Monday, 8 August 2016

Did Tolkien invent Fonwegian?

We are greatly indebted to Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins for the new information contained in their recent edition of Tolkien’s ‘A Secret Vice’ (see Tolkien Society announcement here), even if we set aside for the moment the newly revealed ‘Essay on Phonetic Symbolism’. In particular, it is fascinating to find that in the original version of the lecture, among the fragmentary and relatively naïve invented languages, Tolkien discussed a language ‘Fonwegian’, in a passage which didn’t make it into the 1983 edition.

The present observations were written before I had read Andrew Higgins’s paper on this language (Tolkien’s A Secret Vice and ‘the language that is spoken in the Island of Fonway’), which was published on the Academia site on 15 May 2016. The paper makes a great many thought-provoking points, but it does take it for granted that Fonwegian was invented by Tolkien. With all respect to the two editors, I wish to challenge this basic idea, rather than to engage with the paper itself. I have shown them an earlier version of this blog, and they have no objection to my posting it.

Our editors go to the length of suggesting, in their notes (p. 50) that Tolkien ‘is here using the “found manuscript” topos that works such as Percy Greg’s Across the Zodiac used to introduce invented languages’, and that he was doing much as he did when he invented the Notion Club Papers and the Red Book of Westmarch. But as far as one can tell from their explanatory material, they have no other internal or external evidence to suggest that Fonwegian was a Tolkien language. 

It seems to me that the internal evidence is quite the other way. When he introduces Fonwegian, Tolkien says ‘here I will interpose some material—which will save this paper from being too autobiographical’. There seems no reason whatever to disbelieve the plain meaning of this introduction. He is going to give us an example of a language invented by someone else. This is not the kind of moment at which one would deploy a topos like those of the two imaginary manuscripts on which two whole feigned narratives are based. This is just a simple non-fictional discussion.

I would consider that what immediately follows this section supports this interpretation: ‘From here onwards you must forgive pure egotism’, he says. The simple reading is that he has just concluded an interpolation about a language invented by someone else. It appears that the section on Fonwegian was written on an inserted loose leaf (folios 24r and 24v) and hence was not included in the 1983 edition. This too points to the material having come to hand rather than being inside Tolkien’s head like the other languages discussed.

It’s true that he speaks of becoming ‘possessed by accident of some secret documents’, but again, why should this not have really happened? One can imagine all kinds of scenario, such as his stumbling upon a language invented by one of his children or students, or even a colleague. The use of the word ‘secret’ need only imply a bit of make-believe on the part of the inventor, with which Tolkien was playing along at this point in the draft.

A minor, and perhaps less cogent, reason for taking his words at face value (i.e. that Fonwegian was invented by someone else), is, I think, that the name Fonwegian is very unlikely as a serious invention by Tolkien, coming as it does relatively late in the progression from Naffarin to Elvish, and especially if ‘the island of Fonway’ is part of the invention (rather than an inference of Tolkien’s). When Tolkien was at the age at which it is presumed he invented this language, he would have known the etymology of Norway on which the conceit is based, and that such a formation is unlikely to have occurred in the name of an island.

But more than that, the Fon- element (which Tolkien himself further on remarks on as part of the ‘feel’ of the language) is inexplicable as a Germanic element to match –wegian/-way; it seems unlikely that Tolkien would have coined anything so little grounded in linguistic reality. Our editors struggle to explain it, having recourse to a word cheefongy in a letter to Father Francis Morgan (note 56, p. 50). But we know from the discussion that fon- is a characteristic syllable in the language itself, so need we look elsewhere?

Further pointers, to my mind, to the likelihood that Fonwegian was invented by someone other than Tolkien, are both the fact that he discusses it in some detail, and the way in which he discusses it.  The languages that we know he invented get virtually no phonological or grammatical discussion at all in the essay. But Tolkien begins by saying that although Fonwegian is in some ways less sophisticated than Naffarin, it is ‘higher’ because it is more original. I find it hard to believe that he would have pretended that Fonwegian was not his invention in order to have the freedom to give it such praise. Moreover the languages that we know he invented are illustrated by texts (at length, in the case of Qenya): if Tolkien had invented Fonwegian I’m sure he would have given us at least a sentence in it.

He shows himself somewhat impressed by a feature of the morphology of the personal pronoun system of Fonwegian in a way that I doubt he would have done if he had invented it: after all, Qenya morphology is much more ingenious, but he is silent on the subject. He also discusses at length the language’s ‘feel’ or ‘Fonwegianness’, again with a degree of admiration which he would surely have felt to be immodest had he invented the language (quite apart from the deceit involved).

There is a great deal more in the tone with which Tolkien discusses Fonwegian that suggests, to me at least, that he is discussing a language that he did not create but finds intriguing. For example ‘the association of sound or symbol & sense is singularly free from pressure of tradition’; ‘practically nowhere can one perceive the association implied by English, French or Latin directly by chance’, and so on.

There is one sentence whose grammar is defective in some way but which also suggests that Tolkien is examining a document produced by someone else: ‘A “character” runs through it as clearly as it can and by one person’s handwriting using the traditional cursive handwriting of Europe.’ I take it he is saying that just as the handwriting in which it is written expresses one person’s character so do its sounds and grammar have a unifying character.

Finally, I would say that although Tolkien likes Fonwegian, it is not the kind of language he himself would have created. But that, I admit, is entirely subjective.

As a footnote to this discussion, I would like to ask whether, in all parts of the description of Fonwegian on p. 22, Tolkien’s notorious handwriting has been correctly interpreted.

1. The first list contains 21 pairs of underlined Fonwegian words and plain English glosses, except for the third, caphill: might this not in fact be cap glossed as ‘hill’?

2. I also wonder about ponb girl, whose phonological structure seems completely out of keeping with all the other lexical items. Might he have written poub (whose origin could be Latin puella)?

(Incidentally, I wonder what the real-world words Tolkien had in mind as the basis for taxtos ‘perhaps’, dubu ‘many’, and ruxa ‘nose’? The sources of the other items seem fairly obvious.)

3. In the next paragraph Tolkien speaks of the ‘trisyllabic character’, but on the face of it ‘fugolliuk-a Guild’ shows at least a tetrasyllable: could Tolkien have intended ‘fugolliuk a Guild’ (with <iu> standing for a diphthong or /ju/)? On the other hand ‘wedfor enemy’ appears to show a disyllable, so perhaps something is missing? (wag nose is presumably one word with three syllables.)

4. In the final section Tolkien picks out characteristic syllables and sounds, starting with fon in two words, and including cun and ll (double l). But the second item listed is ‘wrun workskula word’. Clearly wrun doesn’t occur in workskula in the way that cun occurs in cunfordos, so something must be amiss, though perhaps this was Tolkien’s own error.

Finally, I sincerely hope that none of this will be seen as undermining the great achievement that this new edition of A Secret Vice represents.


  1. Thanks for a very interesting post! It's nice to see a lot of the new material from SV get digested and debated.

    In this case, I'd tend to think that a lot of the stylistic points you make might rather be a bit of playfulness on Tolkien's part rather than a serious reference to someone else's work. I certainly don't think it being his own language would make the passage in any way a 'deceit' -- 'conceit' would be the word, and in oral presentation I'd think the humour (if intended) would be very clear. It's not like this is a serious academic paper (though Tolkien certainly makes some serious points along the way), but just an evening lecture for an Oxford society, meant as entertainment as much as anything. If we think of this as all a bit tongue-in-cheek (as so much of the rest of the essay is), a lot of comments strike me as a bit different. Of course 'Fonway' and 'Fonwegian' aren't terribly sophisticated, for instance, but it's a funny name which strikes me as very much in line with Tolkien's sense of humour (think of Farmer Giles).

    As for the praise, I don't see that it's so very high. Tolkien has a couple of positive comments, but if anything damns Fonwegian with faint praise. He calls it a 'moderate effort', after all, and is a bit patronizing about how its 'maker' has managed to discover a bit of agglutination despite his own experience being limited to inflectional languages. If Tolkien is referring to his own language, he's being fairly self-deprecating -- he's certainly not puffing himself up in secret.

    Basically, I don't think the stylistics of the passage will get us very far at all. I absolutely agree that there's nothing that really definitively tells us Tolkien is talking about his own invention -- but the passage also reads completely naturally if we do take it as a humorous conceit meant to add a bit of variety to his chain of examples.

    I personally do lean towards the latter option (though I'm not absolutely convinced), mostly on the basis of the language itself. The interest in inflection and agglutination (particularly in the flexible order of grammatical elements as suffixes vs elements to be freely combined, an interest which is central to Q(u)enya grammar), the use of -(e)r as a plural marker, the favoured stress patterns (especially in his comment on trisyllables, but generally throughout), and the selection of phonemes all strike me as distinctly Tolkien. None of this is necessarily a clincher, but if we think about probabilities, I have to wonder how likely it is that Tolkien should just happen to get his hands on an invented language with character and preoccupations so similar to his own.

    I agree that it's certainly much less sophisticated (both grammatically and aesthetically) than his other linguistic inventions, but I think this might suggest only that it is relatively early (possibly between Naffarin and Qenya in his life, as in the essay). I wonder if the comment about 'secret papers' could be a private joke about him having found some early linguistic work of his among his writings as he was preparing the essay. At any rate, if we take it as Tolkien's, Fonwegian falls pretty naturally into place both in his life and the essay. It shows some moves towards his more elaborate later undertakings, especially Qenya, but is very much a preface to the much more serious type of invention he later turned to (and which he illustrates at the end of the essay).

    1. Thanks! Excellent points. I'm writing another blog to say why I still cling to my belief!

    2. I'm looking forwards to it! It's an interesting debate, whether or not we ever get a consensus on it.

    3. Whoops, I see it's actually already been published!