One of the most frustrating aspects for any fan trying to learn one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s carefully crafted Elven languages is the lack of a written dictionary. This is at odds with many other less developed fantasy languages (see Eragon), where a dictionary is provided at the back of the book for an easy translation between the author’s invented language and our own. Instead, Tolkien gives us the Etymologies, a list of language stems and their respective meanings, which, while it shows Tolkien’s incredible attention to detail and the care with which he created his languages, is almost useless for anyone actually attempting to learn the language. This may lead a reader to wonder why Tolkien, who invites his readers to explore and expand his act of sub-creation, would make it so hard to participate in his universe in this regard?
However, when one considers who Tolkien declares are the authors of his primary languages, this lack of a written dictionary starts to make more sense. Tolkien’s two most complete invented languages are the two Elven languages, Sindarin and Quenya. These Elven languages both stem from Valarin, which was the language first given to the Elves by the Valar, yet very quickly the Elves began to change and adapt this language. As Tolkien says in the Lammasethen, “The original Elvish or Quentin languages were derived from Oromë, and so from Valarin. But the Elves not only, already in the brief period common to all, but especially in Eldarin, modified and softened the sounds, especially the consonants, of Valarin, but they began swiftly to invent new words and word-shapes, and developed a language of their own” (211). This passage gives us key clues about the Elves relationship to language. For the Elves language is incredibly fluid. While most human languages change over many lifetimes and thus may appear fairly static to any individual, the Elves are rewriting their languages within their extended lifetimes making them intensely aware of the fluidity of language. Thus, the idea of a dictionary would be a foreign concept to the Elves, since a dictionary implies a static definable meaning for each word. Rather, the Elves view language as it is detailed in the Etymologies, as a collection of pieces that can be shifted and recombined as time, desire, or need changes.
This is not true for all of the races in Tolkien’s mythology. In his introduction to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien discusses Hobbit’s fondness for family trees, and the proper ordering and cataloguing of family names and relationships. Hobbit’s like order and dislike change, thus it is easy to imagine that Hobbit’s are quite fond of dictionaries and prone to writing them. The idea that everything could be given its proper name and place would appeal to Hobbit sensibilities. However, since Hobbits speak the Common Tongue, and that is translated into modern English in Tolkien’s work, we have no need for a Hobbit dictionary and are therefore not given one.
Similarly, one can imagine that the Dwarves have a dictionary of their own, for Tolkien speaks of them as a meticulous race. But he also declares that the Dwarves are very secretive about their own tongue, “Yet in secret (a secret which unlike the Elves, they did not willingly unlock, even to their friends) they used their own strange tongue, changed little by the years; for it had become a tongue of lore rather than a cradle-speech, and they tended and guarded it as a treasure of the past” (1106). Thus, the Dwarves conception of language is almost completely opposite of that of the Elves. The Dwarves were also given their language by one of the Valar, in their case their creator Aulë, but instead of experimenting with and altering that language like the Elves, they preserved it. Since their language was static and treasured, it seems likely that a Dwarvish dictionary can and did exist. However, it is also because of this static and treasured nature that we do not have access to it, since in order to protect it it was kept secret. In contrast, the Elves were free with their language, happy to give and exchange it with the languages of other races. This is why we have any conception of the Elvish language at all, and yet it is also the very thing that prevents us from having a dictionary. If the Elves, like the Dwarves, viewed their language as something that needed to be preserved in a static form, they would not be so free in exchanging it and altering it themselves, but this would also make it inaccessible to us, as Tolkien is very clear that the stories are being received from middle earth through some intermediary, either man or hobbit, in addition to himself.
The Elves fluidity of language can be further seen in the fluidity of their alphabet. The main alphabet used by the Elves was the Fëanorian Letters. However, it isn’t an alphabet in the sense that each letter has a value of its own. Rather, as Tolkien says in Appendix E of The Lord of the Rings, “It was, rather, a system of consonantal signs, of similar shapes and styles, which could be adapted at choice or convenience to represent the consonants of languages observed (or devised) by the Eldar” (1093). Thus, the Elves writing also displays their fluidity in the concept of language. Since the meanings and shapes of words are liable to shift, it makes sense that they would establish a written form that mirrors this flexibility in representation. Similarly, it shows the Elves’ interest in languages from different cultures. In some ways this “alphabet” is just as unhelpful as the “dictionary” since it doesn’t give us a direct correspondence between the words and their representation in letters, but in both cases what Tolkien gives us is faithful to the Elves themselves and allows us a greater insight into how they viewed and interacted with language.
Therefore there is no Elvish dictionary because it doesn’t make sense in the context of its creation. The Elven languages, like their alphabet, lacks the static quality that is necessary for a dictionary. Rather the Elves view languages like a painter, who is free to combine and mix the colors he is given to create new words and phrases. Tolkien was intensely aware of the lives of his languages, outside of himself as their creator. This can be seen in how he talks about the name Earendil, which he borrowed from the Anglo-Saxon, in his letter to Mr. Rang. He says that even though the name was borrowed, “it had to be accommodated to the Elvish linguistic situation, at the same time as a place for this person was made in legend” (385). Thus Tolkien could not just write an Elvish dictionary, as one would have no place in the linguistic tradition of the Elves. Instead, we are given the Etymologies, which not only give us insight into the Elven languages, but also into the ways in which the Elves themselves conceived of and used these languages.
Additionally, by giving us the Etymologies, Tolkien invites us to take on the role of the Elves themselves. Just as the Elves immediately began to invent new words and word-shapes of their own from Valarin, so Tolkien gives us the basic elements of Quenya and Sindarin, and invites us to begin this process of invention and creation again. We now get to play the part of the Elves, combining and recombining elements in order to suit our need or aesthetic pleasure. This also makes Tolkien’s languages much more alive, than if he had simply given us a dictionary. With a dictionary, we can only refer to things that existed for the Elves in their world. However, with the Etymologies, we can bring the Elven languages into our own world. For Tolkien this idea of the life of a language is very important. He believed that what made a language truly alive was its ability to grow and change. Thus, the language of the Dwarves died with them, since they refused to let it grow, and change, and interact with the world, while the language of the Elves, because of its adaptability, is able to live on beyond their world into ours, dictionary or no dictionary.
- Elise Darragh-Ford
- Elise Darragh-Ford
Tolkien, J.R.R. "297 Drafts for a Letter to 'Mr Rang'." Ed. Humphrey Carpenter. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000. 379-87. Print.
Tolkien, J.R.R. "Appendix E & F." The Return of the King. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999. 1087-112. Print.
Tolkien, J.R.R. "The Lhammas." Ed. Christopher Tolkien. The Lost Road and Other Writings. New York: Del Ray, 1996. 182-217. Print.
Tolkien, J.R.R. "Prologue." The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999. 1-15. Print.