For the 200th issue of “Lembas”, I wrote “Pedeg edhellen?”, an article on Tolkien & Languages. An English translation is below.
Lembas readers will surely agree: Tolkien was a talented philologist. His interests within linguistics may seem mainly scientific, but his love of languages and beautiful use of language was also deeply personal. He therefore studied a huge number of very diverse languages. A random sample? English and Old English, Latin and Old Greek, French, German, Finnish, Gothic, Italian, Old Norse (Old Icelandic), Spanish, Welsh and Middle Welsh. In addition, he has studied Danish, Dutch, Norwegian, Russian, Serbian and Swedish. Through this love of language learning, he also developed his own view of the learning process. And his view starts with fun – an indispensable aspect of learning in general and of learning the languages from The Lord of the Rings in particular.
Step 1: choose your favourite languages – Q Merin sa haryalye alasse!
For Tolkien, language learning was something to be enjoyed. An adventure, not a task. The latter makes little sense, because “no language is justly studied merely as an aid to other purposes. It will in fact better serve other purposes, philological or historical, when it is studied for love, for itself,” he said about this, in a lecture at Oxford University (21 October 1955). For him, then, the first step towards learning a new language was to choose one you love. What is the language you deeply want to learn? Contrary to common definitions, Tolkien referred to it by the term “native language”, which in Dutch we usually translate as “mother tongue”. But for Tolkien, native language is something other than “the language your mother spoke”. As has long been pointed out by many other academics – notably Yoko Hemmi 2021 – Tolkien’s use of the term is ‘original’ to say the least (as he himself admits). For Tolkien, the term ‘native language’ does not refer to the first language a child hears around them, or the language a person has spoken for most of their childhood, the language a person thinks and dreams in, the language a person is most at home in.
Tolkien talks about how we all have our own personal language potential and thus all have a personal mother tongue. According to him, there are all kinds of preferences in the individual for certain phonetic elements or combinations thereof, and these preferences would thus reflect an individual’s innate language preference. Personally, I do not believe in innate language preferences, as I think language learning is more ‘nurture’ than ‘nature’, but I cannot deny that I too have always had notable language preferences that differ from the content of my mother tongue. (For example, I was in love with Egyptian hieroglyphics as a child, in the same way I now work on Chinese characters). To avoid confusion, in this article I will refer to Tolkien’s concept of ‘native language’ with the description “personal protolanguage”.
For Tolkien, step one in the learning process is determining that language, your personal protolanguage. Identify the languages you love the most, because these are the expressions of the language you deeply want to learn. Tolkien encouraged people to learn these because he believed that the enthusiasm for them will always be there and that learning them will help you achieve your other goals: philological, historical and creative. Put into words why you love this language so much and what you love about reading, writing, speaking and hearing it. Then you will be ready for your journey!
This enthusiasm enabled Tolkien to learn the languages he admired and invent his own for The Lord of the Rings. Of course, he was not the first to create a ‘conlang’, or constructed language; as early as the 12th century, Hildegard von Bingen invented her Lingua Nolta. Another well-known example is Esperanto, from 1887, the world’s most widely spoken constructed international auxiliary language. Yet there are some important differences between the languages Tolkien constructed and these two examples. Namely, the languages in The Lord of the Rings are not a means of communication for existing, living people. Whereas in Hildegard’s monastery, the language was like a cross within itself, with connections between the monastics on the horizontal axis and the connection to the Higher on the vertical axis, Esperanto – literally ‘one who hopes’ – is an easy-to-learn and neutral language as an attempt at equality and brotherhood between world citizens of different cultural backgrounds. A language like Elvish serves very different purposes, being a vehicle to build a fictional world. As a result, the content of the LOTR languages is also substantially different and this makes learning and using them (for anyone other than Tolkien himself) relatively difficult. As with Klingon – tlhIngan Hol, an art language from Star Trek – and Lìʼfya leNaʼvi – the language from the film Avatar – people who choose Elvish as their native language run into all kinds of obstacles in their learning process, due to the incomplete nature of the language, the lack of learning resources and the rarity of speakers.
Step 2: delve into the languages’ backgrounds – Quel marth!
Will you rise to the challenge, does your heart leap when you mimic Tengwar (the Fëanoric characters) and Cirth (the runic script), or do you melt when you hear Viggo Mortensen singing in Elvish? To some extent, the languages from The Lord of the Rings can be learnt. However, the lack of learning materials is challenging. If you want to learn French, German or Italian, you are drowning in the supply of structured teaching methods in all shapes and sizes; for New Entish, you have to be happy if you find a word list online somewhere. You then have to hope that the information is correct – there are no living people who speak it and can correct your mistakes – and you have to be aware of which language phase the information comes from, because these languages are not constant. Like natural languages, the Elf languages have different stages in their development. But because they are artificial languages, their history is double. When learning from and about the languages of Middle-earth, you would therefore do well to take into account two aspects: their “primary world” history, that is, their literal development by Tolkien as a linguist, and their “secondary world” history, that is, their imagined historical development in the history of Middle-earth.
You can learn Elvish, if you want. It’s a language like Italian and English. You can learn to read it, you can learn to write it, and you can learn to speak it.Christopher Lee
All that said – it is indeed possible, there are people who have mastered the languages devised by Tolkien and you can become one of them. Before you start, it is important to decide what you want to learn. Because while Sindarin and Quenya are the best known and most elaborate languages, they are far from being the only ones. They belong to a family of Eldar dialects that have their origins in Common Eldarine, the language common to all Eldar, which in turn evolved from “Primitive Quendic”, the common root of the Eldarine and Avarine languages. There is also a separate language family spoken by Humans, within which Westron (derived from the Númenórean language Adûnaïsch), the “Common Speech” of the peoples of The Lord of the Rings, is most prominent. You can also choose one of the independent languages, for example the Khuzdul of the Dwarves, the Valarin of the Valar or the Black Speech of Sauron. A consideration when choosing a language is the ‘why’ behind it. Was the language created and/or do you want to learn it from a communicative point of view (to converse with others and/or express yourself better), from a scientific interest in, say, historical linguistics or language acquisition, or from more artistic grounds, because you find the language aesthetically or even metaphysically beautiful?
The most popular languages from The Lord of the Rings are from the Elvish language family, within which Quenya and Sindarin are thus the most common, well-known and complete. As explained above, the Elf languages are not constant; they have changed several times during their development, which makes them extra difficult to learn, especially for people who want to learn their different variants. Several grammatical and phonological changes distinguish Quenya from Sindarin. Elements of the ancient language are best preserved in Quenya. For instance, the words celeb and tyelpe mean “silver” in Sindarin and Quenya respectively. They seem totally different, but according to Elvish Linguistics Unofficial, they are similar, after all they have the same root, given their history within the Common Elvish from which they originated, in which silver is kjelepê. But so that only helps if you learn them both at the same time – including their history. This example shows not only how complicated the Elvish languages are, but also that how easy or difficult you as a learner find a language depends on its context. In other words, the culture on which a particular language is based and the language or languages already learnt can determine whether a language is perceived as easier or harder by others.
The languages of The Lord of the Rings, particularly Elvish, and within it Sindarin and Quenya, are based on several existing languages. The main language that influenced Elvish and especially Quenya is Finnish. Of course, this means that Quenya, among other languages from The Lord of the Rings, is easier to learn for people who already speak Finnish. For English speakers – like the Dutch who want to learn Quenya from English-language learning materials – this may be more difficult, because their language is more different, and Finnish is a difficult language for English speakers to learn (Foreign Language Training, 2022). So it helps to also take into account what other languages you already know when making your final choice. For example, if you have already taken a course in Modern Ivrite or Biblical Hebrew, you will already be familiar with the phenomenon of the more indirectly written vowels (such as the tehtar in tengwar). That makes a big difference!
Quenya vs Finnish
Incidentally, it is no wonder that Elvish and Quenya are so influenced by Finnish, as Tolkien had a special bond with that language. “It was like discovering a wine-cellar filled with bottles of amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me,” he said of Finnish. That fascination is reflected in several words in Quenya, which are strikingly similar to Finnish words:
Step 3: Find speakers around you – Peditham hi sui vellyn?
Whatever you choose, it helps if you find a ‘language buddy’ to practise together, check each other’s work and collect teaching materials…. Speakers of LOTR languages are probably quite rare in your immediate area, but through the Tolkienfandom, for example, or through social media, for example in the #polyglot and #langtwt communities on Twitter, you can probably find someone. Because while there is an increasing amount of learning material available (especially in the form of websites and videos to learn the language), it is generally as scarce as the language is small. Most traditional language learning sites or the relevant programmes do not offer Elvish as an option, due to the lack of interest among their target audience and the incomplete and marginal nature of the language itself (two aspects that are, of course, also related).
Even avid language buffs may react reluctantly when you suggest them to learn (one of) the languages of LOTR. Because they have doubts about their usefulness in the real world, for example, because of the languages’ lack of ‘legitimacy’. A legitimate language is one that can be used in some way by real people. Research has shown that the defining aspect of whether or not an invented or fictional language can be acquired is related to the perceived ‘legitimate need’ for that language (Rapley, 2018). For example, the already mentioned Esperanto became successful because of the perceived need for an international language. Esperanto was an approachable, rational and contemporary solution to the problem of international communication. The artificial language thereby solved a problem, namely that of the legitimate need for more effective international communication brought about by modernisation (Rapley, 2018). As a result, Esperanto has become the most successfully invented international auxiliary language, and the only one of its kind with a significant population of native speakers. Of course, even a LOTR language can have a similar fraternising effect, but that was not its primary purpose. The languages from The Lord of the Rings were formed by Tolkien for an imaginary world, because of the creator’s love of language rather than the need to speak. This is also reflected in the vocabulary.
In discussions about artificial languages, the experiment of d’Armond Speers (2011) is often cited. This young father spent the first three years of his infant son Alec’s life speaking only Klingon to him. He wanted to see if a child could adopt Klingon as a mother tongue. The results suggest a “yes”, meaning that an experimental language can be learned through the process of first language acquisition. Speers reported that the child rarely spoke to him in Klingon; however, when he did, the pronunciation was exceptionally good and he never confused Klingon words with English words (ibid). His mother spoke only English to him and he soon realised that it could reach more people through English. As Alec grew older, he no longer listened to his father when he spoke Klingon and currently he no longer speaks Klingon at all. He knows that his father speaks English, so there is no longer a ‘legitimate need’ for Alec to put effort into an art language.
In publications about this experiment, Speers regularly stresses that the incomplete nature of Klingon was a major challenge, for example, missing words like “bottle” and “nappy”. Besides a similar disadvantage in vocabulary, the Elvish language has been modified several times in the past, further explaining why such languages are difficult to learn. Speers’ experiment echoes the experiences of Lembas editor Jonne Steen Redeker: “Constructed languages are often heavily dependent on the universe and context they were developed in for their vocabulary. For instance when the first Klingon dictionary was published in 1985 it included the word “meH” bridge, as in the command centre of a ship. It did not however include a translation for bridge, meaning a structure meant to carry you over an obstacle. Of course that doesn’t stop true Klingon fans who realised that the words would hardly have identical etymologies in an independent language, so later the word “qi” was added to the Klingon lexicon.”
Teaching materials – á menë amménia!
Fortunately, there are more and more teaching materials that allow you to learn the languages from The Lord of the Rings, both extensive websites – as for example www.realelvish.net – and digitised books. Below is a selection of freely available material.
In A Gateway To Sindarin: A Grammar Of An Elvish Language from JRR Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings (2007), David Salo presents a critical analysis of the languages created by Tolkien. Salo deals in a structured way with the morphology, grammar and history of the Elvish language. The book includes Sindarin names, a glossary of terms, a glossary, and an annotated list of publications related to Sindarin. Salo’s book is a tribute to Tolkien’s scholarly philological efforts.
Norwegian linguist Helge Kåre Fauskanger offers several free manuals Quenya on his Ardalambion website. These are accessible and can be downloaded from the webpage titled Quenya Course. The course assumes that learners have no linguistic knowledge and thus explains even the most basic concepts and terms. Ardalambion also includes handy glossaries and several guides to Etymologies.
Besides textbooks and manuals, reliable glossaries and dictionaries of the Elvish languages are also available. Edward Kloczko’s Dictionnaire des langues elfiques provides French and English translations of Sindarin words (1995). Ryszard Derdzinski’s Dictionary of the Reconstructed Sindarin Words, Summary of the Sindarin grammar, and Sindarin Pronouns – a reconstruction offer glossaries of Sindarin. Another useful list can be found through the Elfling website Frequently Asked Question. On it are reliable educational websites, practice materials, courses and hints on pronunciation (2004). Surprisingly, there are also some great tips for the latter on the practical website WikiHow: www.wikihow.com/Speak-Elvish. Nancy Martsch’s Basic Quenya is perhaps the best-known printed publication available online; however, the text contains several inaccuracies. Mellonath Daeron’s The Language of the Forodrim Frequently Asked Questions provides answers to several frequently asked questions about the languages of the LOTR (Daeron, 2000).
There is also video material. Of course, clips from the film trilogy roam (illegally) on YouTube and Vimeo, but there is also new music. Under the YouTube username “Forest Elves”, German Merry and British Jordi write original songs in Quenya. The YouTube video Quenya and Sindarin – The Languages of the Elves offers a brief overview of how the actors in the Lord of the Rings learnt the languages of the elves (Quenya and Sindarin – The Languages of the Elves, 2010). This can be a source of inspiration for start-ups. Last but not least are social media. In our individualistic society, we sometimes seem to forget, but foreign language learning is not only a personal, but also a social process (which is why little Alec hung up the Klingon).
Social media can facilitate online learning communities (Rospigliosi & Greener, 2014), as, for example, is already happening on the ‘Vinyë Lambengolmor’ Discord server. Foreign language learners can use social media, among other things, to share and find resources, but also to get support from advanced learners and join practice groups. For example, social media provides access to songs and other expressions of your target language (Malik & Muhammad, 2019). Setting up a collaborative Elvish study group may be challenging, but a Facebook group or Twitter hashtag can bring interested people together and provide a platform for people to apply what they have learned so far. Learning with others can be a great motivator and by explaining something to someone else, you often start to understand it better yourself. Research shows that social media includes collaborative learning that supports and promotes successful problem solving, which can enable successful foreign language learning among adults (Razmerita & Mondahl, 2014).
Ashar, A. R. (2019). Using social media as a learning media of foreign language students in higher education. Bahtera, Jurnal Pendidikan Bahasa Dan Sastra, 18(2) , 166-175.
Can You Actually Learn The Elvish Language? (2022, September 8). Retrieved from Doublespeak Dojo: September 08, 2022
Daeron, M. (2000, March 17 ). The Language Guild of the Forodrim: Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved from https://www.forodrim.org/daeron/faq.html
d’Armond Speers: Dad Spoke Only Klingon To Son For Three Years. (2011, May 25). Retrieved from HuffPost: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/darmond-speers-dad-spoke_n_363477
Elfling FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) List. (2004, January 26). Retrieved from http://nellardo.com/lang/elf/faq.html#s1.1
Elvish Language and Literature. (2000, May 13). Retrieved from http://www.elvish.org/gwaith/language.htm
Elvish Linguistics Unofficial. (n.d). Retrieved September 29, 2022, from FAQ: http://www.elvish.org/gwaith/faq.htm
Foreign Language Training. (2022, March 4). Retrieved from U.S DEPARTMENT of STATE: https://www.state.gov/foreign-language-training/
Greener, A. R. (2014). ECSM2014-Proceedings of the European Conference on Social Media: ECSM 2014.
Kloczko, E. (1995). Dictionnaire des langues des hobbits, des nains, des orques. Tamise Productions.
Mondahl, L. R. (2014). Social media, Collaboration and Social Learning…a Casestudy of Foreign Language Learning. Electronic Journal of e-Learning 12(4) .
Quenya Course. (n.d). Retrieved from https://folk.uib.no/hnohf/qcourse.htm
Rapley, I. (2018). Sekaigo: Esperanto, international language, and the transnational dimension to Japan’s linguistic modernity. Japan Forum 32(4) , 511-530.
Salo, D. (2007). A Gateway to Sindarin: A Grammar of an Elvish Language from JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Paperback. University of Utah Press.
Want to learn a language? Ask J. R. R. Tolkien how. (2022, January 3). Retrieved from Middle-earth Reflections: https://middleearthreflections.com/2022/01/03/want-to-learn-a-language-ask-j-r-r-tolkien-how/
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