J. R. R. Tolkien Writes & Speaks in Elvish, a Language He Invented for The Lord of the Rings

J. R. R. Tolkien was undoubt­ed­ly a sto­ry­teller, but he was even more of a world-builder. One may read the Lord of the Rings nov­els the first time for the high adven­ture, but one re-reads them to con­tin­ue inhab­it­ing the painstak­ing­ly craft­ed alter­nate real­i­ty of Mid­dle-Earth. Tolkien put seri­ous time and effort into the diver­si­ty of not just its mag­ic, its geog­ra­phy, and its inhab­i­tants, but also of its lan­guages. Indeed, the whole of his mas­ter­work could fair­ly be said to have served his lin­guis­tic inter­ests first and fore­most: “Inven­tion of lan­guages is the foun­da­tion,” he once wrote. “The ‘sto­ries’ were made rather to pro­vide a world for the lan­guages than the reverse.”

An Oxford philol­o­gist with a spe­cial inter­est in Old Norse, Tolkien had been exper­i­ment­ing with con­struct­ed lan­guages since ado­les­cence. But it was The Lord of the Rings that allowed him to engage ful­ly in that pur­suit, spurring the cre­ation of such tongues as Adû­na­ic, Dwarvish, and Entish. Like any­one of his lin­guis­tic exper­tise, he under­stood that, in real­i­ty, most lan­guages come to us not in iso­la­tion but in fam­i­lies, and it is the fam­i­ly of Elvish lan­guages — includ­ing Quendya, Exil­ic Quenya, Telerin, Sin­darin, and Nan­dorin — that rep­re­sents the pin­na­cle of his lan­guage-con­struc­tion project.

In the video at the top of the post, Tolkien him­self reads aloud an Elvish-lan­guage poem. Just below, you can see him writ­ing in Elvish script, or Teng­war, one of the sev­en writ­ing sys­tems he cre­at­ed for The Lord of the Rings alone. He did­n’t just assem­ble it out of forms that looked nice to him: much as with the Elvish lan­guage itself, he made sure that it plau­si­bly descend­ed from more basic ances­tors, and that it reflect­ed the his­to­ry, social prac­tices, and mythol­o­gy of its fic­tion­al users. But nor are Elvish or Teng­war com­plete­ly free of any influ­ence from what’s spo­ken and writ­ten in our own world, giv­en that Tolkien could draw on Eng­lish, Old Norse, and Latin, but also Old Eng­lish, Goth­ic, Span­ish, Ital­ian, and Greek.

Tolkien also took a strong inter­est in the Finnish lan­guage. In a let­ter to W. H. Auden, he likened it to “a com­plete wine-cel­lar filled with bot­tles of an amaz­ing wine of a kind and fla­vor nev­er tast­ed before.” The influ­ence of Finnish man­i­fests in cer­tain traits of the Elvish lan­guage of Quenya — “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” — but one sus­pects that Tolkien’s broad­er lit­er­ary sen­si­bil­i­ty was shaped more by the Kale­vala, the nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry nation­al epic that inspired him to take up the study of Finnish in the first place. How close he ever got to mas­tery his­to­ry has­n’t record­ed, but as a fel­low Finnish-learn­er, I can attest that se ei ole help­poa.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Map of Mid­dle-Earth Anno­tat­ed by Tolkien Found in a Copy of Lord of the Rings

J.R.R. Tolkien, Using a Tape Recorder for the First Time, Reads from The Hob­bit for 30 Min­utes (1952)

When J. R. R. Tolkien Worked for the Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary and “Learned More … Than Any Oth­er Equal Peri­od of My Life” (1919–1920)

Ani­mat­ed Video Explores the Invent­ed Lan­guages of Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones & Star Trek

Dis­cov­er Lin­cos, the Lan­guage a Dutch Math­e­mati­cian Invent­ed Just to Talk to Extrater­res­tri­als (1960)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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