Arda, or Ardor

••• Getting to the Root of Tolkien’s Tongues

Christmas Eve, the Fourth Age

For my ninth birthday, which took place more than six weeks ago, I went to see The Lord of the Rings. My father organized a Tolkien-themed party; my friends got brass rings, or ring-like fasteners, which he found in a hardware store on upper Broadway. We saw Ralph Bakshi's animated film, with pudgy Hobbits and red-eyed Ringwraiths who filled our hearts with terror. Afterward, we argued about which of our curtain-fasteners was the One Ring to rule them all; but really they were all signs of our thralldom to Tolkien's imagination. If we wore them too long we would become as wraiths—pale, overweight, and faintly unshaven, haunting the halls of role-playing games conventions. Somehow, between the ages of nine and 31, we took the rings off, and forgot them, for good, we thought. So what was I doing on Christmas Eve, in my own Fourth Age (or fourth decade, at least), seeing The Lord of the Rings again? Like Bilbo Baggins, I couldn't resist: I wanted another look at what I had given up.

Of all the features of Peter Jackson's film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring, few have impressed the critics as much as the subtitled dialect in which Liv Tyler (Arwen) and Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn) preface their smooch. In contrast to the gibberish spoken by the children in Harry Potter, Elvish is a convincing language; it has a grammar, a lexicon, and an accent, all invented by Tolkien, which dialect coaches Andrew Jack and Roisin Carty taught the actors, so that they appear really to be speaking, and not parroting snatches of nonsense. With tongues straying toward their cheeks, reviewers note that Tyler found Elvish difficult at first, then got used to it, and may even have left Elvish messages on her friends' voice mail; they report that it is a sexy language ("Whenever I would speak any of my lines in Elvish, all the boys would blush," Tyler notes), and that it has a writing system, used for the script on the eponymous Ring, and for the tattoo that the members of the Fellowship all got, the one that looks like an upside-down Gucci logo.

illustration: Jeff Crosby

Elvish is a delightful subject in a movie in which, frankly, there's not much to delight. Cate Blanchett's Galadriel has the charm of an action figure without articulated knees; as for the rest, when they aren't speaking Elvish, their utterances waver between off-brand Britishisms and cries of anguish that come straight from the colon. Elvish not only provides a springboard for critical wit of the punning-on-Elvis variety, but also, and more importantly, plays into the Tolkien fans' most dearly held fantasy: that Middle-Earth, Elves and all, is as real as a cineplex on East 86th Street or a freelance gig crafting presentations in PowerPoint.

The Elves may prove elusive, but the Elvish-speaking world is easy to find: It's on the Internet. Visit Ardalambion ("the languages of Arda," Arda being the name Tolkien gave his world), on the Web at Created by the Norwegian Helge Fauskanger, the site offers a downloadable course in Quenya, or High-Elvish, a language that was already archaic by the Third Age of Middle-Earth, when The Lord of the Rings takes place. Fauskanger's course is as complete as study of Tolkien's work can make it, which is to say, complete indeed; the lessons run to well over 250 single-spaced pages. Here you can study the nuances of the dual number in Quenya (used for objects that occur in "natural pairs," like lips, or—though there's some disagreement about it—the hands of a clock), or wonder at the mysteries of the verb to be in Quenya. With the help of the lessons, it is possible to write original Quenya prose and verse, and of course people do; the corpus of Quenya texts has grown in recent years to include such works as Rianna, Vicente Velasco's elegy for Lady Di (Coacalinalya firnë velicuma surinen, it goes, "The light of your house died like a candle in the wind"). There are mailing lists devoted to the Elvish languages: Elfling, the most active of them, has almost a thousand members, who post a daily torrent of questions on everything from the availability of tutorials on the Black Speech (the language invented by Sauron for the Orcs, which Fauskanger describes as "Sauron's Esperanto," although, given its fondness for gutturals, it might better be termed Sauron's Volapük) to the ever popular question, How do I find a Quenya name for myself, or my cat, or my Dungeons & Dragons character? (Easy! Refer to Fauskanger's useful essay, "Now We Have All Got Elvish Names.")

The cat-namers are not the real enthusiasts, however. The real enthusiasts are the ones who ask, in semi-public fora, whether the medial /i/ in Quenya might give rise to an umlauted vowel in Sindarin, the vernacular of the latter-day Elves? Or how ablaut (vowel shift between related word forms, e.g, write and wrote) might have functioned in Primitive Elvish?

These questioners treat Tolkien's invented languages with a degree of realism beyond the capacity of most realists. They bring to bear on the dialects of Elvish (and Dwarvish, and Mannish, and, yes, even Sauron's Volapük) the methods of modern linguistic analysis; they look for patterns in phonology and morphology; they identify borrowings and construct etymologies. The remarkable thing is that the languages support their study. J.R.R. Tolkien died in 1973; since 1974, his readers have been reconstructing the language of Primitive Elvish (or Proto-Eldarin, as it is sometimes called), which is not merely an invented language, but a hypothetical invented language, one that doesn't even have any invented speakers. Their aim is twofold: On the one hand, equipped with the rules of Primitive Elvish, they can coin new words to fill in the gaps in the Quenya and Sindarin vocabularies Tolkien left behind; on the other, they have the pleasure of the work itself, and the esteem of their peers. Their work is published in the scholarly journals of the Tolkienian language group, Vinyar Tengwar and Parma Edalamberon (which should be Eldalambion, Fauskanger carps).

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