Friday, April 25, 2014

"O felix peccatum Babel!" and the Function of Language

O felix peccatum Babel!

In his lecture English and Welsh, Tolkien issues this exclamation (“O fortunate fault, Babel!”) in celebration of the fact that there exist so many languages by contact with which one might discover his own “native language, his inherent linguistic predilections,” (English and Welsh 194, 190). He explains his own history of discovery (leading him to Welsh, which he calls “probably closer to [my native language] than any other living language”), using words like “beautiful,” “desirable,” “satisfaction,” “aesthetic pleasure,” (194, 190-1). This aesthetic appreciation of language is not unique to the author Tolkien; we see it also in a whole race of his creation, the Elves. In the Lhammas we learn that “the Elves love the making of words,” and see repeated evidence that the changes from the original language divinely given to the Elves by the Valar arise from the things that each group of Elves “loves”: “they added many words to it of their own liking;” “lovers of freedom;” “the house of Denethor loved green above all colours,” (The Lost Road 184, 185, 192 [emphasis added]). This brings up the idea, also prevalent in Dana Gioia’s Words, that a primary function of language is to praise: certainly to praise the things one loves in the natural world, and perhaps also to worship in a more religious sense, since in using language in whatever form the Elves are using the gift of the godlike Valar.

But although praise may be an important function of language, it is by no means the only one; for as we discussed in class, communication is of the utmost importance as well (cf. Wikipedia: “Language is the human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication,” [emphasis added]). For all the talk in the Lhammas of branches of Elvish tongues becoming sundered from one another, it is essential to note that this never seems to hinder communication if and when the different languages come back into contact. For example, we learn that “the tongue of the Teleri… has ever remained apart though akin,” and later that “the tongues of Teleri and Noldor drew somewhat together again in those days,” (Lhammas 187, 189 [emphasis added]). So even distanced languages can here grow closer together. “Grow” is the operative word: as we noticed in class, the various Elvish and related languages are very intentionally organized in a tree, which changes only in that it grows; this tree does not seem to wither, and its roots are reached by no frost. The importance of communication is further emphasized by the existence of Quenya, the “Elf-Latin” that after a certain point is not spoken among any one group of Elves, yet is known to all. A powerful counterexample is the speech of the Orcs, which as described in Appendix F to the Lord of the Rings took different forms among each tribe such that “their Orkish speech was of little use to them in intercourse between different tribes.” It is no accident that this is the only speech Tolkien describes as “brutal,” “barbarous,” and “perverted;” it can’t even communicate, let alone praise. Another counterexample is the use of the “tongue of the Riddermark” to greet strangers, when it is well known that most strangers will not understand this tongue; this deliberate attempt to subvert actual communication is a sign of the dark times Rohan is experiencing, and in particular of the evil influence of Wormtongue, and through him Saruman, on Théoden and the Rohirrim (LotR Book III chapter vi).

So far so good. But something has been nagging at me about the whole idea of communication as the purpose of language: if this is the case, what does it mean to invent a language (or languages), as Tolkien has done? Within his Secondary Reality, of course, his languages function just as English and Anglo-Saxon and Welsh do in our world; but what are we to make of his invented1 languages in the Primary Reality, where it is not really feasible to communicate in them? Can we even think of them in languages in the same way?

Well, no, not in the same way that we think of English. But I think Tolkien would rightly object to saying that there is no room for communication in these languages. This is one importance of the scene with Frodo in the Hall of Fire at Rivendell. Though Frodo doesn’t understand the words of the songs he hears, he can feel their power and to some extent their meaning. He has of course no fluency in these elvin-tongues and therefore no literal understanding of what he hears; but to say that the songs communicate nothing to him would be absurd (LotR Book II chapter i). And it is not just Frodo and other characters of Tolkien to whom these unknown languages communicate, but us as readers as well. Do we not feel something when we read:
            “A! Elbereth Gilthoniel!
            Silivren penna míriel
            O menel aglar elenath,
            Gilthoniel, A! Elbereth!      ?

And do we not feel something far different when we read:
            “Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-shi krimpatul”?

Certainly context helps in both cases, but in neither is it necessary for us to understand some part of what’s there: and that’s communication.

Putting aside communication, I think it is beyond doubt that Tolkien’s languages also fulfill for him the function of praise. Though he is one man following his own predilections and loves rather than a whole people of elves, should this personal expression count less? I for one can’t imagine why that would be the case.

But this brings me to my final point, in which I will leave some questions that I don’t have any answer to. I stated above that it is not feasible for us in our Primary Reality to communicate in Tolkien’s invented tongues, even though I went on to show examples of how they can communicate to us from within the Secondary Reality. But many people really do (try to) learn Quenya, for example, including some of my own classmates (I was surprised there weren’t more!). This seems to me a very different kind of relationship to language than anything found in Tolkien’s writing, although it is, ironically, based on Tolkien’s writing; and it seems to me far less personal than Tolkien’s own relationship with his languages. I don’t think a desire to learn Quenya would often arise out of personal linguistic taste, like Tolkien’s idea of a “native tongue.” (If it did, why not study Finnish or Welsh?) But does it bear any similarity to the discovery of a native tongue? Does it bear any similarity to a form of praise? (It praises the author and his works, perhaps, but does it praise nature or the divine?) And if it is none of these things but rather arises entirely from fandom, is it still a “good” use of language? I leave you with these questions in offensively undefined terms, and eagerly await your thoughts and comments—especially from any who have studied Quenya or another invented language!

 -David Jaffe

1. As noted above, the Elves are said to love inventing and making words; but their “invention” is not of the same kind as Tolkien’s. The Elves’ language develops to suit their needs and tastes, and if they play a somewhat more intentional role in this development than men do, that does not make the development any less natural. Inventing an entire language is not natural.


  1. For myself, I find it hard to learn languages simply for the sake of learning new ways of saying the same thing. I learn languages in order to read the things that people have written in those languages. Which means, I fear, that I do not quite share Tolkien's love of languages as such--as systems of sounds carrying a certain flavor. I can appreciate the different flavors of languages, but it is a little like the way I drink wine: I am "taste-deaf", to coin an ugly word, when it comes to appreciating their nuances. And yet, I am very, very particular about the use of English and hate when people use it awkwardly, without attending to its stresses and sounds. Which makes me wonder about what kind of taste for language I actually do have: perhaps I am more sensitive than I realize, but it is not quite in the way that Tolkien describes. --RLFB

  2. Dear David Jaffe,
    Thanks for these engaging meditations on the role, function and power of language. I am interested in the questions you raise for fellow fans/readers on the role or value of learning Elvish now – though I will leave those questions to another.

    Perhaps this was already discussed in class – sadly I was ill – but I had hoped you might spin out more the conceptual or theological significance to the phrase: “O felix peccatum Babel!” A timely phrase, for Tolkien was clearly (and consciously, as a informed Catholic) echoing the words from the Easter Vigil about the Original Sin: “O happy fault [Adam’s fall] that merited such and so great a Redeemer [as Christ].” So much seems to be tied up in this – sin, redemption and the possibility of a higher divine state afterward. What can Tolkien mean, then, with O felix peccatum Babel, applying this to language?

    I also appreciate your insight to Frodo’s understanding of the elvish tongue without knowledge of that tongue. This is also on the way to a question that I have been harboring: For us, language has power because it communicates something. But as you point out with Frodo (and I think elsewhere in Tolkien), does it not seem that certain words (like Elendil or Elbereth) communicate something because first they has a certain inherent power? How does this work?

  3. Sick post bro

    I tried to learn Quenya one time (although to be totally honest, I wasn't much better at it than I was at Latin--and you may recall 202). I can't pretend that I had any real sub-creative purpose in mind, or that I'm hardwired for Finno-Ugric syntax, or that it would have opened a lot of doors for me communication-wise. Fandom, then, I suppose.

    Was it a good use of language? No, nor was it a good use of time. But while the splintered, incomprehensible nature of orc-speech does serve to mark it as "evil," I don't think that comprehension is necessary to render a speech "acceptable"; the fact that Tolkien taught himself Finnish (and presumably never communicated in it outside of special situations like the ones in which a Quenya "speaker" would find himself using his lore) seems to me to be proof that specialized or obscure tongues aren't inherently bad. I'd therefore assign a moral nullity to the acquisition of language for frivolous means--why shouldn't teenagers waste their time?

    --Charlie Bullock

  4. Geez, maybe it’s because I’m the token orientalist, but Black Speech parses quite easily. It’s neither splintered nor incomprehensible. It might I suspect, however, be pseudo-Ugric, as a mirror image of the wrecked Finno-Elves’ tongue…

    N.B. Finno-Ugric is a disputed language family (aren’t they all?) these days (basically, there’s a school arguing Ugrian languages don’t belong in it), but I think in Tolkien’s day, it would have been pretty well excepted.

  5. Great post - I think that the answer to the question you pose at the end of your post about whether learning a language whose power to both communicate and praise is hampered by either a paucity of speakers or its fictional origins (or both) is a "good use of a language" is a valuable one and highly relevant since we've appcoached much of Tolkien's work etymologically or historically in the first place.

    The only inroads I can think of making into that question is that language acquisition can give the learner access to the rich cultural history regardless of whether or not its currently spoken. In other words, although Tolkien probably never communicated with another human being in Finnish, he was in effect communicating with all the past speakers of it as well. Now, I think that learning Quenya in particular might be a "good use" since it gives learners access to a world that highly mythologized from its outset. Thus learning Quenya is a far different expereince that learning Esperanto might be, even though Esperanto exists in our primary reality. So I suppose learning a fictional language can still have its benefits in this case since it gives the learner the opportunity to communicate with a deeply mythologized world and the community of readers that also appreciate it.