J. R. R. Tolkien’s deep interest in language is evident to his readers and to anyone familiar with the broad facts of his professional life: as well as being a famous and well-regarded author, he was a professor of language and literature, a philologist, a poet, and a translator. He once wrote in a letter that his work – all of it – was “fundamentally linguistic in inspiration”.
Tolkien was also an avid and prolific conlanger: a creator of conlangs, or constructed languages. Though he liked Esperanto, and approved of the idea of a unifying artificial language for Europe for political reasons, his interest in conlangs was primarily creative. It was an artistic urge rather than a practical or commercial consideration.
He placed great stock in the authenticity of the languages he invented. This made for painstaking work, “an art for which life is not long enough”, as he put it. Christopher Tolkien described how his father would proceed
from the ‘bases’ or primitive stems, adding suffix or prefix or forming compounds, deciding (or, as he would have said, ‘finding out’) when the word came into the language, following it through the regular changes in form that it would thus have undergone, and observing the possibilities of formal or semantic influence from other words in the course of its history.
Arika Okrent, in her book In the Land of Invented Languages, writes that for Tolkien, “language creation was an art all its own, enhanced and enriched by the stories”. The book’s last chapter includes a memorable excerpt from Tolkien’s lecture A Secret Vice that shows how strongly language invention affected him – even when it was someone else’s, casually overheard. Here’s the anecdote in full:
I shall never forget a little man – smaller than myself – whose name I have forgotten, revealing himself by accident as a devotee, in a moment of extreme ennui, in a dirty wet marquee filled with trestle tables smelling of stale mutton fat, crowded with (mostly) depressed and wet creatures. We were listening to somebody lecturing on map-reading, or camp-hygiene, or the art of sticking a fellow through without (in defiance of Kipling) bothering who God sent the bill to; rather we were trying to avoid listening, though the Guards’ English, and voice, is penetrating. The man next to me said suddenly in a dreamy voice: ‘Yes, I think I shall express the accusative case by a prefix!’
A memorable remark! Of course by repeating it I have let the cat, so carefully hidden, out of its bag, or at least revealed the whiskers. But we won’t bother about that for a moment. Just consider the splendour of the words! ‘I shall express the accusative case.’ Magnificent! Not ‘it is expressed’, nor even the more shambling ‘it is sometimes expressed’, nor the grim ‘you must learn how it is expressed’. What a pondering of alternatives within one’s choice before the final decision in favour of the daring and unusual prefix, so personal, so attractive; the final solution of some element in a design that had hitherto proved refractory. Here were no base considerations of the ‘practical’, the easiest for the ‘modern mind’, or for the million – only a question of taste, a satisfaction of a personal pleasure, a private sense of fitness.
As he said his words the little man’s smile was full of a great delight, as of a poet or painter seeing suddenly the solution of a hitherto clumsy passage. Yet he proved as close as an oyster. I never gathered any further details of his secret grammar; and military arrangements soon separated us never to meet again (up to now at any rate). But I gathered that this queer creature – ever afterwards a little bashful after inadvertently revealing his secret – cheered and comforted himself in the tedium and squalors of ‘training under canvas’ by composing a language, a personal system and symphony that no else was to study or to hear. Whether he did this in his head (as only the great masters can), or on paper, I never knew. It is incidentally one of the attractions of this hobby that it needs so little apparatus! How far he ever proceeded in his composition, I never heard. Probably he was blown to bits in the very moment of deciding upon some ravishing method of indicating the subjunctive. Wars are not favourable to delicate pleasures.
The unidentified man’s sense of privacy about his hobby was not unusual; neither was his clear delight in resolving a matter of grammatical detail. Tolkien described language invention as “a private enterprise undertaken to give pleasure to myself by giving expression to my personal linguistic ‘aesthetic’ or taste and its fluctuations.”
Just how important it was to Tolkien is something that appears to have fallen on many a deaf ear. “Nobody believes me,” he wrote in a letter to Christopher,
when I say that my long book [The Lord of the Rings] is an attempt to create a world in which a form of language agreeable to my personal aesthetic might seem real. But it is true. An enquirer (among many) asked what the L.R. was all about, and whether it was an allegory. And I said it was an effort to create a situation in which a common greeting would be elen si-‘la lu-‘menn omentielmo ['A star shines on the hour of our meeting'], and that the phrase long antedated the book.
The languages came first, insisting on existence; the stories came later, and gave them a home.
In the Land of Invented Languages: a website for a wonderful book about constructed languages and the people behind them, their dedication, obsession, and extraordinary creativity. You can read excerpts and browse an archive of 500 invented languages, from Hildegard von Bingen’s Lingua Ignota (ca. 1150) to some of the many conlangs in active development.
J. R. R. Tolkien, A Secret Vice (PDF, 1.02 MB).
Resources for Tolkienian Linguistics: An Annotated Guide.
Update: I’m grateful to Language Hat for directing his readers here, and for continuing the discussion about Tolkien and conlanging. He also wrote a terrific review of Arika Okrent’s book, which should persuade you to read it if you haven’t already and you have even a passing interest in the subject.