J.R.R. Tolkien — The Godfather of Constructed Languages

Apr 3, 2017 · 5 min read
Photo by Giorgio Minguzzi on Flickr

J.R.R. Tolkien, legendary writer, poet, university professor and world-class language geek, was celebrated, as he is every year, this past Saturday on March 25th. International Tolkien Reading Day was created by The Tolkien Society of England to promote the creator of such works as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. If you haven’t read them yet, then by all means add it onto your bucket list right now! Go on, we’ll wait. We’ll fight off orcs and stuff while you’re gone.

Photo by Teeny Scarlett on Flickr

Just watching the movies doesn’t count, by the way. That’s cheating. The movies can never do justice to the endless richness of Tolkien’s boundless imagination, his memorable characters and detailed settings, and the mythological inspiration, not to mention what endears him most to the Yappn heart, his enduring love of existing languages and his lifelong habit of constructing new ones.

Related: From Elvish to Klingon — What’s the point of a fictional language?

Tolkien’s books remain among the most published ever with 150 million copies sold worldwide. According to Elrond’s Library, a French Tolkien translator claims 65 language translations for The Hobbit, 56 for The Lord of the Rings, and 32 for The Silmarillion, largely regarded as the most difficult of Tolkien’s books to read (compiled after his death by his son Christopher).

Related: Tips for getting through The Silmarillion

Tolkien invented several languages, including an entire family of Elvish, all of which sprang from the invented proto-family Primitive Quendian. From that came Common Eldarin, Quendian and Goldogrin, later to become Noldorin. These were followed by Telerin, Ilkorin, Doriathrin and Avarin, and Noldorin eventually evolved into Sindarin.

Tolkien Conlangs

Tolkien is arguably the godfather of modern-day conlangs, or constructed languages. Conlangs have been around for many centuries, possibly the earliest dating back to the days of Plato. However, Tolkien spent decades on language construction, beginning his Middle Earth languages project around 1910 and continuing it until his death in 1973. In fact, he didn’t invent languages for the books so much as he invented the story to fit the languages. He also wrote The Lord of the Rings trilogy ostensibly as a translation into English from the original Middle Earth languages.

His specialty was Old English, as a professional philologist for the ancient Germanic languages. He also possessed a special affinity for Finnish after stumbling upon a Finnish grammar manual which he described in terms of a besotted oenephile.

Photo by Victoria Catterson on Flickr

“It was like discovering a wine-cellar filled with bottles of amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me.”

– J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien believed that languages and mythology went hand in hand; you couldn’t truly invent a language without a mythology behind it. He accosted aficionados of the conlang Esperanto in a letter in which he claimed it was ‘far deader than ancient unused languages,’ because there were no legends behind it. (Nevertheless, Esperanto remains to this day one of the most widely-spoken conlangs, with an estimated two million fluent speakers globally.)

In addition to Elvish, Tolkien also created Dwarvish and Mannish (spoken by Dwarves and Men, of course). He also created numerous scripts for his conlangs.

Isn’t learning a conlang just silly?

What’s the point of learning a constructed language, one that has virtually no use outside of a very small community of fans, logophiles or linguaphiles? Why not learn Spanish or French or Chinese? There’s little argument about the benefits of learning another language and Silvan or Dwarvish (or, for the more villainous, Mordor’s Black Speech) rewires your brain just as much as organically evolved languages. A person may not have much need for a real-world second language if they don’t come from a particularly ethnic family, live in a largely English-speaking region and work in a profession where another language may never prove useful, however the benefits to the brain from learning a second language are well documented and are the same regardless of what new language you learn. Also, if speaking Sindarin will make you way cooler at the Renaissance Faire, who is anyone to tell you that you should learn a ‘real’ language instead?

Sauron’s Black Speech

Of course, it’s always much easier to learn a language you really, really want to learn. If you can convince even one other friend to learn as well, you can talk to each other in public without anyone else understanding. After all, what’s the likelihood there are more than two Tengwar speakers at your favorite coffee house?

“Will you check out the flying buttress on that one?”

“I haven’t seen such a well-formed supporting arch like that since visiting Elrond’s Palace in the Third Age.”

Tengwar translation courtesy of the Elvish Translator

This post originally appeared on the blog Yappn About.

Yappn Corp is an enhanced machine translation company offering translations in dozens of languages, but not Black Speech as that eyeball thing is really freaking us out. For more information please contact sales@yappn.com or call us at +1.905.763.3510 x246.

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Written by Nicole Chardenet, Sales Development Rep at Yappn

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