Wednesday, April 19, 2017

What Language Speaks

Unlike Tolkien, I happen to like Irish quite a bit.  Not that I know it to any meaningful extent, but the language which he found unattractive has never had that sort of effect on me.  I like Finnish well enough, but I would by no means say that it fascinates me in the way it fascinated Tolkien (and many other linguists).  I prefer hearing Swedish to Norwegian.  And I think that there are too many "harsh" sounding languages that get written off as such before the English-speaking listener can make their own judgment of their aesthetic sound; I'm thinking of Kabardian, or Nama, or any Semitic Language.

All of this is to say that the aesthetic pleasure Tolkien writes about in much of his language-themed work is entirely subjective.  I don't think he would disagree with that; at least, he wouldn't disagree strongly.  But all the same, this left me wary on my first pass of "English and Welsh."  I was mainly concerned any time the word "inherent" came up, or any synonym.  On page 171, he writes that "languages (like other art forms or styles) have a virtue of their own, independent of their immediate inheritors."  This comes after positing a "natural superiority" of Indo-European languages, a claim that I don't abide by (and which he doesn't seem sold on either).  But I mainly got stuck on this particular passage because it hits at a feature of his whole linguistic ideology that I've had trouble picking up on - that is, language as an art form that contains inherent truths about its speakers.

I've strayed from what we have talked about in class.  There, we talked a lot about the subjectivity of the listening-pleasure that Tolkien describes.  This, to me, mirrored a lot of the discussions that are had about the virtue or quality of works of art, lending credence to the claim that language is an art form.  It is, but it is also much more.  It is a means of communication and fails if it is unable to serve as such clearly and concisely - while also serving as a means of personal expression.

If it sounds like I have too much of a harsh utilitarian view on this, I do get where Tolkien is coming from - I also construct languages as a hobby.  I have a 600-item wordlist that I've thrown together on mainly aesthetic grounds*.  My concern is that Tolkien treats language as a key to revealing deeply encoded truths about the people who speak it.  Take Frodo in the House of Elrond - the songs of the Elves seem to physically transport him, in dream-form, to Valinor.  In the Notion Club Papers, Lowdham's experiences with learning 'Adunaic' and 'Avallonian', experience which reflect Tolkien's own, are tied to a literal rupture in spacetime.  The troublesome word 'inherent' seems to permeate these representations - something inherent about a population of speakers that exists in the very sound of their language.  I don't have nearly such a literal view, and I'm still not sure where Tolkien draws that line.

'Iconicity' is a word that I can get behind, and one that describes our consensus in class.  Words like 'slinky, slimy, sludgy, slippery' all conjure a similar aesthetic feeling.  We talked at length about how "The Lord of the Rings" was a much better title than "The Ruler of the Bracelets" or something like that.  But do these sorts of observations reveal deep truths about native speakers of English?  I don't think I'm prepared to say yes to that, though I'm prepared to acknowledge iconic qualities of certain sounds ('sl' clusters being associated with 'slimy' words, for example).

Tossing aside the claim that a language has the sort of inherent properties described about, what about the abilities of individual names to reveal such truths?  Tolkien admits how thorny this problem is as well.  The characters of the Notion Club Papers discuss the meaning behind the name 'Aelfwine', but also how that name became common enough to have lost its original sense.  And yet, all over the world, historians use place-names and the names of local geographic features to tease out a region's linguistic history; it is a useful practice, if not always reliable.  "English and Welsh" makes this point about the close relationship between English and Welsh.  And despite the issues that come with it, this history-speaking property of names is absolutely essential in Tolkien's body of work.  Names are a linguistic phenomenon, but they are wholly distinct from verbs or common nouns.  Do they have this power?  Or, better phrased, this ability to encode a history and a sense of the person or place that bears it?  And yet my name is 'Anthony' only and exclusively because that was my grandfather's name - nothing in the name 'Anthony' itself is meant to describe me, or truths about me outside of genealogical interest.  But the name does describe some sort of history; it's ultimately tied to an Italian Catholic saint with a Latin-derived name that is now commonly accepted to be Etruscan in origin.  The word doesn't describe me, but - to a certain extent - it describes the historical situation I've been plopped in, and the movements that led here.   (I have no idea where 'Corso' came from).

So at last I've come to the same conclusion that the class came to on Monday, but in an unnecessarily roundabout way.  A language and its names are living in that they describe a motion of historic processes; they don't contain inherent truths, by this interpretation, but they show how things change through time.  The Lhammas illustrate how seriously Tolkien thought through this, describing the historic situations that produced the changes in his languages and their interaction with each other.  English and Welsh do not reveal inherent qualities of the English and the Welsh, but may reveal how the English became the English and how the Welsh became the Welsh.  Or at least, they may tell part of the story.

I am still unsure about Tolkien's full intentions here - there's still a lot of this course left to go!  But I think this about captures my interpretation of how he relates language and culture, or the language and its population of speakers.

-AJ Corso

*For those curious, here's an example of the language:
"debamascaxira sanaca nemo sana peotra geaditorasmene, na degalta nuscasuo geapota" (Genesis 11:8)
I don't think Tolkien would have liked it very much.


  1. "Inherent" is a tricky concept! I think you get to where I was hoping we would: at the historicity of language as it grows and changes with cultures (and vice versa). I suppose the meta-question is, what is the relationship between aesthetic pleasure and one's embeddedness in culture/history. People are quite capable of enjoying languages and other artifacts of cultures they do not know the history of--which I think was Tolkien's point about "cellar doors" (the root of my example with "Lord of the Rings"). But if history is inherent in culture, and language is inherent in culture, at least this tells us something about the culture of the people speaking the language. Including their names. RLFB

  2. I think you make a great point about the difficulty of taking Tolkien at his word on the objective value of certain languages - it doesn't seem like he's drawn the argument out fully himself. I had a similar concern regarding his hard push-back on readers who try to draw connections between English words and words in Tolkien (lizard root / Sauron etc). On the one hand, he has a philologist's natural interest in explaining his own writing process and correcting misconceptions about his creative vision. On the other, though, he says things like (about "Moriah") "Internally, there is no conceivable connexion between the mining of Dwarves, and the story of Abraham. I utterly repudiate any such significances and symbolisms." This seems to ignore that people will always naturally form different connections in stories – Tolkien wants people to encounter his story in similar ways once it’s out in the world, and it seems to be a losing endeavor. It’s especially interesting because Tolkien is so clear-minded on how languages change over time, and about their human quality. He’s not wrong to correct readers on his own process, but to criticize them for sketching their mental picture of the story and its connections their own way seems an overstep.