The Language of Mythology

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“I wish life was not so short, he thought. Languages take such a time, and so do all the things one wants to know about.”

J. R. R. Tolkien

Languages

I consider J.R.R. Tolkien to be one of my favourite fiction authors ever since I first read “The Fellowship of the Rings” when I was 15 years old.  I confess that last night I watched the movie “LOTR – The Fellowship of the Ring” until 2:00am, knowing full well that I would have an early morning start.  It was worth it! Tolkien’s love of words and languages was clearly evident even in his early adolescence when he constructed his first language, “Naffarin.”

Languages were to be his life’s work; up until his death in 1973, he continued working on the grammar and vocabulary of 15 Elvish languages.  He created a secret as well as a sign language for the Dwarves and went on to construct languages for Hobbits, Ents, Orcs and even Black Speech for Sauron.  I have often wondered whether he constructed the language for his mythology or whether it was the other way around. The answer comes in the “Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien,”

“The invention of languages is the foundation. 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.”

What brought me back to Tolkien was a question that has been in the back of my mind ever since my first post on languages.  Will we create new languages in the future?  Perhaps they are now being formed even as we wrestle with the loss of so many of our languages.   The idea of a planned language, which is intentionally invented, as opposed to a natural genesis, is not out of the realm of possibility.  We live in interesting times. As J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote:

“Don’t adventures ever have an end?  I suppose not.  Someone else always has to carry on the story.”

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

40 thoughts on “The Language of Mythology

  1. Love that; “someone else always has to carry on the story’, and they do. And perhaps that will happen to language too.

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    • Did you know that there is a Klingon language that was spoken by the fictional Klingons on Star Trek? There is even a Klingon Language Institute that was founded to promote the Klingon language and culture. I learn something new every day!!! 🙂

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      • Yes, that one I do know about thanks to a very very dedicated Trekkie in my family : ) But, you know how we talked about spending vacations at a language school….well, I don’t really want to go to the Klingon Language Institute 😀 I am happy to let others learn Klingon.

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      • Tell you boyfriend that I am a Trekkie, too! Do you remember the famous quotes from “Star Trek VI – The Undiscovered Country?”

        “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.” Klingon Chancellor Gorkon

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      • I knew that one too, yes. 🙂
        Haha I wonder why you did not know about Klingon then. But I even read the Silmarillion, without knowing about all those Elve languages, so… I know it can happen.

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  2. the youth change the language, mold it to their dreams. Old people don’t grow, change, and invent. So yes, as long as there are children languages will grow.

    That makes me think that the Eldar with almost no children mentioned would have a language that changed little — perhaps high elvish least of all.

    It might be that language is thought – “in the beginning was the word” and like Ursula Le Guin’s Earth Sea there is the true language spoken naturally by dragons, the most powerful of beasts who’s words are elemental.

    I suspect that words obscure the purity of thought, and love and other emotions – and that at some point the truest emotions are known – and need not be spoken.

    My personal experience indicates this is not so, but one always hopes.

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    • I agree! When you look back, it has always been the strength of youth that has driven us ever forward. I share you hope to experience “truest emotions are known” without words. Perhaps that is the message of words and languages – even though we recognize the imperfect translation of thought and emotion, we still continue to look for ways to connect…

      BTW, I must reread the Silmarillion!

      “It is said by the Eldar that in water there lives yet the echo of the Music of the Ainur more than in any substance that is in this Earth; and many of the Children of Ilúvatar hearken still unsated to the voices of the Sea, and yet know not for what they listen.”
      ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

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      • on the other hand, maybe thoughts are just chemicals, and words turn them into that which can be noble and good.

        If you haven’t read Le Guin’s a Wizard of Earthsea, you should pick it up from the library. It is worthy of being a real book, with paper and binding.

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      • Found it in the library and through Amazon/Kindle!! Have placed in on my reading list. Thank you for the recommendation! 🙂

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    • Oh Valerie – that he was. Last night, I laughed out loud when I read his letter to his publisher Allen & Unwin, dated June 3, 1954. He was discussing the jacket of the LOTR and telling them, in no uncertain terms, that they were not up to standard. I understand that no one ever dared to edit any of his works.

      “I wish that I could say that I approve of the proofs of the jacket, herewith returned. I do not. I think they are very ugly indeed.” J.R.R. Tolkien

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  3. 15 Elvish languages…wow. There is a push for one global language…right now it’s English. I know this from having taught ESL and living overseas. Everyone wants to learn English. However, there is still a lot of adoption of words from other languages. If we continue on with the current push towards a global culture, the future language will be probably a blend of the major languages. As for inventing a new one: text language seems to be going strong, and a lot of the “words” are immediately adopted by non-English speakers. This can also say a lot about our methods of communication in the future. Already many people seem to prefer communicating through a screen rather than face to face.

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    • A very interesting perspective and one that I think will continue to unfold. English has become the language of business without a doubt; economics plays a dominant role in all of our choices. I especially like your thought on a blending of languages. At this point we associate English with specific countries, however I envision that language may migrate away from location, inspired by technology and adaption of needs. I agree- texting is growing strong which is in line with your comment that people prefer screen communication as opposed to face to face!!! What is exciting – it’s happening now! And we are active participants in the transformation, whether we know it or not…

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  4. Undoubtedly, something new language-wise will come about. and our own languages will evolve. Though I’ve read that Shakespeare’s Complete Works and the King James version of the Bible have acted as brakes on the development of he English language. Since so many people still read those texts, it creates a common vocabulary. But I often wonder how much the “braking effect” of those texts will last until the English of that era will seem like the English of Chaucer to us now. Chaucer only lived 200 years before Shakespeare, and yet the English he wrote and spoke is barely recognizable as English.

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    • Very insightful. I especially like your concept “braking effect.” It is as if we have canonized our language.

      You would be interested in this 10 minute video which suggests that Shakespeare’s English was pronounced far differently than what we have come to know and recognize.

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      • That was absolutely fascinating. Wow! I now need to see a Shakespeare play done in the dialect of the time.

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      • I knew you would appreciate this video! (I always like Derek Jacabi rendition of Chorus) I look forward to your comments – you add so much to the discussion. 🙂

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  5. I never could even get the hang of Pig Latin. 😦
    One of my regrets in life is that I never learned another language. Well perhaps one of my many regrets. Yes, I know…never too late for anything.

    Did you ever have a friend that you were in tune to with body language?
    I did. When I was about 13 I had a good girl friend and we could almost communicate by a blink of the eye or a shrug of the shoulder or a cough or a little nudge. Very useful in a group of other teens…especially teen boys. It was like we knew when to hold ’em and knew when to fold ’em. I haven’t seen my friend in over 40 years, but I somehow think we could still do it. 🙂

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    • I could never get the hang of Pig Latin either! 😆

      Funny you should mention a long-time friend! Just recently, a friend from childhood (40+ years ago) came to visit. You are quite right – the nuance of body language, and intuitive understanding is still there. It never leaves, especially when you have forged a great understanding when you were children. It seems that children have a better grasp of communicating than adults.

      BTW, have you ever considered learning Klingon!? Just a thought….

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  6. You are a wealth of information. I didn’t know old JRR was a student and creator of languages. I do think our language is evolving slowly, as evidenced by the new words added and old words removed from the official Webster’s. and as for “Someone else always has to carry on the story”, that would be Peter Jackson 🙂

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    • I was listening to Peter Jackson last night, in my of the movie “appendixes.” He said that when he first read the LOTR, he knew it would be a good movie, that he would like to see one day. He never imagined that he would be the director. Life has a way of unfolding…

      As J.R.R. Tolkien once said, “A single dream is more powerful than a thousand realities.”

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  7. A new international language, all on its own–maybe. We need another Tolkien for this.. Did he ever sleep?

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    • Did he sleep? A good question, indeed. It seems that when you engage in what you love most, much is accomplished! 🙂

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  8. I love his books and the movies are really good too, a friend got me into J.R.R. Tolkien years ago, he was so creative in so many levels, this one of my favorite quotes…

    “A single dream is more powerful than a thousand realities.”
    ― J.R.R. Tolkien

    for me Languages are an art and I think it will evolve in the future many writers
    are forming new languages too we will see what happens

    have a great weekend!!

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    • Thank you, Doris!!! I do like that quote – he had a way with words and languages. I just purchased “The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien” via Amazon/Kindle. He really was a fabulous communicator even if he was a little pointed. I am reading the letters around when he first published LOTR. Here is the start of his letter on August 7, 1954 to Katherine Farrer:

      “I am afraid there are still a number of ‘misprints’ in Vol. I! Including the one on p.166.”

      What fun it would have been to work with him! 🙂

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  9. South Africa has 11 official languages, and scores of unofficial ones. Many of the languages overlap one another. I think Tolkien would have found it most interesting to live here for a while. 🙂

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    • How very interesting!!! I never knew South Africa had 11 official languages! Canada has two! You would be interested to know the Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa. While he left for England when he was just a child, it is very possible that he would have been influenced by the richness of South Africa’s languages. Children have a remarkable propensity for languages!

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  10. Absolutely great quotes here!! Love, love them…. Norway has two official languages. Every official document is always in the two versions, for my exams in Norwegian I had to go through a test in both languages.
    Greetings and a big hug to you across the pond
    Dina

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    • Oh my!! I did not know that Norway had two languages. I looked it up and found that Bokmål and Nynorsk have been accorded equal status! And you have a third language that is spoke by about 20,000 : Sámi! Thank you so much! What a learning adventure we are on!!!! These are the times that I feel I’m living this Dr. Seuss quote:

      “You’re off to Great Places!
      Today is your day!
      Your mountain is waiting,
      So… get on your way!”
      ― Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

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    • I love the comments, too! I find that learning cannot be fully realized in isolation. We need a community that supports, challenges, suggests, adds, laughs and cries with us. And that is what I love most about blogging. Thanks for sharing this amazing journey.

      BTW, I never understood Pig Latin, either.

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