The world that JRR Tolkien created in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings owes much of its success to its sheer, rich, vastness. If feels as if one can endlessly study histories, languages, and mythologies associated with this world. Can you imagine how intimidating it would have been to start out with such a huge project in mind? But Tolkien didn’t start out that way. He started by making up languages.
The first time Tolkien heard a made-up language spoken, he had overheard two childhood friends speaking a language they called Animalic. Essentially, animal names were almost exclusively used as the vocabulary for every aspect of the language. Tolkien cites an example of “dog nightingale woodpecker forty” as meaning ‘you are an ass.’ (“Forty” in Animalic meant ‘donkey’ or ‘ass,’ and “donkey” meant ‘forty.’) However soon he and his friends graduated to a more complex system.
The next language teenage Tolkien learned with his friends was called Nevbosh, a somewhat uninspired mix of English, French, and Latin. (This language is now, incidentally, dead. There are no longer any living speakers of it.) However, one exciting result was this: They finally started adding qualities that worked not just in practical linguistic terms, but were created quite simply because these additions brought the boys pleasure.
But young Tolkien soon proved his exceptional ability to take things further than anyone else. He invented his first very own language, Naffarin. Though influenced by Latin and Spanish, Tolkien focused special attention to the aesthetic capabilities of his language:
The communication factor has been very powerful in directing the development of language; but the more individual and personal factor—pleasure in articulate sound, and in the symbolic use of it, independent of communication…must not be forgotten for a moment.
During World War I, when Tolkien was recovering from wounds received at the Battle of the Somme, something remarkable happened. Tolkien began to create a world for his language. Tolkien wrote portions of what would eventually become the Silmarillion while trying to create a mythology for one of his new languages.
Why would a made up language need a mythology? Tolkien believed that “for perfect construction of an art-language it is found necessary to construct at least in outline a mythology” along with it. In other words, “your language construction will breed a mythology.” Languages cannot mature without a culture, history, and mythology supporting them.
Let’s take some examples in naturally developed languages. Have you ever heard the term “the writing on the wall?” This idiom, usually referring to misfortune or, more precisely, imminent doom, comes from a story in the Bible. The sacrilegious King Belshazzar sees something written on the wall of the royal palace after a feast. The Prophet Daniel is brought in to interpret it, and announces that it means the end of Belshazzar’s kingdom. That night Belshazzar was killed and his city sacked.
Here’s another example belonging to a language completely separate from the Western tradition. In Japanese there is a trickster water imp called a kappa. One of his favorite things to eat (or, technically, suck the life out of) is children. But he loves one food more than children: cucumbers. Don’t ask me why. That’s not the point—the point is this. There is a sushi roll you see in just about any sushi restaurant called a “kappa maki” (“maki” means ‘roll’). This roll contains only rice and cucumbers.
Do you see how our languages are enriched by these cultural and mythological threads? Tolkien knew he had to form a world for his languages if he wanted them to reach their ultimate potential in beauty and lushness. That is how The Lord of the Rings started. For Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings was “largely an essay in ‘linguistic aesthetic.’”
Nobody believes me when I say that my long book is an attempt to create a world in which a form of language agreeable to my personal aesthetic might seem real. But it is true.
For more information on Tolkien’s “secret vice” of language creation, please look for his essay called “A Secret Vice.” (My quotes from this essay were from the essay collection The Monsters and the Critics, edited by Christopher Tolkien.)
For more on Tolkien’s Middle-earth languages, this webpage is superb.
If you were to learn an additional language (real or not) starting today, what would it be?