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: