A key fact about Tolkien’s fascination with creating language is not so well-known, and that is the sheer scale of his creativity in this field. The languages he invented were enormous linguistic constructions. While there are a few Elvish poems and plenty of exotic names in the stories of Middle-earth, some have counted up to twelve thousand invented words in his writings as a whole.
In his essay 'A Secret Vice' (published in The Monsters and the Critics p. 198-219) Tolkien describes how as a child he heard other children using Animalic, a made-up way of speaking which was then replaced by Nevbosh, another nonsense language. While not the originator of this language, Tolkien contributed to the vocabulary and spelling. Nevbosh consisted of distorted English, French and Latin words rather than a new language, but in it there began to arise words that could not be traced to any specific source, but which appeared simply because they seemed to fit their meaning: the combination of sound and sense seemed right, somehow. Bits of Nevbosh even appeared decades later in Elvish: lint meaning ‘quick, clever’ appears in Galadriel’s lament for the passing of the years: ve lintë yuldar lissë-miruvóreva, ‘like swift draughts of the sweet mead’.
Tolkien, while still a child, devised his first invented language, which he called Naffarin, and quotes one (untranslated) sentence in his essay: O Naffarínos cutá vu navru cangor luttos ca vúna tiéranar, dana maga tíer ce vru encá vún' farta once ya merúta vúna maxt' amámen. Those familiar with Elvish will recognise that the primitive child-languages were beginning to evolve into something more like the later Elvish tongue.
The key thing, in the light of what was to come for the rest of Tolkien’s life, was that the driving impulse behind the creation of these languages was beauty. Tolkien loved European languages (not especially French, but certainly Spanish, Italian and Greek) and particularly developed an affinity for Welsh - on finding the words Adeiladwyd 1887 cut on a stone-slab, he recalled that ‘It pierced my linguistic heart’. In his essay, Tolkien attempts to explain the attraction: ‘Most English-speaking people...will admit that cellar door is “beautiful”, especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful. Well then, in Welsh for me cellar doors are extraordinarily frequent, and moving to the higher dimension, the words in which there is pleasure in the contemplation of the association of form and sense are abundant.’
Discovering the Finnish language made him euphoric however: ‘It was like discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me’ (Letters:214).
As a hobby, this creativity to do with languages preoccupied Tolkien in the trenches in World War I. In 1916, while Tolkien was in hospital having survived the Battle of Somme, fragments of his ‘mythology for England’ were constructed alongside his first Elvish word-lists. One thing triggered, fed into, and fed from the other: ‘The making of language and mythology are related functions…language construction will breed a mythology’ Tolkien writes in 'A Secret Vice'. Later he wrote that ‘Nobody believes me when I say that my long book is an attempt to create a world in which a form of language agreeable to my personal aesthetic might seem real. But it is true.’ (Letters: 264).
Thus it was that the Elvish Quenya was inspired from Finnish, while Noldorin or Sindarin was Welsh-like . Tolkien’s Gnomish lexicon was the most complete reference Tolkien ever made for any Elvish language. It rapidly became outdated after several revisions, but a set of Etymologies was published in its entirety by Christopher Tolkien in The Lost Road p. 347-400. Christopher Tolkien describes his father's language-creation process: ‘He did not, after all, “invent” new words and names arbitrarily: in principle, he devised from within the historical structure, proceeding 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.’ Complex rules were developed so that the resultant languages sounded and looked like Tolkien wanted.
Tolkien’s guide was what he thought was phonetically fitting (Letters:375). Elvish words thus often seem to fit their meaning: menel ‘sky’, vanya ‘beautiful’, elen ‘star’. Tolkien tried to explain that he was not uninfluenced by words that he had encountered in all kinds of places: ‘The element (n)dor “land”, probably owes something to say such names as Labrador (a name that might as far as style and structure goes be Sindarin)’ (Letters:383-4). For example, Sindarin gond or gonn, Quenya ondo may stem from the fact that, when he was eight years old, Tolkien learned that nothing remained of the language of the pre-Celtic and pre-Roman tribes, except possibly the word ond ‘stone’. Lá ‘no, not’ is Arabic, ken- ‘see’ is similar to Chinese kan; Norwegian/Swedish mat, Danish mad means ‘food’.
This is hardly surprising when Tolkien primary purpose for inventing languages was his own pleasure, rather than a scholarly attempt to make them independently real.
But another central principle grew out of all of this: while language creation was not just a case of invention, of plucking words out of the air, Tolkien was all too aware that he had the power to modify anything - and he often did. The Elvish tongues were continually evolving and changing, often independently of the stories and just as often in relation to the unfolding history of Middle earth. Even after something had appeared in print, Tolkien could not always resist the temptation to keep adjusting things.
What is of primary interest here is that the imagination of a philologist was being used to create a fantasy world. This was not simply ‘invention’: this was construction - the difference being that construction proceeded from firm and known fundamentals rather than whim. One did not ‘create’ in the same way. Building an invented world in this way was much like seeking several thousand pathways through a fixed maze, further complicated by the fact that Tolkien also occasionally redesigned the maze. What was the overall effect?
The result was that whereas whimsy produces something from an author’s imagination which may or may not communicate anything of relevance to a reader, using firm fundamentals led to a structure which created the apparency of reality. Knowing that Tolkien’s invented words actually meant something and that those meanings had been carefully constructed as part of a long and meticulous process gave the impression of depth and solidity which an idly manufactured word, or world, would not.
In devoting so much time and energy to what was meant to be a personal pleasure, Tolkien was in fact creating a machine for attracting the attention of readers whether or not those readers were interested in languages per se: the hint of substance, of layer upon layer of significance, was itself a powerful force to build the readership of what was essentially a very private set of tales.
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