Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Language for love, language for itself

I’ll be the first to admit that I was nervous choosing today for my blog post topic. Tolkien’s relationship to language is more than just central to his work: it is his work. From class and from our reading, we now know that the languages needed the stories, and not the other way around. His approach, as we’ve seen, is nothing short of meticulous, intellectually grounded, and exhaustive. In brief, it’s a weighty theme to unpack, and a daunting task for a blog post. Shippey’s description of the struggle involved around the definition of philology mirrors my own feelings about Tolkien’s relationship to language, namely, that it’s easy to refine once known, but difficult to define in the first place: “if you didn’t know what philology was, the Grimm definition would not enlighten you.” I was afraid even to attempt to articulate what few conclusions I could draw about the complexities of Tolkien’s linguistic inventions on an academic level, and I spent a long time drawing what amounted to wordy and senseless blanks.

But thinking back to a few class discussions ago and the idea of taste sparked a realization. What makes the topic approachable for me is the emotional aspect of Tolkien’s approach to language. Above (or perhaps before) all the theory and philosophy, however, one thing is always clear: Tolkien loved words. And it was words first and foremost that he loved with passion for the feel, the aesthetics, the “taste” of a word, rather than the significating contraptions that come from language proper. Though no philologist of Tolkien’s ilk would scorn grammatical systems altogether, it’s remarkable to me that it was nothing more than the bare beauty of certain words that drove his passion. It’s truly a kind of love: defying logic, skipping any rational reasons for affection, and taking the straight road to enjoyment. Turning to Tolkien’s own words is, I think, the best way to understand this love. As he says towards the end of English and Welsh, “This pleasure is quite distinct from the practical knowledge of a language, and not the same as an analytic understanding of its structure. It is simpler, deeper-rooted, and yet more immediate than the enjoyment of literature.”

Given all we know about Tolkien’s techinical and historical appreciation for language, this insistence on “pleasure” might seem too simple. But, as such an aesthete, Tolkien’s love for certain words is neither coincidental nor haphazard; simple it may be, but particular as well. This is no infatuation, but a truer emotion reserved only for the worthy. Consider how he describes his happy discovery of Earendil, a word “euphonic to a peculiar degree in that pleasing but not ‘delectable’ language.” The word didn’t strike Tolkien’s ear merely by being pleasant, but by having a sound that was unusual for its context, and “to a peculiar degree” at that. Like any collector of things fine and rare, Tolkien found something truly outstanding in the sound of the word Earendil, and expressly let it inspire him.

On the other hand, Tolkien strongly implies that good taste in words requires knowledge of the full spectrum of what we might call language flavors. Tolkien is clear that dismissing an unknown language as merely barbaric without finding its value is an amateurish conclusion: “Cacophony is an accusation commonly made, especially by those of small linguistic experience, against any unfamiliar form of speech.” No language, it would seem, is truly “bad sounding,” but just underappreciated by the hearers. “Good-sounding” words that are pleasurable require taste, and taste requires exposure to many flavors to become well-honed. This, I think, it why Tolkien’s insistence on the pleasure of words is simple but not simplistic: the practice is one of real connoisseurship.

The paradox, of course, is that in Tolkien’s highly-structured and thought-out linguistic world, words can’t just be chosen haphazardly because of their sounds. This is the very “code-making” that he cautions against in the Notion Club Papers. And yet, in inventing the evolutionary tree of language, in all his revising and polishing, Tolkien manages to combine his personal aesthetic with a scholarly history into a conscious composition that transcends itself. I’m reminded of musical composers like J. S. Bach, who managed the same kind of balancing act in weaving together the rules musical rhetoric and a spiritual expression of beauty into something that means more than either element alone. In a way, that’s the way language itself works: it’s a marriage of the intellectual need to communicate with the emotional need to express what is pleasurable.

And now, what started out as a relatively (and blessedly) uncomplicated inroad to Tolkien’s relationship to language has spiraled into something significant and abstract. But, as Tolkien himself said, “the nature of this pleasure is difficult, perhaps impossible, to analyse,” so I should have expected as much in tackling such ideas. Yet even if he felt it difficult to analyze, Tolkien was well able to depict the powerful alchemy that words can work on our experience, as we read in Frodo’s listening to the Elven-tongue: “[E]ven though he understood them little [...] [a]lmost it seemed that the words took shape, and visions of far lands and bright things that he had never yet imagined opened out before him; and the firelit hall became like a golden mist above seas of foam that sighed upon the margins of the world. Then the enchantment became more and more dreamlike [...] it became part of the throbbing air about him, and it drenched and drowned him.” The metaphor is not merely full of beautiful imagery, but evocative in a greater sense as commentary on words. In Frodo, we see not just Tolkien when he first read Earendil, but an invitation, a promise of what can await all of us who taste and discover the pleasure of words on our own.



  1. Excellent distinction between connoirsseurship and code-making, the one involving both judgment and pleasure, the other more an exercise in technique. Likewise, comparing Tolkien to Bach as a composer is extremely apt! Both took equal pleasure in structure and beauty, rules and spiritual expression. I also particularly appreciate your observation about what it means not to be able to appreciate these flavors and hear only cacophony.


  2. Tolkien does have a singular ability to create a mimesis of language, which must be a marvelous achievement, certainly one that requires a wide-ranging study of - and intuition for - the nature of linguistic development. The aesthetic of a language is a difficult matter, as he must have recognized since he admitted that people seem disposed to certain flavors. As a linguist, he understood the logic of sound. If a tree is not a tree until so named, there is still something that’s more than semantic going on here. Does it have anything at all to do with naming? One can certainly be carried on languages without understanding them. It happens to me when I hear some speakers of German or Italian. Even beginning to understand a new language will cause odd punctuations in our perception that total ignorance protects us from. But sooner or later, with the right kind of study, I suspect that we come out on the other side, with a deeper knowledge, and so deeper experience, of the language. Going beyond magic, language must be in this case uninterrupted incantation, without magical cause and effect. This is why codes are so contemptible. They are mere riddles, like the allegory of a story, sapped of strength once solved. In this way, Tolkien’s insistence on the integrity of sound is quite consistent with his position on the integrity of story.

  3. Language is “a marriage of the intellectual need to communicate with the emotional need to express what is pleasurable.” Well-said! I think you are right in pointing out that Tolkien was a true aesthete for words. The way he talks about language, especially pleasant-sounding words like “Eärendil,” reminds me of a gourmand, or as you put it, a connoisseur. I agree with you: Tolkien’s love for words seems pure and simple and, like love so often is, also deep-rooted and escapes rational explanation. At the same time, as you note, Tolkien’s taste for words is something that comes with knowledge and experience. One must be learned and trained linguistically to truly develop a palate (or I supposed in this case, an ear) that can appreciate all its flavors/sounds.

    Your post has actually made me enjoy reading Tolkien’s works even more. If language is, as you say, really the basis of Tolkien’s stories, then his writing of The Lord of the Rings and all the works in his legendarium is in effect allowing him to indulge in precisely what he loves. In other words, Tolkien must have written with an intense passion—almost like someone dedicating a masterpiece to his lover. We, as readers, then are partaking of Tolkien’s love for language, and this should make his works all the more pleasurable for us to read as well!