The man behind the story, the passion and the language

“Most English-speaking people... will admit that cellar door is ‘beautiful’, especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful.” So said the philologist, folklore enthusiast and sometime fiction author JRR Tolkien.

Tolkien was a language nut long before The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings made him the father of High Fantasy. Indeed, it may be said that his fiction sprang more from his love of words than of stories. He returned to those familiar foundations when he told the British journalist Bill Cater: “Supposing you say some quite ordinary words to me – ‘cellar door’, say. From that, I might think of a name, ‘Selador’, and from that a character, a situation begins to grow.”

Tolkien’s passion for this kind of evocative euphony led him to create several artificial languages: concoctions of Welsh and Old Norse and bits of Finnish and musical syllables minted by his own imagination, which he put to work in verses and myth-fragments and, in time, full-blown romances. The best developed of these languages were Quenya and Sindarin, respectively the ceremonial and vernacular forms of Elvish. Tolkien spent years refining and reforming these languages according to his shifting inclinations, dreaming up population histories to explain their morphologies – chronicles of conquest and diaspora to account for an irregular verb. The books on which his fame now rests may be regarded as by-products of this process, as well as attempts to provide his “art-languages” with the grounding in fable that he felt was necessary for a tongue to flourish. “Volapük, Esperanto, Ido, Novial, &c, &c, are dead,” he once wrote, “far deader than ancient unused languages, because their authors never invented any Esperanto legends.” Tolkien wasn’t about to make that mistake.

Yet there’s another sense in which his invented tongues (his “secret vices”, as he called them) are deader still. They are, quite literally, unspeakable. Tolkien admitted as much in a letter: “It should be obvious that if it is possible to compose fragments of verse in Quenya and Sindarin, those languages (and their relations one to another) must have reached a fairly high degree of organisation – though of course, far from completeness, either in vocabulary, or in idiom.” Contrary to popular myth, one couldn’t carry on a conversation in them.

This fact hasn’t dimmed their appeal to armies of scholars and enthusiasts. There are several journals devoted to Tolkien’s languages: Vinyar Tengwar (Quenya for “News Letters”) is probably the biggest. It’s been running since 1988, and is now edited by Carl F Hostetter, a Nasa computer scientist. He has also been engaged by Tolkien’s son Christopher to help edit the master’s unpublished papers. To give you an idea of this organ’s tone, the latest number is advertised to contain: “a presentation of five late Quenya volitive inscriptions in nai, ranging from 1964 to 1969, one of which arose on the same sheet as the Ambidexters Sentence (AS)”. Weighty stuff – and though it’s easy to mock the obsessive air, this is very much the kind of curatorial, cautiously speculative work that might otherwise be directed on ancient languages such as Etruscan or Tocharian, where the record is too spotty to permit any sort of actual fluency.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who, well, wing it, improvising new rules and vocabulary to rough out a language they can use. This is what the linguist David Salo had to do when he was hired as an adviser on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy. If an orcish imprecation was called for, Salo patched one together. Fans who wish to speak as dwarves are obliged to do the same, though as Hostetter warns, the results will bear the same relation to Tolkien’s master grammar as fan fiction will to its master text – perhaps even in the eyes of the law.

“Tolkien’s languages and their lexicons,” he writes on the website, “have exactly no independent existence apart from Tolkien’s artistic creations, and are thus nothing but artistic and creative content.” Still, don’t fear for the United Abu Dhabi Children’s Choir when they sing Tolkien’s Middle-Earthly compositions at the Emirates Palace tomorrow. I’m no legal expert, but the show sounds like a textbook case of fair use – fair even as Tinuviel, “Elleth alfirin edhelhael”, immortal maiden elven-wise...

As seen on TheNational

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