Show Hide image

Teach yourself Dwarvish: behind Tolkien’s invented languages

From sound aesthetic to Finnegans Wake, a new book explores Tolkien's relationship to language.

Horsemen, barbaric yet noble, chant ­battle cries. Ridge-browed aliens do the same. Their words are harsh and guttural – as warlike as their weapons. Yet the Dothraki, from Game of Thrones, and the Klingons, from Star Trek, are also standard-bearers for an activity that is solitary, cerebral and painstaking: their languages are entirely made up. For the first time since the pre-1914 vogue for “international auxiliary languages” such as Esperanto, Dothraki has helped to make language invention cool.

Unlike Esperanto, Dothraki and Klingon were not created as communication aids. You can read Hamlet in Klingon, but the language was devised solely to lend a space opera atmosphere and realism. As with Dothraki, its complex grammar and substantial lexicon are far less important than its distinctive, evocative sound. And “sound aesthetic” is central to the older inventions of J R R Tolkien, without whom neither Dothraki nor Klingon is likely to have been conceived. In The Lord of the Rings, we read elegies in Elvish (“Ai! Laurië lantar lassi súrinen . . .”), battle cries in Dwarvish (“Khazâd ai-mênu!”) and slander in Orkish (“Uglúk u bagronk sha pushdug Saruman-glob búbhosh skai”).

Like a linguist version of the ­super-sniffing hero of Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, Tolkien wanted to bottle the essence of languages. It is because of this – and his realisation that a language needs a mythology or culture to “live” – that we have Middle-earth. But he had been tinkering with his languages and mythology for more than two decades before The Hobbit revealed a handful of names in what he came to call the Sindarin tongue: Elrond, Gondolin, Orcrist.

It is only thanks to a talk that he gave in 1931 at his Oxford college, Pembroke, that we have his considered thoughts on language invention. From its title, “A Secret Vice”, onwards, he strikes a note of embarrassment: “I may be like an opium-smoker seeking a moral or medical or artistic defence for his habit.”

It was indeed a long-standing obsession. Although the editors of this new critical edition place his earliest inventions in his mid-teens, Tolkien told one interviewer that he began when he was eight or nine. His talk is a vigorous defence of the “hobby” and, with the support of the background commentaries provided by Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins, it becomes clear that the invention of languages has been a surprisingly widespread activity. A Secret Vice is a thoroughly engaging introduction for the outsider.

Tolkien describes hearing a fellow officer in a dull First World War army lecture exclaim dreamily, “Yes, I think I shall express the accusative case by a prefix!” Whether or not this is Tolkien in fictional guise, the scene is nicely conjured. “How far he ever proceeded in his composition, I never heard. Probably he was blown to bits in the very moment of deciding upon some ravishing method of indicating the subjunctive. Wars are not favourable to delicate pleasures.”

The first language that Tolkien describes, Animalic, was the concoction of two cousins in which “Dog nightingale woodpecker forty” meant: “You are an ass.” Tolkien takes us from this simple substitution code through common argots such as pig Latin (“Ellohay, owhay areyay ouyay?”) to Nevbosh, composed of twisted bits of Latin and French in his early teens. He notes that a few words in Nevbosh were pure inventions – sound clusters that seemed peculiarly fit for their meaning. That leads him on to “sound symbolism”: the idea that even beyond onomatopoeia, we naturally associate certain sounds with certain meanings.

The editors reproduce a short essay in which Tolkien makes an impressive case against the idea but then affirms his conviction in its (unprovable) truth. It was, after all, the method he used for devising his Elvish vocabularies. There is also a glimpse of a previously unknown Tolkienian language – reminiscent (as he says) of the scattered names in Gulliver’s Travels (Blefuscu, Brobdingnag). The most surprising thing about it, coming from Tolkien, is its ugliness.

That is far removed from the Elvish poems he provided as samples of fully realised language invention. He is overcritical in pointing out “their tendency, too free as they were from cold exterior criticism, to be ‘over-pretty’ . . . while their bare meaning is probably trivial, not full of red blood or the heat of the world such as critics demand”. The editors remind us that this was the era of Gertrude Stein’s call to “kill” the 19th century, of Ezra Pound’s exhortation to “make it new”. Tolkien’s samples are mythic in mode but I suspect that they were very much the product of blood and the heat of the world. His apocalyptic Elvish verse about a “last ark” with a bellyful of pale ghosts wailing like gulls (“Man kiluva kirya ninqe/oilima ailinello lúte . . .”) makes me think of the hospital ship that carried Second Lieutenant Tolkien in a fever from France after the Battle of the Somme.

This edition includes not only the 1931 paper but also the various notes that Tolkien made in preparing it. It’s a mishmash, with something for the Elvish buff and something for those who enjoy unlikely cultural collisions. A good example of the latter is a note by Tolkien on the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” section of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. One of the 20th century’s great mythographers and language jugglers writing about another – it could be a gold mine. Tolkien considers the problems of separating the “music” of language from its communicative functions but he is musing to himself in a rapid, ill-formed hand. So Tolkien on Joyce is elliptical, in places opaque – which seems simultaneously ironic and apt.

John Garth is Fellow in Humanistic Studies at the Beverly Rogers, Carol C Harter Black Mountain Institute in Nevada, as well as the author of Tolkien and the Great War (HarperCollins)

A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages , edited by Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins, is published by HarperCollins (223pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The making of a monster

Gallery Stock
Show Hide image

Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496