JRR Tolkien & Language

JRR Tolkien and language are inextricably entangled. Language was perhaps the single most important influence on the creation and early development of Middle Earth.

Beowulf Page Tolkien had an abiding life-long love of language (particularly Anglo-Saxon and Welsh), and spent many of his adult years as a Professor of Anglo-Saxon language and literature at Oxford.

His youth was devoted to his love of language. His mother introduced him at a very young age to Latin and French.

During his middle school and later school years he began learning Greek, Anglo-Saxon (or Old English), Welsh, Ancient Norse, Finnish, Icelandic, and Spanish.

Tolkien was also a prodigious inventor of languages. From his early childhood, he loved to tinker with words and in effect “invent” new languages of his own.

Later, after his return to England from WWI, Tolkien worked as a junior editor for the Oxford English Dictionary, a job he enjoyed immensely. He loved researching and discovering the intricate roots and etymologies of words. He later employed this deep etymological knowledge to the creation of his own “Elvish” languages and others of Middle Earth.

He created no less than fourteen languages for Middle Earth’s various races, and in many respects these languages predate the stories themselves.

So important was Tolkien’s love of language in the construction of Middle Earth that he often built the legends of Middle Earth around the languages, rather than vice versa, constructing a culture around the invented body of language.

This happened because, as Daniel Grotta notes in his excellent biography, “he realized that language presupposed a mythology”.

Tolkien himself stated in a letter to his American publishers in 1955

  • “…a primary ‘fact’ about my work, that it is all of a piece, and fundamentally linguistic in inspiration…The invention of language is the foundation. To me a name comes first and the story follows.” (Letters p. 219)

Tolkien’s most complete languages, the Elven languages, are loosely rooted in Welsh and Finnish. He loved the sound of these languages, and found that their melodic quality lent itself to the beauty and grace of the Elven races. Grotta goes on to note:

  • “Tolkien realized that Elvish was useless as a language unless it too had a mythology, or a meaningful history to explain its origin and justify its existence.”

This, in some ways, led to the development of Middle Earth – its people, stories, beauties and sorrows…it allowed him to construct his myth around the invented languages.

Language becomes, throughout Tolkien’s mythologies, one of the single most powerful elements.

The songs of the dwarves near the beginning of The Hobbit stirs the desire for adventure in Bilbo and sets him off on his great quest.

Later in the book, Bilbo competes in a verbal “riddle contest” with Gollum for ownership of the One Ring. This reliance on language, on the verbal, pervades Tolkien’s mythologies. This point is even more apparent in The Lord of the Rings (think of the natural power of Tom Bombadil and its reliance on language, not physical power).

The more one dives into the depth of The Silmarillion and Tolkien’s other early writings the more one sees the influence of language.

The “Word” of the creator, Illuvatar. The “Song” of the Ainur. Tolkien realized the significance the Biblical creation story. In the beginning was only the “Void”. And creation began with the Word.

In very much the same way, Tolkien’s mythology, his Middle Earth, began and ended with the Word.

Tom Shippey, who is in my view the preeminent scholar on Tolkien’s works, states it most bluntly:

  • “Tolkien, then, was a philologist before he was a mythologist, and a mythologist, at least in intention, before he ever became a writer of fantasy fiction.” (JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century p. xvi)

That, I think, succinctly describes Tolkien’s relationship with language, and its ultimate effect upon his creations and his writings.