Tolkien’s Secret Vice

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.


A first edition of The Hobbit, the beginning of Middle-earth. Or was it?
A first edition of The Hobbit, the beginning of Middle-earth. Or was it?


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.


A specially bound first edition of the Silmarillion
A specially bound first edition of the Silmarillion


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.


The fruit of Tolkien's labor, all to create the perfect language.
The fruit of Tolkien’s labor, all to create the perfect language.


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?


28 Comments Add yours

  1. sal cucchiara says:

    I even have thios i think its a 3 book set in a box,JRR Tolkien created in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings , pls get back to me and hopefully i can email you pics of some rare books i have, plsssssssss lol I sent long email last time to see if i can get value of books i hav and signatures in few books, email me at cuc 73 @

    1. Sal, thanks, but this isn’t the best forum for your request. Can you please send details through the Bauman Rare Books website? Please note that we don’t offer appraisals (the Pawn Stars ones really are a favor to Rick), but in many cases we are very interested in buying first editions in great condition.

  2. vanbraman says:

    I would like to learn Hebrew or Greek some day. Your post makes me think about a trekkies who speak a made up language. Although Klingon is the most popular, I know that there are some who even make up their own languages.Perhaps one of these will someday be inspired to create their own world, just as Tolkien did.

    1. Yes, I have to wonder if many fantasy worlds haven’t succeeded as Tolkien’s because the authors missed this principle. There are some worlds that are amazing without the same complexity, but for world-building Tolkien is the master and the one to beat.

  3. Wes says:

    Thanks for mentioning the Silmarillion. I remain one of two people I know, personally that is, who have actually read it. Linguistics is fascinating and Tolkien was the best type of geek: taking something he had a moderate interest in and driving it to near absurdity. Is the ‘specially bound first edition’ one you happen to have in your shop?

    I recently (last week) began an attempt at Russian via some well-known software. But for neatness and not practicality…I’m addicted to ‘Anglo Saxon Aloud’.

    1. That’s Michael Drout, right? I’m a big fan.

      1. Wes D says:

        Yep, he’s the one. Every time I watch a…unique interpretation… of Beowulf (read as: Christopher Lambert) I have to go back to his site and get clean.

  4. Neat article! … hmmm … language …. maybe German – maybe Russian – would LOVE to visit Russia!

    1. That’s a great reason to learn a language.

  5. John R says:

    Love the way you put together your thoughts on Tolkien and his thoughts. I would very much like to learn the language of an animal other than human that demonstrates social behaviour and communication. Wolves or mountain gorillas, or maybe meerkats or dolphins would be obvious choices i guess. Some others that would be interesting… wild geese, racoons or whitetail deer. These last three are frequent visitors to the yard and communicate a lot either vocally or physically with body language. Hope you are having a wonderful weekend… :^)

  6. Michael Tait says:

    If I was to learn a new language, I think it would have to be old Icelandic for two reasons:

    1. So I could read and enjoy the Icelandic eddas and sagas in their original language

    2. So I could compare the words still surviving today of the dialect I speak on a daily basis with the language that’s probably its closest relative.I speak the remains of a dead language – old Shetland Norn. Its now been subsumed into the English we speak today, but there’s still a few words that are unique to where I was brought up.

  7. Reblogged this on Bibliodeviancy and commented:
    Another scorching bit of book bloggery from Miss Romney…really feeling threatened now.

  8. Jason Hu says:

    Practically as a pharmacist, I’d most likely want to learn Spanish (or at least get better at it) but I’d really like to learn French, I’d most want to visit France, and be able to understand what people are talking about me as I stand there. For a made up language I’d say Elven or Klingon cause those seem to have the greatest population of people who would speak them.

    1. My experience in France years ago was that you’d speak to them in French and they’d just speak back to you in English. At least in Paris. It was disheartening not only because I wanted to practice but because it also indicated that my accent was extremely obvious.

  9. Jeff says:

    Interesting. I already have studied French, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Swahili, Greek, Russian, and -of course- English. However, the only ones that I seriously got into were French, German, and English. I have started to make up languages with several different people, but it never stuck.

    I have always been very interested in learning Mandarin Chinese. The way they pronounce their words is almost in a “singing” style, with the end of some words dropping in tone, while the beginning of others rises. Furthermore, the written language -which I have studied very briefly- is extremely ancient and complicated. I think that if the Chinese ever “try to take us down” then it would be very useful to know their language!

    1. Tonal languages are very difficult for someone coming to them from a language like English. I recently studied Vietnamese (just for a month to get by while I visited the county), which has six tones. It was joyfully challenging to experiment with tones.

      1. Jason Hu says:

        I studied Mandarin for over 16 yrs and I don’t have a complete grasp over it, the sheer vocabulary coupled with the different dialects makes it even hard to speak from one place to another in China.

        1. From what Mandarin speakers have told me, the different dialects are so different that “dialect” is a rather misleading term. Brutal!

          1. Jason Hu says:

            Yeah that’s pretty true, I can understand both my mother and my father’s families well enough, but sometimes they can’t understand each other!

            1. Jeff says:

              Sounds like my North Carolina family getting together with my New York family!

  10. Paul Lampe says:

    Did you learn Elvish to have a better understanding of Tolkien’s books 🙂

    1. Nope, don’t know Elvish. I’m a Tolkien fan, but I’m not that epic of a Tolkien fan.

  11. Sean Dysinger says:

    I like languages a lot. I have to admit the nerdiest one I ever took a crack at was Klingon. Today, I would love to learn French.

    1. We have a Klingon speaker! I knew there had to be one around here somewhere. Welcome.

  12. jb says:

    i have never had much inclination to read tolkien, but it’s fascinating to see that the book is simply a backstory for his childhood pastime of making up languages. i wonder if led zeppelin is aware of that?

    my favorite made-up language of all-time is casey stengel’s stengelese.

  13. Carlos Eduardo Rostirolla says:

    Although I just love Tolkien books, it is fresh news to me the fact that he has built Middle-Earth and everything else to improve one of his own languages. I have always thought it was quite the opposite! It is incredible what we can do driven by our passions. Just amazing! I need to improve my English enough to read Tolkien in his mother language. Translations can be so desappointing (I am Brazilian). Anyway, congrats for the very interesting and good reading, Rebecca!

  14. Saul Jimenez says:

    Really interesting comment. Pity you hadn’t written it already back in the 90s. It would have been a great A+++ in English (I’m Spaniard 🙂 in High School. Always with your permission, of course 😉

  15. Saul Jimenez says:

    I can tell that at least the English to Spanish translation is pretty neat and clear. It’s been some time a haven’t visited Middle Earth still I feel like Frodo after being injured by the dark sword. If you read the LOTR once you will be sick of curiosity on those lands forever.
    By the way I would like to take the chance to through a question and a reflexion into the air.
    1) It is very clear to me to that LOTR’s languages make a great skeleton for a great told story/stories. However if you go through the story there is another theme that is as important as the languages are, that being Nature as an entity we have to share the space we are living with. What do you think?
    2) On electronic reading, I have never been able to read the Silmarillion from an ordinary book. It took me a couple of months travelling by train to read it in a Kindle. I have think it over and I have reached to the conclusion that sometimes big, heavy books become more accesible if you don’t have to carry their weight around 🙂

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