then navigates the world via these labels and short cuts. Words create a reality through a habitual pattern of labeling and conceptualizing.
We have been able to recognize and mitigate this power, simply by becoming aware of the potentially insidious power of words and labels. However, we have not yet noticed the insidious spell that grammar – the structure of language -- has cast over our lives. Grammar has created a reality for us, not by labeling, but by schematizing reality in terms of the subject-verb-object structure through which we communicate. We perceive and navigate reality through this self-isolating, subject-object grammar. The holism of existence has crystallized, Gestalt-like, into disconnected subjects and objects acting upon one another. Reality is now experienced as discrete subjects and objects that are only contingently and causally related to one another.
This grammar of isolated subjects has cast a very specific ‘glamour’ over reality. Our sense of self was once very different than it is today. Language originally reinforced a holistic sense of community, binding us together. We understood our place in the world first and foremost in terms of our community, our home, our family, and our Gods. That was, literally, who we were. Only secondarily, and only as part of a greater whole, did we think of ourselves as individuals. Now, thanks to the ‘glamour’ of grammar, we have become independent, isolated subjects navigating a world of disconnected things. The grammar of separation and analysis has created a world of isolation. We have lost sight of the Divine interconnectedness of reality. It is the spell of grammar that we must break if we are to see reality as it -- as one.