For this week’s spotlight on pop culture linguistics, we’ve decided to talk about the proud history and modern practice of constructing languages to fill fictional worlds—so don’t look out for Esperanto, or any other language constructed with the intention of filling the real world.
We’ll be handling ConLangs in a three-part series, because, well, we’re passionate about languages, fiction, and the role that language plays in the imaginative lives of people and cultures.
Part I: J.R.R. Tolkien and the Invention of Invention
Like many English-L1 linguists, the world of J.R.R. Tolkien was my first introduction to linguistics–and to ConLangs. My father read aloud to me from the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings when I was eight years old, and by the time I was fifteen I was attempting my own first constructed languages. (They were bad.)
Although J.R.R. Tolkien was not the first person to attempt constructing a language—that honor goes to the ancients, who constructed languages not for fictional speakers but for the purposes of philosophy, cross-linguistic communication, and aesthetics—his groundbreaking ConLangs can be credited with beginning the rich new era of 20th and 21st century language-creation. Tolkien was a philologist and a professor, who spent much of his time immersed in the same kinds of texts that linguists and philologists today work with, but his efforts at ConLanging began when he was only a child of 13 or 14 years. Elvish languages—of which there were several—and their accompanying writing systems were among the first things he imagined for his epic world-changing mythos. In fact, one could say he created his mythos to give a world to his languages, to give them native speakers and L2 speakers and pragmatics and conversations, to launch them into life, rather than creating his languages to populate and enrich his world.
His first Elvish language (though not his first ConLang) was called Quenya, which was inspired in the early stages by languages he was familiar with, in particular Finnish.
He was so taken with Finnish that he immediately implemented features of Finnish grammar and phonology into his ConLang, to the extent that a hundred years after he began his work, I can still remember showing my friends a song in Finnish and having them comment, “that’s beautiful. It sounds like Elvish.”
According to one of his letters—dated 1964 and a large portion of which was published in now out-of-print issue 17 (2007) of Parma Eldalamberon, a fan magazine devoted to Tolkien’s ConLangs which has been involved since 1992 in the project of editing and compiling of Tolkien’s linguistic papers with the permission of his son, Christopher Tolkien—the influence of Finnish was initially considerably more extensive, but later trimmed significantly in what became Late Quenya. Elements he borrowed from Finnish and that remained in Late Quenya included syntax—lack of grammatical gender, and parts of the case system, including what appears to be the inessive case with the ending -sse (rest in or at), and the inflectional ending -nna (movement toward) and -llo (movement away from), cases which were borrowed from Finnish, though I can’t say whether the actual phonological representation of them came from Finnish too or was invented by Tolkien to fill a grammatical category—and phonological, such as the absence of a voiced stop series, except in NC clusters in which the stop undergoes voicing assimilation toward the voicing setting of the preceding nasal. (Any Finnish speaking readers are welcome to comment on the case endings, which I had a hard time identifying! Are the case endings themselves borrowed, in your opinion? Edit: commenter Edouard Kloczko was happy to confirm that the cases are borrowed–Finnish adessive -lla becomes Quenya -llo, inessive -ssa becomes -sse.)
In another letter, this one found in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (2000, edited by Christopher Tolkien), he described Quenya as having many “phonoaesthetic” influences, including Finnish, Latin, and Greek.
(“Phonoaesthetic” is an excellent word and we should keep it.)
As Tolkien’s ConLangs developed, he developed the world if Middle Earth around them, to accommodate a diachronic vision that included contact-induced language change, diachronic shifting in phonology and semantics. Tolkien even got metascholastic and included a scholarly tradition of philology among the Elves themselves. There were Elvish linguists in his world! Like Rúmil the Elvish philologist who was the invented inventor of one of Tolkien’s invented scripts, Sarati—’later Tengwar’. Tolkien created other scripts like Cirth, Quenyatic, and Gondolinic Runes. There were even families of related languages with shared ancestral roots, and eventually it all led to the world’s first Mythopoeia. The man, the myth-maker, and pop culture’s first ConLanger.
Tune in soon for Part II of our ConLang Series: How Human is Alien Language? Science Fiction, Klingon, and Language
What are your favorite ConLangs, and Conlangers? Are there any you’d like to see us talk about? Have you ever constructed one, or been hired to construct one? Tell us about it in the comments! Send us your favorite examples! And don’t forget to donate to support the LINGUIST List! We are so grateful for your support over the last three decades–you keep us afloat!
–Sarah Robsinson, Publications Editor
on behalf of the LINGUIST List team