Our Own Dear John Ronald: Tolkien’s Heresy

“There is an ancient myth in this feature, that of the ‘true language’, the tongue in which there is a thing for each word and a word for each thing, and in which signifier then naturally has power over signified.”

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‘Seven mounds upon the left, and nine upon the right,’ said Aragorn.  ‘Many long lives of men it is since the golden hall was built.’

‘Five hundred times have the red leaves fallen in Mirkwood in my home since then,’ said Legolas, ‘and but a little while does that seem to us.’

‘But to the Riders of the Mark it seems so long ago,’ said Aragorn, ‘that the raising of this house is but a memory of song, and the years before are lost in the mist of time.  Now they call this land their home, their own, and their speech is sundered from their northern kin.’  Then he began to chant softly in a slow tongue unknown to the Elf and the Dwarf; yet they listened, for there was a strong music in it.

‘That, I guess, is the language of the Rohirrim,’ said Legolas; ‘for it is like to this land itself; rich and rolling in part, and else hard and stern as the mountains.  But I cannot guess what it means, safe that it is laden with the sadness of Mortal Men.’

‘It runs thus in the Common Speech,’ said Aragorn, ‘as near as I can make it.

Thus spoke a forgotten poet long ago in Rohan, recalling how tall and fair was Eorl the Young, who rode down out of the North; and there were wings upon the feet of his steed, Felaróf, father of horses.  So men still sing in the evening.’

~ J.R.R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: The King of the Golden Hall

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This was Tolkien’s major linguistic heresy.  He thought that people could feel history in words, could recognize language ‘styles’, could extract sense (of sorts) from sound alone, could moreover make aesthetic judgments based on phonology.  He said the sound of ‘cellar door’ was more beautiful than the sound of ‘beautiful’.  He clearly believed that UNTRANSLATED elvish would do a job that English could not.

Could he have been right?  (…) Tolkien wrote the fiction to present the languages, and he did that because he loved them and thought them intrinsically beautiful.

~ Tom Shippey: The Road to Middle Earth: A Cartographic Plot.

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