The Constructed Languages of JRR Tolkien Explained

The manner in which languages are constructed in stories is often seen to be a bit confusing really since some of the languages that we hear tend to sound like those that exist in the real world, while others are a strange mashup of different languages that is almost impossible to fully understand. When it came to J.R.R. Tolkien though his languages actually came first and were followed by the stories that came to use them so extensively. It’s taken years but many of the languages in Tolkien’s works still aren’t entirely complete, at least not the way that he would have likely made them had he been given more time. One thing that’s amusing is that so many people tend to smile and chuckle when they think that Tolkien called these fictional languages his ‘vice’ as though he downplayed them to such a degree that he didn’t really believe in them as anything other than a prop, another device to be used for the story. That’s pretty much what they were no matter what anyone wants to think since creating a language is a long and laborious process that requires a population to embrace it and to start using it in such a way that it becomes one of the normalized aspects of society. Some might want to argue that this is what has happened with languages that Tolkien created, but in truth, it does feel more likely that he created these languages for his own pleasure and then plugged them into the story and began to play with them to see what else he could come up with.

As a fiction writer, I too have come up with several languages that have become my own creations and were taken from other sources throughout the known world that fit the needs of the moment at hand. Many writers od this, and in fact, many of them have even gone so far as to come up with an entire language with the help of linguists that can guide them down the path to creating something that people will acknowledge as something that is a living, breathing language, like Dothraki or Klingon. Now to be certain, neither language is one that you’re bound to hear outside of a fan chatroom or convention, but the point is that creating a language is a personal decision and one that requires taking something from the world we live in to keep things in perspective and allow them to make some kind of sense. Using various elements of language from different regions, Tolkien did this quite well, though some still make a shocked O face when discussing how he came up with the dwarves.

Apparently, anything that even sounds like something that might be anti-Semitic is bound to draw a few raised eyebrows and to make people go ‘oooh’, much as we did when we were kids and someone in class was called out for a misdeed of some sort. Yes, admit it, a lot of us still do that since the feeling of someone else being in trouble never really left us. But the fact that Tolkien based the dwarves around Jewish culture could be seen as negative if one wants to see it that way, and it could be seen as highly indicative of various aspects of the culture that he happened to notice. Keep in mind that Tolkien was writing in a very different time period, and no matter if it was something that could have been seen as negative then and now, he did come up with a race for the story that managed to be so unlike any other that their language is still mostly unknown considering that they were seen to be such a secretive race. One should be able to easily admit that the dwarves in The Lord of the Rings were a very secretive bunch and didn’t like giving up too much to those that they didn’t have that much regard for, especially elves. It’s hard to say whether or not Tolkien was responsible for the rift between elves and dwarves in fantasy, but he certainly helped to push the idea forward since even today in fantasy books, dwarves and elves rarely get along on a regular basis as the two long-lived races tend to lead very different existences and tend to stick to their own more often than not.

But the manner in which Tolkien used language to push this, as much as form and function, was impressive since it showed a very deep understanding of something that one can’t help but think is a part of humanity that we don’t often think of on average. The language we use often sets us apart in a very big way, but there are ways it can unite us as well.

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