Tolkien on language invention

May 24, 2011

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:

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Book spine mashups

July 20, 2010

There was a minor book avalanche here last weekend. I removed one from its tower, which toppled unstoppably against its neighbour, and so on, with results that need hardly be described at length. Luckily there were no casualties: no toes crushed or book spines broken, just a torn cover getting torn some more. I took the hint and arranged them more stably. (And yes, I need a new bookshelf, or a dozen.)

It prompted me to carry out a plan that had just taken seed. A little earlier I had come across Nina Katchadourian’s Sorted Books project and immediately wanted to try it. The tangling of titles, the possibilities of ‘found form’ and cut-up wordplay — as a game it was irresistible. I took photos of a few, and have written them as mini-poems for ease of reading and to see how they appear in verse:

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How it is

How it is, the way that I went
Into the wild ancient world
Where the wasteland ends.

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Moondust

Chew on this moondust –
Good enough to eat.

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