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  • "He Constructed a Language L and Another LL":Diachronic Aspects of Tolkien's Early Philology
  • Christopher Gilson (bio)

On November 29, 1931, J.R.R. Tolkien read the essay he called A Secret Vice to the Samuel Johnson Society at Pembroke College, Oxford. In it he presented his ideas about the invention of private languages, the reasons that people make them, and the different kinds that can be made, ranging from simple word-for-word codes closely based on one's native speech to elaborate art-languages with their own sound-patterns and rules of inflexion and syntax. Tolkien exemplified all of this with samples from the invented languages he had learned from other children, shared in making, or invented on his own, the last including the Qenya and Noldorin that he imagined to be spoken by the elves and gnomes in the private mythology that he had also invented. Among the motives for language invention that Tolkien discussed in the essay, in connection with the description of an earlier private language Naffarin, he appealed to "pleasure in articulate sound, and in the symbolic use of it, independent of communication though constantly in fact entangled with it" (Vice 18).

This was similar to what Tolkien would write much later to W. H. Auden, when asked for "human touches" about how The Lord of the Rings came to be written (Letters 211) , explaining that he was mostly aware of his own "linguistic conditioning" and that his learning Gothic was decisive to this because he "discovered in it not only modern historical philology, which appealed to the historical and scientific side, but for the first time the study of a language out of mere love: I mean for the acute aesthetic pleasure derived from a language for its own sake, not only free from being useful but free even from being the 'vehicle of a literature'" (Letters 213). That Tolkien recognized his pleasure in both Naffarin and Gothic to be separate from but entangled with their use in speech or writing suggests that the impulse he felt to devise words to fill in the gaps in the attested Gothic vocabulary must have been connected or came to be intermingled with his urge to create new languages. Tolkien shared his linguistic predilections, at least to some extent, with his schoolmate Christopher Wiseman, who later recalled: [End Page 75]

Reading Homer with Cary Gilson sparked off in me what in Tolkien was already well alight, an interest in Philology. In fact John Ronald got to the point where he constructed a language L and another LL representing what L had become after a few centuries.1

In this paper I will take a closer look at what these recollections by Tolkien and Wiseman imply about Tolkien's creative activities while at school and during the following decade, considering how the invention of multiple languages ranging from Naffarin to Qenya and Noldorin intersected with each other, and how they were influenced by his study of languages such as Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Gothic, Finnish, and Welsh. I hope that examining the origins of the family of languages attributed to the Elves in the personal mythology he eventually constructed may contribute to understanding the extent to which this was (as he later said of The Lord of the Rings) "an attempt to create a world in which a form of language agreeable to my personal aesthetic might seem real" (Letters 264).


Tolkien recorded the only surviving example of Naffarin to illustrate how its invention reflected his "phonetic taste in individual phonemes" at that time, and he noted in particular certain sounds of English "(w, þ, š, ž, etc.)" that were intentionally absent from Naffarin.2

O Naffarínos cutá vu navru cangorluttos ca vúna tiéranar,dana maga tíer ce vru encá vún' fartaonce ya merúta vúna maxt' amámen.

He explained that in constructing this language "the influences—outside English, and beyond a nascent purely individual element—are Latin and Spanish, in sound-choices and combinations, in general word form" (Vice 20). This can be seen in the first line of the poem where for instance the relation of Naffar...


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