Friday, April 11, 2014

Private languages and Communication in Tolkien's Linguistic Theory

                In The Notion Club Papers, Tolkien’s club, vaguely reminiscent of Inklings, the one he created and maintained with other members of the Oxford intellectual community including his good friend, C. S. Lewis, through the discussion of a story written by Ramer comes to discuss the concept of native language.  The club discusses the validity of Ramer’s practice of devising names in his stories, and he declares, “Well, if you really want to know what these names are, I think they're my native language.”  When pressed to discuss his native language, he says, “No, you ass! Magyarorszag, that is Hungary, but anyway, English is not my native language. Nor yours either. We each have a native language of our own - at least potentially. In working-dreams people who have a bent that way may work on it, develop it. Some, many more than you'ld think, try to do the same in waking hours - with varying degrees of awareness. It may be no more than giving a personal twist to the shape of old words; it may be the invention of new words (on received models, as a rule); or it may come to the elaboration of beautiful languages of their own in private: in private only because other people are naturally not very interested.”  Ramer’s point is troublesome; he talks about a ‘language’ that is individual and built into each person.  However, It must be questioned to what extent the thing that he is discussing is a language, or to what extent he is conflating the concepts of language and personal identity.  It seems that what he describes as a language is only a way in which a person sees the world around them, a lens.  But, to say that a lens is a language seems to be a conflation of an idea (that each person has an individual way of seeing the world) and a metaphor for that idea (individualized languages.)

                The main problem with attempting to define the concept of lens as a language is that lens is inherently personal, while language is used for communication.  Language is a tool for communication and expression from one person to another.  Even Tolkien, who prefers “the aesthetic side” of language and philology, admits that languages are structured by the stories that are contained in them.  Stories are, by their nature, designed to have both a teller and an audience, which implies a number of people greater than one.  The academics in The Notion Club Papers, note that language is a tool of the embodied, and that the unembodied, spirits, have no need of language, for they can communicate more directly.  With a personal language, communication is restricted to self-communication, as by definition, nobody else can understand it.  If this was a language, and language was not just a metaphor for the concept of a lens, individual language could be dismissed, for the conscious mind can communicate with itself without the need of language and so, like the spirits in C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent World, would not need the language as a more direct form of communication is available.

                This seeming logical flaw can be, perhaps reconciled if we consider the context of the discussion of language, namely that the discussion occurs couched in the milieu of dreams.  Ramer’s discussion of language comes from his desire to explain how he devised the names that come to him in his dreams.  So, if we leave the waking world behind and place the model of native language firmly in the world of dreams, the paradox of creating a language that is not built on communication disappears.  It is in the enchantment of dreams (and I use enchantment, for it is certainly not the art of humanity that submerges one into the sub-reality of dreams, but instead some sort of deeper force) that we can find a means for a personal language to convey communication.  In a dream, one is both sub-creator of the dream, the sub-creative enterprise, and an actor in the sub-creative practice.  In the strange setup of dreams, all of the actors are simultaneously individuals, unable to communicate perfectly with one another and thus needing a language, but are, at the same time, being a piece of a greater whole, inherently linked.  The dreamer exists as both the creator of the world of the dream and as an actor in the dream.  Therefore, communication is necessary between individual actors but, because the actors are controlled by the same dreamer, they are able to communicate through a language known only by the dreamer, the dreamer’s natural language.

                Therefore, the distinction between language as a communication device and language as a metaphor for the lens of a person is deconstructed, allowing, through the medium of dreams, for a natural language to be both communicative and reserved for only a single person, due to the fact that the sub-creation of that person are not possessed of full knowledge of the thoughts and feelings of the other sub-creations of that dreamer.

                If we are properly to conflate identity and its metaphor as Tolkien seems to do, the dreamer’s natural language, the conclusion of Tolkien’s question is the realization that the fundamental identity of a human being is the language that that human being uses to communicate between the disparate centers of that person’s consciousness, such that a human exists as an individual because of the nuances not in the language and stories to be found around that person (in that person’s hereditary language) but instead in the internal features of their natural language, the language in which that person dreams.  On the second night of their stay in the House of Tom Bombadil, “They heard no noises.  But either in his dreams or out of them, he could not tell which, Frodo heard a sweet singing running in his mind, a song that seemed to come like pale light behind a grey rain curtain, and growing stronger to turn the veil all to glass and silver, until at last, it was rolled back, and a far green country opened before him under a swift sunrise.”  This is a dream of language, very much like the ones that Tolkien describes Albion having in The Lost Road; the song breathes deeply and freshly in the world of the dream, emerging “like pale light from a grey rain curtain.”  One must imagine Frodo to be sitting in this secondary reality on a flat, windswept plain listening to the sound of this ethereal singing.  Yet, the song which is most magical cannot have any beginning but within himself, for he is the sole creator of this sub-creation and it is from him that the “dream” is derived.

Yet, in this dream, the boundaries between primary and secondary reality are diminished.  Frodo does not know if this vision comes to him “either in his dreams or out of them.”  His inability to distinguish the exigency of the vision brings one’s natural language into the primary reality.  When one is not certain whether one is in a dream or in a wakeful state, the use of language becomes muddied and the natural language becomes muddied with the inherited languages.  Chuang Chou, a Chinese poet, once wrote, “Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”  If identity and language are inextricably linked, as Tolkien seems to argue, the language of Chuang Chou, who is both butterfly and human is a language extended from both Butterfly and Human and it is not certain where one stops and the other begins.

And where stand the inherited languages?  They do not come away unscathed from this process of dreaming.  Tolkien speaks of the languages being inextricably bound to their stories, the words coming from the usage in an ordinary concept.  So, when the word Hearse comes from the oscan word, “hirpus,” meaning wolf, it means that there was a person or a group of people who’s native languages contained some connection between a wolf and the concept of a hearse (through the symbolism of teeth.)  In this way, according to Tolkien, a person’s natural language leaves an imprint on the hereditary language.  And on all common languages.

--Elliot Mertz

tl;dr: Tolkien thought dreams were cool.  He also thought they were weird.  Ibid language.

1 comment:

  1. This was a very interesting post, some really good analysis here. You seem to touch on it lightly, but I thought it's worth noting that there's another level here, beyond dreams and language, artistic creation. All three exist in a really fascinating reciprocal relationship. We might also consider how this deep interrelation extends to Tolkien's understanding of creation itself: if language, sub-creation and dream are so linked, and we know that he believes Creation and sub-creation to be likewise inextricably linked, it suggests that there's something fundamentally...linguistic,and perhaps fundamentally dreamlike certainly something fundamentally artistic, about reality.

    It's worth considering how what is probably Tolkien's most famous dream, the dream of a destroying wave that he shares with Faramir, fits into this. What does it tell us about Tolkien's natural language?