Arda, or Ardor

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

For some people, Tolkien among them, the root of the world is language; to study one is to study the other. And here lies the allure of Primitive Elvish. For Salo and his fellow Elvists (if I may call them that), the reconstruction of Proto-Eldarin is also the reconstruction of a world in which that language would be spoken, a misty kingdom of Elves doing and saying noble things unimaginably long ago. What distinguishes the Elvists from the cat-namers and the D&D daydreamers is that, for them, this kingdom, with all its fantastic pleasures, is approachable above all through words, or not even words, but morphemes, syntactic resemblances, phonetic shifts.

The First Age, and, Before It, Prehistory

What had I given up?

illustration: Jeff Crosby

Tolkien believed that the impulse to make languages was widespread, particularly among children. His cousins Marjorie and Mary Incledon, for example, came up with Animalic, in which the names of animals stood for common words: Dog nightingale woodpecker forty meant "You are an ass." At age 13, Tolkien found their language easy to learn, and helped them to make another, Nevbosh ("New Nonsense," in Nevbosh), with more complicated rules: more fun to invent, less fun to speak. (This is often the case: Invented languages are not for speaking in; they are objects in their own right. And this is a good thing, for, if Tolkien is right about the ubiquity of the language-making impulse, it's only the need to speak to one another occasionally that holds the number of our languages in check.) When Nevbosh grew dull, Tolkien left his cousins behind and invented Naffarin, of which only a few phrases survive—for example, O Naffarinos cutá vu navru cangor—alas, with no translation, nor any way of making one.

And so on, down to Quenya and Sindarin. Few children go as far as Tolkien did, but many begin on the same path. We are born wanting to make sense, but to make it in our own way, for ourselves first of all—and this is the root of our nostalgia for Tolkien: His work is suffused with the childish belief that your own peculiar way of talking about things is good, and that it is enough.

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