By: Sara Matz | A three-minute read.
September 22nd is Hobbit day, celebrating the birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins and we’re celebrating with a two part blog dissecting the way J.R.R. Tolkien created Middle Earth. Tolkien’s vivid imagination and brilliant understanding of communications and writing solidifies him as one of the most inspirational fantasy authors in our lifetime.
If imagining and describing an entire universe wasn’t intimidating enough, J. R. R. Tolkien created an almost complete language! Quenya, the elvish language, is an amalgam of Finnish, Greek, Latin and Germanic languages, all languages Tolkien was familiar with before writing Lord of the Rings. To put into perspective the difficulty in building a language Tolkien’s notes date back to 1910, and the books came out in 1954. There are several books of poetry Tolkien wrote in the years leading up to The Lord of The Ring’s release.
Over the course of 44 years, Quenya evolved, gaining new slang and dialect until it was ready for the novel. Tolkien studied heavily the evolution of language to assure it felt realistic and natural, the high elves speak in Quenya, but some elves who moved to Eldamar learned Sindarin, retiring Quenya as a more artistic language. This reminds me of how we use Shakespearean English to create a poetic feel in modern day writing.
The growth and separation of the Elvish languages plays a huge role in character development and distinguishing the cultural differences between elves in Middle Earth and should be considered in characters in all time periods when writing. We love to tease younger generations for their new-fangled slang, but as language is ever changing its effect is not to be overlooked. The Oxford English Dictionary has gotten some heat over the years for adding slang to the dictionary (Fun fact: The Oxford English Dictionary also had Tolkien write a few entries for them). Acronyms such as wtf, yolo, and brb are treated as words and are a large part of the cultural evolution of language. If your writing takes place in 2018 and you’re developing a character who does not have a lot of contact with teens and young adults, the way they speak will be considerably different than an 18-year-old might speak. They may even use slang in a mocking, or degrading tone to attempt superiority over their younger counterparts. This would be very different than writing a “cool mom” trying to connect with their kids by putting “yeet” into her everyday language.
Where your writing takes place has a lot to do with the way people speak as well, and if you plan to take your reader on an adventure with multiple locations, having everyone speak the same is unrealistic. In Tolkien’s universe, the elven language is considered diglossic, meaning two dialects of the same language used in the same community. An example in modern culture is China, most people speak and understand Mandarin but there are more than 10 variations of the Chinese language, familiarizing yourself with how people use both languages interchangeably will make your book more realistic to the reader. If your character speaks Mandarin and is speaking to two people who also speak Gan it would not be farfetched for them to have a private conversation in Gan in front of your protagonist.
Along with creating a spoken language, Tolkien created a complete written language for the elves, and for his own poetic expression. One of the more famous poems written in elvish is Namárië, Galadriel’s Lament, Click here to hear the poem read by Tolkien with the text featured here. Written language can be a fun addition to a book and a strong use of imagery to move the story along. Your protagonist could be researching hieroglyphics in Egypt, or your antagonist could send a ransom note made from cut up magazine clippings the visual stimulation of the text will entice your reader.
Quenya and Sindarin are beautiful when written and spoken which caused a huge boom in fan art and poetry in the 60’s and 70’s. Fans were able to teach themselves the vocabulary Tolkien established, then filled in the rest with the alphabet available. Many fans bewitched by Tolkien’s poetry have been translating his work in Elvish and releasing beautiful new editions for all to read. Tolkien’s influence on Rock and Metal are far from subtle. One of the more famous bands that reference The Lord of the rings is Led Zepplin. The opening lines of “Ramble On” are a (rough) translation from a poem Tolkien wrote in Quenya, and dedicates a verse to Gollum stealing “her,” “Misty Mountain Hop” is a location Bilbo hangs out at in The Hobbit. Rush’s song “Rivendell,” best known for the plucky acoustic riffs, even updated their music video to include clips of the 2001 movies.
Thank you for reading my blog, I hope you enjoyed it.
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