Abram on The Magic of Language

The Spell of the Sensuous – Chapter 4: Animism and the Alphabet – David Abram – (p. 133)

“Perhaps the most succinct evidence for the potent magic of written letters is to be found in the ambiguous meaning of our common English word “spell.”  As the roman alphabet spread through oral Europe, the Old English word “spell,” which had meant simply to recite a story or tale, took on the new double meaning: on the one hand, it now meant to arrange, in the proper order, the written letters that constitute the name of a thing or a person; on the other, it signified a magic formula or charm.

Yet these two meanings were not nearly as distinct as they have come to seem to us today.  For to assemble the letters that make up the name of a thing, in the correct order, was precisely to effect a magic, to establish a new kind of influence over that entity, to summon forth!

To spell, to correctly arrange the letters to form a name or a phrase, seemed thus at the same time to cast a spell, to exert a new and lasting power over the things spelled.  Yet we can now realize that to learn to spell was also, and more profoundly, to step under the influence of the written letters ourselves, to cast a spell upon our own senses.  It was to exchange the wild and multiplicitous magic of an intelligent natural world for the more concentrated and refined magic of the written word.”