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.