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Somatic components are addressed more or less in the PHB with:

The caster plucks directly at the strands ofthe Weave to create the desired effect

and

Whenever a magic effect is created, the threads of the Weave intertwine, twist, and fold to make the effect possible. When characters use divination spells such as detect magic or identify, they glimpse the Weave. A spell such as dispel magic smooths the Weave. Spells such as antimagicfield rearrange the Weave so that magic flows around, rather than through, the area affected by the spell. And in places where the Weave is damaged or torn, magic works in unpredictable ways—or not at all.

So the purpose of somatic components is pretty much spelled out. We might infer that material components might model the shape of the weave alteration you want to produce (as in the real-world principle of sympathetic magic).

But verbal components are not really justified with an in-universe rationale. Divine spell casters could be assumed to be using their words as an invocation or prayer to their otherworldly patron, who is said to mediate for the caster, but this shouldn't apply to arcane spell casting. Why would saying, "Magic Missile in the air, hit that sucker over there" affect the shape of the weave?

Is there a reference—even from a previous edition if it works within the 5e rationale—for verbal components to affect the weave?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Historical note: Prior to 5e, "the weave" was the explanation for magic only in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting; Other settings had different explanations, or no published explanations. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Jun 22 '16 at 0:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks. I've got the old boxed first edition for FR somewhere, but I haven't seen it in years. Is there more detailed info in there, do you know, or is it essentially the same thing? \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Jun 22 '16 at 17:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ If you want to ask a follow-up question, you should post a new question rather than asking in a comment. (Also, I only know the basics of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, so I'm not the best person to ask.) \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Jun 23 '16 at 0:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's probably not worth the fuss of a question. \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Jun 23 '16 at 0:25
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From the Verbal Component section of the PHB:

Most spells require the chanting of mystic words. The word's themselves aren’t the source of the spell’s power; rather, the particular combination of sounds, with specific pitch and resonance, sets the threads of magic in motion. [PHB Pg 203]

So the weave is sensitive to a specific combination of words and sound. Similarly, a bard affects the weave with their music. Perhaps we could conclude that the weave is like a giant metallic sheet that envelops the world and resonates in a certain way when sound and music touches it?

You might note that this explains why bards are arcane casters in a similar fashion to wizards - this would make it logically consistent to say that a Wizard and a Bard's verbal components differ from a Clerics or Warlocks, because their words are shaping the weave directly as opposed to entreating their patron.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks, I must have missed that paragraph. That's pretty much exactly what I was looking for. \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Jun 22 '16 at 14:46
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Game lore basis for verbal components: Blame Jack Vance

It was assumed that the D & D spell would be primarily verbal ~ E. Gary Gygax, 1976

The original reason for verbal components had nothing to do with "the Weave." D&D 5e is an interesting mix of all editions previous to it.

... the particular combination of sounds, with specific pitch and resonance, sets the threads of magic in motion

In game, the caster would feel it as he spoke the words.

The citation above from PHB p. 203, of how words act as a trigger to releasing magical energy from the weave, is an adaptation to the current canon of the old tried and true magic system that D&D's had for 40+ years. It is close enough to the original system that the concepts do not contradict each other.

Formalizing verbal spell components in the rules was part of adding all three spell components - V, S, M - to spell casting in AD&D 1e as part of a move toward more detail (simulationism) in the game's design.1 It's still with us. (Without that basic feature of magic, Silence as a spell is a lot less useful). The requirement for verbal components go back to the original D&D magic system, and how magic worked in Jack Vance's Dying Earth books. Discussions on Vancian magic can be found here, here, and here. From the last link, you can see how "the weave" looks a lot like the "universal energy" of Vance's world:

In this world, magic taps into some kind of universal energy. Cast spells require the caster to memorize cryptic and powerful words that almost seem to have a life and energy of their own. Just memorizing the words is an act of magic in and of itself. Even one of the more powerful wizards in the story can only remember a handful of such spells at a time without losing them.

In OD&D, if all you had was books you knew there was magic but you didn't know "how it worked" in any kind of detail. The D&D magic system wasn't explained in the books, but was explained in a Strategic Review article (April 1976, pages 3 and 4) as a response to the questions sent in by many players and DM's. (At least 5e offers an explanation).

(E.Gary Gygax, Strategic Review, April 1976, p. 3-4, The Dungeons and Dragons Magic System (extract)

Because there are many legendary and authored systems of magic, many questions about the system of magic used in D&D are continually raised. Magic in CHAINMAIL was fairly brief ... limited to the concept of table top miniatures battles ... a somewhat different concept of magic had to be devised to employ with the D&D campaign in order to make it all work.
The four cardinal types of magic are

  • those systems which require long conjuration with much paraphernalia as an adjunct (as used by Shakespeare in MACBETH or as typically written about by Robert E. Howard in his “Conan” yarns)
  • the relatively short spoken spell (as in Finnish mythology or as found in the superb fantasy of Jack Vance),
  • ultra-powerful (if not always correct) magic (typical of deCamp & Pratt in their classic “Harold Shea” stories),
  • the generally weak and relatively ineffectual magic (as found in J.R.R. Tolkien’s work).

The basic assumption, then, was that D & D magic worked on a “Vancian” system and if used correctly would be a highly powerful and effective force. There are also four basic parts to magic:

  • The verbal or uttered spell
  • the somatic or physical movement required for the conjuration
  • the psychic or mental attitude necessary to cast the spell
  • the material adjuncts by which the spell, can be completed (to cite an obvious example, water to raise a water elemental).

It was assumed that the D & D spell would be primarily verbal, although in some instances the spell would require some somatic component also (a fire ball being an outstanding example). The psychic per se would play little part in the basic magic system, but a corollary, mnemonics, would. The least part of magic would be the material aids required ...

The influences that shaped D&D originally were an eclectic mix of the literary and the cinematic. As Gygax noted in his article, verbal components have been associated with magic for a long time. Stage magicians used spoken "magical" words like "Abbracadabra!" or "Presto Change-O!" while doing tricks on stage, back in the day.

An example of the cinematic magic of this style is Merlin's charm of making in the movie Excalibur2. The idea that wizards, witches, and magicians spoke words of power to cast spells well predates the invention of D&D. You could also watch Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, the original Disney animations, and see verbal components being used by the magic users as part of a spell. (Bibbity bobbity boo!)


1 There was a similar move made in that edition with weapon "to hit" modifiers by weapon type versus armor class -- a longsword got a minus to hit AC 2 (plate and shield) while a mace got a plus.

2 Excalibur was released after AD&D PHB came out, but I have no evidence that AD&D influenced its production.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is an excellent and well-researched answer. Unfortunately, it does not address the question. I'm not looking for an answer from the history of the game or its mechanics or even of magic in history and literature. I'm looking for the in-universe rationale. I.e. how would a character in a (default, using the Weave) D&D universe describe why he needs to utter certain words. \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Jun 22 '16 at 14:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStormcast Sorry, I was using what it seems to me most gamers mean when they use the term "lore": in-universe material. I don't generally like the term, since it feels "video gamish" to me, but I used it because I was actually trying to avoid the confusion that led to your otherwise excellent answer. In any case, "Because that's how magic works" would be highly unsatisfying. The default setting uses "the Weave" explanation, which characters within the story would know about and reference. This was what I was after. Thank you, though. \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Jun 22 '16 at 17:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @keithcurtis No worries, part of that was my incorrect read of the question, and you got a good answer that you accepted. Declare Victory! Break out the Ale!!! \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jun 22 '16 at 19:24

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