Monday, April 17, 2017

A Brief Digression on Pronunciation

One of the things we didn't touch on very much in class, despite lingering at length on Tolkien's appreciation for the aesthetic sounds and taste of language, is what the sounds he used in his constructed languages actually sound like. Since we are told that most of the dialogue and writing we encounter in the Lord of the Rings is in Westron, or Common Speech, translated to modern English for the reader's convenience, the few actual examples of Tolkien's constructed languages we get in the books are from names and special words that lie outside the English language, often in the Eldarin languages: Quenya and Sindarin. In examining Tolkien's pronunciation guide in the beginning of Appendix E of Lord of the Rings, we can see sounds pulled from many of the languages Tolkien enjoyed and how these phonemes came together to form one of the easiest to pronounce (for native English speakers, at least), yet distinctly unique constructed languages to date.

 The thing that immediately jumps out about the pronunciation guide, is that almost every consonant present in the languages of Quenya and Sindarin have direct British English equivalents. Unlike many of the modern constructed languages for fantasy and science fiction we see nowadays, Tolkien steers clear of the more exotic fricative, affricate and plosive consonants often borrowed from Asian, African and Native American languages. Especially absent is the very harsh unvoiced velar fricative (pronounced like the ch from the Scottish word "loch"), one of the most popular phonemes in constructed languages from Klingon in Star Trek to High Valerian in Game of Thrones. There are two toned down versions of this phoneme in "The Quenya combination ht [which] has the sound of cht, as in the German echt, acht" and "CH: [which] is only used to represent the sound heard in bach (in German or Welsh)". Unlike the harsher unvoiced velar fricative, which is not present in most modern English dialects (save Scottish), these unvoiced palatal fricatives can be found in the modern English pronunciations of words like "cute" and is even noted to be further "weakened to h in the speech of Gondor"

The only other consonant phoneme that exists outside the standard range of English phonemes are the R's, which are almost all trilled (when alone), like in Spanish/Italian, or tapped (hr in Quenya and RH, from the older sr-), like in Old English. Interestingly, it appears as if Black Speech and some Dwarvish utilizes the French guttural R, "a back or a uvular r, which the Eldar found distasteful", possibly indicating Tolkien's own preference in R pronunciations, as he mentions in his English and Welsh lecture that he didn't find much enjoyment in French.

In the "Vowels" section of Appendix E, we start to move away even more from strictly English sounds, as we see the use of u of the French lune, possibly also coming out of his medievalist training, from the Ancient English y. We see many, many Quenya diphthongs and groups borrowed from one of his favorites, Welsh. He even suggests alternative pronunciations for groups like "ae, oe, eu" as they do not have any comparable sound in English, and mentions that in Gondor, the y can often be simplified to i.

The stress of the words are what fully separate the Eldarin languages from our modern English, as we see stressed vowels and syllable splits in his example names and words that do not follow the modern English logic at all. Even in the name of the language itself: as English speakers we would commonly imagine Sindarin pronounced as sinDArin, however according to the rules given in the appendix, the correct emphasis would be on the first syllable, SINdarin. This changes the whole cadence and rhythm of the spoken language, as English does not stress words according to word form as strictly as the Eldarin languages apparently do, indicating that the Elven languages follow a far stricter rhythm than our own. This is quite appropriate as one of the first thing characters notice about elven-tongues in Middle-Earth is their musicality.

In the final note in the section on Pronunciation, Tolkien notes that names from other languages than Eldarin have the same values as his pronunciation guide, which indicates that none of the other languages deviate from English sounds in any major way either. The notable exception is Dwarvish, a noted language island in many of his other discussions on Middle-Earth tongues, like in the Lhammas and the further appendices. Dwarvish replaces the softer Elven fricatives with aspirates, sharper exhales through the teeth (think Alan Rickman at his most articulate). He also notes that Black Speech and Orkish includes a guttural back spirant, fitting for a deliberate perversion of the lighter and softer Eldarin languages. In these few notes on the deviations of pronunciations in Middle-Earth languages, we begin to see the detailed relationships Tolkien drew between the races using his Tree of Tongues. Throughout the pronunciation guide, we see notes that indicate the Men of Gondor simplifying and distilling Elven phonemes, reflecting the development of dialects between the two races, while Dwarvish sets itself clearly apart in phonetics and Black Speech adds "distasteful" guttural perversions to the phoneme lexicon.

The largely familiar phonetics, drawn from the spectrum of English, Latin, and many of its geographical neighbors, combined with structures from Tolkien's favorite sounding languages and cadences and constructions of his own design, Tolkien is able to construct a universe of sound that is both accessible in its pronounce-ability and "English-ness" but sets itself apart through his carefully designed structures, pulled from across all the languages he studied. Of course, phonetics and dialects being even more fluid and individualized than the tongues and languages themselves, Tolkien likely only suggests one possible set of pronunciations in his guide. But even through the small notes on the deviations to pronunciations made by other races, we can see the level of detail and thought put into constructing languages. These hint towards larger relationships and interactions within Tolkien's Middle Earth, yet still maintaining a level accessibility and feasibility for his English-speaking readers.


1 comment:

  1. Beautifully observed on the way in which Tolkien uses--and avoids--certain phonemes! One of the more frustrating things about English for most non-native speakers is the fact that its spelling is not a consistent guide to its pronunciation (see the poem "The Chaos" for examples!). Have you thought about the relationship between Tolkien's pronunciation guide and the scripts that he developed? RLFB