How J.R.R. Tolkien Created Fantastic Worlds With Language

J.R.R. Tolkien’s life was deeply intertwined with constructed languages and the worlds he made with them.

Clip courtesy of 21st Century Fox. Tolkien is in theaters May 10, 2019.

J.R.R. Tolkien is one of the most influential 20th-century writers. In fact, you don’t even need to qualify that with “20th-century.” The Lord of the Rings may not have invented fantasy, but it cemented many of the tropes that define the genre. And while the novels that Tolkien wrote give a glimpse of Middle-earth, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Tolkien fleshed out an incredibly detailed fictional world that extended far beyond his most famous stories. And nowhere is this exhibited more than in the constructed languages (or conlangs) that Tolkien created.

Conlangs have been around for centuries. The first one we know about is German nun Hildegard von Bingen’s Lingua Nolta, which was created in the 12th century CE and is believed to have had mystical uses. There were other conlangs created over the years for a range of reasons — Esperanto and Volapük were created to be international languages, for example — and Tolkien built on this and created dozens of conlangs of varying complexity. By exploring the possibilities of language, Tolkien created the most iconic fictional universe of all time.

Tolkien’s Early Life

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in 1892 in Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State in South Africa (which is now called the Free State Province). After the sudden death of his father when Tolkien was 3, he moved with his mother and younger brother to Sarehole, a hamlet in England. Eventually, he was sent to King Edward’s School in nearby Birmingham.

From an early age, Tolkien showed a predilection for languages. He mastered Latin and Greek early on, though that’s not particularly unusual because they were both major parts of the English school curriculum at the turn of the century. What was more surprising was that he moved on to other languages, like Gothic and Finnish. And at just 13 years old, he made his first foray into playing with language by creating Nevbosh, which was a substitution cipher (where symbols replace letters to make a code). Shortly after that, he made his first known conlang, Naffarin, and from then on continued creating and expanding his languages.

Tolkien’s childhood was a hard one; after losing his father at a very early age, his mother died when Tolkien was 12 years old. As orphans, he and his brother were looked after by their local parish priest Father Francis Morgan, and they were placed with various caretakers before reaching adulthood. When he finished secondary school, Tolkien enrolled in Exeter College at Oxford University, where he attended the school for English Language and Literature while continuing his extensive study of the world’s languages. It’s not known exactly how many languages he studied in his lifetime, but it likely numbered in the dozens.

Thanks to the outbreak of World War I, Tolkien’s life did not get easier after university. Tolkien spent a few months in the trenches in 1916, but eventually caught a typhus-like infection that forced him to be sent home for treatment. While he made it out mostly unscathed and left the army in 1920 after a few years of home service, many of his friends died in the war. A few years after his return to England, Tolkien became a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford and embarked upon his academic career.

Tolkien And Languages

While in many cases conlangs are created after stories were already written, the opposite was true for J.R.R. Tolkien. For him, the stories were inspired by the languages he was creating.

One of the first truly expansive languages Tolkien created was Elfin, which he would later rename Quenya. Inspired to create a language after encountering Finnish, he started working on Quenya around 1910. Tolkien spent the following few decades tweaking Quenya’s grammar, as well as working on other conlangs. It’s notable that each language he created did not exist in isolation. To make his later works as realistic as possible, he designed them to have histories. Tolkien made the proto-language of Elves Valarin,  for example. He then designed all of the dialects of Elvish to believably be descended from this single proto-language, much as the languages of Europe are mostly descended from a single proto-language.

To accomplish this, Tolkien had to draw on his large knowledge of philology, which is the study of historical linguistics. He understood what kind of changes have happened in real language — pronunciation changes, grammatical changes, vocabulary changes — and used this to inform his constructed languages. Tolkien drew from existing languages by incorporating various characteristics from them into his conlangs. You can tell, for example, that the language of the Dwarves in The Lord of the Rings shares traits with Hebrew.

Often, when people hear about all of the work J.R.R. Tolkien put into designing these languages, they ask a question: Why? After all, most readers don’t take the time to learn the many, many languages that Tolkien created for Middle-earth. In his letters, Tolkien said that the main reason is to fulfill a certain “linguistic aesthetic.” For example, Elvish was designed to be “classical and inflected.” To do this, Tolkien drew from his extensive knowledge of existing languages and incorporated characteristics from them into his conlangs.

This idea of linguistic aesthetics, or phonaesthetics, is an idea strongly tied to Tolkien. The scene from Tolkien above references his belief that “cellar door,” despite not describing something beautiful, is the most beautiful phrase in the world. There’s the counterargument that our impressions of language “beauty” are shaped by the languages we grow up around, but Tolkien believed words can create meaning and emotion independent of their explicit definition.

The Hobbit, The Lord Of The Rings And The Legendarium

In the mid-1930s, J.R.R. Tolkien started telling his children a story that involved dragons, a ring and a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins. He eventually typed the book up in a loose manuscript which ended up with Susan Dagnall, who happened to work for the publishing firm George Allen and Unwin. Dagnall encouraged Tolkien to flesh out the story, and in 1937, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again gave readers the first glimpse into Tolkien’s world. The book was an instant success and has been a staple of children’s literature since.

The Hobbit was meant to be a one-off fun story for children and not part of a massive fictional landscape. Tolkien was far too busy working on his legendarium, a project he started in 1916 that sketches out the entirety of Middle-earth and is tied in with the development of Tolkien’s conlangs. The legendarium is better known today by the name The Silmarillion, which comprises the full mythology and history of Tolkien’s world. The Hobbit was influenced by the legendarium, but only lightly.

After the success of The Hobbit, Tolkien was asked for a sequel, so he submitted his legendarium. The publishers decided it was a tad too niche, however. The book wouldn’t be published until 1977, which was four years after Tolkien’s death. In the hopes of creating a more popular text, Tolkien went about writing a more traditional sequel to The Hobbit, which would end up becoming the beginning of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

It would take a very long time to list all of the writing and academic work Tolkien did in his lifetime, and we don’t want to ignore his many accomplishments. But The Lord of the Rings is truly the culmination of Tolkien’s life work, combining his language works with a story that would become one of the most famous in the world.

Tolkien’s Legacy

During his lifetime, Tolkien alluded to a huge number of conlangs, which varied from merely hypothetical to fully fleshed-out (probably only about two could be considered “full” languages). His most lasting legacy, however, is likely the even larger number of languages people have made since then.

As mentioned earlier, Tolkien didn’t invent the concept of artlangs (conlangs designed for aesthetic pleasure), but he made them far more common. Tolkien’s ideas helped the creation of Klingon for Star Trek, Na’vi for Avatar, and Dothraki and High Valyrian for Game of Thrones. Most ambitious fantasy and sci-fi today usually involves at least a rudimentary conlang.

More than that, Tolkien inspired a deeper love of language among many of his readers. He showed the world that language doesn’t have to be simply a tool to communicate, and you don’t have to be limited to the measly 7,000 languages that are spoken in the world today. Languages can be an art and craft in themselves.

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