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.