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.
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 move.to/ardalambion. 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).
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!
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.
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?
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.