On Tolkien and invented languages.

Author’s note: My brother Robert has an annual tradition in which he pays tribute to J.R.R. Tolkien by holding a large feast in his home, where he invites approximately seventy people over for a sit-down meal, toasts, music, and a lot of drinking. Each year he asks an invitee to deliver a speech honoring Tolkien’s life and work.

The following is the speech I delivered for the 7th Feast, on January 1st, 2018.

I attempted my first (and thus far only) invented language in middle school or early high school.

My theory was simple: to create an onomatopoeic language, such that the meaning of each word could be easily intuited with little or no context or prior association with the language. I remember spending an afternoon or two on vacation thinking through the idea, writing down vocabulary for words such as “soft” that would sound appropriately soft, and practicing with a nascent writing system that followed similar principles. Coincidentally, many in this room are familiar with that particular vacation spot, because it was on the shores of Long Lake, at Lórien.

Of course, my early attempt was laughably juvenile. While cultural association can certainly lend a “soft” or “crisp” or “hard” tone to some words, an entire language cannot be constructed according to such principles. “Fluff” seems appropriately onomatopoeic for soft things, being full of labiodental fricatives and lateral approximants (to put it in linguistic terms). But how does one find such a word for “apple” let alone abstract ideas such as “organization” or “schadenfreude?”

I did not have the linguistic training at the time to answer those questions. But the impulse to create and encode meaning into words and grammar forms was there, planted, I’ve no doubt, by my early association with J.R.R. Tolkien and the languages of Middle Earth.

We know Tolkien best as an author. But Tolkien established his career and reputation as a philologist long before the publication of any of his high fantasy works. His academic interests lay in the confluence of literature, language, and history. His talent in these fields landed him a position as Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford at only 32. It would be another twelve years before he published The Hobbit, and nearly thirty before the publication of The Lord of the Rings. In those years, much of Tolkien’s free time was preoccupied not with writing, but with another hobby altogether: that of inventing languages.

In his 1931 talk, “A Secret Vice,” Tolkien describes linguistic invention as “the fitting of notion to oral symbol,” and defends the “pleasure in contemplating the new relation established” as a reasonable and rational pastime. More than that, he considers language invention a hidden art, one whose practitioners are many, but who work primarily in secret, hiding their work from prying eyes out of shyness or a sense of embarrassment.

Since the publication of The Lord of the Rings and other works, invented languages have become a staple of both science fiction and fantasy literature. Presumably, the suspicion voiced in Tolkien’s lecture—that many more of us take pleasure in invented languages than we are willing to publicly acknowledge—was well-founded, and that the publication of Tolkien’s work, along with his writings on Quenya and other languages, opened the floodgates for a new linguistic pastime.

That said, Tolkien was not the first person to famously invent a language. Some of the best known are Volapük, invented in 1879–1880 by a German Catholic priest to serve as an international language, only to be displaced by Esperanto, which is now over a hundred and thirty years old and claims at least two million speakers. However, these languages differ from Tolkien in a significant way: they are practical, utilitarian, designed with a specific end in mind.

Tolkien was very interested in these languages, but they were not the impetus for his own invention. Instead, Tolkien created his languages to be esthetic—deeply and personally so. In fact, in revealing and publishing his first few verses in Quenya, he sounds almost apologetic, begging readers to forgive him for his indulgence:

“You must remember that these things were constructed deliberately to be personal, and give private satisfaction – not for scientific experiment, nor yet in expectation of any audience. A consequent weakness is therefore their tendency, too free as they were from cold exterior criticism, to be ‘over-pretty’, to be phonetically and semantically sentimental – while their bare meaning is probably trivial, not full of red blood or the heat of the world such as critics demand. Be kindly. For if there is any virtue in this kind of thing, it is in its intimacy, in its peculiarly shy individualism.”

None of this is to say Tolkien believed in an objectively beautiful language. Indeed, while he was extremely interested in word-form (the shape and sounds of words), he was equally fascinated by their association with meaning, or “phonetic fitness.” He believed that, in language construction, the sounds we choose to associate with meanings are inextricably linked to the individual taste of the language author, and to that author’s personal history and association with language.

It should come as no surprise that languages, and our perceptions of them, are highly subjective. In Tolkien’s time, German had fallen into disrepute, attaining a reputation for harsh and unpleasant sounds that persists to this day. But just a few decades before, German was considered by many to be one of the most beautiful and romantic of European languages. It was the language of poets and composers and artists, of Goethe and Schiller and Heinrich Heine, of Beethoven and Bach, of Klimt and Schiele. One could even argue that the culture’s obsession with a certain esthetic ideal is what drove it toward destruction. It’s a theme we’ve seen play out many times before, from the fall of Adam and Eve to the fall of Melkor. But it’s not what Tolkien was about when he created languages.

Tolkien believed language creation was an art. One in which individual practitioners could have style and taste. But his feelings about language creation came as a result of his love of those languages which already exist and are used in daily speech. In his lecture “English and Welsh,” Tolkien states that: “No language is justly studied merely as an aid to other purposes. It will in fact better serve other purposes, philological or historical, when it is studied for love, for itself.”

He then proceeds to list his perceptions of various languages with which he has come in contact, stating the extent to which each had stirred his soul. He then continues:

“But all the time there had been another call – bound to win in the end, though long baulked by sheer lack of opportunity. I heard it coming out of the west. It struck at me in the names on coal-trucks; and drawing nearer, it flickered past on station-signs, a flash of strange spelling and a hint of a language old and yet alive; even in an adeiladwyd 1887, ill-cut on a stone-slab, it pierced my linguistic heart. ‘Late Modern Welsh’ (bad Welsh to some). Nothing more than an ‘it was built’, though it marked the end of a long story from daub and wattle in some archaic village to a somber chapel under the dark hills. Not that I knew it then. It was easier to find books to instruct one in any far alien tongue of Africa or India than in the language that still clung to the western mountains and the shores that look out to Iwerddon.”

Spoken like a true philologist. If ever anyone needed justification for the continued study of languages, the preservation of old, and the invention of new, it seems to me that no one needs any excuse beyond that they are beautiful and stir the soul. And yet, I have often heard many question the study of language, suggesting that it would be easier if the whole world spoke but one. To me, such a notion is akin to suggesting that every musical instrument but one be banished form the earth.

For Tolkien, languages were the foundation of Middle Earth. They were not created as afterthought to supplement his work of high fantasy. Quite the contrary: Tolkien created his fantasy in response to his languages, as a means of enriching and expanding them. Poetry exists on the phonemic level, in the space where words and sounds resonate with meaning. For Tolkien, our connection with past peoples lay not only in the stories we retain in translation, but in their languages. Not only the words, but the sound patterns they left behind.

I owe Tolkien a great deal. His writing inspired my childhood with wonder, filled my adolescence with hope and courage, and propelled my adult study of foreign languages. I know that not everyone shares that connection, that the tales of Middle Earth Tolkien left behind are more than enough to inspire gratitude. But I can think of no better tribute to Tolkien than to thank him for his secret vice, for the linguistic invention that occupied his life’s work and inspired his greatest legacy.

With that in mind, I invite you all to raise a glass to J.R.R. Tolkien, the writer, poet, linguist, and philologist whose quiet love of language has raised all our lives for the better.

To the Professor.