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Carl Hostetter, ‘Tolkien’s Invented Languages’

Carl Hostetter presents a brief introduction to the languages of Middle-earth, their development and underlying linguistic construction.

Elen síla lúmenn’ omentielvo! ~ With these words, Frodo Baggins greets a company of Elves in Woody End. With these words, too, most readers of J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium first encounter his invented languages of Middle-earth. Frodo’s greeting is in Quenya, or High-elven, which together with Sindarin, or Grey-elven, is one of the two chief Elvish languages of Middle-earth. All of the Elvish poems, songs, exclamations, spells, and invocations encountered in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and The Children of Húrin, are in one or the other of these two languages, as are most of the non-English names of people and places.

When Frodo’s greeting was first published in The Fellowship of the Ring in 1954, Tolkien had been developing his Elvish languages for nearly forty years. In fact, Tolkien’s languages both preceded and gave rise to his legendarium. As Tolkien wrote, ‘The invention of languages is the foundation. The “stories” were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse’. The truth of this is borne out in the glimpses of the nascent mythology seen among the entries of Tolkien’s earliest lexicons and grammars of his two chief Elvish languages, Qenya and Goldogrin (or Gnomish), as the earliest forms of these languages were named. Here we find Elves, Orcs, trolls, the Valar, Melkor (then called Melko) and his Balrogs, dragons, and Ilúvatar, all in linguistic writings predating the first tales of the mythology. For Tolkien, the invention of languages and the invention of a mythology were intimately connected: ‘To give your language an individual flavour, it must have woven into it the threads of an individual mythology. … The converse indeed is true, your language construction will breed a mythology’.

It is thus no coincidence that, just as Tolkien’s legendarium underwent decades of development and change both before and after the publication of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s languages also underwent decades of elaboration, reconsideration, revision, and recapitulation throughout his lifetime. And also just as with the legendarium, he never completed the languages; nor did he regard finality or fixedness in his languages as either necessary or even desirable goals. Nearly every occasion upon which Tolkien set to writing about or in one of his invented languages resulted in new invention, reconsideration, and change in the languages as they were then and previously conceived. Not even publication imposed fixedness on the languages, as shown by the changes Tolkien made to various Elvish texts in the second, revised edition of The Lord of the Rings, and by his own later reinterpretations of those texts in light of the conceptual alterations that arose in the languages after their publication.

‘The Tree of Tongues’, chart showing the relationships between the languages of Middle-earth

In addition to the history of conceptual change each of the languages underwent throughout Tolkien’s lifetime, each language also possesses an invented history of phonological and grammatical change within Middle-earth itself. That is, just as modern English is descended from Middle English (the language of Chaucer), which itself developed from Old English (the language of Beowulf), so too does each of Tolkien’s invented Elvish languages have a fictional history of descent from earlier forms. And just as English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, and all the Indo-European languages are descended from a common, prehistoric ancestor, so too are all the Elvish languages related to one another. Most of Tolkien’s writings concerning his invented languages consist of detailing this system of correspondences within and among the languages, their divergence and long descent from the common, prehistoric Eldarin tongue. In short, Tolkien’s voluminous writings on his languages are primarily in the service of the fictional historical and comparative grammar of his languages, and the conceptual changes seen throughout Tolkien’s life arose from his ceaseless reconsideration and change in the details of these invented phonological and grammatical histories.

There is nevertheless a high degree of consistency and coherence in Tolkien’s languages as he elaborated them across the decades. Qenya as conceived in the 1910s and 1920s and Quenya as conceived in the 1950s and 1960s, while differing in details of phonology, grammar, and lexicon, are nonetheless more alike than unlike, as are the successive conceptual stages of Goldogrin, Noldorin and Sindarin. Nonetheless, few if any details of Tolkien’s inventions were immune from change, and even whole grammatical categories, such as pronouns and verb tenses, were at all times susceptible to sweeping change.

Nor are Tolkien’s linguistic writings wholly technical and abstract, unconnected with the narrative writings that form the legendarium. Changes in the history of events and peoples in the legendarium could and did sometimes change the history and forms of the languages. For example, the arising of the Second and Third Ages of Middle-earth in the course of the writing of The Lord of the Rings extended the history of the Elvish languages in Middle-earth by millennia. This resulted in a radical revision of the history of Sindarin, which had previously been named Noldorin, as the language of the Noldor in exile from Valinor, to become the indigenous language of the Grey-elves of Beleriand, and differing also from Noldorin in points of phonology and grammar. So, too, could changes in the details of the languages influence the historical events of Middle-earth. Tolkien’s essays in consideration of the legendarium, particularly in later writings, almost inevitably involved and in some cases hinged upon details of the languages; and his consideration of the languages, particularly their grammars and lexicons, at times grew into essays exploring the geography, peoples, and metaphysics of his invented world.

The task of editing and presenting the texts and tracing the history of Tolkien’s linguistic inventions was begun by Christopher Tolkien in The History of Middle-earth. It is continued by Christopher Gilson, Carl F. Hostetter, Arden R. Smith, Patrick H. Wynne and Bill Welden, with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien, the Tolkien Estate, and the Tolkien manuscript archives at Marquette University in Wisconsin and the Bodleian Library in Oxford.