Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Secret Vice

Who makes languages, and why? Haven't we enough in the world already? And, unless one's goal is to raise a community of people to speak it, what purpose could such a thing have?

But there is, nevertheless, a pure delight in language invention. After all, our own minds are structured by language; our memory, our thoughts, and our inmost desires are, in a sense, spoken even if we do not utter them. And happily, in the world of fantasy and speculative fiction, new languages are not only possible but necessary. Among the better ones, we may count Lapine, the language of rabbits invented by Richard Adams in Watership Down (the rabbit word for car, hrududu, is a great one), Nadsat, crafted (mostly from Russian, but also from British schoolboy slang) by Anthony Burgess, Klingon (one of the few that could almost be said to be 'living,' as it has a robust grammar and vocabulary and is actually spoken by fans),  and Enochian, the purported language of angels invented by Edward Kelley and Dr. John Dee in the days of Elizabeth I, and used by them in their magical rituals (and, more recently, by Aleister Crowley). Tolkien's languages are notable for their number and their complexity, but also for one very singular quality: unlike any of the other invented languages I know of, it has an historical taxonomy, that is, it evolved.

So what does Tolkien's own account of his language-inventing habit tell us about himself, the world of The Lord of the Rings, or about other fictional worlds? Have you ever indulged in the "secret vice?" Tried to learn a fictional speech? And should language-making be undertaken by just anyone, or left to the professionals? Your thoughts below.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Tolkien's Language-Making

Tolkien was a master of language -- in terms of his reading knowledge, one could say he was "fluent" in Latin, Anglo-Saxon ("Old English), Old Norse, Icelandic, and Gothic. He had some acquaintance as well with French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Welsh. And yet despite his wide knowledge of many earthly tongues,  it was the languages that he knew the least that influenced his own creations the most: Finnish above all (the main influence for Quenya), Irish Gaelic (said to be a model for Sindarin, along with Welsh), and Hebrew (in its phonology, at least, a model for Khuzdul, the language of the Dwarves).

But we should probably begin with Finnish. Tolkien encountered it early in his career and retained a great fondness for it, drawing from its sound and structure as he shaped his elven speech. If you compare the sound only -- listening, say, to Tolkien's recitation of Namarië and a reading from the Kalevala (here's one -- go to 3:25 to hear the actual reading). This is the Finnish national epic, first published in book form in 1835, centers on the story of Väinämöinen, a sage who sings things into being (shades of Tolkien's Ainulindalë!). It was collected from oral traditions, and a greatly expanded version was preserved in the 1840's -- just in time, as the last who could recite its verses were just then passing from the world.

Of course, others of the languages Tolkien drew from also had their traditional epics -- for the Irish, it was the Táin Bó Cúailnge (the cattle-raid of Cooley), which you can hear passages from here. The Welsh have their Mabinogion, which includes some of the earliest version of the Authrian legends -- but, shame on them, there's not a single online recording of it in Welsh online (though you can hear a contemporary Welsh poet here). Compare either of these to Tolkien's A Elbereth Gilthoniel -- you can hear a recording I made of it in Sindarin here.

Many have speculated as to exactly how these existing languages influenced Tolkien's created ones; have a look at Alok Jha in The Guardian, Stan in the Sentence First blog, or Greg Harvey's piece at the For Dummies website for starters. 

In the end, whatever his interest an any particular language, Tolkien remained a philologist at heart -- a lover of words, and tracer of all languages and their histories. He knew how many different kinds of events -- a split in population, migration, or emigration -- could affect the ways in which language changed. And so, to explain the changes in his own invented languages, he needed people and histories -- and this, in many of his later statements was the explanation he gave for why he created Middle-Earth.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Appendices

They're "a bit of a slog" according to many. Most, as Tolkien himself suggested, have left well enough alone, and skipped them. But the Appendices in The Return of the King remain the principal source of all we know about Tolkien's final conception of the languages of Middle Earth, and as such they're invaluable.

Appendix E gives us Tolkien's letterforms. The first and most elegant is that of the Tengwar, said to have been designed by Fëanor himself. In outward appearance they look somewhat like uncial script, but with rising and falling stems unlike that alphabet. And, remarkably, they've been designed with a certain phonological perfection; much like the chart of the International Phonetic Alphabet (with which Tolkien as a linguist would have been familiar), they follow a logical pattern; the characters to the left are the more 'fronted' (made towards the front of the mouth, with the lips and teeth) while to the right come the sounds made further and further in the mouth (the alveolar, palatar, uvular, and glottal). Such a system could be adapted to the consonants of almost any language, and Tolkien shows both the standard ways in which Elvish used the characters, as well as an adapted way to use them for English (a system which he used in some of his own writings, and was employed most prominently on the title pages of each volume of The Lord of the Rings).

The second letters, the Certar, which outwardly resembles Anglo-Saxon Runes. In The Hobbit, indeed, Tolkien used the Anglo-Saxon system, but went to the trouble to invent a completely different one for his subcreation. Within it, the "G" rune that is used by Gandalf as his signature in Tolkien's books, is the same as the traditional "F" rune; very few runes have sounds similar to their traditional equivalents, and there are many completely new runes. Tolkien used these runes as well for the Tomb of Balin, and also to create facsimile "pages" of the Book of Mazarbûl, which he'd hoped to have in the book but were said to be too expensive by Allen & Unwin, his publishers.

After this comes Appendix F, in two parts. "The Languages and Peoples of the Third Age" gives Tolkien's overall history and conception of his languages. We learn here that Quenya, the language of the High Elves, represents the oldest state of Elvish, whereas Sindarin, the speech of the Grey Elves, is a 'worn down' descendant of its noble ancestor. We learn than the language of Men, though independent, borrowed a great deal from Elvish, and that the tribes of Men friendly to them -- the Edain -- borrowed the most. Indeed, the rulers of the lost island kingdom of Númenor spoke Elvish until their last few leaders, who took names in their traditional Adûnaic speech -- an omen of their impending fall.

The final section,"On Translation," represents a very late stage of Tolkien's thought. He chose as his conceit for LOTR the idea that all of these books were part of a Red Book of Westmarch kept by the Hobbits, a volume which contained Bilbo's There and Back Again, his Translations from the Elvish, and Frodo's and Sam's continuations. It also had much incidental Hobbit-verse, which later appeared in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. Perhaps most interestingly, in order to make sense of this story, Tolkien puts it out that the Red Book was written in the Common-Speech or Westron. He therefore not only translated the words, but the names, following the same principle he used when employing Old English for the Rohirrim -- as the Hobbits perhaps recognized the speech of Rohan as an older version of their own, so would English readers "recognize" Old English versions of Westron names. Frodo's name was actually Froda (Westron using -a as a masculine suffix), Meriadoc Brandybuck's actual name was Kalimac, shortened to Kali in a manner analogous to shortening "Meriadoc" to "Merry."

So as you read -- or, quite possibly, re-read these appendices, what strikes you most about them? What element is it that this kind of knowledge adds? What outlook about language, writing, and invention does Tolkien's account in these appendices reveal? Do these languages make Tolkien's world feel more real? Or just more complicated? A penny for your thoughts, below.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


One of the most interesting things that our six "test" theses about The Hobbit reveal is a remarkably consistent set of shared assumptions about children, literature, and "children's literature." Looking at all six, one can ask: what do we need to assume in order for these theses to be valid? Well, we must assume that The Hobbit was written for children (1,2,3, and 6), that children prefer simple stories and characters (3), that children are wide-eyed and curious (2), that children's literature can and should instill a strong emotional response in children (6), and that children's literature should be didactic, i.e. that it convey important lessons (4), and that children's "agency" should be respected (1). And strikingly, nearly every one of these assumptions has been denounced with great eloquence by none other than J.R.R. Tolkien himself.

Tolkien's essay "On Fairy Stories," which was given as a lecture, revised as a printed article, and revised again for its ultimate appearance in published books, was written at a crucial moment between the completion of The Hobbit and the commencement of The Lord of the Rings. In one of the videos linked here on our blog, Tolkien alludes to this essay being inspired, in part, by the points his own children -- by this time, most of them on their way to young adulthood -- had made in response to Tolkien's own stories. These specific points come up in the section "Children," where Tolkien declares that

"among those who still have enough wisdom not to think fairy-stories pernicious, the common opinion seems to be that there is a natural connexion between the minds of children and fairy-stories, of the same order as the connexion between children's bodies and milk. I think this is an error; at best an error of false sentiment, and one that is therefore most often made by those who, for whatever private reason (such as childlessness), tend to think of children as a special kind of creature, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immature, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large ... Children as a class—except in a common lack of experience they are not one—neither like fairy-stories more, nor understand them better than adults do; and no more than they like many other things. They are young and growing, and normally have keen appetites, so the fairy-stories as a rule go down well enough. But in fact only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them; and when they have it, it is not exclusive, nor even necessarily dominant ... The value of fairy-stories is thus not, in my opinion, to be found by considering children in particular."
What adults think of as appropriate for children, in other words, is more often shaped by romanticized self-projections of their own childhood or an imagined ideal childhood, than by any endeavor to actually think critically about how children encounter texts. Children, in Tolkien's mind, are not necessarily more willing to "suspend disbelief"; indeed they may be more cautious about narratives than most adults. As he puts it,

"‘Is it true?’ is the great question children ask,” Lang said. They do ask that question, I know; and it is not one to be rashly or idly answered. But that question is hardly evidence of “unblunted belief,” or even of the desire for it. Most often it proceeds from the child's desire to know which kind of literature he is faced with."
That is, children and quite well aware of the lines between fact and fiction, and within fiction are conscious of the various different sorts of rules that may prevail in different genres. It is an "erroneous sentiment" that children necessarily prefer fairy-stories to other sorts of narrative, a projection of ourselves upon them. If this sentiment is allowed to predominate, the result -- in Tolkien's view -- is a very condescending and defective sort of storytelling, "a dreadful undergrowth of stories written or adapted to what was or is conceived to be the measure of children's minds and needs. "

Tolkien's own children, as they grew, apparently made this very point themselves, objecting to the narratorial "asides" in The Hobbit and preferring that the book include only the events and voices internal to its own story; as the book was reprinted and revised, Tolkien removed nearly -- though not quite all -- of these asides from the text. As to the function of "teaching valuable lessons," Tolkien thought even less of that purpose, declaring instead that the great merit of fairy-stories was their ability to enable Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, and Consolation -- things that, far from being socially-approved merits, were "commonly considered to be bad for anybody." And yet Tolkien felt that they were deeply needed indeed, and that it adults had a far greater need for them than children, though children were by no means excluded.

Tolkien, of course, wrote this essay in part as an exercise in self-clarification, a checking of his compass before embarking on his next writerly journey. When he began The Hobbit in the early 1930's, he himself, consciously or unconsciously, shared many of the views he denounces with such force here. You can hear, somewhere in-between the lines of this essay, a touch of Tolkien's own sadness at the fact of his own children's having grown up, and no longer being uncritical receptacles for his whimsy. And yet, through his revisions to The Hobbit, he worked with great care to re-shape his first published story to be true to his new insights, and did not at all conceive of these changes as a loss.

Monday, May 12, 2014


Welcome to the class blog for ENGL 350: Tolkien and Language, Summer Session I 2014 at Rhode Island College. Have a look around! This blog and its resources will be updated constantly -- things will be added, changed, and expanded as the course progresses.  Each week, we will have one or two posts keyed to new texts, themes, and online resources; a central part of the course is your response to each of these posts. You should feel free to comment on any aspect of the topic, and to respond to each other's posts as well.

Because this is a hybrid class, we'll only be meeting in person roughly two days per week; once we've had a chance to look at everyone's schedules, we'll choose the dates that work best for the most students.  It's a new approach, and an exciting one, and I'm looking forward to it immensely.

Our focus this summer will be on Tolkien and language -- not just his many invented languages (Quenya, Sindarin, Khuzdul, Westron) but the formative role of language generally in his sub creation, , including languages that Tolkien drew from in constructing his own (Old Norse, Finnish, Welsh, Irish, and Gothic). No previous background in linguistics or other languages is needed; the course will give you all the context you'll need, beyond an acquaintance with Tolkien's books and/or their many adaptations.

Our recommended texts will include Elizabeth Solopova's Languages, Myths and History: An Introduction to the Linguistic and Literary Background of J. R. R. Tolkien's Fiction and Verlyn Flieger’s Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World (2nd ed.), along with of course, Tolkien's works themselves, particularly The Lord of the Rings.

I look forward to meeting every one of you at our first class -- Elen sila lumenn' omentielvo!