Monday, April 18, 2011

The History of Language, or the Language of History?

There is no doubt that names hold a very special meaning to Tolkien and that he was very meticulous in his works about the use of names.  When I read The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion in middle school I remember being incredibly aware of this fact, and tried to create my own names using the handy Qenya-Sindaran reference in the back of The Silmarillion. Now that I am almost a decade older I appreciate the names, their meaning, and their history so much more to now understand that my little hobby was lacking a special insight.

This insight is the “time” that stands both in Tolkien’s Elvish languages and his human ones. The “Lhammas” and the “Entymologies” besides numerous other readings for this week, emphasize that Tolkien’s great inventions (his languages) were not so remarkable because he managed to create them, but because he instilled in them a sense of time and change. Christopher Tolkien remarks both to the lack of finality as well as the connection to history in his intro to the “Etymologies”- “Every element in the languages, every element in every work, is in principle historically ‘explicable’.” (HME 5 341) To take this a step further Shippey notes, “He had not constructed a design. Instead he has tried to create a situation in which a common greeting would be elen síla lúmenn’ omentielmo.”  (Shippey 16)

What does this mean to say that Tolkien’s language have history and why is this significant? Maybe I should start at the same place many Tolkien scholars do- Tolkien’s work as a philologist. Carpenter’s biography makes it very clear that Tolkien not only loved and respected philology, but he was incredibly gifted in it. (Carpenter 134) He was interested in both linguistics and literature, and especially in using linguistic knowledge to approach literature. He saw history as naturally a part of this process. Those incredibly detailed trees in the “Lhammas” only begins to give us a sense of how significant change was in language creation.

If Tolkien only wanted to create a”design”, he would have created Valarin. The elves would speak that tongue, having never to learn a new one because they never die. Men would-unbelievably of course- also speak this tongue, if only with less grace. Current fans of the work would be less overwhelmed by the task of learning this language, one that would certainly be more complete than any of Middle Earth’s languages.

Tolkien, thankfully, was too much of a philologist to go down this path. His languages were not just story telling devices. They were deeply personal to him. How else can we explain why he used them in works that were in many ways removed from the legendarium (such as the Notion Club Papers) and continued to work and muse over them long after The Lord of the Rings was published? They were languages, first and foremost, which meant that “finite” and “complete” would never describe them.

Tolkien’s own work on Welsh and English provides us with a better understanding of his approach to both the use of history in language change. This essay makes it clear that Tolkien was as interested in the history of contact between the two languages as he was interested in the changes that occurred because of said the contact. Tolkien says
“None the less, far off and now obscure as the Celtic adventures may seem, their surviving linguistic traces should be to us, who live here in this coveted and much contested island, of deep interest, as long as antiquity continues to attract the minds of men. Through them we may catch a glimpse or echo of the past which archeology alone cannot supply, the past of the land which we call our home.” (Tolkien, “English and Welsh” 174-175)
Considering this, it seems hard to think about where language ends and where history begins.  English and Welsh interacted as a product of history, and not just the history of kings and knights, but in the everyday history of interaction between peoples, whether it was businessmen or wealhstods.

The interaction of languages is a major force in Tolkien’s legendarium. The “Lhammas” describe how Valerin softened proto-Elvish languages. Westron, the lingua franca of Middle Earth, is really what happens with Númenórean (The Adunaic from the Notion Club Papers?) mixes and changes. (Letter 347) Tolkien describes the Common Speech as being as mixed as Modern English, and its status was certainly affected by the use of Middle Earth’s Latin (Sindarin).

Beyond the interaction described in “English and Welsh”, what other factors encourage language change? This is a large question in the Legendarium. Does time play the same role in Middle Earth when one portion of the population does not die? And what is the role of space as a separator of languages? I’m not so sure about the application of time, but it seems to me at least that space is a major factor in change and this in itself adds to the depth of time. Tolkien creates a sense of time in both the expression of the Elivish tongues and Westron by showing what happens when groups of speakers are separated for a given time. The different tones in Westron, and the very different languages in Elvish are the consequences of movement and separation.

Tolkien’s languages are both products of an historical process and the history itself.  They seek to recreate the processes that movement and interaction over time would have had on a “real” language without falling back on the same processes that were products of our world and not Middle Earth. Even without the mind (or work ethic) of a philologist, the languages of Middle Earth continue to impress me enough that I’m not entirely done with trying my hand at making up my own names using Tolkien’s stems. I just know now how much I am missing during the process.



  1. I like very much the point you make about Valarin: that if what Tolkien wanted was primarily design, and not growth or history, he would have created the language of the Gods and left things at that. Clearly, it mattered to him that his languages exist, as it were, in time--and therefore that they change over time (even if, in reality, it was not tens of thousands of years, but only his own lifetime).


  2. I think it is really important to notice the emphasis Tolkien places on linguistic evolution and division. The question of space in linguistic difference is particularly interesting when we look at the causes of spatial division throughout the history of Arda: more often than not, at least in the case of the Elves, there is a willed rather than a natural-occurring sundering of peoples. With the exception of those who became thralls of Morgoth (and perhaps Thingol, entranced by Melian for so long that he remains in Beleriand to build a kingdom around her), in the dissemination of the Elves we repeatedly see a conscious choice of location for the different groups preceding that branching and evolution of language. The letter to Milton Waldman comes to mind again here – the concept of a history “purged of the gross,” with deliberate and relatively clear delineations, based on the actions of known historical characters, accounting for the development of a complex system. Someone pointed out in class the other day that such literary/mythological “backtracking” of history resembles the engagement of the Bible with its historical pre-texts, a fact that Tolkien seems to be quite conscious of. In The Peoples of Middle-earth a direct recapitulation of such Biblical language-division-drama from Elvish history is presented in “The Shibboleth of Fëanor,” which describes how a difference in pronunciation becomes a political emblem and, eventually, part and parcel of a further sundering of kindred.

    -J. Wetherell

  3. You are right to point out that the legendarium and the languages eventually took on separate lives of their own. That he continued to work on the languages long after the publication of the LotR shows that he had an enduring interest in them as a philologist and not just as an author. The Lhammas, as near as I can tell, was a philological exercise. It is a part of the legendarium in so far as it deals with the languages therein. But, although it adds yet another layer of depth to the environment and insight into Tolkien's creative process, to me it does not really change a great deal about the stories themselves.

    I think the missing element to your names was less a history of the languages (assuming that you weren’t mixing language roots), but a history of the names themselves. The names that Tolkien employed often had a particular story tied up behind them. For example, a sword carries the name Flame of West not because of a linguistic family tree, but because of the events tied to that sword. The same can be said for the Gladden Fields or Dorthonion/Taur-nu-Fuin or Cuiviénen/Water of Awakening. To make up a name like Fire Hill (in whatever language you want to use) it will lack a Tolkienesque feel unless you give it a history. For a very rough example of fire hill: The people of Curufin and Celegorm fled southwards out of Himlad along the waters of Aros as the forces of Morgoth breached the Pass of Aglon. As a group of orcs and other dread beasts led by a balrog approached Arossiach ahead of the main force, with many of his worthy men stayed behind to delay their advance. From afar, the elves could see him across plain standing at the crest of a treeless hill. In the waning sun, his golden armor shown stark and proud as a small flame before a darkening cloud. What fell deeds were done that night, none can tell for none returned. But their struggles ignited an angry and bitter fire that the consumed the hill and all upon it, elf and orc alike, for ten days. And the people of Curufin lamented the loss of their homes and at the hill of fire. Thereafter, red poppies bloomed upon the crest of fire hill where fell…
    Alternatively, you could go the linguistic route claiming that it was originally Hill in old Numenorean, but over time it changed to , and eventually , so that in Hobbit speak rhymed with or resembled their word for fire and the brilliant red foliage of the maples there helped to make the name of Fire Hill stick.

    -Jason A Banks