Friday, April 25, 2014

Some Thoughts on Languages

I still remember that when I first became obsessed with Middle Earth, one of the arguments I used to convince my mother of its brilliance was “The author even created 17 languages to substantiate his world!” Well, it was not clear from where I got the number 17 (or whether my mother was impressed), but it is clear that I got the precedence entirely wrong. Language is not a trick that Tolkien uses to make Middle Earth sound real. It does achieve the same effect very well, but not by the virtue of existence. “The invention of languages is the foundation. The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse,” wrote Tolkien in Letter 165. It is a foundation to the genesis of the stories, but more importantly it is also fundamental to our experience of Middle Earth.

Inner Consistency

In his lecture “On the Fairy Tales”, Tolkien brought up the concept of “inner consistency” as a key to successful Fantasy. While unlimited freedom in Fantasy allows unlimited possibilities, it also infinitely increases the possibility of “falling apart.” Building a substantial story is more difficult than building with object because it adds the 4th dimension of time yet subtracts the concreteness of tangible objects. But proper use of languages indigenous to the Fantasyland can provide structural support to the very world in which they exist. Languages do change slowly, but they “cannot assign meaning randomly” (HME9, 239), hence the magnitude of change in language is easier to monitor than in a blank universe that is ready to be filled with anything. At the same time, languages, like insects, leave their shells behind after each stage of metamorphosis. These relics include the names of people, of cities and of mountains and rivers, which in turn are essential components of a tale. They can be the threads and marks that guide the flow of time. In the series of the Lost Road, the various form of the name “Elf-Friend” is one of threads that persist throughout the passage of time and even becomes the key to go back. I cannot make assertions on Tolkien’s creative process, but a peek on the example of Eärendil shows that although his languages precede his stories, they are also subjected to modifications according to his stories and characters. The lineage of the heroes and the storyline correspond with the lineage and development of languages, as some events must happen to induce a major change in the languages, while patterns of a language should be consistent with the “history” of its creators and users.  
As the readers, we perceive a sense of consistency when we “discover” that the two timelines match precisely. They lend support to each other in answering the wonder “why this and this happened”. Languages help in the vertical development of “the historical sense” by answering to the said history. At the same time, variation in languages at a given point of time enriched the development of characters and their cultures. We have discussed in class how a language can imply the identity, the qualities and the perspective of its speakers—the dwarves kept secrets; the Ents have seen the most and hence their names are also ever-going and encompass the most details; the Age of Men comes with the spread of the Common Speech and the forgotten of the Elven tongues; the foul Orcs cannot build their own language and only accept what is given to them (from Sauron), and their engagement in the creative process is nothing but the proliferation of curses and abuses. After all, “the Languages” and “the peoples” are put into the same Appendix, suggesting a close relationship between the two.
The horizontal and vertical development is not isolated from each other but unrolls together to extend the breadth and depth of Middle Earth. It is therefore not surprising to see that most species of the Middle Earth associate their language with their history, as the knowledge of an ancient tongue becomes a matter of “lore” and evolves into a signature of social (for the Dúnedains) or even racial (for the Dwarves) identity. The Orcs, on the other hand, do not seem to care much: what could be expected of history, when even their “everyday” language was forgotten soon after the overthrown of their Master? (LotR Appendix F, 1131). Given that Orcs are the antithesis of “the Children of Illuvatar” and given the close connection between identity and history, Orcs’ attitude may well suggest they are indeed a rejection of being.
These are rather subtle implications in Tolkien’s story. The majesty of history is constantly perceivable by the readers more directly through the differentiation between translated names and those original. As Tolkien (“the translator”) explains in Appendix F, selection of what to translate is a delicate matter. The goal is to preserve “a contrast between a wide-spread language…and the living remains of far older and more reverend tongues” (LotR, 1134). Again here comes the idea that language and names carry the “living”. They trigger a living response from the readers. We would wonder why when we come across a strange name, and our wonder may lead to another story behind the scene. We are constantly reminded by the sense of strangeness that there is piece of evidence of history, like a pointy stone after the retreat of the wave of time. These pieces have always been silent tellers of Sam’s revelation at the stairs of Cirith Ungol: the present is but a continuation of the same grand legend from the past, even though neither the characters nor us are always aware of it. And I think wonder from the readers is proof of success for the Fantasy: it is not as plainly believable as our primary world, so there is a notion of distinction from the secondary, yet its “inner consistency” gives reason not to discredit it immediately as daydream.

Access to Middle Earth

In the same lecture, Tolkien also discusses how language is the mediator of imagination, which is an essential human quality. Indeed, as readers we rely on the words of the narrator to be introduced into the Middle Earth. Language has this marvelous ability to stimulate millions of neurons in our brain and, “poof”, there comes all the imagery although we are not actually seeing. We are left wondering whether this world could be true, whether it is the world before our own reality, and we have talked about “what if we can stumble into some sort of relics” in the previous classes. The translated narration can enchant us by activate all the imaginations, but we are still “a-narrator-away” from the Middle Earth. Narration is both the facilitator and the barrier that we cannot across. But languages that are not translated lead a direct path into this world. We might not be able to see or touch or smell the Middle Earth, but with the painstaking instruction from our translator, we might be able to hear its various voices, tones and rhythms by reading out loud the script. The fact that Tolkien makes his most developed languages and their alphabets heavily phonetic is like an invitation to participation in his world through speaking (we can even read Elven script directly if we learn the basic rules. In contrast, I feel it might be actually harder to pronounce English directly from spelling due to irregularity in many words). When Gandalf reads out the Black Speech inscribed on the Ring, “a shadow seemed to pass over the high sun, and the porch for a moment grew dark” (LotR, 254). We can perfectly envision how the environment darkens and imagine how the wizard’s voice “became menacing, powerful, harsh as stone”. But even better, we can try it out ourselves and tastes its menace. If Tolkien’s mastery over English establishes the secondary reality by utilizing our understanding of English, then his elven speech can pierce through the barrier between secondary and primary realities and transform our imagination into something tangible. It does not require interpretation of the meaning (like narration does) —in fact I think we can concentrate on the tones and vocal properties better exactly when we do not understand the words.
Studies have shown that we obtain 90% of the sensory data through sight, hence the idiom “seeing is believing”. Yet, as a philologist, Tolkien emphasizes on the importance of hearing and sound as much as seeing, if not even more. We can see evidence from the stories in The Lost Road, where both “seer” and “listener” have access to Númenor in dreams (actually language has always been the trigger that brings dream into reality). The invitation to voice here could be another.

 The Sub-Creator

Tolkien’s use of languages—both English and his own creation—brings two sides of humanity, logics and sensations, into unity. He masters power from both sides to enchant his readers into a world of both legend and history. Of course, to say that languages gives support to inner consistency does not mean that it is the sole ingredient. Nor is it to say that creation of languages itself is easy. As we have discussed in class, language is a response from us to the external world, and hence carries our imprint. To build a language requires building of a worldview. But Tolkien is not just creating one language from one perspective; he must fit in the shoe of each species and each tribe in order to reflect on the same Middle Earth from many different angles, each with its own inner logic and imprint of its “creator” but also somewhat connected to fit his “majestic whole”. At the same time, his creations are bound by his personal preferences, life experiences, his knowledge of languages as a rigorous philologist and above all, his nature as a human being. We, a “third party” away from him or creatures under his pen, can still appreciate and find resonance in the beauty of the Elven tongues because we have access to the same sensational and logical faculties. We can understand why two words put together will form a new meaning (e.g. Eruvo = “one” + “from” = Children of God) even if our languages do not proceed in the same flow of logics. His languages reflect his understanding of both his world and fundamentally of the nature of human understanding. In this sense, his work is indeed an epitome of what his description of “human” as the “sub-creator”.


P.S. I feel I can give another shot on convincing my mother to read the books…maybe after I read through all the reflections on this blog…


  1. It’s curious that your mom seems unimpressed by The Lord of the Rings because she doesn’t see the world as ‘brilliant’. My brother, in a different sense, was too daunted from finishing the Inheritance series because its world is so dense. To him, wrapping his head around such a complex, well thought out world was just too much. Yet, Christopher Paolini, the author of the Inheritance series, comments in interviews that he was inspired by Tolkien’s Middle Earth in writing his story. I can only imagine that my brother would be overwhelmed by Tolkien’s writing. Still, I hope he may one day read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, because they are great pieces that I know he will enjoy the story of.
    As for language, I love your description of language as insects, “leav[ing] their shells behind after each stage of metamorphosis.” In a sense, a single language one uses throughout life goes through a similar sense of metamorphosis. For example, what I would say, read, and write ten years ago is different from what I would say, read, and write today. Perhaps my brother attempted reading Paolini when he was not at a stage in which he could comprehend and appreciate the language. I hope that now or in the near future he’ll be at a stage where he can read Paolini and Tolkien.


  2. This is a wonderful reflection on the ways in which language constitutes the very fabric of history, as well as on how Tolkien's language works on and within the reader. You've shown us how language serves both as a marker of time and of characterization. I particularly like how you've shown the consequences of this with respect to orcs and orc-history: “ The Orcs, on the other hand, do not seem to care much: what could be expected of history, when even their “everyday” language was forgotten soon after the overthrown of their Master? (LotR Appendix F, 1131).”

    Even more do I like your analysis of the “approachability” of Tolkien's use of internal languages (elvish in particular). I found this particularly well-expressed: “If Tolkien’s mastery over English establishes the secondary reality by utilizing our understanding of English, then his elven speech can piece through the barrier between secondary and primary realities and transform our imagination into something tangible.” But then I am confused that you come to the conclusion that we can appreciate Elvish even though “our languages do not proceed in the same flow of logics.” Have you not shown that Tolkien's thought on languages is very much rooted in our understandings of etymology and euphony? What is it that you are reading as a different logic?

    I hope your Mom gives the books another chance!


  3. Thank you for your feedback~ :)
    I think my mom has the same "fantasy-cannot-be-serious-literature" mindset...she was very surprised to learn that Tolkien stands right next to Tolstoy in the special shelf for "Classics" in the Houston Public Library. I wish she could attend one session of our amazing class here!

    To C.C.C
    I can't agree with you more on "what I would say, read, and write ten years ago is different from what I would say, read, and write today". My first contact with the books of The Lord of the Rings was a failed attempt to learn English through reading imagination could be formed since I have to check dictionary at least once per line x_x. Hope your brother can catch up with you soon! I can imagine that it would be so fun to have someone to discuss Tolkien at home :)

    To Jenna,
    I am sorry that I didn't express myself clear, but what I meant by “our languages do not proceed in the same flow of logics” is that etymologically the words in our languages are not structured in the same way as the Elvish. An example I found was "niquessë" (frost-pattern), which is associated with "quessë" (feather) in Quenya. In English the formation of the word "frost-pattern" does not follow the specific logical path that frost and feather have some qualities in common, hence logically our language is not constructed in the same way as the Elvish due to different perception of the world. But we can still understand why the Elves make the connection when we see how it is decomposed--perhaps even find a sense of poetic beauty in it. So we must at the same time share something with the Elves in terms of logical thinking. Tolkien can create languages that so many readers find beautiful because he understands what kind of etymological link would be appreciated by his readers, even when their native tongues do not contain the same links. And his understanding on the matter is due to his insights on human logic/nature... I probably shouldn't use the broad word "logics" in the original sentence... does it make a bit more sense now...?

    ~ y.w.y