Friday, April 25, 2014

Name and Language in Tolkien

I think it is meaningful that Tolkien never compiled a dictionary of his languages. It was more important to him to have a genealogy of his languages, the “Tree of Tongues,” that shows the development of his languages through time than to have a collection of the words. From this we can see the importance of history and legend to Tolkien’s conception of language. He believed that languages could not stand on their own, could not be alive, without their histories and legends. Therefore, when one Mr. Rang attempted to derive the meaning of Elven words from real-world languages like German and Anglo-Saxon, Tolkien explained that Mr. Rang was taking the Elven tongues out of context and resorting to symbolism to derive meaning instead of looking at the actual development of the language. Although Elven nomenclature is constructed from pre-existing languages, their relationship is a tenuous one. Tolkien maintains that the only significance, if any, that pre-existing languages has on his constructed languages is what he calls the “sound-sequence.” This brings us to another important aspect of language for Tolkien: the aesthetics of language.

The aesthetics of language is how a language sounds to the ears—some may be more pleasurable to hear than others. An example of a particularly pleasing sound-sequence to Tolkien is the phrase “cellar door.” Its pleasing quality has nothing to do with cellar doors, but rather the sound of the two words combined. Similarly, the aesthetics of language has nothing to do with the content of the language (though it may reflect the purity and beauty of the language), and indeed certain languages can evoke great feelings in people who have never heard the language before and do not understand it. In LOTR, Frodo often perceives beautiful and haunting imagery from the sound of Elven songs without understanding everything that is said, and feels a profound sense of loss. Therefore, sounds convey meaning as well as words, and the sound of a word has as much significance as its meaning. Particular sounds or languages may also evoke certain feelings in certain people, even when they don’t understand what is being said. Tolkien calls this “linguistic taste,” which is an individual’s affinity for certain languages regardless of whether he or she understands them. Often the person feels a sense of familiarity with the language without having encountered it before. Tolkien explains that this linguistic preference is ancestral and comes from the historic making of an individual, so that it comes from deep within and cannot be explained, though it can evolve over a person’s lifetime.

In regards to names, we pointed out in class that many characters in Tolkien’s stories have more than one name, and each name corresponds to a different identity. Well-traveled characters like Aragorn and Gandalf have many names because they mean different things to different people, and assume different identities and roles in different contexts. Hobbits, on the other hand, do not have so many names because they keep to themselves in the Shire and their identities are fixed in a certain context and network of relationships. This idea that different names mean different identities speaks to the power of a name. It’s not just a descriptor: for example, Strider and Aragorn are not just different ways of calling Aragorn. They come with different role relations with others, different modes of participation in their world, and different responsibilities. A name has material consequences; it’s not just a symbol. A change in name produces concrete changes in lived reality. When Strider assumes the name Aragorn, his relationship with Frodo, for example, is altered because the name Aragorn requires a different kind of interaction. In this sense names in Tolkien’s world can be likened to speech acts, which are utterances with performative functions. Language doesn’t just have to be description; in many cases, the use of language actually performs a task. Language in rituals is a good example—an invocation may summon the spirits; a wedding vow declares a couple husband and wife, with material, legal consequences for the couple and changes the state of their relationship. Names and languages, then, are more than systems of representations. Rather they are performative and have material consequences on lived reality.

Beyond this, there is another aspect to names. As we discussed in class, the fact that characters can have different names and identities that are equally legitimate suggests that there is no one “true” name for things in the world. There is not one name that captures the essence of an object. As Dana Gioia in the poem “Words” proclaim: “The world does not need words….The stones on the path are no less real for lying uncatalogued and uncounted.” “Yet,” she says, “the stones remain less real to those who cannot name them….To name is to know and remember.” Placed next to Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia,” which states: “Yet trees are not ‘trees,’ until so named and seen—and never were so named, till those had been who speech’s involuted breath unfurled…,” we can conclude several things about the conception of language we are working with. First, naming is an ability unique to humans. It is our response to our world—the objects don’t need names to exist, yet they are not what they are to us without the names we give them. Second, because naming and language is unique to us and is crucial in our engagement with the world we live in, to name, to speak, to tell stories are acts of participating in the world and part of Tolkien’s project of sub-creation.



  1. J.F.

    In this post, I found particularly interesting the points made on the subject of Aragorn's many names, and how which name he chooses to use is important in terms of his "different role relations with others, different modes of participation in their world, and different responsibilities". I agree that in Tolkien's mythology names have incredible power, so I wanted to add something else I've been pondering since our discussion on names and language. When Aragorn is crowned king, he makes the arguably very important decision to change his house name from "The House of Elendil" to "The House of Telcontar" - 'Telcontar' being the Elvish translation of 'Strider' and takes the name King Elessar to be his royal name - 'Elessar being the Elvish translation of 'Elf-stone'.

    To me, this is very significant because in taking his royal names, Aragorn is attempting to fuse two important parts of his history. Telcontar, or Strider, represents his past as a far-wandering dúnedain who appeared to be and was perceived almost as a dangerous vagrant. Importantly, he assigns this name to his entire house as if to lay on his descendants the duty to range far and wide to defend the free peoples. Meanwhile, he personally takes the name Elessar, Elfstone, to bring in his deep ties to the elves who had raised him in Imladris. Finally, he translates these names into elvish: the high language, the book language, the language of his forbearers; to me, this ties him into his long heritage and back to the Númenorean kings and Eärendil.


  2. Dear JF

    Thanks for a wide-ranging discussion! You bring up several good points that could bear much further discussion.
    It is a happy surprise to find that you dealt here with the very question that occurred from reading J Harriman's "Subcreative Art of Language." That is, the various roles and functions that the many names someone like Aragorn bear. You nicely tie these functions into the historical nature of language and the performative nature of some words (which have an effect by their very utterance). What instances of performative speech-acts do we find in Tolkien? Right now, none occur to me! Can someone help us out?

    Secondly, as far back as Aristotle's view "man alone of the animals possesses speech" ( Politics (1253a ~10), many would support your statement: "Naming is an ability unique to humans. It is our response to our world." But is this how Tolkien views human nature? Does Tolkien push against and even invert this traditional notion?

  3. I concur that Tolkien’s attention to names and our subsequent class discussion on their role and importance is an absolutely fascinating concept to analyze, as the functions of names in Tolkien’s works are as numerous and multifaceted as the multitude of names themselves. Names play roles as substantial and concrete as those of the characters whom they adorn--from providing distant developments in characters’ relationships, as in the case of Aragorn/Strider and Frodo, to serving as indications of a greater depth and instance of subcreation. Naming is an exercise in the divinely inspired subcreation that Tolkien’s delineates to be of the utmost importance. Moreover, you noting that language has a performative quality to it further speaks to Tolkien’s belief that language is incredibly powerful and the driving force behind the stories he tells us readers. Naming is “to know and remember,” as you pointed out in your blog post. That knowing and remembering is the story which each name carries, and it is then these stories that drive a number of other stories that Tolkien telling. The stories and names interact like real characters, and this is a reminder of how incredibly powerful language is for Tolkien. I am reminded of our class discussion where we endeavored to discover the history behind the word "walnut" by looking at its many different incarnations throughout language.

    - Megan Porter

  4. "Strider and Aragorn are not just different ways of calling Aragorn," you write. I found this statement pretty interesting, because even in talking about how there isn't one "identity" by which that individual is known by, you refer to him by one identity! I don't say this to poke holes in what you're saying, but rather to point to a larger limitation that we face in fully inhabiting Tolkien's philosophy of names. Perhaps this is part of why we tend towards additional description, epithets of a sort, in everyday life, or in English in general. Note the lack of epithets in Tolkien compared to English language history. Does the way we use names function fundamentally differently from Tolkien? In Tolkien, each individual name describes a different "identity" or aspect of the person's identity, yet for us, a name seems to be a baseline off of which we add descriptors or epithets as needed. In that case, our names seem to be both more narrow, a baseline, but also more expansive, encompassing all the various additional descriptors. The point that was brought up by LDD above is an interesting point in this, as it is a sort of attempt to meld different aspects or identities into one. Is this similar to the way we have names ourselves? Additionally, it might be interesting to consider whether variations of our names serve a similar or different purpose from the different names of characters in Tolkien. For instance, does a shortened version of your name that friends use denote a different identity from when a parent would call you by full first + middle name?