Friday, April 8, 2011

Ele, Elen, and Edhel: A 'Taste' for Language

In lecture we discussed what Tolkien means when he says that he has a 'taste' for language. Although there may be logical, structural, or semantic reasons to love things like color, music, or language, Tolkien seems to argue that this really isn't the point of any of them. Language, he says, can be studied "for the acute aesthetic pleasure derived from a language for its own sake, not only free from being useful, but free even from being the 'vehicle of literature'" (Letters p213). One can have a "sensibility to linguistic pattern which affects [one] emotionally, like color or music" (Letters p212). Color and music are both components of art; they contain intellectual value certainly, but their true power is in their ability to affect people physically, deep in their bones. So to with the art of language.

And indeed, Tolkien certainly viewed language as a power, almost a force of nature. This power is exemplified in many of his characters throughout the book; wizards weave spells with words of power, doors open at a single word, and Tom Bombadil rescues the hobbits from certain death with his singing. The mere fact that Frodo can summon Tom by the use of his name, but that, "with that name his voice seemed to grow strong...and the dark chamber echoed as if to drum and trumpet" (LotR p.142). Tom both drives back the wights and awakens the hobbits from their trances. Although it was not part of today's readings, this belief in the power of words and sound is echoed in 'The Music of the Ainur', where Iluvatar creates the whole world through song and harmony.

This physical power that words have to move and affect people is not just derived from the language itself however, but that it "depends equally on the ledgends which it conveys by tradition" (Letters p231). Tom's name would have no power if all that is and was and will be 'Tom Bombadil' did not lay behind it. So it is with languages; a language without legends is more dead than Sanskrit or Latin. This is one of the main motivations behind all of Tolkien's legendarium; to create a rich tapestry for his languages. However, many books create new words and new languages for their stories, and are much less successful than Tolkien. Few invented languages from books are studied in and of themselves. Elvish and Klingon are some of the only ones I can think of. This is because he created Elvish in what I think is a very unique way. Much fantasy literature contains new language largely to create depth to the story, but Tolkien used the story to create depth to the language. I believe he achieved this in several ways.

For one, Tolkien was actually a linguist, and was able to create a language that even to non-speakers sounded whole and self-contained. I could easily believe that both Quenya and Sindarin were spoken by real people long ago. Secondly, he understood that a language needs a history and a tradition to be meaningful or worthwhile. However, while some people succeed in creating stories for language, the two are not fully connected; they are still rootless words that have been artificially attached to a world. Tolkien's languages are not unique just for their completeness, complexity or sizable legendarium; they have something that almost no other invented languages actually have: Etymology. Why is this so key? Let me give you some examples. All of these were found in the Appendices of the Silmarillion.

For example, 'Galen', the Sindarin word for 'green', goes back to the Quenya word  of the same meaning 'calen', which in turn goes back the the root kal- meaning bright, or shining. Similarly with 'ancalima', which then connects its meaning of 'brightest, or resplendent' with the color of growing things, giving the reader a whole new connotation to those who are described as bright, eg the elves.

Even proper names become full of meaning: Moria comes from mor- or maur-, meaning darkness of a negative kind, and ia meaning abyss. The word Morgul comes from gul, which initially meant, knowledge, study, lore, in Quenya, but after the coming of Sauron became 'sorcery', and the mor- from above was added , reflecting the Sindarin speaker's sole experiences with lore of this kind.

Finally, my favorite example: when the Elves first walked the world and saw the stars, they made the exclamation 'Ele!', which connotes awe, and means something like 'behold!'. This natural sound of awe in turn became the word for star, elen, or 'elena'. This in turn becomes the root for the word 'edhel', or elf, lit. 'of the stars'. The elves are not just people of starlight and beauty in their stories, Tolkien made them so etymologically.

Tolkien actually made the effort to give each word a root word that went back to another root that went back to another. He created full dictionary entries for each character, detailing phonetic and semantic changes throughout the history of the word. For me, knowing that the elves are not just 'edhel', not just some word that was made up by an intelligent man years ago, but that they are people 'of the starlight', makes them so much more real than previously. They spring off the page to walk the paths of my imagination, just as Tolkien intended them to. Language is a tool of transmission, not just for history, culture, or intellect, or semantics but it is a way of giving near-tangible meaning to everything, if only we look beneath the surface. The atmosphere of legend permeates Tolkien's languages, from their sounds to their etymology.

Elen sila lumen omentielvo,

Katie Mock


  1. How would you link the intellectual satisfaction of etymology with the aesthetic satisfaction of "taste"? You point to a very interesting association here and I would like to hear more!


  2. I too was intrigued by the power that Tolkien attributes to language. While in your post you discuss how he developed this power (etymological depth), I think it’s interesting to think about why he developed it. As we briefly discussed in class, I think Tolkien’s belief in the power of language was greatly influenced by his Catholic faith. The Catholic Church is an extremely sensual one; it has embraced the connection between the physical world and the spiritual world.
    As tools to connecting with spiritual truth, it employs Gothic cathedrals, incense, chant, stained glass windows, icons, ashes, water, oil, and most importantly, the sacraments –such as baptism, the Eucharist, marriage, etc. St. Augustine defines the sacraments as "a visible sign of an invisible reality." The sacraments are physical objects or rites that physically express a deeper truth about God and his relationship with the Church.

    Now there’s an interesting thought: language as a sacrament. I think that viewing language as a Sacrament motivates Tolkien’s claim that the strength of a language "depends equally on the legends which it conveys by tradition" (Letters p.231). If language is "a visible sign of an invisible reality," then it is only as strong as the reality which is signifies.

    Lisa Pawlowicz

  3. The power of words! I love your examples of the literal power that language has to affect the world in Tolkien’s universe; they clearly show the strength that Tolkien believed words to have. You make a good connection between the power of words and their histories; that the stories behind the words are what give them their power. This, of course, is precisely what Tolkien achieves by creating a mythology for his languages – it makes people care about Elvish! (Unrelated point of interest: Klingon is considered by linguists to be the only fully developed artificial language in the world, in that in contains an extensive grammar and vocabulary, it can accommodate to new ideas, technologies, etc., it has acquired loan words and idioms, and it is spoken with fluency by a significant community. None of that would ever have happened if Klingon did not have its own culture behind its language!)

    I have questions about some of your statements concerning art and language. Color is certainly a component of some art, but can’t music be a component of art or the art itself? And is language an ‘art’ per se? Or are speaking and writing the arts for which language is used? In this way, language seems more like color in that it contains beauty unto itself but is also part of a larger art form. Also, I’m not sure what you mean by ‘intellectual value’ in reference to color and music: that they can be evaluated or measured in an objective or critical way? That they are aesthetically pleasing, but also give us something to think about?

    I enjoyed your explanation of how etymology connects the language and its history. It was well laid out and made clear a connection that is not immediately apparent. I totally agree that having an etymology, a history, a cosmology makes Tolkien’s universe much more ‘real’ for us readers!