Sydney Morning Herald writer Darryn King examines Tolkien as the progenitor of the art of conlangs (constucted languanges). But, as King points out, for Tolkien the language always came first and his works were ultimately developed to give to give voice to his invented tongues.
If you’re curious to read some of the primary sources for this, I recommend Letters #294 and #297 from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.
The fairytale opening line of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is among the most memorable and beloved in literature: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” It is an unassuming first sentence for what turns out to be an epic fantasy saga about good and evil, and one of the most influential works of fiction of the 20th century.
In fact, The Lord of the Rings had even humbler beginnings. Well before Tolkien had even conceived of the hobbit, let alone its habitat, the foundations of Middle-earth were forming, syllable by syllable, in a collection of mysterious, made-up words.
More than a teller of stories, Tolkien was a lover of languages. An Oxford professor specialising in classical linguistics, he was well versed in Latin, Greek, Italian and Spanish, as well as the ancient Germanic languages, Old Norse, Old English and Gothic. He was particularly intoxicated by his discovery of Finnish and proclaimed passionately of the inherent beauty of certain combinations of spoken sounds. (“Cellar door” was one such favourite.)
As early as his undergraduate years, Tolkien began creating an invented vocabulary of words, building it into a number of “Elvish” languages, purely for intellectual and aesthetic enjoyment. He equipped the languages with their own grammatical systems, with elements borrowed from Finnish and Welsh, and furnished them with the phonology that, much later, was thought of as the author’s “sentimentalised Celtic”.
However, Tolkien understood that his invented languages lacked an essential element of any effectual language: context. By his own account, he was compelled to create a world for his languages to exist in. The entire fantastic mythology of The Lord of the Rings emerged from that impetus.
Join us in Los Angeles in February at The One Last Party
We’re hosting a Party of Special Magnificence next February — a toast to all SIX movies, both LOTR trilogy and The Hobbit.