Tolkien Studies 3 (2006) 1-20
[Access article in PDF]
Fitting Sense to Sound:
Linguistic Aesthetics and Phonosemantics in the Work of J.R.R. Tolkien
I. Sound and Sense
"Linguistic aesthetics" is a term which Tolkien employed on a number of occasions to refer to the fickle relationship among the sounds of words, their meaning, and our emotional responses to them. He explored this complex issue by means of his invented languages, where the fundamental question of the relationship between sound and meaning (phonosemantics) came into play, and also addressed it directly in some academic papers. Such was his interest in this subject that on one occasion he described himself as "a professional philologist particularly interested in linguistic aesthetics" (S xi) while on another he declared that his largest published work (excluding posthumous publications), The Lord of the Rings, was "largely an essay in linguistic aesthetic" (Letters 219). In his lectures and letters he made some effort to communicate exactly what he meant by this term and why it was of such importance to him, but he seemed to find it difficult to convey his notions and explain his enthusiasm in terms that were understandable to a wider audience.
Indeed, Tolkien sometimes worried that his ideas on linguistic aesthetics and phonosemantics, which were intimately tied up with his passion for inventing languages, would not be taken seriously and might even cause derision. One of the most explicit sources of his views in this area is the posthumously published paper on his hobby of creating invented languages called A Secret Vice, in which he refers to his own essay as "this absurd paper" (MC 203), and among other pleas for understanding, entreats the reader to "be kindly" (MC 213). Elsewhere, in the vast letter delineating the main features of his fictitious universe that he sent to the publisher Milton Waldman, Tolkien mentions his desire to achieve cohesion and consistency in his invented languages but expresses his concern that "[n]ot all will feel this as important as I do, since I am cursed by an acute sensibility in such matters" (S xi). He found talking about these supposedly unconventional matters rather embarrassing. His love of the subject was so immense that he was prepared to risk ridicule in order to communicate his enthusiasm to others, but in general he preferred to transmit his passion for word-sounds through his fiction and his linguistic inventions. [End Page 1]
The Phonosemantic Current
In fact, Tolkien was not alone in his misgivings about publicly voicing his opinions on phonetics and pleasure, and on sound and meaning. It is true that some other renowned thinkers also considered there to be a direct link between the sound of words, their significance, how we use them, and how we react to them. Yet, setting aside unassailable giants of linguistic theory and philosophy like Jespersen and Jakobson, the norm has been for linguists to share Tolkien's fear of humiliation in this regard1 because their ideas openly contradict the ruling commandments of modern linguistic theory. These were cast in stone in the early twentieth century by Ferdinand de Saussure and reinforced in the latter half of the century by the Chomskyan school of generative grammar.
Saussure, as all students of theoretical linguistics will know, was adamant that the linguistic sign (i.e. word, utterance) was arbitrary and wholly unrelated to the referent (i.e. thing referred to). He regarded this rule as being so important that he referred to it, in his seminal work A Course in General Linguistics, as "the organising principle for the whole of linguistics." Only by severing phonetic relations between spoken words and the notions or objects they referred to could he isolate the inert elements he needed to create a "scientific" system, or structure. This systematic, abstract approach was further refined by the Chomskyan school, with its enthusiasm for sophisticated models and mechanisms and scant interest in language as a dynamic phenomenon in the real world of human communication.
The influence of Saussure and Chomsky on twentieth...