- Language in Tolkien’s “Bagme Bloma”
Wulfila’s fourth century translation from Greek of the New Testament is the most significant source of the East Germanic language Gothic. The antiquity of Gothic makes it a Germanic language that is inevitably archaic in many regards, and it has thus been immensely helpful in the understanding of Germanic and Indo-European linguistics. Tolkien, a specialist in the old Germanic languages—teaching courses such as Old English, Old Icelandic, the history of English, and of course, Gothic (Letters 12)—said remarkably little about this language aside from comments regarding its appeal to him. Considering the importance of Gothic to his studies and to the field in general, we are left wondering what opinions Tolkien held about the language and how it might have tied in to his writings. We also wonder where to find out what opinions he did have. It turns out that what he has left us with regarding Gothic is a few names, paragraphs, and stanzas of creative Gothic,1 the most substantial of which is an alliterative verse poem entitled “Bagme Bloma.” Though this is not much, we might say that Tolkien was continuing the East Germanic tradition of little attestation.
While he did not publish scholarship dealing exclusively with the Gothic language, his comments about the language and what he has done with it creatively can prove enlightening. The first purpose of this paper therefore is to look at the language of “Bagme Bloma” in order to consider the sorts of assumptions and proposals that Tolkien was making about Gothic. There are many aspects to the language that Tolkien could have taken stances on: morphology, phonology, syntax, etc. (Gothic syntax is particularly debatable since it nearly always corresponds to biblical Greek word order [Bennett 26]). Many of the apparent assumptions seem to point towards how Tolkien thought Gothic probably was, without radically contradicting what is attested. The second purpose of the paper is to form a clearer picture of how “Bagme Bloma” stands in relation to his other works, poems and prose. Although the Gothic corpus had a rich vocabulary, it was far from complete. This encouraged Tolkien to undertake the activity of reconstruction; recreating, by comparison with other Germanic languages, what some words in Gothic might have looked like had they been attested. Studying the words he chose to reconstruct and in what contexts he uses their cognates elsewhere shows that not only is there agreement in their usage, but that it can give us a clearer picture of the poem, “Bagme Bloma,” itself. The third and final purpose is to place the entire discussion into the context of Tolkien’s comments on relevant subjects, emphasizing the above-all importance of Language. [End Page 37]
Tolkien uses reconstruction liberally, which is understandable, given the chosen language and that it is a poem from the collection of Songs for the Philologists (printed privately in the English Department at University College, London, in 1936; most of the original copies were destroyed in a fire2). One of the distinctive features of the collection is its codeswitching (Latin to Danish; Swedish to Icelandic; Old English to Scots to a relatively uninflected variety of Gothic, for example), reminiscent of medieval Macaronic literature, which is known for blending languages at various levels: word, phrase, clause and sentence. One of the many reasons this code-switching is done is for comic effect, using vernacular words amidst a Latin text, applying Latin morphology to foreign words, or even “debasing” the Latin itself, for example (Wenzel 3). Codeswitching is also used for this effect in Songs for the Philologists, a group of poems clearly meant to be as entertaining as they are informative. A glance over some of the other poems will show that “Bagme Bloma,” however, is an exception in some regards, namely tone, but certainly not regarding linguistic limitations. The translation provided is intended first and foremost to aid in understanding what is what in the original3:
|Brunaim bairiþ Bairka bogum||The Birch bears on shining boughs|
|laubans liubans liudandei,||dear leaves sprouting out,|
|gílwagroni, glitmunjandei,||yellow-green, glittering,|
|bagme bloma, blauandei,||the flower of the trees, blossoming...|