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Languages constructed by J. R. R. Tolkien

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Title: Languages constructed by J. R. R. Tolkien  
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Languages constructed by J. R. R. Tolkien

The philologist and author J. R. R. Tolkien created a number of constructed languages, most but not all for his fictional universe, often called Middle-earth. They are used in The Hobbit in a few names like Elrond or Bolg; in The Lord of the Rings for numerous names of persons (including Galadriel and Aragorn) and places (including Gondor and Fangorn) and several poems ("Namárië"); and in The Silmarillion for almost all names, including the title, and a few sentences.

Tolkien wrote in one of his letters: "what I think is a primary ‘fact’ about my work, that it is all of a piece, and fundamentally linguistic in inspiration. [. . .] It is not a ‘hobby’, in the sense of something quite different from one’s work, taken up as a relief-outlet. The invention of languages is the foundation. The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows. I should have preferred to write in ‘Elvish’. But, of course, such a work as The Lord of the Rings has been edited and only as much ‘language’ has been left in as I thought would be stomached by readers. (I now find that many would have liked more.) [. . .] It is to me, anyway, largely an essay in ‘linguistic aesthetic’, as I sometimes say to people who ask me ‘what is it all about’." [1]

List of languages constructed by Tolkien

Tolkien is among the most famous and prolific of conlangers. He constructed – to varying degrees of detail – more than twenty languages, each with a unique grammar and vocabulary. The exact number of languages constructed by Tolkien is unknown, for many of his linguistic papers are still unpublished.

Constructed languages used in Tolkien's fictional universe

Other constructed languages

  • Naffarin was the first language Tolkien constructed by himself during his adolescence; only one sentence remains, which shows a Spanish affinity.
  • Gautisk is a Germanic "unrecorded" language in which Tolkien called himself Undarhruiménitupp.[2]
  • Mágo/Mágol is based on Hungarian.

The glossopoeia

The term glossopoeia was coined by J. R. R. Tolkien. It is used today to mean language construction, particularly construction of artistic languages.[3]

Tolkien's glossopoeia has two temporal dimensions: the internal (fictional) timeline of events described in the Silmarillion and other writings, and the external timeline of Tolkien's own life during which he continually revised and refined his languages and their fictional history.

He was a professional philologist of ancient Germanic languages, specialising in Old English. He was also interested in many languages outside his field, and developed a particular love for the Finnish language. He described the finding of a Finnish grammar book as "entering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before".[4]

Glossopoeia was Tolkien's hobby for most of his life. At a little over thirteen he helped construct a sound substitution cypher known as Nevbosh,[5] 'new nonsense', which grew to include some elements of actual invented language. Notably, Tolkien claimed that this was not his first effort in invented languages.[6] Shortly thereafter he developed a true invented language called Naffarin[7] which contained elements that would survive into his later languages, which he continued to work on until his death more than sixty-five years later. Language invention had always been tightly connected to the mythology that Tolkien developed, as he found that a language could not be complete without the history of the people who spoke it, just as these people could never be fully realistic if imagined only through the English language and as speaking English. Tolkien therefore took the stance of a translator and adaptor rather than that of the original author of his works.

In the Lord of the Rings, he adopted the literary device of claiming to have translated the original Sôval Phârë speech (or Westron as he called it) into English. This device of rendering an imaginary language with a real one was carried further, rendering Rohirric the language of Rohan, related to Sôval Phâre, by Old English, and names in the tongue of Dale by Old Norse forms, and names of the Kingdom of Rhovanion by Gothic forms, thus mapping the genetic relation of his fictional languages on the existing historical relations of the Germanic languages. Furthermore, to parallel the Celtic substratum in England, he used Old Welsh names to render the Dunlendish names of Buckland Hobbits (e.g., Meriadoc for Kalimac). A natural consequence of this was that these "new" constructed languages had to be worked out by Tolkien in some details.

Although the Elvish languages Sindarin and Quenya are the most famous and the most developed of the languages that Tolkien invented for his Secondary World, they are by no means the only ones. They belong to a family of Elvish languages, that originate in Common Eldarin, the language common to all Eldar, which in turn originates in Primitive Quendian, the common root of Eldarin and Avarin languages. In addition to that, there is a separate language family that is spoken by Men, the most prominent member of which was Westron (derived from the Númenórean speech Adûnaic), the "Common speech" of the peoples of The Lord of the Rings. Most Mannish tongues showed influences by Elvish, as well as some Dwarvish influences. Several independent languages were drafted as well, an example being Khuzdul, the language of the Dwarves. Other languages are Valarin (the tongue of the Valar), and the Black Speech created by Sauron in the Second Age.

Finnish morphology (particularly its rich system of inflection) in part gave rise to Quenya. Another of Tolkien's favourites was Welsh, and features of Welsh phonology found their way into Sindarin. Very few words were borrowed from existing languages, so that attempts to match a source to a particular Elvish word or name in works published during his lifetime are often very dubious.

Artificial scripts

Being a skilled penman, Tolkien not only invented many languages but also scripts. Some of his scripts were designed for use with his constructed languages, others for more practical ends: to be used in his personal diary, and one especially for English, the New English Alphabet.[8]

List of known scripts devised by Tolkien

In chronological order:

Reception and study

A small number of people have worked on compiling histories and grammars of the Elvish languages.

The first serious book dedicated to the Elvish languages was An Introduction to Elvish edited by Jim Allan (published by Bran's Head Books). It is composed of articles written before the publication of The Silmarillion. David Salo wrote A Gateway to Sindarin: A Grammar of an Elvish Language from J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (University of Utah Press).

A few fanzines were dedicated to the subject, like Tyalië Tyelelliéva published by Lisa Star, and Quettar, the Bulletin of the Linguistic Fellowship of The Tolkien Society, published by Julian C. Bradfield. Tengwestië is an online publication of the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship.

Two journals[9]Vinyar Tengwar, from issue 39 (July 1998), and Parma Eldalamberon, from issue 11 (1995) — are today exclusively devoted to the editing and publishing of J.R.R. Tolkien's gigantic mass of unpublished linguistic papers. The editors have not published a comprehensive catalogue of the unpublished linguistic papers they are working on. Even more disturbing for some is the severe restriction of access to the unpublished documents. These papers were not published by Christopher Tolkien in "The History of Middle-earth". Almost each year, new-found words of the Elvish languages are published and the grammar rules of these languages are disclosed.

Internet mailing lists dedicated to Tolkien's constructed languages include Tolklang, Elfling and Lambengolmor.

See also


  1. ^ The Letters of J.R.R.Tolkien, pp. 219–220
  2. ^ J. Garth, Tolkien and the Great War. p. 17.
  3. ^ Sarah L. Higley: Hildegard of Bingen's Unknown Language. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
  4. ^ The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, letter number 163.
  5. ^ Monsters & Critics, 200
  6. ^ Monsters & Critics, 203
  7. ^ Monsters & Critics, 209
  8. ^ W. Hammond, C. Scull, J.R.R. Tolkien, Artist and Illustrator, p. 190.
  9. ^ Solopova, Elizabeth (2009), Languages, Myths and History: An Introduction to the Linguistic and Literary Background of J.R.R. Tolkien's Fiction, New York City: North Landing Books, p. 90, ISBN 0-9816607-1-1 
General references

External links

  • The Elvish Linguistic Fellowship: Publishes the journals Parma Eldalamberon, Tengwestië, and Vinyar Tengwar
  • The Elvish Linguistic Fellowship's Tolkienian Linguistics FAQ
  • The Elvish Linguistic Fellowship's Resources for Tolkienian Linguistics
  • The Tolkien language mailing list
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