Welsh is of this soil, this island, the senior language

of the men of Britain; and Welsh is beautiful.

(English and Welsh)

Languages were an enormous part of J. R. R. Tolkien’s life. He was ever surrounded by them: the Professor worked with languages, learnt them and, above all, he loved them greatly. That latter aspect was vital in Tolkien’s treatment of tongues. He felt their aesthetics keenly: some languages did not appeal to him, while others had a firm grasp on his heart, were in accord with his tastes and were dear to him for various reasons. One of such tongues was Welsh.

During his life Tolkien encountered many languages or their varieties: Latin and Greek, French and Spanish, Old English and Mediaeval English, Gothic and Finnish. All of them had various degrees of appeal to him. Some he liked more, some less, others he simply adored. Welsh definitely belonged to that exclusive category of especially beloved languages:

But all the time there had been another call – bound to win in the end, though long baulked by sheer lack of opportunity. I heard it coming out of the west. It struck at me in the names on coal-trucks; and drawing nearer, it flickered past on station-signs, a flash of strange spelling and a hint of a language old and yet alive; even in an adeiladwyd 1887, ill-cut on a stone-slab, it pierced my linguistic heart.

(Monsters and Critics, p. 192)

Tolkien first encountered Welsh in 1901. In that year the small Tolkien family consisting of Ronald, his mother Mabel and his brother Hilary moved from one suburb of Birmingham to another — from Mosley to King’s Heath. Trains clattered past their house in King’s Heath and coal-trucks were busy in the coal-yard nearby. Those seemingly prosaic and common coal-trucks were the beginning of Tolkien’s fascination with Welsh. It was on them that the nine-year-old boy first caught a glimpse of weird words that touched his heart deeply. The effect was later strengthened by the same weird words on train station signs and that, in combination with the peculiar charm of journeys by rail, could not have left the young Tolkien indifferent.

Being enchanted, Tolkien wanted to learn more of this strange language, but no books comprehensible to him were to be had: the ones that were available were very hard for the young boy to understand. Still, the foundations of the language passion had been laid — the passion that Tolkien would be able to pursue in later years and would carry throughout his life.

It was only as an undergraduate at Oxford that Tolkien was finally able to gain access to some books on mediaeval Welsh and became acquainting himself with the language that had impressed him such a long time ago. Having won the Skeat’s prize for English from Exeter College he spent his five pounds on buying books on mediaeval Welsh. It was the time when the tongue began unfurling its full beauty to Tolkien who definitely was not disappointed in the words that had fascinated him in his childhood. When talking about Welsh in letters or lectures, Tolkien would often apply the word “attractive” to describe it.

In his lecture English and Welsh delivered on October 21, 1955 this appeal of the Welsh language to Tolkien is one of the main points of his discussion. This, however, is a matter of personal taste: if the language sounds beautiful to one person, it does not mean it will sound equally lovely to another. Tolkien pointed out how futile the attempts to communicate the beauty of the tongue are: if another person does not share the speaker’s point of view, all descriptions are totally in vain:

Those who understand him must already have experienced this pleasure, or have missed it for ever. Those who do not cannot yet receive it. A translation is of no avail. For this pleasure is felt most immediately and acutely in the moment of association: that is in the reception (or imagination) of a word-form which is felt to have a certain style, and the attribution to it of a meaning which is not received through it.

(Monsters and Critics, p. 193)

This kind of pleasure the language brings lies beyond any linguistic analysis or practical usage, in Tolkien’s view. It is much more than that. The Professor referred to such languages that stir people’s feelings and appeal to them on a subconscious level their “native languages”,  but he did not mean those spoken from birth. These languages are what Tolkien called “inherent linguistic predilections“ of a particular individual that awaken once a person gets in contact with “their” language [1]. Welsh was certainly such a linguistic predilection for Tolkien.

The aesthetics of Welsh, the way it sounds and looks found their reflection in Tolkien’s own invented language — Sindarin, the tongue of the Grey Elves of Middle-earth. It was created by the Professor in the phonological resemblance of Welsh and it is related to Quenya in the same way British (the proper name for the Celtic language spoken in Britain during the Roman invasion) is related to Latin [2].

Apart from the linguistic taste and pleasure in learning Welsh, Tolkien noted another thing about the language that makes studying it essential for English philologists: there can be found curious similarities between the two tongues and some aspects of Welsh can cast new light on the study of English. apart from gaining the learner more experience and knowledge. As a language Welsh had appeared on the British Isles earlier than the beginnings of what would later become English were brought there. So it is justly that Tolkien referred to it as “the senior language of the men of Britain”.

Thus Welsh, in Tolkien’s view, has a certain appeal to the people of Britain — the appeal they do not always understand themselves and the nature of which is well described by the Professor:

For many of us it rings a bell, or rather it stirs deep harp-strings in our linguistic nature. In other words: for satisfaction and therefore for delight – and not for imperial policy – we are still ‘British’ at heart. It is the native language to which in unexplored desire we would still go home.

(Monsters and Critics, p. 194)


[1] Monsters and the Critics (p. 190)

[2] Letters (№ 165)

Further reading

In the land of heroes: Tolkien, Kalevala and Finnish

On Tolkien’s linguistic creation

Works consulted:

  1. H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).
  2. H. Carpenter – J. R. R. Tolkien. A Biography; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2016.
  3. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2006.

Featured image: Pixabay.com

6 thoughts on “Cymraeg da!

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