Arda, or Ardor

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

The Third Age Ends for the First Time

Of course I read the books before I saw the movie. The Lord of the Rings was my primer on regret: When Frodo sails off with the Elves and the Third Age ends, I sighed, for the first time, Now those days are gone forever. Then I picked up The Fellowship of the Ring and started again.

It's hard to know how to characterize the search for a primitive ancestor of an invented language that is less than a century old. Frivolous? Delusional? Certainly the people who delve too far into Elvish scholarship risk awakening the Balrog of mental derangement, as, for example, the linguist who argues, "That Tolkien apparently invented the languages is no PROOF that they are altogether fictional." Others, more levelheaded, say they find a pleasure in Tolkienian linguistics that's akin to that of solving crossword puzzles. "It's an intellectual challenge," says David Salo, who wrote most of the Elvish dialogue for Peter Jackson's film. Salo, 32, is a graduate student in linguistics; he specializes in Tocharian, an Indo-European language spoken in China, which died out after the ninth century C.E. Since his twenties, he has also studied the languages of Middle-Earth: first Quenya, then the more difficult Sindarin, then Primitive Elvish, and finally Sylvan and Lossidrilin, a couple of Elvish dialects he invented himself. Salo considers Elvish a hobby—although he will have to work hard in years to come if he wants to be better known for his contributions to the study of Tocharian than he is for getting Liv Tyler to say, Noro lim, noro lim, Asfaloth!

illustration: Jeff Crosby

If pressed, however, Salo admits that he doesn't think there is any qualitative difference between Tolkien's languages and those spoken by, say, the Tocharians. "Our own languages are invented," he says, "but invented over a long period of time. Every time we have a new word, someone invented it." He notes that Proto-Indo-European, the ancestor of Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, and the Slavic and Germanic languages, was itself invented by the linguists of the 19th century; it consists of unattested forms, that is, words which we have no evidence anyone ever uttered. So Tolkien's languages aren't really like crossword puzzles at all, as we might have guessed from the enthusiasm with which they are discussed (how many fan clubs debate the solution to the acrostic in the Sunday Times?). To understand their appeal we have to turn, as we often do with Tolkien, to the past.

The Second Age, or Rereading

I thought the books were indelibly printed in my memory, but on rereading them I see that I have forgotten almost all of the plot. What stayed with me were the names: Fangorn. Dúnedain. Elessar, the Elphstone. The slightly silly Shadowfax.

From his earliest childhood on, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien took an extraordinary interest in old ways of speaking: By age eight he was reading scholarly publications on the Celtic languages of Britain; in high school he joined a society that held debates in Latin, but, finding these insufficiently challenging, he amused himself by giving speeches in Greek, Gothic, and Anglo-Saxon. He studied Old Norse at Oxford, and returned there as professor of Anglo-Saxon. He prepared an edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that is still used by students today. Formidable though his scholarship was, what really distinguishes Tolkien from other linguists is his capacity to enjoy language. As a junior professor at the University of Leeds, he founded the Viking Society, whose members drank beer and sang Old Norse sagas; he began his lectures on Beowulf by standing silently in the classroom, until, when no one expected it, he shouted Hwæt! (Old English for "listen," though some students understood it as Modern English "Quiet!") and declaimed the opening stanzas of the poem as if he were a bard in a mead hall. Tolkien derived immediate aesthetic pleasure from the sound of foreign words. A Welsh name on the side of a delivery truck could make him swoon; as for Finnish, he writes, "It was like discovering a complete wine cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me."

Quenya (which was modeled on Finnish) sprang from this intoxication; so did Sindarin (modeled on Welsh). Unlike Finnish and Welsh, though, the Elvish languages have no native speakers. Everyone who encounters them confronts their aesthetic qualities first of all, and only afterward discovers that, for example, I lempë roccor caitaner nu i alta tasar means "The five horses lay under the big willow." And everyone is intoxicated. Tolkien's languages are beautiful, but their beauty does not account for their popularity; if he had created Quenya and Sindarin and let them be, we would have, at best, a pair of mellifluous alternatives to Esperanto, though with vastly more complicated grammars. Tolkien's genius was to assume that his made-up languages were related. This relation gave rise to everything for which he is now remembered, from the Hobbits and their hairy feet to Galadriel and her stiff knees. "What I think is a primary 'fact' about my work," Tolkien wrote, "[is] that it is all of a piece, and fundamentally linguistic in inspiration. The invention of languages is the foundation. The 'stories' were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse." In other words, Sindarin doesn't exist so that Aragorn and Arwen can coo to one another. Aragorn and Arwen exist because Sindarin needs speakers; and all of Middle-Earth came into being to account for Sindarin's derivation from Quenya.

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