Thursday, 31 March 2016

Tolkien and Language, especially English

A talk given at Nine Worlds Geekfest 11 August 2013.
NB. This talk draws heavily on an earlier one, Tolkien’s English and the “Fiction of Authenticity”, also available on this blog.
Seasoned Tolkienists will find little here that isn’t common knowledge, but it may be of interest to others.

In ‘The Notion Club Papers’, Tolkien describes a conversation about new words. He writes, ‘About ten o’clock the talk turned to neologisms.’ One of the dons, Michael Ramer,  defends neologisms:

‘There is such a thing as merit, without reference to age or familiarity. I took to doink at once: a very good onomatopoeia for some purposes.’
‘Yes, doink has come on a lot lately,’ said Lowdham. ‘But it’s not brand-new, of course. I think it’s first recorded, in the Third Supplement to the N.E.D., in the fifties, in the form doing: seems to have started in the Air Force in the Six Years’ War.’ —HME IX. 224–5

First: a bit of explanation: N.E.D. means ‘New English Dictionary’, and was the original name of the Oxford English Dictionary; and ‘Six Years’ War’ means ‘Second World War’.

There are several curious things about this.

  1. Tolkien wrote this most probably in 1946, and at that time there was only one Supplement to the NED (or OED). There was no second Supplement yet: but that Supplement did originate in the mid 1950s.
  2. There is no evidence that the word doink had any general currency in the 1940s. In fact, it may not have existed at all in 1946. (If you search Google Books you will only find imitations of foreigners trying to say doing and actually saying do-ink.)
  3. This particular meeting of the Notion Club is supposed to have taken place on 8 May 1987. When the real May 1987 came round doink was, as Lowdham says, very common: many 1980s examples can be found.
  4. Doink is still not in the OED!
  5. Eric Partridge, in his Dictionary of Forces’ Slang (published in 1948), says that ker-doying or ker-doink was Air Force slang for the sound of a crash: so Tolkien is probably right about the word’s origin, but he could not have got this information from Partridge (who had not yet published it)—he could only have picked it up directly from RAF personnel.
  6. By an interesting coincidence, the earliest use of doink that I have been able to find is from another famous novel published at the same time as The Lord of the Rings, with a very similar title: 
‘Wacco!’ ‘Bong!’ ‘Doink!’ Ralph felt the conch lifted from his lap. Then Piggy was standing cradling the great cream shell and the shouting died down. —William Golding Lord of the Flies (1954)

Doink is not the kind of word-invention we would naturally ascribe to Tolkien. The fact that he either invented it, or more likely picked it up in its infancy, gives us an insight into the breadth of Tolkien’s interest in language. The incident also reminds us that he never lost touch with his early involvement with the OED.

Let’s move from the slightly ridiculous to the sublime.

Ai! laurië lantar lassi súrinen,
yéni únótimë ve rámar aldaron!
Yéni ve lintë yuldar avánier
mi oromardi lissë-miruvóreva
Andúnë pella, Vardo tellumar
nu luini yassen tintilar i eleni
ómaryo airetári-lírinen.

And the translation.

Ah! like gold fall the leaves in the wind,
long years numberless as the wings of trees!
The long years have passed like swift draughts
of the sweet mead in lofty halls
beyond the West, beneath the blue vaults of Varda
wherein the stars tremble
in the voice of her song, holy and queenly.

That is three things. It is sublime poetry. It is mythology. And it is a foreign, invented, yet completely authentic, language.

It is, you might say, a Trinity, three in one. Poetry, language, and legend all in one entity. This for me sums up Tolkien’s genius.

The study of language can be dull and dry. It can be dry and formulaic, like this

Hare. (E.) A.S. hara. + Du. haas, Dan. Swed. hare, Icel. héri, G. hase, W. ceinach (Rhys), Skt. çaça, orig. çasa, a hare. 

or it can be dry and mathematical, like this

But it doesn’t have to be. I know of no better way to be intrigued and captivated by language than to be intrigued and captivated by Tolkien. In this lecture I would like to try to explain something of how this works.

C. S. Lewis brilliantly said of Tolkien that he ‘had been inside language’. It’s not just that he was a very talented linguist with a working knowledge of a couple of dozen languages.

There may have been several factors but I will single out the fact that language engaged his aesthetic imagination. No function of language, whether to do with its sound, its structure, its meaning, or its development, was just a formula to Tolkien. It was a story, a picture, a song.

This is where Tolkien’s story ‘Leaf by Niggle’ is so instructive. Niggle the artist is fascinated by individual leaves and trying to paint them in all their detail, and this leads on to the depiction of the tree, and the tree to the surroundings and on to the distant landscape. And in the end this imagined landscape turns out to be a real one into which Niggle can enter.

In exactly the same way, Tolkien contemplated individual fragments of language. Especially, but by no means exclusively, he contemplated individual words. His training on the OED served to emphasize, but certainly didn’t initiate, his knowledge that every word has a life story. Let’s just pause to look at Tolkien’s time on the OED.

In 1918 Tolkien went from military service to a job on the OED. He worked there only for about a year but it was a year in which he learnt a huge amount that was important to his future, both as an academic and as an imaginative writer. He was recruited by his former tutor William Craigie,

one of the four chief editors. As a student, Tolkien had already been trained in the philology of English under Craigie and the great authority on dialect, Joseph Wright.

Philology is the study of the historical development of language. Tolkien learnt to be a lexicographer under another chief editor, Henry Bradley, who was a skilled lexicographer and an erudite and kindly man. He worked on words beginning with W, including walnut, walrus, wake, and wan. This is a representation of a slip in Tolkien’s handwriting (apart from the italicized words) defining the word wan (it is not possible to reproduce the original):

(wan a.1  4)
e. d Applied to the (light of) heavenly bodies, etc.
Faint, sickly, partially obscured. Also, of white objects, etc. Dull, lustreless.
This usage is transitional.  Application to the sun, sunlight, etc., belongs here, but applications to the moon, stars, etc. frequently to 5. as there is there is often no diminution of radiance implied, but at most an implied comparison with the bright sun.  The distinction is often difficult to make accurately.

Some of these words, especially walrus, continued to interest Tolkien for the rest of his life. When he moved to his first academic post Tolkien continued to hone his lexicographic skills and his intimacy with the English language by compiling a glossary of medieval English. He admitted that he learnt an enormous amount by doing this. As a lexicographer I can testify that collecting and defining a corpus of words in dictionary form is a more practical and aesthetically satisfying training in the workings of language than any course in linguistics.

Let’s go back to the analogy of leaves and words. If the word is a leaf, the leaf is part of a branch, which is part of a tree; and when the leaf’s life ends it falls and becomes part of the leaf mould of story, out of which new plants arise.

The word may be a name. We know that Tolkien’s Legendarium—the mythology narrated in the Silmarillion—took its rise from a single mysterious name out of Anglo-Saxon literature: Earendel, perhaps the name of the Morning Star, probably in its Anglo-Saxon Christian context applied either to Christ or John the Baptist.

eala Earendel, engla beorhtost ofer middangeard monnum sended  [picture]

To understand Tolkien’s world we need to picture the way that such a word grabbed hold of his whole mind. As a trained philologist, Tolkien grasped all the ascertainable linguistic facts about the word. It probably comes from an ancient root that denotes the dawn, from which by other paths we get the word aurora.

Tolkien did not set such facts aside as mere dry theory. To Tolkien these facts themselves would be exciting and suggestive. But there was more. In its actual literary context in the surviving documents,  the word is mysterious. It’s being used figuratively. How was it used before? What did it mean for our ancestors back in those pre-literary days of which there is no record? Who was this mysterious figure Earendel, a person and yet also a star, who is hailed by humans as brightest of angels? Why was he ‘sent over Middle-earth to men’? A story begins to weave itself in Tolkien’s mind, actually in the dark days of the gathering world war. Earendel becomes the saviour figure who sacrifices his human existence to plead with the gods to save the world from Arda’s equivalent of Satan.

And concurrent with this, the Old English name Earendel becomes the Elvish name Eärendil. The form of the name is subtly altered to fit into Tolkien’s invented Elvish language. For Tolkien language and mythology are inseparable. He has been inventing languages since childhood, but just before the First World War he discovers the great truth that language and legend have to go hand in hand. Not because it’s rather nice, but because it is literally impossible for a language not to exist in a matrix of myth and for myth to exist in a matrix of language. Tolkien pointed out that much though he liked the artificial language Esperanto, it had no soul because it had no myths (I paraphrase slightly).

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, language is fossil poetry. Many words are old metaphors that have decayed or complex expressions that have been simplified, losing their original rich association. 

Take the word lord. In Old English it is hlaford and comes from a compound of hlaf (modern loaf) ‘bread’ + weard (modern ward) ‘keeper’: it expressed the relationship between the head of the household to his dependants who eat his bread. Once you know this etymology, you can picture in your mind an ancient society utterly different from our own, where ordinary people like us were dependent on a master or leader to give them their daily bread in return for their toil: no supermarkets to pop into. Or take wapentake. There used to be a subdivision within certain English shires called a wapentake. This comes from Old Norse vápnatak, which means ‘a vote, or consent, expressed by waving or brandishing weapons’. We don’t know how the one meaning evolved into the other, and we can only imagine that originally the wapentake was the meeting of all the men in the area to make decisions—perhaps to declare war. And it is on this basis that Tolkien has the Rohirrim hold a meeting called the weapontake. Or take walnut. Here is part of Tolkien’s draft etymology:

Nonetheless, if the OE. form (occurring once only, in a vocab.), the earliest recorded appearance of the word in any language, is a genuine OE. word, the invention of this name must be put back to an early date, since after the  conquest of Britain wealh and its derivatives had an exclusive application in English to the Celtic-speaking inhabitants of Britain.

The first part of this compound is an ancient word used by the Germanic peoples to refer to the Romans and other Romance speakers, because it was from the Roman world that such nuts came: Tolkien argues that this takes us back to a very remote time when our Germanic ancestors were still living on the continent of Europe on the other side of the Rhine from the Romans.

Back to Eärendil. Tolkien knows and values the real-world etymology of this name; but for his mythology he devises a different derivation in Elvish: eare(n)- meaning ‘sea’ and –ndil meaning ‘lover’ or ‘friend’.

These of course are not just arbitrary elements that sound nice.  They form part of a vast network of words, forms, grammar, and sounds, that Tolkien was in the middle of devising, and continued to develop and rebuild throughout his life.

Now there are many works of fiction which feature invented languages; Gulliver’s Travels for instance. In most of them the few words we meet are a relatively perfunctory effort—sounds strung together to provide atmosphere, but without a real pedigree.

For example, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea stories feature some beautiful snatches of invented languages (this is ‘Old Speech’):

aissadan verw nadannan ‘what was divided is divided’
anvassa mane harw pennodathe! ‘I break the bond that holds you’
es eyemra ‘our language’

You can see a consistent phonology here, and there may well be consistent grammar, but as far as I know the languages were never worked out in detail, at least there don’t seem to be online grammars of Old Speech. If I’m wrong, someone here will probably be able to put me right!

Such fictional languages are just like well-painted stage scenery: flat surfaces cunningly made to look like a three-dimensional corner of a street or one end of a living room. Tolkien’s languages are not stage scenery. They are real streets and living rooms.

Quenya tengwa: Sindarin tîw ‘letter’ < *tekmē
Sindarin ered, plural of orod ‘mountain’
Sindarin Periain, plural of Perian ‘Halfling’ (< per- ‘half’)
Sindarin Ernil i Pheriannath ‘Prince of the Halflings’

The Quenya word for letter, tengwa, has a cousin tîw in Sindarin; they have a prehistoric ancestor word tekmē; there are fully worked out sound changes to connect them.  There are systematic grammatical features, such as the mutated vowel plurals in Sindarin ered plural of orod mountain, Periain plural of Perian Halfling, and mutated consonants signalling the relationship of certain word groups, as in Ernil i Pheriannath ‘Prince of the Halflings’.

The ways in which these cousin languages are related is modelled on the system of historical sound changes which are known in real-world languages, but Tolkien has also added some surprising features.

Some people here will be familiar with tables like this one showing the relationship of some of the sounds of languages in the Indo-European family to each other and to the reconstructed hypothetical ancestor of them all:


Similar tables can be devised for the Elvish languages, but there are ingenious twists. Tolkien arranges that in Primitive Elvish, there are two initial consonantal series, (1) B, D, G, and (2) MB, ND, NG; they produce the same outcomes (voiced stops) in Sindarin, but quite different ones in Quenya (mostly nasals and liquids). Series 1 is unsurprising, but series 2 has no parallel in any well-known European language, and rather resembles a feature in some African languages.


Primitive Elvish
‘Noldorin Elf’

Don’t let this tabular structure persuade you that we are back with dry, formulaic linguistics. What is crucial here is that Tolkien loved the sounds of language. He believed that some combinations of sound were intrinsically beautiful—and as a corollary, some were inherently ugly. The famous inscription in the Black Speech of Mordor on the ruling ring:

ash nazg durbatulûk, etc.

is meant to be ugly. The Black Speech contains guttural fricatives, such as gh, and palato-alveolar fricatives, such as sh, which do not occur in Elvish, and the vowel /e/ is rare or non-existent. For Tolkien /e/ is especially associated with the highest entities: stars, elves, and the name of God.

So when Tolkien is devising the relationship of sounds depicted on this chart it is not a dry exercise. It is a creative undertaking to produce two related languages, one with a sound pattern like Welsh and the other with a sound pattern somewhere between Spanish, Latin,  Greek, and Finnish. It is very like a composer writing beautiful music.

Tolkien said that he wanted to invent a world in which a common greeting was:

elen síla lúmenn’ omentielvo

That is, both a world in which the power of a star was so important, a world in which the beneficent influence of Eärendil operated, and secondly a world in which a greeting was said in that way, with that beautifully mellifluous phonology; and thirdly, said with that particular grammatical structure. Again the trio of mythology, aesthetics, and language.

In this world ‘on the hour’ is expressed by a locative suffix –enna attached to the end of the word lúme ‘hour’ and ‘of our meeting’ is a beautiful compound built up from the noun meaning ‘meeting’ with a suffix meaning ‘our’ and another suffix expressing the genitive case.

elen ‘star’
síla ‘shines’
lúmenn’ < lúme ‘hour’ + -nna locative suffix
omentielvo < omentie ‘meeting’ + -lvo ‘of our’ 
< -lva ‘we = you and I’ + -o genitive suffix

But this greeting has another remarkable feature. In the Quenya first person plural (‘we’) there is a distinction between ‘inclusive’ use, whereby the speaker includes the person addressed, and ‘exclusive’ use, whereby only the speaker and anyone he or she speaks for are included, for example omentielvo = omentie -lva -o ‘of our (inclusive) meeting’laituva-lme-t ‘we (exclusive) shall bless them’.

laituvalmet < laita- ‘praise’ + -uva- future suffix + 
-lme ‘we = they and I’ + -t ‘them’

This is an especially original idea. When you want to speak of yourself and other people in English, there is only one set of words: we, us, our.  In Quenya, you have to decide whether you are including the person you are speaking to or not. This grammatical distinction is not uncommon in the world’s languages, but it occurs in no European languages except for some in the Caucasus. Tolkien is being creative with grammar.

There isn’t time here to go into the many fascinating recesses of Tolkien’s invention of languages. Jeremy Marshall and I have written about it in some detail in our chapter in From Elvish to Klingon. As you probably know, the key text in Tolkien’s writings is the essay ‘A Secret Vice’, where he gives many clues to his thinking on the subject of the invention of languages. One insight comes from the Elvish word lintë ‘swift’, occurring in the poem ‘Namárië’. It came to Tolkien long before the invention of Elvish and from what he says is unlikely to have a direct model in a known language:

‘I can also remember [from his invented language Nevbosh] the word lint “quick, clever, nimble”, and it is interesting, because I know it was adopted because the relation between the sounds lint and the idea proposed for association with them gave pleasure
(‘A Secret Vice’ 205).

In other words, there are sound sequences which the inventor feels are fit and appropriate for the words or the formative elements to which they are assigned. And the curious thing is that Tolkien carries his audience along. We too may feel the appropriateness of such phrases as tintilar i eleni ‘the stars tremble’; when Aragorn cries Yé! utúvienyes it sounds like ‘I have found it!’

How does one invent a language that both sounds convincing and works authentically? If you’ve ever tried, you’ll probably agree with me that it’s extremely difficult. When I was a teenager, desperately obsessed with Tolkien, I tried to write a fantasy. It was embarrassingly, toe-curlingly derivative, as you can imagine. But there were some bits of invented language which I thought were quite good, and ever since I’ve tried on and off to discover what exactly they meant and how they might work as part of a greater language system.

I have referred to the ‘real world’ etymology of Earendel from Germanic and Indo-European, and the Elvish etymology of Eärendil, so that the word belongs to both worlds at once. During the first phase of the development of the Legendarium, Tolkien intended that there should be an overlap between our world, its history and its legends, and the world of his creation.

Originally Eressëa, the island of the Elves, is actually Britain; the Elvish capital Kôr is Warwick, and in the very early Legendarium, there is an invented etymology which connects the Elvish name to the Welsh name of Warwick; and so on. So of course there are names of people and places which belong to both worlds, ours and that of the Legendarium. It is not an accident that the overseas haven Avallóne so resembles the name of Avallon, to which the wounded King Arthur is conveyed by elvish ladies after the battle of Camlann.  And when Tolkien first introduced his version of the destruction of Atlantis into his mythology, we find a remarkable resemblance between the real-world name Atlantis and an alternative name for Númenor, Atalantë.

I do not intend to pursue the interesting implications of all this for Tolkien’s mythology. What I’d like to highlight is the concept of the dual etymology—the word or name that has a double derivation, a ‘real’ one in our world, and a made up one appropriate to Middle-earth. In the cases I’ve mentioned so far, we have Tolkien adopting into his Legendarium certain words from the real world and giving them Elvish etymologies. Let me mention one more of these, which is a particularly good example of the way I think Tolkien’s mind worked, at once linguistically and mythopoeically. As you will know, the name of Saruman’s tower in Isengard is Orthanc. Tolkien explains that it

had (by design or chance) a two-fold meaning; for in the Elvish speech orthanc signifies Mount Fang, but in the language of the Mark of old the Cunning Mind.

In Old English orthanc does indeed mean ‘cunning’: or- is an ancient prefix which is no longer productive in English, and thanc is from the root of the verb think. As a mysterious-sounding word for ‘cunning’ I guess that it had probably appealed to Tolkien for a long time. In addition to this Tolkien has devised an Elvish etymology: orth  means ‘mount’ (related to orod) and anc means ‘fang’. But all this did not come out of nowhere. There is a matrix. In Anglo-Saxon poetry there’s a metaphor that occurs more than once, the phrase
orthanc enta geweorc

meaning ‘the cunning work of giants’, which is applied to the huge Roman stone buildings encountered in England by the Angles and Saxons. Notice the presence here of the word ent in conjunction with orthanc—you can see that from this stray line of poetry there began to gestate in Tolkien’s imagination beings of giant stature, great works of architecture, and the word orthanc. To begin with, the giants and the buildings are associated. Ultimately they will be in opposition. And we know something of Tolkien’s thoughts about the word ent from his letters:

As usually with me they grew rather out of their name than the other way about. I always felt that something ought to be done about the peculiar A[nglo-] Saxon word ent for a ‘giant’ or mighty person of long ago—to whom all old works were ascribed’ (Lett. 157)

Key expressions here are ‘they grew rather out of their name than the other way about’ and ‘something ought to be done about the peculiar..word’. Think about this: he didn’t invent large treelike beings and then, looking around for a name for them, light upon ent. It’s the other way about.

For Tolkien, individual words were highly suggestive. He thought about them—you might say, he squeezed them or sucked them or massaged them—until they began to yield a story and with the story went an etymology. Remember the words of Treebeard:

Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish as you might say. (LR III. iv.)

There’s evidence that Tolkien didn’t only find inspiration in mysterious ancient pieces of poetry. For example, there is a grammar book of Old English written by his old professor, Joseph Wright. Tolkien is likely to have studied from this book. There is a section in it listing words formed in particular ways. It’s very significant that close together within the space of a few pages we find the following words: mathm, orthanc, entisc, emnet, deagol, and several others, which all play a part in LR.

So, alongside his tremendously fertile imagining of new languages,  we must set his working over or elaboration of words in English, or words in Old English or Old Scandinavian, closely related to English.

In our book The Ring of Words, Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and I explain that there are numerous words in Tolkien’s works used to describe things or people in Middle Earth which are English in form but which are used in special ways that they never were in the real world. In fact, unlike the snippets of Elvish, Dwarvish,  Black Speech, and so on, not one of them is invented. This is a very important point: Tolkien did not invent the English-style expressions which he employs to describe things in Middle Earth.  This sets him apart from other creative writers who devised otherworlds. Take Lewis Carroll: his snarks, bandersnatches, jabberwocks, slithy toves, and borogoves are good fun, but they are just made up words, with no heredity. All Tolkien’s words have a lineage.

Let’s take a few examples.

The word mathom sounds the sort of word you might invent to denote articles of unwanted  lumber that country folk like the hobbits try to pass on to each other on their birthdays. Except that it’s not made up. It is the Old English word for ‘treasure’, maðm or madm, adapted to the form it would have had if it had survived into modern English instead of dying out hundreds of years ago.

The same goes for the word Arkenstone. It sounds mysterious, ancient, with all the resonances that the word ark has for us. But it’s no invention – it’s the Old English word for a precious stone, eorcnanstan, carefully adapted to the form it would have had in modern English.

The word eleventy.  In the first chapter of The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo is about to reach the age of eleventy-one, 111, ‘a rather curious number’. Is eleventy simply a humorous invention a bit like umpteen?  No. It has ancient roots. It is the modernized equivalent of an identically formed expression in both Old English and Old Norse or Old Icelandic. They shared an ancient system of counting in twelves. In Old Norse, 110 was ellifu tigir ‘eleven tens’ (exactly parallel to eleventy). In Cleasby and Vigfusson’s Icelandic–English Dictionary (which Tolkien undoubtedly used) the Icelandic word for 110 is explained as follows: ‘“eleventy” (i.e. one hundred and ten),..frequent in reckoning by duodecimal hundreds.’

The word flet, which Tolkien gives as the English translation of the Elvish name talan for the dwelling platform high up in the trees of Lothlórien, is an Old English word meaning a floor or a dwelling. Tolkien writes:

Near the top the main stem divided into a crown of many boughs, and among these they found that there had been built a wooden platform, or flet as such things were called in those days.

Please notice the words ‘as such things were called in those days’: in the real world flet never meant ‘a floor or dwelling in a tree’; this is Tolkien devising legend.

In The Lord of the Rings [V. vii.] Denethor says ‘I would have things as they were in all the days of my life..and in the days of my longfathers before me.’ And in Appendix C you will find ‘the Longfather-tree of Master Samwise’. Obviously, a longfather is an ancestor, but you will not find the word in the OED. It was devised by Tolkien on the basis of Old Norse langfeðgar ‘a list of paternal ancestors’, and longfather-tree is loosely based on Old Norse langfeðgatal ‘pedigree’.

Another example is the English name of Númenor, Westernesse. Tolkien introduces it in The Lord of the Rings as if it is a perfectly familiar term; he casually says: ‘The Kings of Men that came over the Sea out of Westernesse’. But actually, before Tolkien this word was almost completely unknown. It occurs in the little known Middle English romance King Horn, where it is not explained, and in a twentieth-century century poem by Laurence Binyon.

Another example of a simple word from which Tolkien has conjured a whole legend is the name of the character Beorn. The important thing to recognize is that Tolkien has not simply indulged in a flight of fancy. He has carefully followed clues within the Germanic languages and their existing mythologies. Beorn in Old English means a mighty man or warrior, which of course the character Beorn is. But the cognate or cousin of this word in Old Norse, bjǫrn, means, not any kind of man, but a bear. This duality within a Germanic word of course suggests a being with a dual nature. The linguistic duality of Beorn’s name reflects what he is: a skin-changer. In The Hobbit, chapter vi, Gandalf explains that Beorn ‘is a skin-changer: sometimes he is a huge black bear, sometimes he is a great strong black-haired man’. In Norse tales, a berserkr was a wild warrior on whom a fighting-rage descended like madness and the name meant literally ‘bear-shirt’ from a belief that berserks were skin-changers.

A similar example is the word farthing. This is one of the four areas into which the Shire is divided. It is formed by adding a productive suffix –ing to the Old English forerunner of the numeral fourth. The word farthing in English has historically meant a quarter of something. Most notably, a quarter of the old pre-1971 penny. But it never actually meant ‘a quarter of a shire or a country’. But it has a cousin in Old Norse, formed in the same way, fjórðungr, and this word was used to denote a fourth part of a country: Iceland was divided into fjórðungar. So Tolkien took the meaning of the Norse word and grafted it on to the English one. And of course a farthing was a comically small coin, and the Shire is a small and humble place, a tuppeny ha’penny place, some might say. There is an element of punning.

Tolkien was very partial to puns. Some of his puns were very simple, some were extremely learned. But he also introduced a serious word play into certain of his coinages, whereby two contrasting interpretations are involved in the evolution of the word.

My first example is the word waybread.

You’ll recall that this is the wonderful food of the Elves that sustains one on a journey, known, in Elvish, as lembas. I believe Tolkien started from the very old English word waybread, which is the name of a plant: the plantain. Tolkien, we know, loved plants, knew all their names, and could identify any plant in the wild. Now the actual derivation of the plant name waybread has nothing to do with bread. As the OED says:

The word means ‘broad-leaved plant growing beside the ways’; from WAY plus an Old Germanic word meaning ‘a broad object’.

I think that Tolkien considered this name and speculated: supposing the second element were indeed ‘bread’—and from that came the concept of a baked food that would keep you going on a long journey. And we know from his letters that there entered into it a dash of the religious concept of the viaticum, , a secularized version, if you like, which literally means ‘provision for a journey’ (via in Latin means ‘way’) but is also the holy bread administered to someone about to depart on their death journey.

My second example is the place-name Cracks of Doom, where the Ring is destroyed. The phrase crack of doom was an established English expression (occurring in Macbeth) in which ‘crack’ refers to sound: it means the last trump, the trumpet-call announcing the day of judgement. Tolkien has deliberately taken ‘crack’ in a different meaning, that of a physical fissure in the ground, and applied it to the fearful chasm on the mountain Orodruin. The phrase borrows its terror from the original meaning but it is a pun—a play on two different meanings of ‘crack’.

Essentially what Tolkien did with these words was to take an existing English word for which he perfectly well knew the true etymology, imagine a different etymology for it, and from that draw a narrative strand. This is a very similar process to taking an existing name in legend and giving it an Elvish meaning and derivation, as described just earlier.

I said that none of Tolkien’s English words are made up out of nothing. There is one exception, the word for which he is most famous: Hobbit. As I expect you know, there have been numerous attempts to trace an origin for this word. We know that Tolkien himself described it as just coming into his head, or at least getting written down, on the back of an exam paper, as if from nowhere. Yet he himself occasionally expressed the feeling that he might have got it from somewhere. There is the famous case of the word hobbit turning up in a list of mythical beings in the so-called Denham Tracts, but it’s most uncertain that Tolkien ever read this; and it simply replaces one problem with another, as we have no idea where the word in the Tract came from. Perhaps the word was suggested by any of a number of old words for ungainly people or small things:

hobbity-hoy, variant of hobbledehoy ‘a clumsy or awkward youth’
hobbits, variant of obsolete howitz ‘howitzer’ 
(‘Little Hobbits charged with the various kinds of Fire-Balls’ 1729)
hobbet, variant of hoppet ‘small hand-basket’
oobit, variant of woubit ‘hairy caterpillar’?

Recently I have been alerted to the possible existence of the word hobbits, used by a rural Cambridgeshire speaker quoted in the diary of a clergyman emigrating to Australia in the 1840s. 

When I shewed him first the Table Mountain, I said, ‘There, Jos, look at the Land’. ‘That’s hoigh’ was his Cambshire reply—and in Cape Town he saw ‘a mort of pretty Hobbits’.
[Editor’s footnote: The Oxford English Dictionary does not record any use of the term ‘hobbit’ earlier than J. R. M. [sic] Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings [sic!], but it was obviously known a hundred years earlier in rural Cambridgeshire.]
Geoffrey Bolton, ed. 1991. The Wollaston Journals. (The Journals of John Ramsden Wollaston, 1791–1856.)

Sadly examination of the manuscript suggests it’s the word hobbies, meaning little horses.

Mention of the Hobbit brings me to the last part of this survey of Tolkien’s use of language: his use of language in connected narrative.

When Tolkien began to write he began with relatively short poems. Then he moved on to the Legendarium, which of course was encapsulated in long poems in various kinds of metre and in prose. At the start he was under the influence of high Victorian poetry. We have things like Goblin Feet:

[I must follow in their train
Down the crooked fairy lane
Where the coney-rabbits long ago have gone,
And where silverly they sing
In a moving moonlit ring
All a-twinkle with the jewels they have on.
Goblin Feet (1915)]

which Tolkien wished could be ‘buried forever’. We would be making a grave mistake if we thought that this was a private flight of fancy on Tolkien’s part. Fairies in general, and fairy poetry in particular, were all the rage in Edwardian England. One has only to think of the huge popularity of Peter Pan, which enthralled Tolkien himself, but which was only one of many. As John Garth tells us in chapter  4 of Tolkien and the Great War, men took fairy poetry to the trenches of the First World War and they also wrote such poetry when they were there.  E.g. ‘To a baby found paddling near the lines’ by Herbert Asquith:

May the bull-frog be your Knight,
And the tit your Templar true!
May the fairy guide you right
Wandering through a misty land,
At the crossings of the dew,
With the rainbow in her hand!

One could almost argue that this was the real War Poetry! Mark Atherton writes in There and Back Again (which is here excerpted from his blog Fairies and Fusiliers) of Robert Graves:

In 1917 the young poet Robert Graves, who – like J. R. R. Tolkien – had been hospitalised at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, published his early volume of verse Fairies and Fusiliers. The title is revealing, for it shows clearly – and perhaps surprisingly – that the ‘fairy theme’ was alive and well in the later stages of the First World War in the writings of one of the most talented poets of that generation.

and he says:

the evidence of the 1917 volume is clear: this was a literary fashion in which Graves participated, and the alliterating title shows a startling juxtaposition of the imagery of the fairy with that of modern warfare.

This strain of writing, of course, fostered the use of gnome, fay, fairy, goblin, elf, dwarf, and orc in the Legendarium, and along with them adjectives like elfin. Tolkien’s lucky streak of instinct led him to gradually edit the first four of these words out—but traces remain as late as The Hobbit—and he even sometimes regretted retaining the word elf, as it was so often associated with diminutive winged beings.

Tolkien’s achievement was his ability to achieve distillation. Hitherto, what Faërie represented in terms of consolation, longing, and escape had always been wrapped up in tinselly imagery and twee language. Tolkien’s writing and rewriting of the Legendarium from the First to the Second World War was like an iterative chemical process in which the raw materials were boiled and condensed, separating out the sentimental language and distilling the intoxicating essence of Other Worldliness into concentrated, powerful form.

The other great influence on Tolkien (and also on the other poets of the First World War generation) was William Morris. In language and diction Morris was an unabashed and profligate archaizer. He created his own dialect, with a grammar similar to that of the King James Bible and vocabulary as close as possible to Middle English. E.g.

The king said, ‘That is fated for another man; behold now, thou art great with a man-child; nourish him well and with good heed, and the child shall be the noblest and most famed of all our kin: and keep well withal the shards of the sword: thereof shall a goodly sword be made, and it shall be called Gram, and our son shall bear it, and shall work many a great work therewith, even such as eld shall never minish; for his name shall abide and flourish as long as the world shall endure: and let this be enow for thee. But now I grow weary with my wounds and I will go see our kin that have gone before me.’ —William Morris, Völsunga Saga, chapter  12.

And here is a linguistically similar example of early Tolkien:

Know then that in those days still was Hithlum and the Lands Beyond full of the wild Elves and of Noldoli yet free, fugitives of the old battle; and some wandered ever wearily, and others had secret and hidden abodes in caves or woodland fastnesses, but Melko sought untiringly after them and most pitilessly did he entreat them of all his thralls did he capture them. Orcs and dragons and evil fays were loosed against them and their lives were full of sorrow and travail, so that those who found not in the end the realms of Tinwelint nor the secret stronghold of the city of stone perished or were enslaved. —Book of Lost Tales II. ii (HME II. p. 77)

Like Morris’s, Tolkien’s early epic poetry uses traditional poetic syntax and freely deploys archaic vocabulary: several pieces in HME are provided by Christopher Tolkien with glossaries, where we find such archaic English words as:

astonied ‘astonished’
fain ‘gladly’
meed ‘requital’
sprent ‘sprinkled’
wildered ‘perplexed’

cot ‘small cottage’
dight ‘arrayed, fitted out’
fordone ‘overcome’
runagate ‘deserter’
scatterlings ‘wanderers, stragglers’
weird ‘fate’

But soon after this Tolkien begins to part company with Morris, and it brings us back to what I said earlier about the authenticity of Tolkien’s special English coinages. Tolkien gradually developed a strong and sensible doctrine about the use of old language. Writing about translation from Old English in the 1940s, he said:

Still less is translation from Beowulf a fitting occasion for the exhumation of dead words from Saxon or Norse graves... To render leode ‘freemen, people’ by leeds (favoured by William Morris) fails both to translate the Old English and to recall leeds to life. —‘On Translating Beowulf’ in The Monsters and The Critics (1940)

To complement this, he also had a very sensitive doctrine about what kind of current language to use. He believed that high and noble subjects should be expressed in dignified language.

You will misrepresent the first and most salient characteristic of the style and flavour of the author, if in translating Beowulf, you deliberately eschew the traditional literary and poetic diction which we now possess in favour of the current and trivial...The things we are here dealing with are serious, moving, and full of ‘high sentence’ - if we have the patience and solidity to endure them for a while. We are being at once wisely aware of our own frivolity and just to the solemn temper of the original, if we avoid hitting and whacking and prefer ‘striking’ and ‘smiting’. [etc.]. —On Translating Beowulf’ in The Monsters and The Critics (1940)

So we have here two strands of effort. One makes very careful choice among older and archaic words, to avoid the pitfall of dragging in dead ones and to test the live ones to see if they can do the job without causing the reader to boggle. The other refines the current language, sifting out diction that isn’t up to the task of conveying high subjects because it belongs to the wrong world of discourse, the wrong age.

We can see this process happening in The Hobbit. At the beginning, as we all know, we have a mixture of patronizing adult-to-child language, which Tolkien later acknowledged was a misapprehension on his part, and generally commonplace writing.

‘Gets funny queer fits, but he is one of the best, one of the best—as fierce as a dragon in a pinch.’ If you have ever seen a dragon in a pinch, you will realize that this was only poetical exaggeration applied to any hobbit, even to Old Took’s great grand uncle Bullroarer, who was so huge (for a hobbit) that he could ride a horse. He charged the ranks of the goblins of Mount Gram in the Battle of the Green Fields, and knocked their king Golfimbul’s head clean off.

But contrast the scene of Thorin’s deathbed:

There indeed lay Thorin Oakenshield, wounded with many wounds, and his rent armour and notched axe were cast upon the floor. He looked up as Bilbo came beside him.
 ‘Farewell, good thief’ he said. ‘I go now to the halls of waiting to sit beside my fathers, until the world is renewed.  Since I leave now all gold and silver, and go where it is of little worth, I wish to part in friendship from you, and I would take back my words and deeds at the the Gate.’
 Bilbo knelt on one knee filled with sorrow.  ‘Farewell, King under the Mountain!’ he said. ‘This is a bitter adventure, if it must end so; and not a mountain of gold can amend it.’

This is quite possibly the emotional centre of the book, the point where Bilbo’s actions are shown to be justified, where he and Thorin are reconciled, and where higher values than gold and silver are affirmed. Notice how a whole mythology passes by our gaze in a few basic words: 

‘I go now to the halls of waiting to sit beside my fathers, until the world is renewed’

The language here is not everyday modern English; it uses, for example, rhetorical repetition (wounded with many wounds), rent rather than torn, cast rather than thrown, farewell rather than goodbye, the simple present rather than the progressive (I go now), I would for I want to, end so rather than end like this, and the inverted construction not a mountain of gold can amend it. The effect is elevated and solemn, achieved without the use of any grating archaism.

In The Lord of the Rings, the effects are much more finely modulated throughout: we know that Tolkien reconsidered every sentence. Several levels or registers are used, ranging from homely, jocular, and rustic, to elevated, noble, and formal. Tolkien is a master of the deployment of these levels. To heighten the atmosphere Tolkien makes a judicious mix of more formal current language and carefully selected archaisms, some of which slip by without the reader’s noticing, so cleverly are they defined by their linguistic context:

LR I. vi. gnarled dragonets straining down to drink.
LR II. vi. A freshet fell over a stone lip and ran..down a steep rocky channel.
LR III. ii. Maybe, I could lead you at guess in the darkness. [last evidenced in 1642]
LR III. vii. A weary man with dinted helm and cloven shield.
LR IV. iv. From such men the Lord Denethor chose his forayers.

LR IV. v. I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty.
LR IV. vii. Long launds of green grass.
LR V. iii. Curtained off with broidered hangings.
LR V. iv. Some broil of fume from the Mountain of Fire.
LR V. x. Gandalf let blow the trumpets.
LR VI. v. It led up on to the mountain to a high hallow where only kings had been wont to go. [OED, HALLOW n.1: ‘In pl. applied to the shrines or relics of saints; the gods of the heathen or their shrines (last evidenced in 1561).’ But this use is singular]
 LR VI. ix. Inside it was filled with a grey dust, soft and fine, in the middle of which was a seed, like a small nut with a silver shale. [OED, SHALE n.1: = shell or outer covering of a nut,  an Old English word (scealu) last evidenced 1668]
LR VI. vi. There countless swans housed in a land of reeds

Just occasionally Tolkien’s judgement fails:
LR V. vi. Presently he saw the van of the men of Gondor approaching.

Concluding thoughts

When we contemplate Tolkien we can see several hugely well developed facets. First, there is the scholar, with a command of languages both ancient and modern, a vast knowledge of history, especially dark age and medieval, and wide reading in many literatures. Then there is the poet with the fine aesthetic sense, the auditory sensitivity to words and sounds and rhythms and metre, and also the sharp artist’s eye for colour and detail. And then there is the myth-maker, the creator of legendary actions, imagined lands, heroic characters who live. And these three in no way stand apart. They are completely fused, so that at any given moment in his creative action they are all operative. We can take even the most trivial of his words and find all levels present at once. Take for example the Elvish flower name Elanor.

It is suggested by Frodo as the name for Sam Gamgee’s daughter, who is a golden-haired elf-like child; but at the same time it makes a fitting Hobbit first name, because it so closely resembles a ‘real world’ English name (in this case Eleanor). It is the name of a golden flower which Tolkien has visualized, thickly growing in the land of Lothlórien and symbolizing the experience of the Fellowship there. It is a beautiful sound, three clear vowels alternating with the three liquid consonants. And it’s an Elvish compound word made of el- the root of the word for ‘elf’, but also the root underlying the word for ‘star’, plus anor, the word for ‘sun’—three foundational concepts in the Legendarium.

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