Friday, April 25, 2014

The Sub Creative Art of Language

As presented in class, Dana Gioia’s poem “Words” highlights the alienness of words to the actual objects they describe: “The world does not need words. It articulates itself”. From the poem’s perspective, words may only transform a thing into something less than it actually is; words are not for a rock or sunlight or a flower, they are for us as human beings. Yet, I do not think Dana goes as far as Tolkien does when he says that, “to name is to know and remember” these things and thereby praise them. I argue that for Tolkien the knowledge and use of language is a sub-creative process and not just a tool for memory, or praise, or (even worse) for simple mechanical transference of information. Instead, language shapes the thoughts of its people and at the same time people shape their language by using it; it is an act of sub-creation.

For Tolkien as a philologist, language and identity are tightly interwoven aspects of people and their culture. He writes, “languages are the chief distinguishing marks of peoples. No people in fact comes into being until it speaks a language of its own” (166). For Tolkien, people could have neither a history nor an identity without their language. As we have discussed in class before, this may be why Tolkien said in his letters that his invention was more about “finding out” the story behind a word, rather than purely inventing it. The languages which Tolkien crafted had stories embedded in the very shape of the words, much in the same way that languages in our primary reality do. As Tolkien saw language, language could not help but carry history with it. As Shippey points out, even the languages of Middle-earth which preceded Tolkien’s languages had to be worked out; these previous languages, “suggest[ed] language behind language and age behind age a phenomenon philologists so often detected” (Road to Middle Earth, 16). Just as peoples in our primary reality are informed by their linguistic history, so too are the peoples of Middle-earth. In Appendix F of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien lays out a linguistic history that specifically characterizes the peoples that are using each language. For example The Ents are long-winded, speaking slowly and with long words that were often smaller words chained together, “Deepvalleyforested Gloomyland” (LotR Appendix F.I, 1131). This style seems to reflect the history of the Ents as growing things: their language grows and extends upon itself in the same way that they grow and live. For the Ents and the other peoples of Middle-earth, linguistic history can characterize a people’s view of the world, or as Tolkien avoided saying directly, “Language is related to our total psycho-physical make-up” (“English and Welsh”, 190).

The relationship of language to identity is not one-directional, however. Language may change according to the new situations of its people; it can absorb new histories, new acts of sub-creation. As we discussed in class, language is a gift of the Valar to the Elves, but it is never an immutable gift   for the “Elves love the making of words and this has ever been the chief cause of the change and variety of their tongues” (HME 5, 184). Yet, it also as though changes in Elven language depend in some part on the Elves’ connection to Middle-earth and to death: “Their tongues therefore changed in the slow rolling of the years … Yet they changed less than might be thought … for the Elves in Valinor did not die” (HME 5, 187). When the Noldor returned to Middle-earth, their speech changed quite a bit, “for there was death and destruction, woe and confusion and the mingling of peoples” (HME 5, 193). It would seem from this that Tolkien found mortal life to be a catalyst for great change in the language of a people, perhaps because acts of sub-creation flourish in mortal life and in conflict in ways that they could not for an immortal that does not change. Conflict, as Tolkien explains about the ‘real’ world struggle between the English and the Welsh, does not simply replace one people’s language with another. Unlike the peoples who engage in the conflict, “languages are not hostile one to another” (“English and Welsh”, 178). Conflict, in addition to other meetings of peoples, is instead a “fusion and confusion” (“English and Welsh”, 169) of language; it is a creation of a new history that reflects the contact of those involved. As the life of people goes on, it changes and grows along with its use and interaction with other languages; the language of a people reflects that people’s growth.

In class we differentiated between Le Guin’s notion of the “true names” of power, and the descriptive names that Tolkien gives to his characters, of which there may be more than one such as with Gandalf and Aragorn. In Tolkien’s works a name did not grant power over the thing that was named, yet the names of Gandalf and Aragorn (or Strider) are given to these individuals by others. What role do these names play for the people doing the naming? The names do not grant power in the same way as in A Wizard of Earthsea, but they do seem to have a power over those that give them as well as those that accept them as accurate descriptions. For example, to the Elves Gandalf is Mithrandir, the Grey Pilgrim, but to Grima Wormtongue he is Láthspell, or ill-news (III. vi. 513). By giving Gandalf this name Grima constructs a description of him that is inaccurate, or at best misleading. Yet Grima is still sub-creating by using the language of Rohan for the ill-purpose of laying doubts on Gandalf’s character, and this sub-creation clearly has power over those (Theoden) who agree with its description. It would seem then that language not only shapes and is shaped by the people who use it for themselves. Both an individual and their language may be shaped by others that use it.

A language, a people, and an individual form a relation of mutual construction. An individual is at the same time informed by their language as they form it and pass it on to others. For Tolkien, “language … is a natural product of our humanity. But it is therefore a product of our individuality” (“English and Welsh”, 190). Language is an living act of individual sub-creation that shapes our own and others’ understanding of the world.

-- Justyn Harriman

P.S. I feel my discussion of language could also extend our discussion of the different styles that certain characters are able to employ, and how those styles reflect that individuals relationship to other cultures. For better or worse, I’ve decided to focus on the peoples and not on the individuals in my post, so this leaves open a lot of questions about how individual characters use language. What do we make of Gandalf’s ability to speak in different styles and different languages, even in Black Speech? At the Council of Elrond, what do we make of Aragorn’s ability to talk in both high and low modes, not only to different characters, but (following Shippey’s discussion in Author of the Century of the speech between Aragorn and Boromir) to the same character? What role do Aragorn and Gandalf play as individuals in relation to the different languages they use? To answer these questions would require more space than I have, but as the Road so too may our discussion go ever on and on.


  1. Hi Justyn,

    I think you made a lot of great points in your post and I agree very much with your view in that the names do have a power over those that give them and those that accept them. Your P.S. paragraph in particular interested me because I, too, had a lot of the same questions. I think one central character that was overlooked but is probably the most closely related to your questions is Saruman. His power is speech, as Gandalf warns many times, and so his use of language should be the most demonstrative of its powers and its relation to an individual. When Saruman speaks, his language is a living act. Through speech he ensnared Theoden, and no doubt any power Grima’s subcreation had could be attributed directly to Saruman. Saruman, too, can change between the high and low modes. In the chapter “The Voice of Saruman”, we see he uses a much more archaic form with Theoden, Eomer and Gandalf: “For you at least I am grieved, feeling for your shame. How comes it that you can endure such company?” “What have you to say?” “Much we could still accomplish together”. Now if we compare this to how he speaks in “The Scouring of the Shire”, we see he speaks in a much lower mode and almost hobbit-like: “Yes, you have grown very much.” “Worm killed your Chief, poor little fellow, your nice little Boss. ”“You do what Sharkey says, always, don’t you, Worm?” Not only is Saruman adept at switching from high to low modes, we might even be able to trace Saruman’s fall from power through his use of language (his personal history, if you will). At the end of the book he is a diminished figure, reduced to petty revenge, and we can see that reflected in his use of simple, snarky sentences instead of archaic sentence structures that reveal his age and wisdom.

    -Alicia C.

  2. Justyn,

    You wrote into many issues about linguistic relativity that I am personally very interested in exploring further.

    You point out that "people could have neither a history nor an identity without their language". I would like to ask the converse: can you have a language without history or identity? To me, Tolkien has attempted to construct a mythology for his country by reversing the very process by which mythology is typically recorded. This includes deriving a history from a linguistic creation, as opposed to allowing language to arise from a process of historicity.

    What I've taken away from your argument is that Tolkien's methods are valid, to the extent that the very shape of words suggest their own stories. However, the languages of Middle-Earth are obviously all Tolkien's personal creation. Then, there is a counterargument to be made that these languages ultimately distill Tolkien's personal worldview and experiences, more than they actually reflect any collective social process of cultural evolution.

    I point this out because Tolkien has stated his intention to create a myth for his country, and language is an integral part of mythical storytelling. To what extent does Tolkien's use of personally constructed languages in a static work of fiction only enable the "shap[ing of] the thoughts of its people", without allowing "people [to] shape their language by using it"? Yes, Tolkien's written histories demonstrate changes in the ways his characters use their languages. But how significantly impacted are Tolkien's contributions to linguistic relativity by the loss of real-life collective processes in the construction of his languages?

    My comment is running long, so I will conclude with a last question (that will hopefully demonstrate that I am, despite playing devil's advocate, trying to figure things out in favor of Tolkien!): could we possibly further argue that there is a circular relation between language and history--that there is no linear temporality in which only one can always cause the other?

    Carol Ann Tan

  3. Dear Justyn Harriman,
    I enjoyed your argument here, tying language to its subcreative function, going beyond Gioia, and its integral relationship with a people's history.

    Especially, I was glad to see your discussion of how language changed (according the Lhammas): shortly, through 'death, destruction, woe, confusion, and mingling of peoples.' Older usages pass as older speakers die and younger adopt new usages. I noticed this and have heard Shippey himself mention this point in a lecture, unconnected to Tolkien, so I for one think this is right on track.

    But death & conflict is not an intended subcreative process itself and so it raises a question for me. What is the connection between these two mechanisms of language change: 'death & conflict' and individuals' subcreative intentions? Can we can locate instances in Tolkien's work of a character's subcreative language-change in response to conflict/death/woe?

    Secondly, I appreciate you pressing the distinction between Le Guin and Tolkien and pointing out that there may be a sense of power that comes with (subcreative) naming descriptive names. I wonder if we could press this further and ask whether character's adoption or acceptance of certain descriptive names can also be tied to purposes and kinds of power? May not Aragorn, for example, go by 'Strider' less to describe him and more to cloak his identity and give him freedom to roam?