This is background information about how magic spells work in Ra. This is information that I've been keeping up to date since the story began, but now it can be released publically.
This article contains one serious spoiler for anybody who hasn't finished reading chapter 18, Deeper Magic, and mild spoilers beyond that point. In fact, you should probably read the whole of Ra to date before reading this. This is reference information; Ra is the real story.
The (spoken) language of magic is called "" (the empty string). Or rather, it calls itself this. This has been demonstrated experimentally:
Like many languages, magic has an alphabet, a vocabulary, a grammar and an accent. The language is convoluted, ugly to look at and difficult to speak correctly. Like natural languages, it has very good expressive power and numerous inconsistencies/edge cases. Like programming languages, it demands rigid correctness from its speaker. The study of this language is called thaumolinguistics.
Spells are written entirely in lower-case, except when words are capitalised for the beginning of a sentence.
The spoken words of a spell rarely completely describe it. Much complexity is offloaded to the mind of the casting mage and to the physical equipment being used to perform it. More advanced equipment can be used to reduce the mental load for casting a spell. Equally, a spell can usually be made much shorter by increasing the mental load. A spell with zero or close to zero mental load is called a "fullspell".
Spells can be very long and very difficult to recite from scratch. However, once a series of magic words has been pronounced without error it can be bound to an identifier and/or a physical object and accessed "shorthand" afterwards. The identifier is written in CAPITALS. Accessing the spell "shorthand" saves the effort of speaking the words again, but it doesn't save much of the effort of thinking them. Like mental arithmetic, however, stored spells become simpler to recall and execute after time has passed and they have been used multiple times.
There is no danger in discussing spells verbatim. The use/mention distinction is very clear - for a spell to actually take effect, one must actively use the words. This also enables mages to break away while speaking a spell to "comment" normally. In the text of Ra, magic words that are being "used" are wrapped in <code> tags and look like
Before carrying out magic, every mage must choose an identifier or "True Name". This identifier almost always has to be used when casting a spell, in order to authorise the retrieval of mana from the mage's reserves. Identifiers are written in lower case except when capitalised for the beginning of a sentence. Identifier choice is constrained in the same way that magical spell language is. Arbitrary identifiers are generally not available.
Identifiers don't have to be unique. However, if you cast a spell using your own identifier and another mage nearby has the same identifier as you, your spell will fail up to 50% of the time, with the percentage probability of failure diminishing as separation distance increases. It is not possible to steal another mage's mana.
Mages can only use one identifier at a time, but can switch between multiple legal identifiers at will, which is called "aliasing". Typically, mages choose one "away" identifier for use in the event of a collision.
Knowing another mage's True Name(s) (or real name(s), for that matter) is of absolutely no consequence.
Suravaram Vidyasagar bound the identifier "aum" to himself accidentally in the early stages of casting the first magic spell in 1971. Rajesh Vidyasagar bound the same identifier to himself when he successfully duplicated his father's spell. The significance of identifiers was not discovered until some time after this.
Benj Clarke's identifier was originally given as "adaba" in What You Don't Know, but this became "ennee" later due to a continuity error. "What You Don't Know" was edited to reflect the new identifier.
Geological mana is bound to a mage Named "ra". Corollary: nobody can steal/use geological mana, not even by binding the True Name "ra" to themselves.
Spent mana/waste mana is bound to no mage (null owner). This can be accessed and spent again using an advanced aliasing technique, developed by Laura Ferno in The Seventh Impossible Thing after techniques taught her by Rachel Ferno.
The first magic spell to be discovered was "uum". This spell means "do nothing, return success". Compare with the Buddhist om and with the Unix command
"Eset" is the shortest and simplest spell which actually does anything; it emits a tiny quantity of mana from the subject, which typically is transformed into useful forms of energy by nearby magical objects and other mages. "Eset" is usually used as a form of "thaumic ping", using the echo to ascertain information about the objects and people in question. It's also somewhat like dropping a drop of ink into water to observe the nearby currents. Another mage will usually be able to detect "eset" being cast.
This longer example is from the first chapter, Thaumic City:
Dulaku surutai jiha, twenty you em"
The interpretation is:
[dulaku] "Emit thermal energy from my right hand, 20 micrometres"
Dulaku is the True Name of the casting mage. The passage
surutai jiha does most of the complex work. The words
em are acting as parameters. These words are not pre-existing in the language of magic, but binding these words to their meanings ("20", "micro" and "metres") is standard practice in the English-speaking magical engineering community.
||Best translation is "likewise"|
||"Begin procedure" or possibly "fork"|
||"Erase syllable". Ironically, this word is quite easy to mispronounce|
||"End spell"/"End spell immediately"|
||A sequence of elementary syllables, the magical equivalent of "alpha beta gamma delta epsilon"|
Although this was not intentional, but possibly inevitable, the language of magic in Ra bears a striking resemblance to the Hoon programming language. Hoon is real, but whether Hoon is for real is debatable.
An example program in Hoon is:
++ dec ~/ %dec |= a=@ ^- @ ?< =(0 a) =+ b=@ |- ?: =(a +(b)) b $(b +(b))
which is pronounced
"Luslus dec sigfas cen dec bartis a tis pat sigbar soq dec soq ketcab pat wutgal tis pel zero a per tislus b tis pat barhep wutcol tis pel a lus pel b per per b buc pel b lus pel b per per."
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