A Philological Imagination 2


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