Thursday, April 10, 2014

Language and People

T.A. Shippeys The Road to Middle Earth reiterates what we have often brought up in class discussion: that via his writing Tolkien created an incredibly immersive world. One in which he creates a means of escape and desertion from this world. And yet by escaping to the world of Middle Earth, Tolkiens provides a means of consolation; for readers can gain insight into their own world from their visit to Middle Earth.

Language is a key component to creating a novel realm. No matter how bizarre or fantastical the created world, it has a connection to ours via language. A fantasy world, like ours, contains this means of communication as beautifully noted on in The Notion Club Papers (Sauron Defeated). In this story, it is mentioned that language is used by 'hnau', by intelligent and physical beings and minds. For, the irrational couldnt, and the unembodied couldnt or wouldnt [use language]. As such, the existence of language in a fantasy world make the world and the people in it more real, relatable, and believable to the reader. For the people in the world are rational, intelligent, physical beings and minds, just like us.

In his world, Tolkien goes to a great extent to create unique languages for all the races of Middle Earth. And amongst these languages, there is evidence of the evolution of language, such as seen in the many dialects and spoken languages of the elves throughout the history of Middle Earth. Again, this creates a similarity between language in a fantasy world to language in the world in which a reader lives. The evolution of language is inevitable and notable within a single generation. Todays dictionary recognizing phrases like 'texting' and 'lol' are testament to this.
In regards to the parallels between language in the readers' world and language in a fantastical world, Tolkien's use of the Common Speech in the Lord of the Rings beautifully embodies this topic. In a sense, the Common Speech can be seen as embodying the desire to understand the minds and languages of all people of the world. Such a desire is highlighted in The Lost Road, in which the story of Alboin shows Alboins intense longing to know and see people from the past. And when his wish is granted, he travels back through time and understands the language of foreign people from who are speaking what is likely a dead language in Alboins time.

And yet, in our world, the ability to understand the minds and languages of all cultures and peoples is, sadly, impossible without the assistance from technology or translators. There are only so many languages the human mind can comprehend and use fluently. And yet, the Common Tongue as seen in The Lord of the Rings highlights the wondrous gift of being able to learn the language of others. In learning the language of others, one can speak to and with them. At the same time, one can better understand the culture of the language in which the tongue originates via the language's structure and usage (an example is seen in the situation mentioned in lecture, when Tolkiens mother scolded him for saying the 'green great dragon' rather than the 'great green dragon', for English favors the significant descriptions of a noun to proceeded it. And yet in languages such as Spanish, the noun always proceed its adjectives, perhaps alluding to the fact that more significance is placed in the noun than its description and features). In the realm of Middle Earth in its Third Age, presumably much could be gleamed from races by their language. In fact, one could be sure of this, for Treebeard himself comments on how curious the other races are for being so quick, as seen in their short words! And Bilbo holds a fascination and desire to preserve the elvish language, as seen in his writing it down and teaching it to Frodo. The language is important to Bilbo, and he has a great respect for it, just as he has a great respect for the Elves. Seemingly, the Elvish language and its speakers are enlightening of the culture and ideals of elves.

Do not think the following statement is a random tangent, for it relates to the subject of phonetics and all that I have mentioned: in my Biodiversity class this very week, my professor was on the topic of taxonomy, in which taxonomic 'trees' (cladograms) are used to show divergence and evolution amongst similar organisms. He then showed us a cladogram (follow this link for a cool example! http://static.persquaremile.com/wp-content/uploads/indo-european-language-origin-map.jpg) of languages, indicating when languages 'derived and evolved' from others. If this is not proof that language indicates much of its speakers, I do not know what is. The divergence of languages as illustrated on the cladogram is color coded, and a map of Europe is color coded to the respective language spoken in appropriate regions. Such shows with amazing accuracy the immigration and dispersal of early (and more recent) people throughout Europe. A similar process to this was used to track the story of Little Red Riding Hood, along with its variations. The results of this study corresponded to likely immigrations of early people, and it also highlights ideals that were likely significant to early and successive cultures that arose from shared ancestors. For example, some variations of Little Red Riding Hood show her to be an obedient girl who is saved from danger, while other variations show her being a devious girl, devouring the treats for her grandmother and consequently finding a dangerous tiger in her grandmothers bed (as seen in Asian variations of the story).

The migration of people, culture, and language is not a foreign concept in Middle Earth. The elves dispersal across Middle Earth is testament to this phenomena. The emphasis on the history of elves, both in The Lord of the Rings and in other of Tolkiens writings, illustrates Tolkiens fascination with the birth and spread of cultures as seen through linguistics. In The Lost Road, Alboin resembles a young Tolkien, fascinated with languages deemed dead and insignificant in the modern world. Yet Tolkien, as mentioned in Fliegers Question of Time, pursued the studies of old, seemingly insignificant languages as a young undergraduate. Even as a professor, he often put work aside in pursuit of the knowledge gleamed by studying the linguistics of ancient cultures.

Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat, or so it is said in some variation or the other. On a less daunting but sadder note, Tolkiens focus of language seems to say, Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to forget it. In his studies of linguistics, Tolkien sought out stories representative of his region of the world from the early people who settled and lived there. With England lacking such stories apart from its classic King Arthur stories, Tolkien sought to honor England and its past via his imagination. The fate of the elves fading away from Middle Earth seems to hint that people who forget who they are and where they come from are doomed to loose connection to their origins, their ideals, and who they are. Or, so I have gleamed from what I have understood of the elves relationship with Middle Earth.

~C.C.C.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the post, CCC. It’s a good read.

    This idea of the taxonomy of languages, their relation of the peoples who speak them, and the nations that can be defined from those people, was—for good and very ill—one of the key ideas of the Zeitgeist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Tolkien is, in a way, very typical of his times in his profound fascination with it, but he’s utterly atypical in his creative use of it.

    I've always thought that one of the most interesting thing is that Gildor regards Frodo as an elf-friend immediately upon hearing him speaking fluent Elvish with a beautiful accent. (Paper topic: Perhaps Gildor and the Elves are French…) While Gildor may be seeing in Frodo’s mien other signs of “elf-friendliness” it seems significant that entrée to Elfdom is clearly denoted through the skillful use of its language.

    You might look at Tolkien’s letters for some of his explicit discussions of these issues here in the Fourth Age…

    Bill the Heliotrope

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