Tolkien Created Elvish Before He Wrote His Famous Novels

“A story must be told or there’ll be no story, yet it is the untold stories that are most moving.” —J.R.R. Tolkien, letter to his son

In A Nutshell

Most people are aware that J.R.R. Tolkien is best known for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. However, he was first and foremost a philologist, one who studies language. He had an immense interest in language syntax and construction and began creating his Elvish languages many years before he published the now-famous novels.

The Whole Bushel

It should come as no surprise that Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien was a massive nerd. Before and after fighting in World War I, he studied linguistics and literature, where one of his main tasks was the apparently thrilling work on the history of Germanic words beginning with the letter “w.” He then went on to translate many works from their ancient English or Germanic languages, such as putting the epic poem Beowulf in modern English. In fact, his translation of Beowulf and several other ancient texts are the reason they are read in schools today.

His massive appetite for languages eventually led him to create his own. However, this wasn’t the sort of secret code pig Latin that one may make think up as a child; this was a full-blown language, complete with grammatical structure, syntax, and pronunciation. Tolkien created as many as 15 separate dialects of his Elvish language, all of which “evolved” from a syntactically relevant proto-language. In fact, Tolkien described the proto-language as the product of the elves trying to communicate their creation (despite their fictitious nature).

The most astonishing part? He did it all before he crafted a tale of hobbits and elves and rings. Incredibly, all of these languages, constructed by one man for a fictional universe that hadn’t even been created or publicly discussed, had proper linguistic structures, etymologies, and clear paths of linguistic evolution. Only later did he construct the world of Middle-earth that we all know so well through his writings and the cinematic creations of Peter Jackson.

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In addition to his Elvish spoken languages, he also invented written counterpart scripts to these languages, new letters and runes to represent his invented languages. He even created his own script for modern English, simply for his personal convenience. Tolkien’s creations are so expansive, that new words and grammar rules are still being discovered today by groups dedicated to poring over and making sense of his tremendous mass of notes and papers. Many of these documents were published by his son, Christopher Tolkien, though much of it has yet to be studied.

Tolkien is now considered the “father of modern fantasy,” and his works have influenced nearly all forms of modern literature and storytelling. Tolkien’s dedication to his work was fanatical, at times nearly neurotic, and seemed to be more a part of his life and his world than was the real world we live in. Having created so much and set in motion a living, breathing world, supported by the minds and imaginations of those who have read and interpreted his writings, it is astonishing that there are still new discoveries about his fictional world. Many of his notes (which encompass nearly everything he did and recorded his thoughts in a fashion that one would expect of someone whose life was so entrenched in academia and knowledge-seeking) are now available for the public to read. Try them out, and catch a glimpse into his brilliant, obsessive mind.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: New Line Cinema via Wikia The Tolkienian Linguistics FAQ
Ardalambion: Of the Tongues of Arda, the invented world of J.R.R. Tolkien
National Geographic: Beyond the Movie: “The Lord Of The Rings,” Language & Culture

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