J. R. R. Tolkien was a gifted philologist. His philological interests, according to the Professor himself, were largely scientific, and that shows clearly in his own literary work. Just a read through The History of Middle-earth with its linguistic bits, in-depth philological essays, carefully crafted and restored etymologies for his own invented languages demonstrates as much. These languages were first and foremost, the starting point of Tolkien’s tales.

However, the Professor’s knowledge of languages reached much further than that. His interest in languages was not only professional, but also deeply personal. The list of languages he either knew very well, learnt or was merely familiar with is rather impressive, ranging from Latin and Old English to Finnish and Russian. Even though he was rather humble about his success in language learning (he was always like that, wasn’t he?), I will allow myself to assume that he diminished his own accomplishments a lot. Tolkien understood languages well. Above all, he loved them. His approaches to learning are timeless and can easily be applied today.

The first step in such a linguistic endeavour is to find the language you really love and want to learn. Tolkien called it one’s ‘native language’ — not the one we learn and speak based on our birthplace, but foreign languages that we have natural predilections for. In our times it is much easier to discover such a personal native language with numerous apps and audio samples that can be found online. Tolkien’s choice of his own favourite languages came from the aesthetic, and especially the phonetic aesthetic, of a certain tongue. Such a guideline is very personal and works differently for various people. Tolkien himself regarded Finnish, Welsh and Gothic with this special fascination, but was not moved by French or Italian:

Spanish was another: my guardian was half Spanish, and in my early teens I used to pinch his books and try to learn it: the only Romance language that gives me the particular pleasure of which I am speaking – it is not quite the same as the mere perception of beauty: I feel the beauty of say Italian or for that matter of modern English (which is very remote from my personal taste): it is more like the appetite for a needed food.

(Letters, № 163).

Such predilections are hard to define. They arise from the depths of one’s personal tastes and are hardly universal. It is these private tastes, likes and dislikes that make a certain language click when we meet it. It is then that we become enchanted by speech and think “That is it!” These moments are truly priceless. What is more, such personal tastes can be very different from what is considered fashionable or prestigious to learn at a certain period of time. Tolkien knew Anglo-Saxon and Middle English because they lay in the sphere of his professional interests. Finnish, Welsh or Gothic were his private pleasures which were hardly expected of him: Tolkien’s occupation with these languages did raise a few eyebrows. Learning those languages alongside his writing tales and verse, composing his own tongues instead of concentrating solely on academic research made Tolkien look like a very unusual academic type:

These things began to flow together when I was an undergraduate to the despair of my tutors and near-wrecking of my career. For when officially engaged on ‘Classics’ I made the acquaintance of languages not usually studied by the modern English, each with a powerfully individual phonetic aesthetic: Welsh, Finnish, and the remnants of fourth-century Gothic.

(Letters, № 257).

Tolkien did not mind being different, though. He was very enthusiastic about the languages he was fascinated with. His interest was alive and very deep, he was eager for knowledge and discovery. Practical application of his beloved languages was not important for Tolkien. They did provide inspiration for his own invented tongues, though, undoubtedly deepened his understanding of languages generally, but there seems to be no evidence that he ever used Welsh or Finnish for any practical purposes, to say nothing of Gothic. As a philologist, Tolkien became acquainted with languages out of his great love for them. Gothic would serve as a great example:

[…] also Gothic, but that was an accident quite unconnected with the curriculum though decisive – I discovered in it not only modern historical philology, which appealed to the historical and scientific side, but for the first time the study of a language out of mere love: I mean for the acute aesthetic pleasure derived from a language for its own sake, not only free from being useful but free even from being the ‘vehicle of a literature’.

(Letters, № 163)

Many practically minded people would snort and roll their eyes at that. While sometimes we do need a certain language in order to advance in our careers or for travelling (and these are not bad motivations or reasons), learning languages is not only about practical use. Why not learn a language simply because you find it beautiful? Why not dive deep down into the personality of a certain tongue just because it happened to enchant you with its sound? These are sufficient reasons indeed to set off on a linguistic path, no matter how well-trodden it is: to embark on it not because you have to, but because you want to.

From his writings and letters Tolkien’s passion for learning languages comes across as very contagious. He speaks about tongues as if they were living beings, which they, in fact, undoubtedly are. There is respect and admiration in Tolkien’s attitude to languages, not only because they were his profession, but especially because they were his passion.

The pleasure taken from becoming acquainted with a language that you feel is yours cannot be faked or imitated. It is either there or not. If you feel attracted to the language you learn, the enthusiasm will always be there. Tolkien’s own enthusiasm allowed him to make a huge effort in learning the languages he admired. Being rather rare, specific and, one might say, unpopular, books on those tongues were not readily available. But Tolkien made use of everything he could find. Those difficulties did not daunt him, for where there is a will, there is a way. And that determination grown out of great love can be exemplary to all of us learning a language.

This reflection is dedicated to J. R. R. Tolkien’s 130th birthday.

Further reading:

Oh languages beloved!

Cymraeg da!

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

On linguistic creation: what makes Tolkien’s invented languages special.

Works consulted:

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

2. H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).

Featured image: pixabay.com

3 thoughts on “Want to learn a language? Ask J. R. R. Tolkien how.

  1. Thank you so much, Olga, for this beautiful piece at the beginning of another year. I had no idea that Gothic was one of Tolkien’s interests. Is there much written material in this language or do we rely on fragments for the most part?
    I remember C.S Lewis arguing that Italian was one of the few examples of a modern language being an improvement upon its classical predecessor, an opinion with which I tend to agree. For me Latin has long been a language that gives a deeper understanding of an idea but does not make it more beautiful. Italian, on the other hand is beautiful, at least in my ear. I am not a scholar of the language but as the Goths settled in Italy during the 5th century did their language play a part in the creation of modern Italian just as French helped create modern English after the conquest of 1066? By the way, I think that English from the 14th century to the Industrial revolution in the 18th century is also beautiful. After that its beauty is an act of resistance as with the Romantics.

    1. Thank you, Stephen!
      There are some texts available in Gothic, and they seem to have allowed for a number of resources, like grammar or reference books. Speaking of its influence on Italian, I’m sure there was some, but I cannot say whether it was as considerable as the influence of French on English.
      Italian is beautiful, indeed! I learnt it for a very short while a long time ago and I think I also agree with C. S. Lewis that Italian is an improvement of its Latin predecessor. It has the musicality and fluidity that Latin lacks. However, if I were to choose a Romance language to learn, I would opt for French. It does feel good to my ears.

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