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.


  1. So generally, Tolkien as a linguist had preexisting knowledge on how languages can develop and almost "evolve" into a more modern form. With that in mind, Tolkien not only drew from existing and more ancient dialects as a form of influence and inspiration, but was able to create an evolutionary table for these languages; along with individual letters and pronunciations. By the time I reached Appendix F, it appeared that this was now the modern languages of Middle Earth and how each race expressed their own languages. It is as if Appendix E is the theory of the language and Appendix F is the end result, using the races who speak the language as examples.

  2. Yes, exactly. It's interesting to note that, though Tolkien's races (Elves, Dwarves, Humans, Hobbits, Orcs) don't necessarily correspond one-to-one with the languages. For one, Men (at least the good ones) borrowed heavily from Elvish, with some using it as their prestige language; Dawrves used the Cirth for writing, which was apparently an Elvish invention, and by the Third Age everyone spoke some version of the Common Speech.

  3. I think that reading the Appendices makes the entire Lord of the Rings world seem significantly more real. Even as I got halfway through Appendix E I felt like I was reading about an actual and legitimate language. Appendix E builds a history for the languages, and provides it in an educational manner that almost forces the reader to take it seriously and accept the presented information as fact. I find it fascinating how easy it is to forget that all of the information is made up and about an invented language used in a fictitious novel. It's absolutely amazing how much thought Tolkien put into creating the languages and world. Reading the Appendices really made me appreciate Tolkien's work more. The history that he created for not only the people but also for the languages they spoke, and allowing for the evolution of the's awesome!

    1. Given that Tolkien used existing and more ancient languages to inspire him, his languages are very convincing.

  4. The histories of these fictional (now literal amongst various fan-groups) languages represent a depth of storytelling that was completely unseen before Tolkien. His immersion into these languages with unique specifications of pronunciations, various dialects, symbols and letters, as well as native tongues that are restricted to regions and peoples, is astoundingly complex. The most amazing part of these appendices is the shear detail right down to different elvish languages that seem to serve as Middle Earth's latin, a root language for most of our reality's languages. A connect-the-dots like history of these languages is so clearly known by the author and he has so sharply detailed the history of these languages, that reading the books makes the various languages seem almost fluid and familiar as the average reader grazes by them. So embedded into the story these languages are and these histories (because all language is directly connected to the history of those who conquer, spread, and dominate various lands) that the conception of these languages seems as real and tangible as any language we actively speak today.