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Five Philologists Talk Tolkien

June 7, 2001 at 12:28 am by Tehanu  - 

Pippin Skywalker had a wonderful idea, and we’re really pleased that she sent this in to us:

“I found this site where you can ask philologists your questions…so I helped myself to one large Tolkien portion…and got a five course meal! Here inclosed are my questions and THEIR answers. Enjoy! 🙂 “

“What are your thoughts on Tolkien’s linguistic skills? Also…what is the secret of the art of mixing two languages to make a new one? Tolkien used Finnish and Welsh to create Elvish.”

ANSWER # 1: By Suzette Hadin Elgin

Tolkien was a scholarly philologist long before he began constructing Elvish, and his skills were impressive. However, there is no “secret of the art” that we could identify for you, no specific and systematic method for “mixing two languages to make a new one.” When you construct a new language you have to meet the specifications _for_ a language, as human beings understand them; there’s no way to do that except to select things you find desirable in existing human languages. Even when writers think they’ve invented some linguistic feature from scratch for their fiction, we can be 99 99/100% certain that it is already a feature of some existing Terran language. What’s satisfying is that in writing science fiction and fantasy the constraints on language-creation are so relaxed.

I’m not at all certain that Tolkien relied only on Finnish and Welsh, but let’s suppose that he did, for the sake of discussion. He would have selected from each of those languages the features that he felt best suited his purposes, and he would have combined them into a new language using the principles of Terran phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics. Because he was both a skilled philologist and a skilled writer, his choices were based on both linguistic science and esthetic judgment. As I’m sure you are aware, his purpose in writing the fantasies was to provide a showcase for his constructed languages.

ANSWER # 2: By Robert A. Papen, Ph.D. Professor

I’m not an expert on the artificial mixing of two languages (as Tolkien did) but I can tell you that quite a few social groups (or peoples if you wish) have created new languages by mixing two languages. There are more than 30 of these mixed languages spoken around the world. The most “common” ones are the mixed languages of the Roms or Gypsies. For example, in Great Britain, the Gypsies use a Romani (an original Indian – from India – language) grammar but English vocabulary. In the Basque country, they use a Romani grammar but with Basque vocabulary, and so on.

Other mixed languages that have been “discovered” by linguists during the past few years is a language called “media lengua” (middle language) which is a mixture of Quechua (native amerindian language of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador) grammar and Spanish vocabulary;michif, spoken in WesternCanada and North Dakota, a mixture of Cree grammar and French vocabulary (actually, the noun
phrases are in French and the verbs are in Cree) and Copper Island Aleut, which is a mixture of Aleut and Russian. In all cases, the mixture is always the grammar of one language and the vocabulary of another. How (and why!) these languages were created remains a relative mystery but one thing is for sure….the inventiveness of the human mind is more than amazing when it comes to language!

ANSWER # 3: By Carl Mills

J.R.R. Tolkien was a linguist, philologist, folklorist, editor, and student of medieval English literature. I still treasure his edition of Sir Gawain and the Grene Knight that I was required to read in graduate school. I understand that he also produced some minor fictional works of some interest.

Carl Mills
Linguistics Program
Director of Undergraduate Studies
Department of English and Comparative Literature
University of Cincinnati

ANSWER # 4: By Larry Trask

Not quite. Tolkien incorporated *elements* of Welsh and of Finnish into his Elvish languages, but the larger part of these constructed languages derives neither from Welsh nor from Finnish. (In fact, there were at least three Elvish languages: Quenya, Sindarin, and the solely reconstructed Proto-Eldarin.) As a linguist, Tolkien knew how to construct a natural-looking language while incorporating any features he took a fancy to. His invented languages are far more plausible than are most such creations. Perhaps only Marc Okrand’s Klingon comes close, but Okrand was somewhat handicapped by being obliged to incorporate into his language various Klingon noises produced arbitrarily in the early films and given English translations.

You can find some useful information about Tolkien’s use of Finnish and Welsh in this book, if you can get hold of it:

Jim Allan (ed.). 1978. An Introduction to Elvish.
Hayes, Middlesex:
Bran’s
Head. ISBN 0-905220-10-2.

Larry Trask
COGS
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH
UK

ANSWER # 5: By Geoffrey Sampson
When you say that Tolkien mixed Finnish and Welsh t0 create Elvish, it seems to me that this cannot mean more than that the overall appearance of the words was vaguely reminiscent of these two languages. It can’t mean that the individual vocabulary items were directly borrowed from either “real” language, surely. I have read the Tolkien books and while I don’t know more than three or four words of Finnish I do know quite a lot of Welsh, and if Tolkien had based his Elvish language to any substantial extent on Welsh I feel sure I would have spotted that.

I can’t comment on Tolkien’s prowess as a scholar of philology, but he was evidently regarded as up to the mark by Oxford University which is a better reference than any I could give! His “hobby” with his Inkling friends of inventing languages and mythologies, and writing novels in order to exemplify them, is something I feel more negative about. When there are so many fascinating real languages to study and increase our knowledge about, the idea of spending large amounts of time making up a hypothetical language (not for purposes of international communication, like Esperanto, but just as a hobby) strikes me as a colossal waste of human ingenuity, like building a model of Chartres Cathedral out of used matchsticks.

And although I don’t think the languages themselves were as closely related to actual languages as you suggest, the mythology — the dwarves and hobbits in Middle-Earth and all that — was quite obviously a close pastiche of the Norse myths, with even many of the names being taken over directly. To my mind it is far more worthwhile to study and make accessible the real body of myths which played a central role in the intellectual life of real societies for many centuries, than to make up a sort of private modified and tidied-up version, eliminating all the elements of “love interest”, etc. To me i t all smacks of the kind of false priorities which lead some people these days to become so fascinated by the workings of computers that they don’t get round to engaging with real life.

G.R. Sampson, Professor of Natural Language Computing

School of Cognitive & Computing Sciences
University of Sussex
Falmer, Brighton BN1 9QH, GB

Posted in Old Special Reports on June 7, 2001 by

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