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Translation and Fictitious Languages – Part Three: Tolkien’s World

Have you ever wondered where Elvish came from? Pored over the runes to solve the puzzle of the Ring? We’ve all experienced the frustration of trying to find subtitles for the whispered conversations between Aragorn and Arwen, and marveled at the lyrical beauty of the Elven speech, but there’s a lot more to it than that. In the original Lord of the Rings cycle, a whole new world was launched with its own culture, history and languages, all the work of one very gifted man.

Tolkien, Professor of English

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) was an innovator in fantasy writing, whose influence has continued to grow with Peter Jackson’s extraordinary film adaptations of his books. Originally a story Tolkien developed for his children, The Hobbit introduced, to a fascinated audience of all ages, a completely new world, peopled with Elves, Goblins, Dwarves, Orcs, Trolls, and, naturally, Hobbits.

The realm in which these creatures lived, together with Men (in the species sense), was called Middle Earth, a term of Norse mythology, from the name “middan-geard” or Midgard. This represented the Earth itself in Anglo-Saxon poetry, believed to be a battleground where the forces of good fought against evil, and much better known today with the introduction of Nordic myth into Marvel movies such as Thor.

Tolkien and Glossopoeia – Greek for Language-Making

Tolkien himself was a renowned philologist and scholar, who specialised in Middle and Old English (Anglo-Saxon). He was for many years an Oxford University Professor, who formed social clubs where drinking beer and reciting Anglo-Saxon and Nordic poetry were the favored activities.

Language itself was his lifelong passion, and he had been inventing his own languages and scripts since his teens. But a language on its own is of little interest without people to speak it, and people must have a world to live in, and a history of their own. From such reasoning was his Middle Earth born.

Tolkien as Translator

Tolkien knew many ancient and modern languages, and was very interested in Greek, Welsh and the linguistically isolated Finnish. By using these as a foundation for his inventions, Tolkien presented himself as a translator of ancient or obscure languages for his fictitious realm, believing that the fantasy characters themselves could not be fully realized if they only spoke English.

Some of his names alone reflect Tolkien’s professional linguistic background: Sauron is apparently linked to an Icelandic or Old Norse stem meaning “uncleanness”, “filth” or “dung”, and Saruman’s name comes from the Anglo-Saxon root “searu-” meaning “cunning” or “treachery”.

“Mordor” is even more recognizable, deriving from the Old English word “morthor”, and found also in the French “meurtre” which means “murder”.

Tolkien’s Languages

Tolkien also used his deep knowledge of Germanic languages to connect various branches of racially linked characters: the Rohirrim, for example, speak a dialect based on Old English forms, while the Dale Men’s dialect is based on linguistically similar Old Norse. Some Hobbit names, such as Meriadoc (Merry) are derived from Welsh, and most characters speak Westron, a common tongue represented by modern English.

There are several Elvish dialects, of which Quenya and Sindarin are the best developed, and other specialized languages were also drafted, such as the language of the Dwarves (Khuzdul), Entish and the Black Speech used by Sauron.

Tolkien’s World of Language

Tolkien wrote many academic and fictional works based on language, of which the Lord of the Rings cycle are only the best known. In fact, his linguistic works are still being discovered and published by his son, Christopher and a team of appointed editors.

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