J.R.R. Tolkien’s Life in Languages
Inventing and adapting the lexicons of Middle-earth
BY Cameron Rasmusson
J.R.R. Tolkien bends over his notebook, pen in hand. With careful, delicate strokes, he writes one character, then another, in the flowing Elvish script he invented for his fantasy legendarium. As he writes the traditional Elvish greeting, “A star shines upon our meeting,” he banters with an interviewer.
“What I’m doing now is to try and write in Elvish,” he says amid careful pen strokes. “And obviously, my writing is very inferior to the elves.”
“Oh, god, I’ve made a mistake, didn’t I?” he later adds, ever the perfectionist.
The footage, captured in 1968 just a few years before his 1973 death and viewable on YouTube, is a portrait of Tolkien at his most charming — an affable philologist in love with his work. There’s a tenderness in the way he inscribes those letters that sticks in one’s mind. And perhaps that’s not surprising. After all, for Tolkien, language was life, not some lesser academic interest but a cornerstone of human civilization brimming with power and depth.
“Languages have a flavor to me,” he said. “I never understand people saying, for instance, it was awfully dry and dull because a new language to me is just like taking a new wine or some new sweetmeat or something.”
More than a half century after those words were uttered, Tolkien’s iconic fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings is more popular than ever. It is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece of fantasy literature and the progenitor of the innumerable books, art, music, and games it inspired. Released from 2001 to 2003, Peter Jackson’s film adaptation is both critically and popularly beloved, considered one of the greatest filmmaking achievements of all time. And introduced in September, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, Amazon Studios’ wildly ambitious love letter to the Tolkien legendarium, is the most expensive TV show ever made. It’s a massive gamble that Tolkien’s timeless appeal will translate to success in the still-uncertain world of streaming media.
If there’s one throughline binding Tolkien’s life, his magnum opus, the Jackson film trilogy, and the Amazon Studios series, it’s language. Language underpins Tolkien’s fascination with mythology and heroic narratives. His invented languages are the backbone of the cultures and peoples of Middle-earth. And both the Jackson films and the Amazon series placed a high priority on doing justice to those languages.
J.R.R Tolkien’s secret vice
Most sources point toward Tolkien first encountering constructed languages, or language that is designed purposefully rather than naturally evolved, around the age of 10. A day spent with his cousins exposed the youngster to Animalic, a simplistic language transposing animal names for words.
“I was never fully instructed in it, nor a proper Animalic speaker,” Tolkien wrote in the lecture-turned-essay A Secret Vice, one of the major sources for understanding the author’s relationship to language and its connection to mythology. “But I remember out of the rag-bag of memory that ‘dog nightingale woodpecker forty’ meant, ‘You are an ass.’”
Of course, it was little more than a child’s game, but it must have made a strong enough impression for Tolkien to remember it in his adulthood, discuss it in lectures, and use it as a starting point for the life in language that would follow.
“I first began to seriously invent languages about the time I was 13 or 14, and I’ve never stopped, really,” he said in the 1968 interview.
This initial exposure to the concept of constructed languages led to more childish experiments, as Tolkien explains in A Secret Vice. There was Nevbosh, or the New Nonsense, which itself was a simple distortion of English words. But Nevbosh evolved into Naffarin, Tolkien’s first attempt at a private language. More sophisticated in its conception, it drew influences from Spanish and Latin as well as English and prefigures the yet-more-complex work Tolkien tackled in adulthood.
“It was a purely private production, partly overlapping the last stages of Nevbosh, never circulated (though not for lack of the wish),” Tolkien wrote in A Secret Vice. “It has long since been foolishly destroyed, but I can remember more than enough, accurately and without sophistication, for my present purpose.”
As Tolkien moved into adulthood, his love of language and language invention deepened. This was aided by his becoming familiar with Finnish, for which he formed an instant attachment. As he described in one of his letters, it was “like discovering a complete wine cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavor never tasted before.”
Indeed, the beauty and aesthetic qualities of language were of paramount importance to Tolkien, a fact readily apparent in the flowing script and elegant formations of his Elvish languages. A primary concern for Tolkien in developing his constructed languages was the pleasure he himself derived from the work, not just from the beauty it created, but also in the act of creation itself.
“The instinct for ‘linguistic invention’ — the fitting of notion to oral symbol, and pleasure in contemplating the new relation established, is rational, and not perverted,” he wrote in A Secret Vice. “In these invented languages the pleasure is more keen than it can be even in learning a new language — keen though it is to some people in that case — because [it is] more personal and fresh, more open to experiment of trial and error. And it is capable of developing into an art, with refinement of the construction of the symbol, and with great nicety in the choice of notional range.”
For Tolkien, the pleasure derived from the development of these languages was a good in and of itself. Indeed, he had a rather low view of constructed languages developed for in-group use, as he expressed in his 1968 interview.
“I wouldn’t mind other people knowing [my languages] and enjoying [them], but I didn’t really want to make other … well, like some people who are equally inventive in languages have done, which is try to make cults and have people all speaking it together,” he said. “No, I don’t desire to go and have afternoons talking Elvish to chaps. One thing, of course: Elvish is too complicated. I’ll never finish making it.”
All these linguistic philosophies combined into what ultimately became Tolkien’s life’s work in constructed language: the Elvish languages. As Tolkien’s legendarium began to take shape in his mind, the myths sprang from the languages rather than the languages from the myths.
“The invention of languages is the foundation,” Tolkien wrote in a letter. “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.”
Tolkien’s Elvish languages are primarily expressed through two separate forms: Quenya, the language of the elves beyond the sea, and Sindarin, the language of the elves who dwelled in the northwest during Middle-earth’s First Age that became the primary Elvish tongue of the Third Age. As Tolkien expressed in A Secret Vice, he found the development of his mythological history of a piece with its language.
“Just as the construction of a mythology expresses at first one’s taste, and later conditions one’s imagination, and becomes inescapable, so with this language,” he wrote. According to Tolkien’s letters, it was his beloved Finnish that proved a major early influence, but one that lessened as Quenya in particular developed.
“It survives in some features,” he wrote, “such as the absence of any consonant combinations initially, the absence of the voiced stops b, d, g (except in mb, nd, ng, ld, rd, which are favored) and the fondness for the ending -inen, -ainen, -oinen, also in some points of grammar, such as the inflexional endings -sse (rest at or in), -nna (movement to, towards), and -llo (movement from); the personal possessives are also expressed by suffixes; there is no gender.”
Quenya and Sindarin may have been Tolkien’s most sophisticated constructed languages, but they were far from the only ones. He developed multiple tongues to varying degrees of completeness reflecting all the peoples and cultures of his legendarium, from the Numenorean men to the human and hobbit communities of The Shire, Dale, and Rohan to the languages of the dwarves and even the ents.
As for real-world languages, it’s difficult to know with certainty exactly which languages Tolkien wielded with conversational fluency as opposed to an academic familiarity through translation and study. Certainly, it’s a topic of much informed speculation among fans and scholars alike. Regardless, it may be fair to infer it was language, both constructed and natural, that remained the scholar’s first and fiercest intellectual love.
Bringing a world of language to life
It’s easy to forget how profoundly Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy rewrote the book on fantasy filmmaking. Certainly, great fantasy films existed before Jackson’s team tackled the project of a lifetime. But if there’s one thing that distinguishes Jackson’s approach, it’s a commitment to the realism with which Tolkien imbues his story of magical rings and dark lords.
“I wanted something that felt much, much more real,” Jackson said at the time. “Tolkien writes in a way that makes everything come alive, and we wanted to set that realistic feeling of an ancient world-come-to-life right away with the first film.”
That commitment to realism extended to the languages that Tolkien himself so painstakingly devised. The filmmaking team sought to capture Tolkien’s languages as accurately and authentically as every other element of his literary epic.
According to a 2002 Los Angeles Times article, they found a helping hand in David Salo, at the time a graduate student in linguistics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. When he learned of the planned film trilogy, he reached out to lend his expertise, and to his surprise, they contacted him to accept his offer. Throughout the films’ production, he’d receive requests for various lines translated into the appropriate language — easier said than done, since there’s no definitive guide on the subject.
“He gives little hints here and there. So you look at that, you look at the patterns, and you extrapolate,” Salo told the Los Angeles Times.
Salo also worked with dialect and language coaches Andrew Jack and Roisin Carty, recording samples of Elvish languages so they could, in turn, work with the films’ cast.
Two decades later, Middle-earth is back on the screen, this time as Amazon Studios’ The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. And it’s not as though the team could simply repurpose the work established for the film trilogy. Set thousands of years before the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the story’s languages in use are as different as the Roman Empire’s Latin is compared to modern languages.
For instance, Quenya, which itself might be described as Middle-earth’s Latin, is more commonly heard throughout the series than in The Lord of the Rings. Likewise, the series spends more time in dwarvish and orcish cultures, which all come with their own linguistic traditions.
Dialect coach Leith McPherson, who first consulted on the languages of Middle-earth for Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, returned to help guide the portrayal of language in Rings of Power. And returning to Middle-earth to explore its languages’ deeper history was both a comfort and a challenge.
“There are pathways, descriptions for sounds Tolkien set. We are honoring his work,” she told the website Inverse. “We’re not venturing so far off the map that Tolkien himself hasn’t given scope for it. At the same time, we have flexibility to create, to be creative with the aural.”
It’s certainly not an easy undertaking, McPherson indicates in her interviews. After all, Tolkien was one man who developed his myths and languages over many decades. And people are messy. They’re variable. They make mistakes.
“Tolkien never really opened all of the doors and cupboards in the house,” she told Inverse. “He himself, dare I say, was inconsistent. He would revise a word, it would have a meaning here and have a different meaning there. Even the most developed forms of his work are not complete. It eludes in ways. I was talking about this with the showrunners at one point, it’s like Tolkien was terraforming with language.”
But in the end, isn’t that the beauty of The Lord of the Rings? For all the mythic heroics, the story is ultimately a celebration of the weak, the frail, the humble. It’s an ode to small, simple souls like Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, whose goodness of spirit is more powerful than the mightiest warlord. That light suffuses Tolkien’s life’s work and languages. And it’s why, decade after decade, readers and viewers continue to immerse themselves — and in the process, find themselves — in the fantasy world of Middle-earth.
Cameron Rasmusson is the editor-in-chief of MultiLingual Media.