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Harry Potter

Harry Potter and the Linguistic Innovator

This is not a shockingly grammatical sequel to the acclaimed series, but a chance to revel in the magically inventive language of the Harry Potter books. The films have reportedly made over six billion dollars to date and the books have been translated into 67 languages, with 450 million copies sold worldwide. J. K. Rowling’s magical world has reached so many people that it is really no surprise that one of her word creations has already made it into the Oxford English Dictionary.

Why use existing languages when you can invent your own?

J. K. Rowling uses language in her books to enhance the other-worldliness of her theme. She not only references mythology through the inclusion of creatures such as centaurs and hippogriffs, but follows in the footsteps of such authors as Tolkien by creating a number of innovative new words for her world. Some of the words are transparent blends of existing words, for example:

  • ‘Mudblood’ – meaning a witch or wizard who is born to non-magic parents – is a simple combination of two common English words. This is essentially a racial slur in the world of Hogwarts, as opposed to ‘pure-blood’ (with its uncomfortable echoes of Hitler’s Aryan ideal). The harsh plosive endings of the two syllables allow the word to be spat out with venom, making this immediately understood as an insult, before its meaning has been explained.
  • ‘Animagus’ – a wizard who can transform into an animal – is a blend of animal and magus, a Persian priest or magician from antiquity, so the meaning of a wizard as an animal is clearly derived.

However, not all her inventions are so simple. For example, a ‘Horcrux’ – an object in which a dark wizard has concealed part of their soul – has no obvious origin. It has been suggested that ‘Horcrux’ is a blend of the Latin verb horrere, meaning ‘to shudder’, and the noun crux, meaning ‘destruction’, but I think it far more likely that Rowling was creating something unique and mysterious, without obvious meaning, in keeping with the dark, secretive connotations of the word. Certainly the most prolific of her creations is muggle – a non-magical person – which has now gained its own meaning outside of Harry Potter as ’a person who lacks a particular skill’, and is included in our dictionaries. For an invented word by an author to reach this status is a great achievement, and a clear indication of the impact of the language within her novels; readers have transferred the language from her world into our own.

Because Henley isn’t Hogwarts

The settings of the Harry Potter novels are made to feel realistic through the inclusion of familiar (at least to a British audience) places such as King’s Cross Station and the Forest of Dean. However, linguistically, Rowling goes a step further to engage with her audience, reflecting the character of a place through its name. For example upon hearing the name ‘Little Whingeing’, one could think of little else than a mundane and prim suburbia where people secretly water their lawns at 4am during a hosepipe ban. The school name ‘Hogwarts’, which perhaps initially conjures up a rather grotesque image of pimple-ridden swine, sounds medieval and historical; the word transports you to an era when a belief in witchcraft was commonplace.

The same principle can be seen in her naming of the wizard prison Azkaban, which conjures up the forbidden through the ending ‘ban’, and seclusion from the rest of the wizarding world with a name reminiscent of Alcatraz. The result sounds both foreboding and frightening.

Naming the characters: mythology, muggles, and magic

Rowling also makes such efforts with the names of her characters. Unusual names like Sirius and Draco come respectively from the Dog and Dragon Star formations, and strengthens the sense of this unfamiliar magical world. The use of the Dog Star name for Sirius is made more apt because as an ‘animagus’ he spends much of the third book Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban as a dog. Rowling uses names as a way of differentiating the magical world from the regular Muggle world, and also to provide a sort of shorthand for their character traits. Luna Lovegood’s name, for example, evokes both her strong connection with the other-worldly and her essential goodness. Minerva McGonagall’s first name draws on mythology, and lends that character a certain amount of grandeur – would anyone at Hogwarts have taken Mandy McGonagall seriously?

Rowling makes use of alliteration and assonance to make many of her characters’ names more memorable; just look at comic character Rita Skeeter, suspiciously sibilant Severus Snape (Severus is from the Severan dynasty emperors of Rome, and Snape is a village in Suffolk), and the formidable-sounding Bellatrix Lestrange. By using an apt surname for her disturbed character, coupled with the exotic blended forename of Bella and Beatrix, Rowling strengthens our impression of this character’s unpredictable and cruel nature.

Her protagonist does not follow this pattern, as he is our link to this magical world. By using the average, everyday (at least in the English-speaking world) name ‘Harry Potter’, she is providing a character we can relate to as he experiences the weird and wonderful things in his new life.

And you thought Latin was dead…?

I could not write about the language in Harry Potter without mentioning Latin. It plays a crucial role in the books and films, as it is the language of spells. The use of Latin is, as I see it, clever in two ways. First, it is the route of many modern languages and you can often see derivatives of it in English, French, or indeed any of the Romance languages. This makes this language more universal than if the spells had been spoken in English – though they do seem to work best when spoken in a crisp British accent! You can see derivative English words clearly from the following spells:

  • Oppugno (a spell to attack) – pugnacious
  • Incendio ( a spell to set alight) – incendiary
  • Felix Felicis (the name of potion for luck) – felicity
  • Protego (a protection spell) – protect

Secondly, the use of a dead language which is for the most part unknown by the general public makes her world appear more realistic; the language does exist but remains hidden through its lack of use in modern society – much like the magical world remains hidden from the Muggle world in Harry Potter.

Rowling’s success as a writer is unsurpassed, due in part to her ability to make her imaginary world so accessible. So accessible in fact that I – like many others I am sure – am still disappointed every day when I go through the post and find no letter from Hogwarts…

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 world premiere in Trafalgar Square


Photos by Alex Baker, Studio Joslizen

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