Sunday, 3 March 2019

They grew out of their name—a language ramble in Ent country


I am a great admirer of the way in which Tolkien coined English-language names for people and places, events and phenomena, and I’ve written several pieces about this aspect of his artistry. The thing that I find so interesting about these words and names is that when you investigate, you find that each one has, as it were, two parents or pedigrees, two etymologies. There is firstly the real origin or derivation of the word, of which Tolkien, as a former lexicographer and a philologist, would have been fully aware. But secondly there is the meaning which he has attached to the word, which is dependent on interpreting the elements of the word in a completely different way, so that, in effect, Tolkien has made a pun. A learned and sometimes almost impenetrable pun, but essentially a pun. And I think that he couldn’t help looking at words like this, with one eye to its apparent, but inauthentic, constituents, even while knowing the real meaning and origin perfectly well. A thesis that I have put forward before is this: Tolkien was regularly attracted imaginatively to particular words, that he ruminated both philologically and imaginatively on them, and that he was attracted by their potential for punning interpretation. I’d like to do something which one really shouldn’t: because I can’t think of an existing term to describe words of this kind, I’m going to coin one. I’m calling such words latchwords, indicating that these words latched on to his imagination, or that he latched on to them imaginatively. 

A simple example of a latchword is waybread. It is, or was, in the real word, the name of a plant, and its second element is not the ordinary word bread at all, but a long-obsolete derivative of the adjective broad, so that it means ‘the broad-leaved plant that grows by the path’; but Tolkien latched on to the resemblance of the second element to the ordinary word bread and so assigned the word as the English equivalent of lembas. Now, in the case of lembas it may be that he had already invented the idea of the special elvish food that keeps you on your feet on a long journey, and subsequently evolved the English word for it—it’s not clear, as the two words’ first appearance comes in the same sentence in the same draft. But I think that in quite a number of cases the latchword came first and the thing, or person, took shape from the suggestive components of the word. Hence my title ‘They grew out of their name’. And I’ll look at some names in the first part of the talk.

What is interesting here is that we can see two sides to Tolkien’s mind and imagination. I won’t say that they are in conflict, because it’s clear that all the machinery of ‘scientific’, evidence-based,  historical linguistics appealed enormously to his imagination, so it’s not a case of compliance to dry facts versus the appeal of soaring fantasy. His mind and his creative imagination were stimulated by factual philology, and part of this stimulation were the glimpses of the other possibilities, things not true in the real world that could be used in his mythological world, his Legendarium. And it seems evident to me that this duality does not simply apply to word derivation and the laws of sound change. It also applies to other aspects of language. I have spoken and written on other occasions on Tolkien’s engagement with the idea that the sound of a word can symbolize its meaning. For him there were particular syllables or roots that by their phonetic shape aesthetically suggested their meaning. This is not an idea encouraged by orthodox linguistics. And in Treebeard’s conversation with Merry and Pippin, which I’ll come to in the second part of the talk, there are glimpses of other imaginatively appealing but somewhat unorthodox ideas about words and names.

In Ent Country we are in a land defined by Old English names, or modern English names based on Old English models or elements. (A list can be found in Arden Smith’s Germanic Linguistic Influence on the Invented Languages of J. R. R. Tolkien (1997), p. 63). Even though Fangorn Forest is referred to by its elvish name, this might almost have been adopted to conceal the identity of its eponymous oldest inhabitant. This country is of course Rohan or the Riddermark, and even though the Rohirrim have only lived there 500 years or so, they have bestowed Anglo-Saxon names on the whole region. They themselves are in reality recent intruders into the region where the Ents have lived for millennia, yet conceptually, and hence linguistically, the Ents are simply a minor part of the landscape, and by now, only a legendary part. They themselves are never seen, but the name given to them by humans has been attached to parts of the region such as the River Entwash. I’d like to start by looking at some of these place names in order to illustrate the duality of composition—actual and imaginative—which I’ve just mentioned.

On the far eastern side of this region is a tract of marshland named Wetwang. Sadly, Wetwang plays no part in the story as finally conceived in LR, but it looks as if originally it was going to have more effect on the quest. Early maps show that the Anduin went right through it.

HME VII p. 287 CT: ‘The first occurrence of the Wetwang’: p. 268 ‘There they must decide because the Wetwang Palath Nenui lies before them.’

Perhaps any adventures Tolkien vaguely envisaged when writing the early parts of the story were eventually transferred to the Dead Marshes, which, indeed, make having another marshland just to the southwest seem rather redundant. Wetwang is a splendid name, and if you know the East Riding of Yorkshire you may know that it is the name of a small town there. Tolkien spent some time during the First World War in the East Riding, so he is very likely to have become aware of the name, and I suggest that it became a latchword; but what it looks like and what it really is are different. If you know, as Tolkien would already have done, that wang is an Old English and  Germanic word for a plain or field, then the place name looks like ‘wet plain’: and this is how it is used in LR, for its Sindarin equivalent is Nindalf ‘watery plain’.

S. Nindalf ‘watery plain’, therefore wet + wang < OE wong, wang ‘plain, field’ (cogn. ON. vangr: OED wong n.)

But although some authorities think this is the true etymology of the Yorkshire place name (they cite nearby Driffield as being the ‘dry field’ by contrast), the general opinion is that it comes from Old Norse vætt-vangr ‘field for the trial of a legal action’

Yorkshire place name Wetwang, Domesday Wetuuangha  < (1) ON. vætt-vangr ‘field for the trial of a legal action’; (2) ‘wet field’ cf. Driffield ‘dry field’ (but may be ‘dirt field’)

Now Tolkien was quite capable of reinterpreting the name from his own imagination. But he may have been influenced by an Old English text he will have known well, the so-called Leiden Riddle, which uses the phrase se weta wong, and indeed is cited by the OED to illustrate the adjective wet.

OED WET a. sense 3a: Leiden Riddle (trans. Anglo-Saxon bishop Aldhelm’s Latin riddle De Lorica (‘the Mail-coat’): Mec se ueta uong, uundrum freorig, ob his innaðae ærest cændæ (‘Me the wet plain wondrously cold from its womb first brought forth’); se weta wong trans. tellus.

But I suspect that the story doesn’t end there. You may know that a close colleague of Tolkien’s at Leeds University was E. V. Gordon, with whom he collaborated on editing Gawain, and with whom he shared an enthusiasm for Old Norse. Tolkien advised Gordon on his textbook An Introduction to Old Norse. In that book, text III. 12 is a runic inscription from the famous Rök stone; and in it is a line translated by Gordon ‘where the steed of Gunn [an expression meaning ‘wolf’] sees food on the field of battle’. The word translated ‘field of battle’ is in runic letters uituanki, representing Old East Norse wetwangi, dative of wetwangr ‘battlefield’, which is in fact the very same word as the etymon of the Yorkshire place name that we started with.

E. V. Gordon Introduction to Old Norse (1927) text III. 12, runic inscription (c. 900) Stone of Rök in Sweden: ‘where the steed of Gunn [an expression meaning ‘wolf’] sees food on the field of battle’; ‘field of battle’ = runic uituanki = Old East Norse wetwangi, dative of wetwangr ‘battlefield’ = West Norse vættvangr ‘place where a battle, assault, or manslaughter has happened’, ‘place where people are summoned for trial’ (> Yorkshire place name Wetwang).

If in a dialect of Norse wetwang- could mean ‘battlefield’, then perhaps it explains why Tolkien’s Wetwang is very close on the map to his Dagorlad, ‘battleplain’, the site of the great defeat of Sauron at the end of the Second Age.

Next a brief word about the two regions of Rohan known as the West and East Emnet. This is not a point about dual etymology, but it is about latchwords. Old English emnet is a curious word meaning ‘a plain’, derived from efn (the modern word even) with what to philologists is an interesting sound change of voiced f or v to m in front of the nasal n. As I have elsewhere argued, Tolkien may have first noted emnet when studying Wright’s Old English Grammar. I have argued this because it occurs in a series of lists in close proximity to a number of other Old English words which may well have been other latchwords, since they were also used by Tolkien in his writings. But these latchwords must have been stored up in his mind for many years. What I think could just have sparked its employment in LR is an article in Transactions of the Philological Society from the 1930s on a subject that would definitely have interested Tolkien. It was about the survival of rare Old English words in modern place names. I think this because three place names are mentioned all of which could have been latchwords. The first is a place called Emmett which represents the long obsolete emnet; then there’s a place called Trewyn representing an old plural of OE treow tree, preserving the w, which is reminiscent of of Trewin Jeremy in the Notion Club Papers, and also of the hobbit weekday name Trewesdai; and finally there’s a place called Withywind, which requires no further comment. That Tolkien read this article I think likely, because at the foot of it there follows an announcement of his edition of Chaucer (which never appeared) and because the volume also contains an article by E. V. Gordon and an article on Esperanto.

OE emnet ‘plain’ (< efn ‘even, flat’ with change of f to m) Wright’s Old English GrammarTPS 1925–32; Mawer place name article (1932): curious survivals: Trewyn (< weak plural of OE treow ‘tree’ (69), Withywind (70), and Emmett (72) (< OE emnet); announcement of Tolkien’s Chaucer at foot, Collinson on Esperanto (1931), E. V. Gordon on Kormáks Saga (1932)

Next I’ll comment briefly comment on the three names Entwash, Entwade, and Entwood. They are a sort of set, with alliterating second elements. Entwash and Entwade tend to make one think, in a humorous way, of Ents washing in and wading in the river, though they are not supposed to have passed that way in all the time the Rohirrim have inhabited the region. The English place name element –wade, in fact, means ‘ford’ (which does imply wading), and is found in several English place names, for example Biggleswade. The element –wash, by contrast, occurs in only one well known English river name, Erewash. I wonder if this was another latchword. Is it suggestive that Ere- was a sequence that Tolkien used in a place name of a different kind (Mount Erebor); this makes me think that he may have been taken by Erewash and adapted it. In this word the element –wash has nothing to do with washing; it’s believed to be Old English wisce ‘watery meadow’, which is highly appropriate to the landscape surrounding that river.

Entwade OE wæd ‘ford’ (cf. Biggleswade)Cf. River Erewash (Derby / Notts.). –wash only here, ? < OE wisce ‘wet meadow’Proximity of Erewash and Eastwood (Entwash, Entwood)


So now we come to Isengard. We know that the association of the ents with Saruman’s stronghold arose from the Old English half-line orþanc enta geweorc ‘the cunning work of giants’, for at an early stage in the development of the story of LR Giant Treebeard was in league with Saruman. In HME VII, p. 71, written in 1940, the sketched plot was that ‘Gandalf goes for help to Saramund the wizard on borders of Rohan at Angrobel (or Irongarth)’. Both the Sindarin and English versions of the name make it clear that the meaning is ‘iron enclosure’ (Sindarin angren ‘of iron’ + gobel ‘enclosure’). But Tolkien was not happy with Irongarth. Certainly –garth was too positive an element (garths are generally nice places) and possibly it was not authentically Old English (garth is from Old Norse, so it belongs in Dale, not Rohan). But –gard is not the Old English equivalent: it should be yard, representing OE geard. –gard is another representative in English of the Norse garðr, as in Asgard and Midgard. Isen is indeed a variant form in Old English of iren, the form that has come down to us as iron, but it’s a philological fudge. So what produced the new form Isengard? Well, there was a pre-existing name Isengard. It was a common medieval German female name which any medievalist would have encountered. I suggest that it may have been another latchword. As a Roman Catholic Tolkien may also have known of Il barone Luigi d’Isengard (1843-1915), an Italian soldier and RC priest. Isen is one remove away from iron but is still that for those in the know, and gard has the sound of ‘guard’, even though it has no etymological connection with it. So it works, imaginatively speaking.

Ostensibly ‘iron stronghold’: S. Angrenost < angren ‘of iron’ + ost ‘stronghold’; depends on (1) WS isen ‘iron’ + (2) gard (as in ON garðr, e.g. Midgard, Asgard) not OE geard (> yard); HME VII p. 71 (1940) Gandalf goes for help to [first appearance] Saramund the wizard ‘on borders of Rohan at Angrobel (or Irongarth)’; HME VII. 298 ‘The First Map’: The river Isen, first written Iren. Medieval German female name e.g. Isengard of Falkenstein (Rhineland), Isengard of Hanau, Isengard of Munzenberg. (B. Arnold, 1985 German Knighthood, 1050 to 1300 p. 296.) cf. Isengrim.Il barone Luigi d’Isengard 1843-1915 Italian soldier and RC priest

Now for the name of the ents themselves. We should remind ourselves of how they originated in the course of the writing of LR. Tolkien planned an adventure with a giant from early on. From about 1939 a bad giant Treebeard was going to capture first Gandalf and then one or other of the hobbits. And even though there’s an early episode where the giant is mistaken for a tree, there’s no idea at this point of a large tree-like being. The word ent at this early stage is used in the name of the Entishdale and the Entishlands, the region west of the Misty Mountains and north of Rivendell—the home of trolls. These later became the Ettenmoors and Ettendales, showing the equation ent = etten = troll; the ents were evil humanoid giants. The shift to the specifically Tolkienian positive meaning of ent occurred quite late, and seems to have been dependent on changes in the concept of Treebeard, whose name we will consider in a minute.

Meanwhile the simple word ent conceals some subtleties of Tolkienian philology and imagination, which I will attempt to explore. I’ve already touched on the point that the matrix from which Saruman’s Orthanc and the ents emerged was that half-line of Old English poetry, from the so-called Gnomic verses:

orthanc enta geweorc ‘the cunning work of giants’

Tolkien’s remark in Letter 157 is often quoted:

Lett. 157 ‘I always felt that something ought to be done about the peculiar A. Saxon word ent for a ‘giant’ or mighty person of long ago—to whom all old works were ascribed.

I believe that ‘something ought to be done’ is one way in which Tolkien identified what I’m calling a latchword.

1. Now, as Tolkien would have known, the OE word seems to have very few Germanic cognates or relatives. This would be another reason why something needed to be done: it needed a back story; Old English philology did not supply one. Nevertheless, I think there is a bit of a back story, and I think Tolkien may have known it. First of all, according to the Grimm Wörterbuch, there is a little-known German word Enz ‘giant’ (occurring in various dialects). In Bavarian dialect, this word, placed before other words, emphasizes the monstrous: enzmann, enzkerl.

OE ent: few cognates: according to the Grimm Wörterbuch there is a little-known German Enz ‘giant’ (e.g. in Luxembourgish)  which in Bavarian dialect before other words emphasizes the monstrous: enzmann, enzkerl. Note Enzewiba.

Tolkien, I believe, was a great explorer of dictionaries, lexicons, and word lists. I would like to think that he had found the relevant entry in the 1881 Schweizerisches Idiotikon , that is to say the Swiss Dialect Dictionary. The headword is Enzi and it now means the highest peak of a border mountain. It appears in numerous compounds and particularly relevant is a place Enziloch, on the Napf, on the border between Bern and Luzern. Here, according to legend, appear the Enzimannen, who are mountain spirits supposed to cause bad weather and noisy storms. These weather-causing Enzimannen at our Enziloch , it adds, are undoubtedly originally giants, only later changed into human spirits. The Idiotikon believes that this element Enzi is related to Old English ent, and it also points out that it occurs in Old High German personal and place names, one of which is Enzewiba. This, transposed literally, would be ‘entwife’ in English; this, and the storm-causing mountain giants, are why I think Tolkien could have read this entry.

Schweizerisches Idiotikon 1881: Enzi II n.: highest peak of a border mountain. … Enziloch, on the Napf, on the border between Bern and Luzern... At Enziloch appear in the legend the Enzimannen, mountain spirits, which occasionally gathering themselves there with a roaring noise, cause the weather. …Enzi probably is related to the noun, which appellatively with the meaning ‘giant’ only occurs in Anglo-Saxon  (ent), but seems also to be retained in OHG personal and place names: Bavarian Enzimann, Enzewiba, Enzenwis (Wiese ‘meadow’)... The weather-making Enzimannen at our Enziloch are undoubtedly originally giants, only later changed into human spirits.

2. But there’s a second dimension to the word. Letter 157 continues: ‘If it had a slightly philosophical tone (though in ordinary philology it is “quite unconnected with any present participle of the verb to be”) that also interested me.’ It’s easy to overlook this rather throwaway remark. He’s saying that the element ent could be taken, albeit fancifully, as if derived from the Latin present participle ens, entis, even though what he engagingly calls ‘ordinary’ philology says this is not the case; and he’s also pointing to the abundant use of the Late Latin word ens, entis, plural entia, in medieval philosophy. In the OED there is a rather scrappy entry ENT n.2   defined as ‘rendering of Greek to on.’ But of course if you look in the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources under ens you’ll find a whole paragraph of material. Specifically, in the philosophy of Aquinas, living beings are called entia per se, ‘naturally occurring beings’. This seems to have some relationship to ents being called the oldest living things. We’ll come back to it.

Lett. 157 [continues] If it had a slightly philosophical tone (though in ordinary philology it is ‘quite unconnected with any present participle of the verb to be’) that also interested me. OED ent n.2   ‘Rendering of Greek to on.’ Latin ens, entis DMLBS 1. a. a being, a living thing… c. abstract, philosophy.

3. There’s also a third side to this. I don’t think Tolkien actually mentions it, but it seems to me to be bound up with development of the tree-like nature of the ents. There is another homonym ent in the OED, ent n.1 defined as ‘a scion or graft’. It’s a very rare word, with only one quotation, but more important is its etymology. The word comes from Old French ente, from enter to graft, derived from Latin impotare, also meaning ‘to graft’. This Latin word was independently borrowed into Old English as impian ‘to graft’ and, as a noun impa ‘a young shoot of a plant or tree; a sapling; a sucker, slip, scion’. A later sense of this is imp meaning ‘a little devil or demon’. How is all this relevant to the ents? In one of Tolkien’s favourite poems, Sir Orfeo, line 70 the queen is abducted by the elves because she goes to sleep ‘Vnder a fair ympe tree’, perhaps an apple tree. But in ‘the most significant parallel’ passage (according to the editor of this text, A.J. Bliss), which is a French lai called Tydorel, a lady likewise goes to sleep under an ente. So I think that even though it’s French, this ent may well have fed into the development of the ent-concept.

OED ent n.1 a scion or graft < OFr. ente < enter < Latin impotare > OE impian ‘to graft’, impa ‘a graft’, ‘a young shoot of a plant or tree’. Sir Orfeo 70 ‘Vnder a fair ympe tree’ [grafted tree] A.J. Bliss, Intro. to edition, p. xxxv, on ympe-tre ‘the most significant parallel is to be found in Tydorel [Lai edited in 1922], for ente, the word used to describe the tree, is cognate with the ympe-tre of Sir Orfeo:… ‘Soz une ente qu’ele choisi / Desor l’erbe s’estoit couchiee.’

4. That’s not quite the end of the story, because there’s another OED entry ENT, representing what once was a very widespread English dialect pronounciation of ain’t (meaning ‘is not’, ‘are not’). You will recall Treebeard saying ‘There are Ents and Ents…things that look like Ents but ain’t’. I have little doubt that Tolkien was aware of this too, and indulged in a little pun at a more humorous level.

OED2 ENT (no part of speech) Also ’ent, e’nt, etc. Dial. and colloq. var. isn’t: see be v. A I.1. Treebeard: ‘There are Ents and Ents…things that look like Ents but ain’t’.

So now I want to move on to the name of Treebeard. It’s such a brilliant name, and yet when you think about it, it’s hard to parse morphologically. If it’s like Bluebeard ‘someone with a blue beard’, it ought to mean ‘someone with a beard that is like a tree’, but this is nonsense; you could just about take it as ‘with a beard like part of a tree’, but then why not Twigbeard or Branchbeard or Boughbeard or even Leafbeard. The reason is partly that when Tolkien first applied the name, it wasn’t to a being who was rather like a tree to look at, since Giant Treebeard was originally just a giant, i.e. an oversized human-like being.

HME VI p. 363 Gandalf: ‘I was caught in Fangorn and spent many weary days as a prisoner of the Giant Treebeard.’

There are hints that this giant might be mistaken for a tree; he’s a sort of pre-ent with ‘a thick gnarled leg with a rootlike foot and many branching toes’.

HME VI p. 382-3 July 1939 is the fragment in which the actual Treebeard emerges: Picking himself up he looked at the tree, and even as he looked, it took a stride towards him… ‘I am Treebeard,’ the voice answered. ‘If you haven’t heard of me before, you ought to have done.’… What he had thought was the stem of a monstrous oaktree was really a thick gnarled leg with a rootlike foot and many branching toes.

As the concept developed, he became a good giant, but also very tall (50 foot high) and was then described as having ‘barky skin. Hair and beard rather like twigs’ and his followers ‘look like young trees’ (perhaps here is where the Old French ente is relevant) .

HME VI p. 410 If Treebeard comes in at all—let him be kindly and rather good? About 50 feet high with barky skin. Hair and beard rather like twigs…He has a castle on the Black Mountains and many thanes and followers. They look like young trees…The tree-giants assail the besiegers and rescue Trotter &c. and raise siege.
HME VII. 250 ‘Elves…bid them beware of Fangorn Forest upon the Ogodrûth or Entwash. He is an Ent or great giant.’ (August 1940).

Even though these giants are now tree-giants and have the word ent transferred to them in the summer of 1940, the ultimate ent concept only arises in some notes written just before the Treebeard chapter. 



Adopting C. S. Lewis’s word hnau for a rational being, Tolkien asks himself ‘Are the Tree-folk…hnau that have become tree-like, or trees that have become hnau?’ The people are no longer giants, but tree-folk, to which Tolkien adds ‘Ents’. Christopher Tolkien thinks this is the first use of ent in its very particular sense, the point where all the strands come together.

HME VII. 411 CT says: Nothing in any of the outline mentions of Treebeard to prepare for the reality when he should finally appear. ‘I have no recollection of inventing Ents. I came at last to the point and wrote the “Treebeard” chapter without any recollection of previous thought: just as it now is.’ (Lett. 180 14 Jan. 1956). Earlier notes: ‘Did first lord of the Elves make Tree-folk in order to or through trying to understand trees?’ ‘Are the Tree-folk…hnau that have become tree-like, or trees that have become hnau?’ ‘Difference between trolls—stone inhabited by goblin-spirit, stone-giants, and the “tree-folk”’. [Added in ink: Ents]. CT p. 413: perhaps the first use of it in the new and very particular sense.

But having said all that, I believe also that Tolkien didn’t invent the name Treebeard at all. He borrowed it from a Norse saga. In other words it’s another latchword from which he spun a story. The source, I believe, is William Morris’s translation of ‘The Story of Harald Hairfair’. In chapter 1 Earl Einar, the ruler of the Orkneys, defeats and slays a Viking called Thorir Wood-beard. A triumphal song was composed, the key line being ‘gaf hann Tre-skegg trollom’, which means ‘he gave Tre-skegg to the trolls’ (i.e. he killed him). In Old Norse skegg is ‘beard’ and tré can mean the substance ‘wood’ as well as the plant ‘tree’, so his name means ‘someone with a wooden beard’, but William Morris translated this line over-literally as ‘Tree-beard to the trolls he gave there’.

W. Morris, 1893 trans. Heimskringla: ON Tréskeggr (< tré ‘wood’ + skeggr ‘beard’), alteration of nickname of Viking Thorir Wood-beard, defeated and killed by Earl Einar; ‘then was this sung: Tree-beard to the trolls he gave there’ ‘The Story of Harald Hairfair’, ch. 1., p. 123 ‘gaf hann Tre-skegg trollom’; Vigfusson and Powell (1883) translate ‘He gave Woodbeard to the Fiends’.

As with so many such items, there seems to me to be a further dimension. If the name Treebeard was a latchword, Tolkien is likely to have have looked it up in the OED. And there (in the entry for tree) he would have found that it can refer to either of two plants.

OED tree n. C2.a.(b): tree-beard  n.  (a) Tillandsia usneoides;  (b) the lichen Usnea barbata. 1861  R. Bentley Man. Bot. ii. iii. 675   Tillandsia usneoides is commonly called Tree-beard or Old Man's Beard, from the..mass of dark coloured fibres, which hang from the trees in South America. [Tillandsia usneoides is also called black moss, death moss, Florida moss, longbeard, old man’s beard, Spanish beard, Spanish moss, vegetable horsehair. Usnea barbata is also called beard moss, beard lichen, greybeard lichen.]

It’s one of the many names for an epiphyte, Tillandsia usneoides, more usually called Spanish moss, which is in origin an American plant. I quote from Wikipedia:

‘The plant consists of one or more slender stems bearing alternate thin, curved or curly, heavily scaled leaves 2–6 cm long and 1 mm broad, that grow vegetatively in chain-like fashion (pendant), forming hanging structures up to 6 m in length’

If by any chance Tolkien had read The Boy Hunters by Mayne Read (1853) he would have learnt in chapter vii how:

Giant trees rose over the water— live oaks and cypresses—and from their spreading branches the Spanish moss hung trailing down like long streamers of silver thread. This gave the upper part of the woods a somewhat hoary appearance, and would have rendered the scene rather a melancholy one, had it not been for the more brilliant foliage that relieved it.

This plant is called usneoides because it looks like a lichen, Usnea barbata, which is the other meaning of tree-beard. Wikipedia says:

Usnea is a genus of mostly pale grayish-green fruticose lichens that grow like leafless mini-shrubs or tassels anchored on bark or twigs. The genus is in the family Parmeliaceae. It grows all over the world.’

Knowing Tolkien’s interest in plants I think it quite likely that he pursued this meaning of tree-beard, and that it contributed to his picture of Treebeard and the ents as tree-like beings with moss-like or lichen-like beards and also to his portrayal of Fangorn Forest.


There’s another pun near the beginning of Merry and Pippin’s conversation with Treebeard, in the same paragraph as ‘Ents but ain’t’. He refers to ‘my language…the Old Entish as you might say.’ Probably only someone who has studied Anglo-Saxon philology will spot the joke. One of the Old English dialects that you were required to know about was Old Kentish, a relatively obscure dialect with only limited records. But what can we learn about Entish, and what does it tell us about Tolkien’s thoughts about language?

Just to provide parallels and contrasts I’d like to look at Chapter VI in Alice through the Looking-glass where Alice encounters Humpty-Dumpty. There are a number of parallels and contrasts which got me thinking about the conversation between the hobbits and Treebeard. The first link is of course the dual nature of the person encountered. Humpty-Dumpty is seen in the distance as an egg; Treebeard is thought to be an old tree stump; but both turn out to be humanoid. Both of them are met with on a high vantage point, Humpty-Dumpty on his wall and Treebeard on the rock ledge.  Both are enigmatic figures from legend: Alice sings ‘Humpty-Dumpty sat on a wall’ to herself, a rhyme that was originally a riddle; while Gandalf intones ‘Ere iron was found or tree was hewn, When young was mountain under moon; Ere ring was made, or wrought was woe, It walked the forests long ago’, a verse which Théoden likewise describes as a riddle. Both of them have uncertain necks and waists: Alice mistakes Humpty-Dumpty’s cravat for a belt, and Treebeard has ‘hardly any neck’ and says that he is ‘not very bendable’. They both restrain the pace of the dialogue: Humpty-Dumpty says ‘this conversation is going on a little too fast: let’s go back to the last remark but one’; Treebeard of course counsels not being hasty. Humpty-Dumpty boasts about his relationship with the King and all the King’s horses and men being on standby to rescue him; by contrast Treebeard says that he’s never kept up with the various kings of the Rohirrim (who are of course notable for their horses as well as men). And at the first encounter, both are rather offended: with Treebeard ‘Almost felt you liked the forest! That’s good! …I almost feel that I dislike you both’ it’s short-lived, whereas Humpty-Dumpty (‘It’s very provoking…to be called an egg—very!’) remains ill-tempered on and off throughout the conversation. The exchange with Humpty Dumpty is riddled with quibbles about the way Alice has expressed things; Treebeard, though in a kindlier way, is not averse to picking the hobbits’ remarks apart, as for example when they ask ‘what you are going to do with us…which side you are on?’ His response is to say he is ‘not going to do anything with you…’ and he asks if they mean ‘do something to you’ and goes on to say ‘…I don't know about sides’.

But above all both encounters feature linguistic discussion. In Alice’s encounter with Humpty-Dumpty there are at least seven exchanges which hinge on something linguistic or lexical. Many of the exchanges are quite unpleasant. It’s like an Oxford tutorial, with Humpty-Dumpty taking the part of a vain and self-centred tutor whose main aim is to put the student, Alice, down. But in some ways the encounter with Treebeard also has its academic aspects. And while Humpty-Dumpty’s learning can be shown to be shallow and rather phoney, Treebeard’s is deeper and authentic. It’s worth observing that there is something of the old-fashioned Oxford don about Treebeard and the other Ents. A whole lot of elderly males living together, with no females, in a remote institution that’s been there for years, where they take an intense interest in the materials amassed within, and only a very detached interest in the outside world. And think of the Entmoot—the long-winded explanations, the interminable discussion, and the voices rising and falling for hours: surely a reflection of a College Governing Body meeting. When Treebeard tells the hobbits ‘I have still got to explain things again to those that live a long way off…and those that I could not get round to before the Moot’ can we not detect the voice of the Secretary to Governing Body? And, of course, they all live on drink!

But seriously, there’s a significant parallel in the opening discussions of each episode. They begin with the nature of names. Humpty-Dumpty asks Alice her name:‘My name is Alice, but—’ ‘It’s a stupid name enough!… What does it mean?’ ‘Must a name mean something?’… ‘Of course it must…my name means the shape I am…With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.’ In a somewhat similar way, Treebeard also tells the hobbits that his name is informative; it’s like a story: ‘Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language.’ But this is of course altogether deeper. Entish names don’t just tell you the person’s shape, but the whole story of their life.

In the event, it soon turns out that Humpty-Dumpty’s relationship with language is selfish, controlling, and arbitrary. The whole thing is much more so, in fact, than current linguistic theory, which allows that while the relationship of word form to word meaning is arbitrary, it is at least determined by tacit social agreement. Whereas Humpty-Dumpty famously declares: ‘When I use a word…it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less’ And he goes on: ‘They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs: they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’ When Alice asks what the latter word means he shows just how arbitrary his language theory is: ‘I meant by “impenetrability” that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.’ ‘That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice  said… ‘When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘I always pay it extra.’ So Humpty-Dumpty makes a single word contain a whole conglomeration of ideas. 

Entish is the other way around. Treebeard’s name would take a long time to tell because ‘my name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story’. A single individual has to have a massively long name so that it can properly express who he is. Hence Treebeard’s initial refusal to answer the hobbits’ question ‘what do you call yourself...your real name’. ‘That would be telling’, he replies, which sounds a bit like playing hard to get, but reciting an Ent’s name would literally be telling his life story. But things go further than this. It’s as if the full name of an Ent virtually amounts to his essence. His warning ‘not so hasty…you should not go telling just anybody…you’ll be letting out your own right names…’ on one level is a reprise of the fairy-story caution about giving away one’s name, but it’s as if the reason for this is that the name is the person’s essence.

There are indications that this applies to common nouns as well as proper names. Treebeard says ‘I can see and hear…a great deal … from this a-lalla-lalla-rumba-kamanda-lind-or-burúmë. Excuse me: this is part of [my italics] my name for it.’ He then does much the same in English (or Common Speech) ‘the thing we are on, where I stand and look out on fine mornings, and think about the sun…’ (and so on). Later on when Treebeard asks the hobbits ‘Did you say what you call it?’ and they suggest hill, shelf, and step, his response is ‘it is a hasty word for a thing that has stood here ever since this part of the world was shaped’. The implication is that the Entish word is not only long but is made up of elements descriptive of the thing denoted.

The same is hinted at in Treebeard’s mention of Lórien, which he explains means ‘dreamflower’ and is the Elves’ way of shortening its older name Laurelindórenan ‘valley of the land of singing gold’, clearly much more like an Entish name. We then get a rough idea of what Entish syntax may be like, when Treebeard strings together Elvish elements in a non-Elvish and perhaps Entish way:

Taurelilómëa-tumbalemorna Tumbaletaurëa Lómëanorliterally ‘Forestmanyshadowed-deepvalleyblack Deepvalleyforested Gloomyland’ translated by Tolkien (Appendix F) as ‘there is a black shadow in the deep dales of the forest’

Something similar may be discerned in Treebeard’s way of speaking about orcs: ‘those evileyed-blackhanded-bowlegged-flinthearted-clawfingered-foulbellied-bloodthirsty, morimaite-sincahonda’, two which he adds ‘their full name is as long as years of torment’. It’s clear that the Entish word or name for an orc would be at least as long and complicated as for any of themselves.

Treebeard sums up the character of Entish by saying ‘we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to’.

What can be deduced about the essence of Entish? If every word consists of a collection of elements that tell you all about the thing denoted it follows that each word is a bit like an extended dictionary definition, perhaps combined with an encyclopaedia article. But of course definitions and articles themselves consist of other words, without which they could not exist. And if those words or lesser elements were themselves explained by other words or elements we would get into an endless recession, a sort of hall of mirrors. I don’t think it’s likely that Tolkien intended this, so what is he getting?

Treebeard asks Merry and Pippin ‘who calls you hobbits—that does not sound Elvish?’ and adds ‘Elves made all the old words: they began it’. For Treebeard, ‘hobbit’ is not elvish and is not an ‘old word’. It looks as if he has in mind that there is some kind of irreduceable set of ‘old words’ that were ‘made’ by the elves. Perhaps these are a little like the reconstructed ancient forms that an older generation of philologists regarded as ‘roots’, that is to say the ultimate source of existing words. Modern linguistics would regard them as simply a stage in an indefinite sequence of development whose earlier steps are now lost in the mists of time. So Entish words would be complex sequences of definitive elements that can ultimately be traced back to elvish ‘old words’, each of which captures an essential concept, not arbitrarily as modern linguistics would have it, but as an apt phonological representation.

Let me remind you of the completely unetymological connection between ent and  Latin ens, genitive entis, plural  entia, a being, a living thing. In Aquinas living beings are entia per se, naturally occurring beings, as opposed to entia per accidens. In De Entia et Essentia 2, Aquinas defines essence as ‘that which is signified by the definition of a thing’. But, explains one commentator, just because you can write a definition of something (e.g. unicorns) that doesn’t confer essence; for something to have an essence it actually has to exist (Brian Davies, Thomas Aquinas on God and Evil, OUP, 2011). Perhaps Entish is an attempt to imagine a language in which the essence of actually existing things is captured by the structure of its vocabulary.

Is there a link between the language  theory that informs Entish and the way in which Tolkien’s names were coined? I think there may be. Orthodox linguistic theory is deterministic, and rightly so, and Tolkien accepted this and enjoyed it: his invented languages display the same laws of phonology, morphology, and syntax as real-world ones. But at the same time he was playful and imaginative with language: he seriously entertained approaches to it that are not countenanced by either traditional philology or modern linguistics. He enjoyed making connections between lexical items based on resemblance rather than relationship and he took seriously the idea that phonetic sound reflected meaning. It is only a step from that to the idea that a name actually tells you the story of the thing denoted.


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