Most fantasy writing today has at least some “made-up” language associated with it as part of extensive worldbuilding, due in part to J.R.R. Tolkien’s monumental epic The Lord of the Rings — but why, exactly, did Tolkien consider language so important in the telling of his tale? In particular, it is notable that he referred to creating languages as his “secret vice” — so why did he create the story to go with the languages?
Tolkien famously said (well, famous in the right circles, anyway) in his essay On Faerie Stories:
…languages, especially modern European languages, are a disease of mythology. But Language cannot, all the same, be dismissed. The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval.
Mythos and language, he says, are irrevocably intertwined.
Kennings are a figure of speech that figure (heh, sorry) strongly in Old Norse and Old English poetry, though I find that they tend to show up in a lot of places. The idea lies in referring to an object using the properties of that object or a story about that object.
For example, in Beowulf ‘banhus’, or literally ‘bone-house’, refers to the human body. ‘Hwælweg’ or ‘whale road’ refers to the sea. The Prose Edda lists hundreds of kennings, among them ‘Freyja’s tears’ for gold, ‘Baldr’s bane’ for mistletoe, or ‘Grimnir’s lip-streams’ for poetry (Grimnir being a name for Odin) — all of these based upon the Norse myths. For example, the story goes Loki tricked Höðr into throwing a magically hardened spring of mistletoe at Baldr, killing him — thus, Baldr’s bane is mistletoe.
Basically, kennings are an extended metaphor strongly based upon stories and ideas about the object being described.
The Indo-European language family is a broad one, covering most European languages (with the exception of a few like that spoken in Basque country) and most languages spoken on the Indian sub-continent. The parts of the family I’ll focus on are the Romance and Germanic branches. The Romance languages all flowered from Latin, and include Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and similar languages.
The Germanic languages are divided into North, West, and East Germanic families. The East Germanic languages are all extinct, spoken by tribes like the Vandals and Visigoths, who were all either killed or assimilated into other cultures. The North Germanic languages are the Scandinavian languages (interestingly, Old Norse and Icelandic are highly similar, indicating that there has been very little evolution in these languages, and Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian are, as I understand, fairly similar — perhaps caused in part by the complete political union of Sweden and Norway for a not insignificant amount of time) and the West Germanic languages include English, German, and Dutch (and Dutch’s derivative, Afrikaans).
English, however, is a complete and utter oddity.
The evolution of English
English began very differently from how we know it today. Spoken by the Anglo-Saxons (Angles, Anglish, English), Old English had a complex grammar, several extra letters, dramatically different pronunciation, and major differences in vocabulary from modern English. In short, Old English is an entirely different language. While with some work we get through Shakespeare (who wrote modern English, as hard as it is to believe) and with some sweat, tears, and googling we get through Chaucer (who wrote middle English), serious studying of the language is needed to get through Beowulf (which is in Old English).
The Romans came and went, and while some Latin was assimilated into the language, the big change for English came in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings, where Harold Godwinson was routed by William the Conqueror (primarily Harold’s fault, as he marched his army to meet William and then battled uphill — if you ever plan to defend your own sovereign nation, don’t tire out your army before battle, and always keep the high ground). William came from Normandy, which meant that he spoke French.
There are three main changes this brought about in English.
- Because French became the language of the nobles and English the language of the ‘common folk’, a lot of the complex grammatical structures of Old English dropped out of the language entirely. (This also, unfortunately, screwed up English grammar entirely, as most later grammaticists tried to model English grammar books after Latin grammars which…really didn’t work.) Eventually, English became cool again and the nobles also spoke it, but in a somewhat modified form, which leads to my next point.
- You may recall that English is a Germanic language, and French a Romance language. This conquest basically mixed the two languages quite a bit — fancier words more suited to a life at court tend to have more romantic origins and words suited more to common life tend to have more germanic origins, but in general, the language became fairly mixed.
- This point was continued by the next major shift in English (note: when I say “major shift”, keep in mind that language does not change overnight — these changes could occur over hundreds of years), and is, essentially, that English has a heck ton of synonyms. With the exception of Japanese, English is practically the only language that has thesauruses. Some argue this makes English a more expressive, diverse language; certainly, this quality comes from the wide influence of other languages upon English. Words that might mean the exact same thing in another language came into English and took on different connotations that influenced their definitions.
Before I move on to what was the next major shift in the English language, I’d like to make a side-mention of the Great Vowel Shift, mainly because it has a fabulously dramatic name and explains why English spelling is so screwy. Around the time the first dictionaries were being put together in the late 1600s and early 1700s, the sounds associated with different vowels began to change — not a fantastically unusual occurrence, except normally the spellings changed with it. However, with the old spellings recorded in dictionaries, they stuck along with the new pronunciations. Whoops.
The second major shift in English isn’t quite as well-defined as that brought about by William the Conqueror but nevertheless I feel it is worth pointing out. By the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, Britain had become a world-wide power. When people say about you that the sun never sets on your empire — and they’re right — you’ve got some major influence. As a result of this, words to describe local foods, phenomena, wildlife, and customs in the local language assimilated into English and the vocabulary of English was expanded by many languages from around the world.
This leads to an astonishingly rich vocabulary, a bit of a screwy grammar that comes from being rather piecemeal, and a language that to some extent defies the normal boundaries set by language families.
The problem with English
English’s varicose history leads to an odd sort of problem: the words are confusing. If you have ever thought about a single word for far too long, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Take the word knife. Repeat it over and over again in your mind. It begins to sound ridiculous. Why would it be spelled that way? What does it even mean? Who came up with that? We don’t know the word’s background, and so it loses all context and sense.
The word “knife” comes (through a long linguistical trail) from the Proto-Germanic knībaz. To the Proto-Germans, presumably this word would have made sense — it would have originated from some myth or tale. Perhaps a warrior named Knībaz killed with what we now call a knife. The people of that time would have understood the word and its implications, just as the writers and readers of Beowulf and the Norse sagas understood the tale told by the kennings: banhus, Freyja’s tears.
The idea of kennings has come down to modern times most closely in the form of a metaphor (though a convincing argument could be made for the idiom as well, though in the case of idioms the background history is often lost to us as well — no one knows where the phrase “spill the beans” came from), but the metaphor doesn’t contain the reference to past beliefs and stories as much as a kenning does — when we say that the bride’s dress looks like a squirrel’s tail we are not referencing the great bride Squirrel who was the Great Mother in some mythology— we are just comparing the images, without any real substance and meaning to it.
Language and myth
This, then, reveals the inextricable intertwining of language and myth that Tolkien sought to show. When we speak, our words tell a story beyond that which lies in the denotation of those individual words. The connotation lies in the stories we have told and the people and beliefs they represent.
But we have forgotten and lost these stories and beliefs, and what ones are still extant are not widely known or studied. It is interesting, perhaps, that language is shifting back towards more basic roots with the introduction of emoticons and similar. Perhaps this is all to say…support your local philologist?
The job of the conlanger has then become that much harder. Not only must they create the language, they must create the myths and legends to go with it for the language to make sense and fit the worldscape it grows up in.