Friday, April 25, 2014

The Aesthetics of Language

     Tolkien spends a lot of time focusing on the aesthetic appeal of language.  His languages are constructed to appeal to our senses, to be something that is enjoyable to hear, speak, and read.  He even reflects his love for the beauty of language in his secondary world.  The elves originally made changes to Quenya so that their languages had softened sounds and words that the elves created for enjoyment.  Despite the fact that all of the elves could speak a single language (Quenya), they regarded it as what Tolkien calls an “elf-latin” that was outdated and disliked, and in everyday speech among themselves they spoke separate languages, leading to the elaborate tree of tongues published in the Lhammas.
     Most people do not immediate think of language as something of aesthetic appeal.  It is usually considered solely as a device for communication, which in itself is certainly no easy endeavour.  It takes a skillful architect to construct a language that works properly, and an even better linguist to devise histories and legends that ensure the language will endure time.  Regardless of the usefulness, all languages have a specific appeal.  There are certain sounds, rhythms, and syllabic devices that sound better, worse, frightful, happy, or childish to us.  Despite the difficulty in understanding languages, the aesthetic appeal is a universal feeling.  I am not going to discuss how that exists, but rather how Tolkien used that to form the beautiful and ugly languages of Middle Earth.
     Tolkien had strong beliefs in beautiful sounding languages.  He explains in English and Welsh that each person has a native language.  That is not necessarily your first language, but rather a language that we have as “ready-made clothes,” an inherent characteristic we likely share with others in our community.  Tolkien himself was an English speaker, but eventually found his native language to be Welsh.  He never felt the same about French, Latin, Greek, Spanish, Gothic, and others; there was something special about Welsh that gave a feeling of pleasure and satisfaction, especially with the more simple words of the language.
     We are influenced by the rhythm, the pitch, and even how hard or soft the language sounds.  How, then, does Tolkien construct a language that is appealing to mankind (and elves, wizards, Hobbits, …)?  A large part of his study and creation of these languages is the philological construction, and by that I mean the development of the language through history.  He has a certain grasp of aesthetic appeal that he claims is missing in a simple translation, that only finds pleasure “in the reception (or imagination) of a word-form which is felt to have a certain style, and the attribution to it of a meaning which is not received through it” (English and Welsh).  In contrast, he believes native languages should have a feeling of meaning.  Their sound and rhythm should have an impact on us that causes us to feel like we know the story behind the language.  When he wrote of Middle Earth, he even mentions certain times that he took words from modern languages.  In his letter to Mr. Rang, he mentions his use of the name Eärendil, which he stole from Anglo-Saxon because of the beauty of the word (Letters, 297).  He enjoyed the way it sounded and understood its meaning from just hearing the word well enough to keep almost everything about the name exactly the same on Middle Earth.
     Perhaps the easiest way to understand Tolkien’s understanding of the aesthetic appeal is to compare his two most dramatic examples of beautiful and ugly languages.  He creates Sindarin as the language of the elves on Middle Earth.  He bases much of his construction including the use of consonants and the sounds and grammar off of Welsh and other Celtic languages (except Irish Gaelic, which he found to be an ugly language).  Sindarin is a language used by all of the elves and also spoken by the Dúnedain and a few select others, including Bilbo and Frodo.  Of course, the elves were open about their language, as they enjoy speaking their beautiful language.  When Frodo hears the elven tongues spoken in Imladris, he feels under a spell listening to the words take shape and show him visions of “far lands and bright things that he had never yet imagined” (LotR, bk II, ch. 1).  The languages are so rhythmic and comforting that their songs blend into the air around them and enchant the listener.  Such a description is only given to the elf-languages, and the other languages of Middle Earth are not as revered.
     To contrast Sindarin, Tolkien describes the orcs as quite distasteful in language.  They were not born with any tongue, which emphasises the fact that the orcs were created and do not have a history.  They stole other languages and “perverted it to their own liking” (LotR, Appendix F).  The languages the orcs created were not even functional, only containing brutal jargons that for the most part could only accurately and efficiently communicate curses and abuse.  Eventually, the various orc tribes could only communicate with each other using Westron, or the Common Speech, and changing it to lose any appeal it may have had.  When Pippin hears orcs talking, he notes that they made the Common Speech “almost as hideous” as their own language and that orc speech sounded at all times “full of hate and anger” (LotR, bk III, ch. 3).  Many of the words the orcs used were taken from Black Speech of Mordor, and at one point, an orc speaks the word Nazgûl and licks his lips, “as if the word had a foul taste that he savoured painfully” (LotR, bk III, ch. 3).
     Tolkien uses these descriptions to note what he tried to incorporate into his languages.  Language has an aesthetic appeal that gives the reader/listener/speaker a strong sense of feeling and a sort of emotion.  He feels that certain languages like Welsh are considered appealing because of their sounds and structure, and he focuses on the smaller, less important words as the true beauty of the language.  He tried to capture this in the languages he developed, as can be seen by looking through his Etymologies (Lost Road and Other Writings, part 3).  Language tells a listener about the person speaking the language, and Tolkien uses that to convey various feelings and emotions throughout his writings.

-David J. Goldfeld


  1. Dear David J Goldfeld,
    Thanks for your comments on Tolkien’s aesthetic linguistic creations. The final LOTR passages illustrate nicely the ‘taste’ and ‘flavour’ for language that you had discussed.
    Perhaps you can correct me, but I don’t see where Tolkien described Qenya as you did: “Despite the fact that all of the elves could speak a single language (Quenya), they regarded it as what Tolkien calls an “elf-latin” that was outdated and disliked, and in everyday speech among themselves they spoke separate languages, leading to the elaborate tree of tongues published in the Lhammas.” Lhammas 4 seems to paint a different picture of Qenya in Aman (while Sindarin-speakers remained in Middle-Earth). But perhaps I missed something.

    Either way, why do you think Tolkien named the highest and purest language the ‘Elf-latin,’ considering Latin was never his favored language? What aesthetic appeal (or dislike?) is implied here?

    Finally, we commonly view aesthetic appeal as subjective, reaching one but perhaps not another. But recall Aragorn’s line (first pages of chapt 12): “More deadly to [the nazgul] was the name of Elbereth.” Is there more to the language or names than ‘mere aesthetic’ sensibility, which we commonly feel is subjective? Or how does aesthetics clarify the power of certain names?

  2. In addition to this, it seems like language also has an actual function, which is to describe. This sounds obvious, but I’m thinking specifically of what Treebeard says about the hill. “Real names tell you the story of things,” he says, (TTT 66). It isn’t important that the word for hill be beautiful, but it is important that however we describe it, that description tells us about the thing being described—in this case, that this hill has been around for a very, very long time.

    And this is just one example of the many instances throughout The Lord of the Rings where the form of the language matches the content of whatever it is supposed to say. Some more examples are the differences between Elvish and the orc language as you point out. The beauty of Elvish matches up well with what we’ve discussed in class about beauty and restoration in the forest. Black speech is unspeakable, which matches the unspeakable atrocities committed by those who speak it. The Gondorian dialect is another one that sounds regal, just like the place it is spoken. All of this is to say that language is useful in that it immediately conveys its content. You get at this a little bit in your post, but I just wanted to elaborate it a little more.

    -Daniel Lewis