J.R.R. Tolkien: a philologist, a writer, a poet or simply “a wizard”

After visiting HobbitCon, a convention dedicated to John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s world of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, I got inspired to read more information about this versatile genius. Before I hadn’t even pictured the scale of it or realized how many people are carried away by another person’s imagination. It is definitely not a short-time trendy escapism: several generations have been «infected» by this obsession for 60 years already. People still sew embroidered elf dresses, carve bows and arrows, speak Elvish and walk around with bare hairy hobbit feet on the cold floor!

When Tolkien’s son Michael entered the army he listed his father’s profession on his paperwork as “Wizard”. But how did «wizard»’s mind work? Was it just pure magic? It all started more prosaic but not less exciting: with languages! In most High Fantasy novels languages exist to give the imaginary world completeness. Tolkien’s invented languages gave birth to the whole universe.

Tolkien was a Professor of Anglo-Saxon language and literature at Oxford, a lexicographer and spoke around 35 (!) languages. As a little child he invented the languages with his friends and the first language he created alone at the age of 8 was Naffarin. Tolkien wrote in one of his letters: “my work…is fundamentally linguistic in inspiration. The invention of languages is the foundation. The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows. I should have preferred to write in ‘Elvish’…“.

So what are the languages constructed by Tolkien? Some people think that it is just Elvish: first of all, it is more correct to say Elvish group of languages which includes at least 15 (!) languages with one protolanguage and a bunch of dialects for 3 eras. Two most “useful” languages that people tend to learn are Sindarin and Quenya. You can laugh at the word “useful” but the University of Wisconsin doesn’t joke about its Elvish Language Course. It is taught by an expert of Elvish language, who even advised the makers of the Lord of the Rings movie series. What’s more, people forget that there are not only elves living in the Middle-Earth, so there are languages of men there, dwarves, Ents, orcs, The Black Speech of Sauron, etc.(the full list here). And some of the languages he invented simply as a hobby for himself: Gautisk and Mágo/Mágol.

J. R. R. Tolkien even coined the term glossopoeia which is commonly used nowadays in the linguistic society. It means the language construction, particularly construction of artistic languages. If only he could see at that time that his works would cause fantasy boom 50 years later and this activity would be in high demand. For example, he could surely be a leader of the Language Creation Society. Their members call themselves “conlangers” and help to invent languages for the epic stories such as Dothraki for “Game of Thrones”.

I wonder how many years Tolkien’s heritage will live among us with the same success as now but, anyway, as Bilbo from “The Hobbit” said: “Don’t adventures ever have an end? I suppose not. Someone else always has to carry on the story.” Christopher Tolkien still edits and publishes his father’s numerous manuscripts («The Fall of Arthur» is to be launched in May 2013), Peter Jackson continues with the Hobbit trilogy («The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug» will be released this December) and our imagination still doesn’t let his world come to an end.

P.S. Here are some fun links for «beginners» in Elvish: How to write your name in Elvish and amusing Elvish and Hobbit name generator. Share your variants with us! Enjoy learning artistic languages and „may your beards never grow thin!” (Bilbo) 🙂


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