Language creation was one of the greatest interests that J. R. R. Tolkien had in his life. The Professor’s stories were closely connected with his invented tongues which were an integral and vital part of the whole mythology of Arda. There are a lot of various aspects to look at Tolkien’s language creation from, so to begin with the exploration of this amazing manifestation of his creativity, I am going to look into what makes Tolkien’s languages resemble those we speak in our world.

Tolkien became fascinated with languages early in his childhood. His interest in studying and creating them always went hand in hand, formed and inseparable union which became the love and profession of his whole life. While language invention was not a new hobby even in Tolkien’s time, various people pursued it for different reasons. Some were practical and wished to have a single language for the whole world, others just toyed with the idea of expressing themselves differently or creating a secret code to eliminate outsiders from their communication, third invented languages as a private hobby simply because they loved it. Tolkien originally fell into the last category, but, unlike a huge number of unnamed language creators, his hobby had only remained private for a time. In 1931 the Professor wrote and delivered the paper called A Secret Vice where he spoke about what he called his “hobby for the home”. Later on, his invented languages appeared in his published books, so the hobby ceased to be private.

However, it was not specifically for the stories that Tolkien began creating languages seriously. In his childhood and youth the Professor had several attempts at inventing languages, but they were just stepping stones to his greatly developed and honed Elven tongues Quenya and Sindarin. Their very origin lay in their creator’s love of languages, desire to amuse himself, do something aesthetically pleasing and fine:

In these invented languages the pleasure is more keen than it can be even in learning a new language – keen though it is to some people in that case – because more personal and fresh, more open to experiment of trial and error. And it is capable of developing into an art, with refinement of the construction of the symbol, and with greater nicety in the choice of notional-range.

(Secret Vice, p. 61-62)

That is probably one of the reasons why Tolkien spent so much time on Quenya and Sindarin: he went on revising, polishing and developing them until his last days. Being not only a great lover of words, but also a professional philologist, Tolkien approached language creation with special care, knowing and understanding how tongues worked, lived and behaved under different circumstances. These special care and expertise invested into linguistic construction put both Quenya and Sindarin on the same plane with real-world tongues and make them stand out from numerous linguistic inventions of the past and the present.

(c) Creative Commons

There are several aspects that are important when it comes to languages. If we want to speak a language, we should know how to pronounce it, how to build sentences and express various ideas, how to name things and how to use a language in life. Such classifications exist in many different variations, but regardless of which levels of language are singled out and how they are organised, one thing remains unchanged: they are all interconnected, interdependent and cannot exist without one another. Tolkien considered all of these vital things while creating his languages, and from his writings and notes it is possible to gather substantial knowledge about the organisation of Quenya and Sindarin.

There is sufficient information about the proper pronunciation of both languages, covering word stress, special sounds and offering parallels with real languages. For example, in Sindarin dh should be pronounced like th in the English word then or ei sounds like the vowel combination in grey. Qu in Quenya has the pronunciation of cw and y is a consonant like in you. Considerable wordlists offer a look at the vast vocabularies that Tolkien composed for his languages as well as at how various stems and elements can be used to form more words. It created an exceptional consistency of names that Tolkien worked hard at and was rightfully very proud of. If you know the meaning of the Sindarin word mor (black), then it will not be hard for you to recognise the same element in Mordor (The Black Land), Mormegil (The Black Sword), Morgoth (The Black Enemy), Moriquendi (Elves of the Darkness) or Moria (The Black Chasm).

Detailed grammars of Quenya and Sindarin offer a look into how these languages work. Quenya has a complex morphology and is, thus, a very inflected language; possesses ten cases of noun declension and four numbers alongside having several types of verbs, to name but a few grammar aspects. Some Sindarin grammar features include many vowel changes when forming plural nouns and an article in a plural form, which is absent in Quenya. Concerning communication, it is known that Sindarin was the spoken language used by the Elves in Middle-earth while Quenya remained the language of lore. Tolkien also thought about such a vital aspect of language as a writing system. Quenya and Sindarin were written with tengwar — the alphabet created by Fëanor. There was also cirth by Daeron of Doriath, but it was adopted by the Dwarves and rarely used by the Elves.

‘Namárië’ in The Lord of the Rings (photo by the blog author)

This very brief look at some examples of certain aspects in Tolkien’s languages show that they are rather complex: they possess all the irregularities, difficulties, exceptions that are typical of real-life languages, and that is what makes Quenya and Sindarin similar to the tongues we speak. When International Auxiliary Languages began to appear, their creators’ aim was to create a universal tongue for the whole world, so they strove to come up with something that was perfect, clear, smooth and easy. In other words, the aim was to create languages that presented their learners with no problems, like, for example, irregular verbs, numerous tense forms or irregular plural forms. Those attempts to eliminate problematic parts made IALs highly artificial and unnatural: no living language can be that univocal. Various aspects that are traditionally labelled as “problematic” are usually formed in the course of language history, so they are a natural part of any tongue.

History of a language offers an explanation of how a tongue became what we know it to be. Quenya and Sindarin have history. Neither language in our world appeared out of the blue in the form it has at present. All of the world tongues had a source language that gave birth to them; followed their own roads to their present forms. The process of language development goes on continuously, so tongues are going on with their evolution even as I am writing these words. Similarly, both Quenya and Sindarin evolved from one common tongue called Primitive Eldarin. As Elves went on with their lives in different parts of Aman and Middle-earth, their languages went with them, and Primitive Eldarin became split into several Elven languages, including some with a small number of speakers. If we compare Quenya and Sindarin, nothing can appear more different at first sight. However, if we look closely, we can see that these languages are related. Sindarin roch (horse) is rokko in Quenya, fuin is gloom in Sindarin, while in Quenya it is huinë and the words for north in Quenya and Sindarin are formen and forn respectively. Tolkien confessed that he loved creating different word forms and working with them. Thus his famous niggling was partly due to the fact that he could spend a lot of time refining his word forms so that they resembled each other, showed relation clearly and looked perfect for him.

Finally, and most importantly, Tolkien’s languages do not exist in the vacuum. They are closely connected with his invented mythology. In Tolkien’s view the IALs like Esperanto are deader than Latin because there are no legends written in Esperanto. The Professor claimed that his mythology was born as a way to give home and people to his tongues as in the real world languages are not and cannot be severed from people and their myths, legends, poetry, stories, traditions. Every language offers great layers of culture belonging to different people, so Quenya and Sindarin reflect it in a perfect way.

…the making of language and mythology are related functions (coeval and congenital, not related as disease to health, or as by-product to main manufacture); to give your language an individual flavour, it must have woven into it the threads of an individual mythology, individual while working within the scheme of natural human mythopoeia, as your word-form may be individual while working within the hackneyed limits of human, even European, phonetics. The converse indeed is true, your language construction will breed a mythology.

(Secret Vice, p. 68)

The idea of  language uniqueness cannot be more true for Tolkien: in all their aspects Quenya and Sindarin reflect the nature of the people speaking them, their history and culture. They possess all the vital aspects which build up real-world languages. Tolkien’s invented tongues are by no means bland, isolated or dull, but have a very distinct recognisable personality, the very individual flavour that makes them so special. Tolkien approached his language creation not only with great love and care, but also with the knowledge of a professional philologist, someone who knew how languages work and function. All of this knowledge went into his Elven tongues. Is it not the reason why we still find Quenya and Sindarin fascinating today?

Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages (edited by Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2016 (Kindle Edition).
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
  3. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
  4. H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).


Featured image: creative commons

11 thoughts on “On linguistic creation: what makes Tolkien’s invented languages special.

  1. Have you read E. S. C. Weiner & Jeremy Marshall “Tolkien’s Invented Languages” in M. Adams, From Elvish to Klingon, Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 75-110? You might find it sympathetic.

  2. IALs are doomed to die from the beginning because there are no native speakers who have grown up learning the language from birth. Even languages WITH native speakers die out as other languages replace them. Even if Esperanto became a thing, you can bet it would be replaced by English as the “international” tongue because so many people grow up learning English as a second language anyway. Because if you’re going to go to the trouble of learning a second language, why not learn a real language that millions of other people already speak anyway? Seriously makes you wonder why anyone spent the time to invent Esperanto in the first place.

    1. I think it has to do with the fact that some of those people who invent languages are neither professional linguists, nor philologists. They possibly didn’t even bother or consider the fact that languages can’t exist without people and cultures. Hence the inability of such languages to survive and function properlyz

  3. The phrase that really caught my attention in this excellent piece was, “they possess all the irregularities, difficulties, exceptions, that are typical of real life languages”. You contrast this to modern attempts at language creation and the desire to solve problems by eliminating those aspects of difficulty. I was fascinated by this. You then went on to show how Tolkien believed that language and myth are intimately connected. And, of course, myth and irregularity, difficulty, exception are also intimately connected.
    It seems to be a key feature of modernity that that the elimination of difficulty is a central task. Each technological advance is meant to simplify our lives and yet we find that it solves some problems while introducing a new level of complexity. We react to the new complexity, difficulty and irregularity with alarm believing that the good is their elimination. Perhaps we need to learn to embrace difficulty and to love the embrace. We all know that our greatest achievements come through such an embrace. I think of your mastery of language. The same is true for a writer, a musician, a dancer, a craftsman, a gardener. We cannot bypass the suffering involved in the embrace of difficulty. If we do then all we achieve is the mediocre.

    1. I believe that this very quality of Quenya and Sindarin is the reason why so many people still learn them. I’ve met this gentleman once at a Tolkien conference here in Moscow who spoke Quenya perfectly. So many people write poems in it. Tolkien achieved his aim of creating a language existing within a culture and thus breeding more manifestations of this culture. It’s amazing!
      I totally agree with you on this present-day desire to eliminate difficulties. It’s not the way we should be. Our ancestors used to make a lot of observations without all the fancy devices we have today. They observed the stars, the Sun, the Moon and knew quite a lot about them — without any technology. I’d even go as far as assuming that they were better at it than we are today.

  4. When I read The Lhammas I was shocked by how real it felt. Reading the way the people of the Eldar split and divided and their languages followed a different path as a result was as fascinating as reading the actual history of the Elves.
    It’s true, Tolkien was a linguist and an historian. He knew how languages and history worked in reality. Thsi is why his world is so real. Why we can believe in it so easily.

    1. Absolutely! It’s all so amazing and believable — just because of Tolkien’s spectacular approach. You have to understand languages really well in order to create such histories. And besides, you have to have all the patience in the world to work at your languages so meticulously.

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