One of my most favourite academic works by J. R. R. Tolkien is his lecture English and Welsh. Apart from being a very informative and interesting piece of writing, this lecture is a pleasure to read: it was written by the person who understood languages, their character and essence, treated tongues as living beings, loved and respected them. 

Tolkien’s passion for languages is felt throughout the whole of English and Welsh. It is safe to say that this speech was delivered not only by a very knowledgeable (and humble), philologist, but also by an ardent language learner. The Professor dedicated quite a lot of his time to learning languages and he did so with a genuine enthusiasm: getting himself acquainted with various tongues was a great delight for Tolkien and a way to satisfy his curiosity. This very enthusiasm permeates the lecture and it is very catchy. I share Tolkien’s passion for languages, so in the present reflection, dedicated to the Professor’s 129th birthday, I would like to discuss some of my most favourite quotations from English and Welsh

Tolkien was well-known for his sensitive ear, and the way a language sounded was very important to him: we are all familiar with the famous word combination ‘cellar door’ that the Professor used as an illustration for a beautifully sounding phrase, pleasing for one’s ear. Tolkien’s own invented languages show how the sonic landscape of a language reflects the characters of the peoples that speak them, incorporate the main traits of their speakers and suit them perfectly well. It was the sounds of Finnish and Welsh that absolutely enchanted Tolkien, and that is what he said in the lecture concerning Welsh — the words that can be equally suitable for any language whose sound fascinates a learner:

The basic pleasure in the phonetic elements of a language and in the style of their patterns, and then in a higher dimension, pleasure in the association of these word-forms with meanings, is of fundamental importance. This pleasure is quite distinct from the practical knowledge of a language, and not the same as an analytic understanding of its structure. It is simpler, deeper-rooted, and yet more immediate than the enjoyment of literature.Though it may be allied to some of the elements in the appreciation of verse, it does not need any poets, other than the nameless artists who composed the language. It can be strongly felt in the simple contemplation of a vocabulary, or even in a string of names.

(Monsters and Critics, p. 190) 

Tolkien, however, was aware of different tastes and allowed for various reactions to one and the same language. It is perfectly normal for people to have their unique linguistic preferences. Some may truly enjoy the sound of German, while others find it rude; there are people among my friends who find the sound of Finnish more beautiful than the sound of the universally admired French. This fascination with a language is something that cannot be fostered in someone who has a different taste and idea of beauty. On the other hand, if two people share a passion for one common language, they understand each other’s admiration for it without any words. The feeling of love towards foreign words and sounds, the sense of fascination that one holds for them need no explanation. It is enough to say to one’s linguistic soulmate “I really love this language” to receive “I do know what you mean” in reply. And they will really mean it.

Tolkien also noted that this enjoyment came from a language as a whole rather than from standalone words. It created a bigger and a more complete picture. Speaking of Mediaeval Welsh the Professor remarked: 

It would not be of much use if I tried to illustrate by examples the pleasure that I got there. For, of course, the pleasure is not solely concerned with any word, any ‘sound-pattern + meaning’, by itself, but with its fitness also to a whole style. Even single notes of a large music may please in their place, but one cannot illustrate this pleasure (not even to those who have once heard the music) by repeating them in isolation.

(Monsters and Critics, pp. 192-193)

This love of a specific language can also be something deeper than a mere matter of taste. Speaking of a person’s capacity for a certain language Tolkien mentioned a very interesting concept of a native language which is not the tongue we speak from birth: 

We each have our own personal linguistic potential: we each have a native language. But that is not the language that we speak, our cradle-tongue, the first-learned. Linguistically we all wear ready-made clothes, and our native language comes seldom to expression, save perhaps by pulling at the ready-made till it sits a little easier. But though it may be buried, it is never wholly extinguished, and contact with other languages may stir it deeply.

(Monsters and Critics, p. 190)

I really related to this idea of Tolkien’s when I first encountered it. As someone who studied English as a foreign language, I can easily refer to it as my native non-cradle tongue. It took me a while to realise it, though: I studied English at university and, to my great surprise at that time, I often found it easier to express myself in English than in my mother tongue, and that applied not only to my university work. I cultivated this inherent predilection by reading extensively in English, and the more I did so, the more I understood how native this language was to me, how I enjoyed every aspect of it and how familiar it seemed, as if with every book I read or every essay I wrote I dug out some ancient knowledge from the depths of my memory, remembered something that I had known long ago. 

Tolkien commented on this inherent understanding of a certain language with a good explanation: 

The nature of this pleasure is difficult, perhaps impossible, to analyse. It cannot, of course, be discovered by structural analysis. No analysis will make one either like or dislike a language, even if it makes more precise some of the features of style that are pleasing or distasteful. The pleasure is possibly felt most strongly in the study of a ‘foreign’ or second-learned language; but if so that may be attributed to two things: the learner meets in the other language desirable features that his own or first-learned speech has denied to him; and in any case he escapes from the dulling of usage, especially inattentive usage.

(Monsters and Critics, p. 191)

I can relate to everything the Professor said here. Learning foreign languages, not only English, gives me a fresh look at my mother tongue. I start treating it with more care and attention in my everyday speech, strive to learn more about it and its history, expand my vocabulary as much as I can. Languages, foreign or native, need our love, attention to flourish and show us their whole potential, its linguistic treasures that need a patient, enthusiastic student to be found. 

Love of learning languages was something that Tolkien drew particular attention to. The Welsh language was one of his greatest interests. The Professor admired Cymraeg, spent a lot of time on it and considered it beautiful. On the one hand learning Welsh was useful for the Professor as a philologist: in helped enhance his understanding of historical connections between English and Welsh, get in touch with the tongue of the British soil. However, it was not his chief motive:

But no language is justly studied merely as an aid to other purposes. It will in fact better serve other purposes, philological or historical, when it is studied for love, for itself.

(Monsters and Critics, p. 189)

This love is crucial when one decides to learn a foreign language. This will make the whole educational process more delightful and open new doors before learners. After all, we do not always need to have a serious answer to a why-are-you-learning-this-language question: our aims may be far greater than a simple mercenary interest. We learn a language because we find it beautiful, because it is a rare or a very old tongue or simply because we want to broaden our horizons and venture into new, untrodden territories. These are all very decent reasons that make us choose that very language and dive headlong into the ocean of new words and structures.

As a teacher of foreign languages, I always tell my students: try and find a motivation that will make you choose reading a book in your foreign language rather than scroll down the feed in your social networks; discover the beauty of your language, fall in love with it and learn it with all your heart: only then will you achieve all the goals that you set in front of you. Tolkien did love his languages of choice and generously shared his passion with his readers through his books and writings. Such attitude is truly inspirational!


Further reading

Cymraeg da!

In the Land of Heroes: Tolkien, Kalevala and Finnish.


Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2006.

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5 thoughts on “Oh languages beloved!

  1. Dear Olga, What a pleasure reading your essay has just given me! You have a way of writing about things that stimulate my own explorations and, just this morning, I have begun to think about the relationship between pleasure and the intellectual task. How sad it is that so many people choose a vocation that is a burden and is joyless.
    My primary intellectual task is theology and in recent years the thought has grown within me that the best theological work in the English language is imaginative. Malcolm Guite points to this in his excellent study, Faith, Hope and Poetry. He is becoming increasingly appreciated in this country but I still think that he is regarded as one who provides a pleasant diversion rather than as a serious theologian. I hope that I am wrong. My own hope is that we will come to appreciate the poets, the true lovers of our language, as our greatest teachers. If we do then the work of the Inklings will have played a major role in nourishing such a happy development.
    I also agree with you wholeheartedly about the gift that foreign speakers of a language give to us natives. Within these islands the poets who write in English but bring to the language the riches of a different world have given so much to our language. I think of Dylan Thomas, of Robert Burns or of Seamus Heaney or W.B Yeats.
    And what of your own language? So many of us here are profoundly affected by Russian writers but always, I am sorry to say, in translation. If I look back to my early adulthood then, of the English greats I am indebted to Shakespeare, Dickens and to Tolkien. But then what a debt I owe to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, whose works enrich me constantly. And from the 20th century I cannot help but love Sholokov and his trilogy of novels about the Cossacks. I just had to read one after another. He was such a fine storyteller. Solzhenitsyn was wonderful until he went to the United States after which he wrote nothing more of any value. And Pasternak had a profound effect upon me too. I wonder how it might be if I were to try to read them in Russian?
    So thank you for your essay that has stimulated so much in me. For me, Welsh is more of a foreign language than is German, French or Italian, even though I can drive to Wales in little over an hour from my home and I married the daughter of a Welshman although he spoke no Welsh.
    Ah, life is too short to explore all of its wonders!

    1. Stephen, thank you so much for your kind words and appreciation!
      Language is vital in getting one’s message across. When applied well and with care, it can work wonders. Or, when used incompetently or in a sloppy way, can have a totally opposite effect. We are blessed with so many gifted writers and poets whose works enrich us not only with ideas, but also with language.
      It is my firm belief that if a person has even some basic knowledge of a foreign language, they should try and read something in that language. It is not an easy thing to do at first, but very rewarding in the longer run. Even the best translation will not be able to reflect all the peculiarities and intricacies of the original text. It’s always worth a try!

  2. I have not been able to get my hands on “English and Welsh” yet, so I appreciated the variety of quotes you pulled from that work! I am a lover of languages as well (the amount of new light it sheds on my cradle-tongue is amazing) and though learning their grammatical structure is one of my favourite parts, I can especially relate to the simple delight in a language’s sound, even if I don’t understand the language. Ah! you make my mouth water just thinking about it! 🙂

    1. It’s a very inspirational piece! I did need a couple of reads, and I’m sure further re-reads will improve my understanding of it. Just like anything with Tolkien: the more you read a piece, the more you find there.
      Tolkien’s work is such a well of knowledge and inspiration for language lovers! The very delight of encountering a new language is amazing!

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