Thinking back to my comments in class about the relationship between Tolkien’s tree of languages and the distancing process from the Valar’s original vision, I was too hasty (no reference to Treebeard’s frequent advice intended) to jump on the idea of potential connection between the Tower of Babel story and the Sundering of the Elves as reflected through the languages they used. After all, Tolkien—and his elves, too—are first and foremost a lover of words, and the divisions in tongues on Middle Earth very much reflect the love of naming things, words, the sound and nuances of language on Tolkien’s part as well as the Elves’. While the linguistic division in Middle Earth does in part plays into the level of closeness to Eruvatar’s will (the emergence of Quenya and Sindarin among elves who had and had not made it to Valinor, respectively, coming to mind), it’s nonetheless a reflection of a far more organic process—much like the image of a living, growing tree that Tolkien calls upon with the name “the Tree of Tongues.”
When I first read The Lord of the Rings, and eventually, The Silmarillion, one of the first things that endeared me to the books is the attention and care Tolkien paid to the languages in his lengendarium, not only in his extensive work on the Elven languages but also the snippets and comments about the dwarves’ use of a modified cirth system (Angerthas Moria and the mode of Erebor) or the hint that English is merely a substitute for the ancient and foreign tongue of Westron that suggest a much wider canvas of languages that form a internally consistent reality in his secondary reality—or should we say, alternative history to our primary reality. Reading his body of works, I was made very aware of the fact that Tolkien was, first and foremost, a philologist. In his stories, languages carry the weight of history and legends. While Tolkien’s languages doesn’t invoke powers of incantation in and of themselves like in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea, utterances of Eärendil’s name and hymns to Varda (A Elbereth Gilthoniel) are nonetheless not spoken lightly. It’s true that the passages in English themselves represent the “lost” legend of “the Great Years” at the end of the Third Age through the eyes of Frodo and Sam, the “little people” with their down-to-earth ways and unornamented language, and it was “originally written” in Westron, so one can’t exactly make a case for instances of the Elven Tongues—or any other languages particular to Middle Earth—as something completely different in nature and intent from the English/Westron passages. For the reader (namely myself, since I can’t speak for anyone else), however, the “untraslated” names (the Galadriels and Caradhrases, as opposed to the “Englished” Shires and such) and actual quotes of Quenya and Sindarin, when invoked, suggest a deeper layer of history and spiritual reality tracing back all the way through the events of The Silmarillion to the very beginning, the.
Which brings up back to the topic of the Tree of Tongues with Valarin at its roots. As one of my classmates mentioned a few posts down, regardless of whether the branching-off of languages is considered a gradual distancing from Ilúvatar’s original in-universe, it’s not Tolkien’s intention to create a “perfect language,” so to speak. If he did, the Tolkienian languages enthusiasts around the world wouldn’t exactly be geeking out over Quenya and Sindarin, and would’ve been pouring over Valarin instead. But, even with that in mind, I couldn’t help but be struck by the first branch springing from the Valarin original, which was that of Melko, “the tongues of the Orqui (Goblins) & other evil things,” to quote the comments on the Tree of Tongues. Also, the division between different Elven Tongues closely resembles the Sundering of the Elven Kindreds, and one can easily trace the divisions between the Elf clans described in The Silmarillion through the branches of the Tree of Tongues. But as my mind ventures again into the realms of seeking connection between the emergence of different languages on Arda and an underlying spiritual/religious source, I’m reminded of Tolkien’s quote of Sæmundsson in English and Welsh:
“Languages are the chief distinguishing marks of peoples. No people in fact comes into being until it speaks a language of its own.” (Tolkien, “English and Welsh,” 166)
With that theory in mind, it becomes apparent that even putting aside Tolkien’s love of words and creating words, the variety of different tongues in Middle Earth is still absolutely essential because with such a multitude of Peoples that inhabit the land, it’s simply counterintuitive for them to all speak one unifying language of Valarin, or at least even Westron for all the Atani. The diversity of language seems a point of celebration for Tolkien, not one of lamentation, despite all the sorrow and weight of history that the languages themselves carry for their speakers.
To reconcile the celebratory tone toward diversity and any potential underlying spiritual connotations behind the branches on the Tree of Tongues, the languages of Middle Earth, especially the Elven Tongues, do in part reflect a spiritual reality on the part of the speaker. In the case of the Elves, for example, Quenya and Sindarin derive from those who have seen the light of the Two Trees of Aman and those who have remained in Beleriand, respectively. And of course, the Orcs’ lack of coherent language, more or less, speaks volumes toward their depravity. The very act of language-making and creating literature and legends in those languages, however, represents a process of sub-creating that rather resembled the voices of the Ainur in Ainulindalë responding to “the mighty theme” that Ilúvatar unfolds and “fashion[ing] the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music” (The Silmarillion, 3-4)—an act that praises God/Ilúvatar through bringing to life something harmonious to Ilúvatar’s original intention. Metaphorically speaking, a branch is no less beautiful just because it’s farther from the roots; what matters is that the core isn’t rotten like that of Melkor.