Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Etymological Archeology.

When I first began to study Elvish I was baffled by how confusing the data was. To create not one, but fourteen languages, and leave only bits and pieces of them behind to be painfully reconstructed: its exhausting. Every linguists dream is an straightforward and massive corpus. Instead, we get fragments. Even Quenya, by far the most complete language he created is sorely lacking in many areas, with conflicting opinions on different words and roots. As Treebeard might have said were here in my place, "A linguist should know better!"

I bring up my Elvish reconstruction woes because it clicked while I was reading Tolkien's letter to Mr. Rang and brought up what was (for me) a startling question. Might Tolkien not want his readers to study his languages?

There are certainly arguments to support this idea. Tolkien was aware that he was not providing enough information to his "linguistically minded readers" and characterized it as "unfair" of him (Letters, p427), but although he understands that there is not enough information, he reprimands both Mr. Rang and Mr. Jeffery on the manner in which they go about their etymological studies in Elvish. When explaining why Aragorn and Arathorn are not related to the word for tree ('orn'), he says that the proper understanding of the word would require "more historical records and linguistic records from Sindarin than... I have found time or need to invent" (Letters p426). His tone in responding to both of these letters is often irritated, as if he wished they wouldn't go poking about in his work.

However, I do not think that is the case. Tolkien certainly was irritated by Rang, and minorly with Jeffery, but it is not because they wanted to expand or understand his languages. Indeed, he stated that he was "honored" and "pleased" that people were interested in the work he'd spent so much of his life on. What he objected to was the manhandling of his languages, the "ignorance and disregard" shown towards the information he provided and the focus on fitting words into places they neither fitted nor belonged in. Tolkien states that these fancies do not elucidate him or his actual "intentions or procedure" (Letters p380). Rang had an idea of what things should be, from his own mind, and then jammed the Elvish into it.

And that's the crux of it. Its not that Tolkien disapproved of etymological study into his languages, but that they were not done in the spirit of his methods. As Christopher Tolkien writes in the introduction to the Etymologies that his father did not create just a language, but a practically *real* language, and "inconvenient" language, complete with idiosyncrasies, irregularities, history, and growth. How could Tolkien create all that and expect us "linguistically minded readers" to just sit back and ignore the gaps he didn't have time to fill?

Tragically, Tolkien is no longer around; I cannot write him letters and he cannot correct my Elvish grammar. But it would be wrong and cruel to go about my studies in the manner of Mr. Rang, even if he cannot scold me in person. As a philologist and a lover of Quenya and Tolkien, its my duty to follow the "clues and information" scattered throughout his books, take evidence only from "within the source" and to enjoy the linguistic archeology ahead.

This is true of all our projects; one cannot simply fill in the blanks logically or at random. We have to add to the Legendarium almost scientifically or archeologically; finding clues that will lead is to more solid ground, in the sure knowledge that if we wrote to Tolkien, he would approve.

-Katie Mock


  1. I'm intrigued: what would it mean, exactly, to study Tolkien's languages "in the spirit of his methods"? Could you give us an example?


  2. I would dare say that when creating LotR, Tolkien did not expect serious linguists to study and dissect the languages he created largely (though perhaps not exclusively) for the purposes of writing the story. It was not meant for that, but rather the languages were, to some extent, complete when they served their purpose in telling the story Tolkien wanted to tell. Clearly from the testy nature of letter #297, his main problem is when people don’t reach what he feels are the proper conclusions and not following the same processes he used. However, as developed as they are, he admits that his languages are not “complete” in that some connections and etymologies are vague.

    As for Christopher’s claim of a *real* language, I think he was being something of an apologist for his father. A real, complete language has many things like slang, casual vs. formal speech, profanity, shades of connotation among words that mean mostly the same thing, colloquialism etc. While Tolkien may have addressed a little of this, neither Quenya nor Sindarin are complete or real in this sense. Indeed, even given a lifetime, I doubt that one person could create such a complete language.

    It is important to respect Tolkien’s creative process. If he meant for his languages not to have correlative meanings to historical language, then we must take him at his world. However, those who wish to add to and expand the legendarium must accept that some answers may not be found within. While additions ought to fit in a best as possible to avoid jarring incongruities, you may strike upon something that Tolkien did not think of. In that case, you can either choose not go there because Tolkien did not leave a clear enough road map, or you do what he did and make it up. A some point, one needs to make a choice: are your trying to be Tolkien’s creative surrogate or are you adding your own voice and creative process to the world of Middle Earth?

    -Jason A Banks

  3. Jason, I’m a little confused by your definition of a ‘real’ language. Clearly Quenya is not real in the sense of actual reality. It was created by one man and has never been spoken by a people. However, your definition didn’t bring that up. I do think in all other ways Quenya can count as a real language on par with any ancient earth language.

    Although I agree with you that Quenya is nowhere near complete enough to be a 'real' in the sense of a modern language, it is just as complete as many ancient languages we have rediscovered, and more complete than many of them. We have a fairly large corpus of words and texts and the entirety of the legendarium speaks to the existence of Elvish culture, history, and society. This is especially relevant when one compares Quenya to other fantasy language or constructed language, like that out of Eragon (large and varied, including slang, but somewhat haphazardly created), or even something less amateur, like the Na'avi language from Avatar (which was created by a linguist for the movie, but was not considered in a historical fashion). Clearly Quenya is not complete, nor is it perfect. But neither is Hittite and people study a great deal of that. Furthermore, the lengths Tolkien went to imbue Quenya with historical, cultural, and etymological verisimilitude. We have some ancient langauges that are 'real' where we have only a few words left. Why is it then less real than others?

    As for your question about being Tolkien’s creative surrogate or adding my own voice to the Legendarium, I think it’s a tiny bit of both. For example, I am translating the Ainulindale into Quenya for my project. In doing so, I have to create new elvish words, as Tolkien’s are not enough, even to translate his own work. I am using my own creative judgement and understanding of both languages to do the best I can in translation. However, I also need to take into account Tolkien’s intentions.

    For example, within one sentence the Ainulindale uses the words ‘declare’ ‘unfold’ and ‘reveal’. Quenya has none of these words, nor any of their synonyms, and they are all very similar in meaning, especially within the context. Yet Tolkien picked these three words; out of all the words he could have used, he picked these three distinct words. As a translator, I have to attempt to stay as close to the meaning of each while retaining their differences. I could have used the same word for all of them, but since Tolkien used different words, I am also So we have etyal-, or to summon forth as declare, and panta- or unfurling, for unfolding, and apanta- for revealing. (I used the same root for unfolding and revealing because they were so similar).

    -Katie Mock

  4. Jason, Tolkien went further in creating a "real" language than any other writer I know of; as Katie mentions above, there are many who have tried to create languages for the purposes of their stories, and some have even been successful - look at all the Klingon speakers out there! But Tolkien's true addition, that which makes his languages stand above the rest, is their historicity. When people over the years have tried creating languages, it has usually been for the purpose of creating a "perfect" language, one that is logical or doesn't have exceptions or is capable of expressing anything you would ever want it to or doesn't allow abiguity. For the most part, these people have utterly failed (see the book by Arika Okrent, "In the Land of Invented Languages," if you're interested) because what they don't understand is that language, as a fundamentally human characteristic, is inherently flawed. One of the only invented languages to be commonly spoken is Esperanto, and the people who speak it now have added slang, ellided verbs and pronouns, etc.: they have made it an imperfect, and yet usable, language. But what the creators of Esperanto and Klingon did not take into account is that languages don't just appear out of nowhere, they evolve from older languages. This is what Tolkien understood, from grammar changes, to vowel pronunciation changes to writing changes, and it is the inclusion of this that makes his languages so real. That he doesn't include slang is not enough to say that his languages aren't up to scratch.