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.


  1. Even if he didn't have a lot of knowledge of certain languages that were the biggest inspiration, as a linguist, wouldn't he still have knowledge of how a language can develop? The languages he was well versed in still added a good amount of inspiration and because he spoke them, he was able to better pronounce the new language that developed. But it was not just the language that supplied inspiration, but various legends and mythologies also provided inspiration, right?

  2. Sindarin sounds quite a bit like Irish Gaelic, although that might very easily be because I do not actually know Gaelic. Sometimes the more you know about something, the less similar it seems to like everything else. Likewise, the less you know about something, the less you are able to distinguish between things that are different but have similarities. I find it very interesting that Middle-Earth and everything in it came to be as a means to an end. The fact that he created Middle-Earth just to make the incorporate the changes of languages over time is just remarkable.

  3. It's obvious that Tolkien's appreciation of language started early. Elizabeth Solopova points out, in the "Languages, Myths and History: An Introduction to the Linguistic & Literary Background of J.R.R. Tolkien's Fiction" she points out that by age four his mother, Mabel Tolkien, was teaching him languages and usage. It's remarkable to see that growth and passion for communication and pronunciation become a career in fantastical world building. It's also worth noting that his works of fiction are the premise of Solopova's book, but it is fiction inspired by traditionally told, spoken-word stories, dated and celebrated because of the language it was shared/discovered in, lauded for its originality and use of narrative in a time before paper, pen, Shakespearic plotting, and other normal writing tropes contemporary readers are used to. His desire to create and utilize language is clearly intwined with his need for literary inspiration. Like a clockmaker or puzzle designer, he pieces together fragments of societal change and influence to create a fictional, fantastical society that is as real and tangible as any of ours. Am I repeating myself at how amazing this guy was?

    Don, you're dead right -- it's not just the languages. As I was saying, the mythos and the narratives were what showed him the language. Imagine uncovering a story (such as Beowulf, for an example) and slowly with each translated term and uncovered page, you piece together a tale older than most recorded histories. An epic poem, none the less. It must be thrilling to have access to that sort of knowledge and skill and to pick pieces of each myth and foreign tale, like a patron at a hotel breakfast buffet, and putting together a delectable platter of what some would say is nonsense but is in fact, with some work and talent, an intriguing and original piece of fiction? It absolutely was the myths that turned him onto the languages, and it's the instilled knowledge and understanding of the importance of language, from his mother and others in his youth, that held the grip on him through his years into Oxford.

    1. But it is not only language and mythology that appears to be an inspiration. Biblical references seem to be here and there. So it can draw in how Tolkien looked through older stories and myths, learned some bits of the languages of these myths and thus used them as inspiration for his own stories.

  4. I feel that's selling Tolkien short to just limit his inspirations to Biblical references. Sure they're in there, but as Joseph Campbell would point out -- the modern myth of a hero is often repeated, and Tolkien never strived for that sort of analogy or allegory. Allusions sure, but I would be hardpressed to simply point out a character and say "His inspiration for this was clearly Jesus' miracle with Lazarus" or "This event here mirrors the events of Genesis." Creations myths are all just about the same and all stem from the same need to fill the void of unanswerable questions, Tolkien just designed a whole new religious aspiration for an entirely fabricated world. I don't think it was meant to ever be immediately reflective.