Conlangs in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings
The immense and expansive use of language creation in the Tolkien universe has no comparison. We are all familiar with his most popular “The Lord of the Rings” series and the epic saga that all the characters went through. Whether you discovered this fascinating saga through reading or watching the awe-inspiring film adaptation, there is no getting around the beautiful languages that Tolkien has built for this world. The most intriguing part of all is that Tolkien’s love for language and linguistics was so great that he painstaking ensured that the languages that were built follow precise syntax, phonotactics, and real-world applications of sociolinguistic variations. It is estimated that the Lord of the Rings alone features up to 14 conlangs and handfuls of European languages. Today we look at the variety of real-life inspired language constructs in his books that many do not even realize are there!
Words are powerful. A simple statement with endless implications. Right now, you are reading these words and you could be a thousand miles away from where I am now, yet I am able to transport meaning to you. I can say something like, “I am a pink elephant using my trunk like a trumpet” and now you have an image in your head. This is incredible when you take a moment to think about how powerful that is.
Tolkien was a linguaphile who understood this power all too well. He knew the power of language and the power of words specifically. So much so, he decided to take it a step further and have words given actual physical and metaphysical abilities within The Lord of the Rings. The most obvious representations of this comes in the form of spells. These words of power were used by a variety of players in the series. Most notably, Gandalf with his command spell that opened the door at the Mines of Moria and his protection spell used against the Balrog. Also, every time Movie Sauron’s eye appears to the characters his “dark” speech inflicts physical pain on those who are unfortunate enough to catch his gaze.
There is another aspect to the power of language in Tolkien’s books, he adds complex sociolinguistic factors that mirror what we see in real-life language constructs. Noam Chomsky famously said, “A language is not just words. It’s a culture, a tradition, a unification of community, a whole history that creates what community is.” A striking example is the language representations in the realm of humans. The humans that live in Gondor embrace sociolinguistic variations of “English” that bring in word choices of ruling classes, defeatism, and language that is bitter towards the past glories of a former Gondor led by Kings instead of Stewards. Good examples are from Denethor when he says, “Better to burn sooner than late, for burn we must... No tomb for Denethor and Faramir...We shall burn, like the heathen kings before...” Whereas, the characters who are based in Rohan use vocabularies that reflect their deep connection to horses along with their sturdy, nomadic, and battle-ready ideals even when faced with adversity. Even the name Rohan means “Horse County.” King Theoden shows a strong notion of this in his pre-battle cry speech, “Arise, arise, riders of Theoden! Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter! Spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered, a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises! Ride now, ride now!" As well with Theoden's attitude towards not being on the battlefield of Helms deep, “If I could have set a spear in rest, riding before my men up the field...but I serve little purpose here."
Adding to the complex variations of language Tolkien adds to his world, he includes an even more relevant sociolinguistic factor. A very common, real-life sociolinguistic rule that happens when you have mass amount of variations and different languages in one confined area is not just bilingualism but dualism in meanings. For instance, Saruman’s name itself means “man of skill” in Quenya (one of the many variations of Elvish) so it is no wonder that his position was head of the wizard’s council. Furthermore, his tower Orthanc means “cunning mind” in the Old English of Rohan and “Mount Fang” in Elvish. Also, Mordor in Old English means “murder” and in Elvish means “Black Country.”
An even more deep layer of complexity that many forget is that the entire story of the Lord of the Rings is written from perspective of Tolkien, theoretically, transliterating the accounts of Hobbits, therefore anything that is not known or understood to the Hobbits, either linguistically or historically in Middle Earth, is not recorded in the Lord of the Rings. Mind. Blown. Which means, as Tolkien has pointed out, that there is potential for mistranslations of language to have occurred and this also explains why certain events are omitted while other events are placed in detail. For example, since the Hobbits are creatures of the Earth (literally living inside the Earth), this explains the reasons behind the excruciating detail that is put into the Lord of the Rings when it comes to nature and describing the physical world that surrounds these characters. This also explains why we never know the true fates of Shelob or those that sail to the Gray Havens. Talk about an extremely meta way of writing, but it is no surprise that this level of complexity surrounds Tolkien’s saga as it is estimated that it took him nearly 17 years to complete. It is no wonder why we bookworms, writers, and linguists alike continue to be enthralled by the Tolkien’s wonderous Middle-earth.