J.R.R. Tolkien and Philology

Tolkien, the philologist

Tolkien, the philologist

J.R.R. Tolkien, the famous author of The Hobbit and a prominent 20th century philologist, was an expert in language studies: he not only spoke an astonishing number of languages (Middle English, Old English, Finnish, Gothic, Greek, Italian, Old Norse, Spanish, Welsh, and Medieval Welsh) but was also familiar with many others, particularly ancient Slavonic and Germanic tongues. Tolkien’s infatuation with language surfaced in his literary works, both fictional and academic. Through his specialization in English philology and Old Norse to his work for the Oxford English Dictionary, J.R.R. Tolkien’s linguistic studies became enormously influential aspects of his fictional works and especially The Hobbit.

the hobbitInterestingly, Tolkien’s linguistic creations in The Hobbit are numerous, all of them attributable to his background in philology. A fascination with the spoken word had captured Tolkien when he was young, leading him to specialize in linguistics—English philology, particularly. After careful study of Old Norse during his time at college, Tolkien began working for the Oxford English Dictionary in 1918. At the University of Leeds, he subsequently became Reader in English Language. Courses in several different types of English as well as the history of the language dominated his teaching there, but he also taught introductory Germanic philology, Gothic, Medieval Welsh, and Old Icelandic. Elvish languages alluded to or featured in The Hobbit or its sequel, The Lord of the Rings, included Primitive Quendian, Common Eldarin, Quenya, Goldogrin, Noldorin, Telerin, Ilkorin, Doriathrin, Avarin, and Sindarin, all ten of which directly resulted from his time as a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary, his language studies, and his philological teachings. To many of Tolkien’s admirers, biographers, or readers, “It becomes clear that Tolkien invested at least as much of his expertise, ingenuity, imagination, and time in constructing his languages as he did in devising his narratives” (Adams 1). Tolkien himself explained (Sale 1), “A real taste for fairy-stories was wakened by philology on the threshold of manhood, and quickened to full life by war.” Tolkien’s invented languages required an enormous amount of scholarly philological work and knowledge. He refined and improved the vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation of the Elvish languages until his death, just as he never ceased the philological studies that bred and developed the remarkable languages of The Hobbit’s Middle Earth.

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in the 2012 Warner Brothers movie, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in the 2012 Warner Brothers movie, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”

Furthermore, languages in The Hobbit are heavily influenced by real-world languages, including Old Norse, Gothic, Anglo-Saxon, and Germanic tongues, more evidence of Tolkien’s careful thought and study of language. Early forms of Elvish were influenced by his study of Spanish and Latin, and when he began examining Finnish, he incorporated elements of that language into Primitive Quendian and Common Eldarin. Various versions of the Elvish tongue featured languages that Tolkien found interesting, amusing, beautiful, or even merely practical:

His creation, or more strictly sub-creation, of Elvish might owe much to his interests in Welsh and Finnish, but it is also clear that his immense creativity and the invocation of the beautiful, mysterious and almost painfully real Middle Earth was founded on a deep appreciation and love for language. (Morris 1)

Tolkien’s extensive study of language, especially of Finnish, contributed much to the Elvish language and later directly affected not only Middle Earth but the characters in that fantastical realm.

Indeed, although Tolkien’s fictional and academic creations, including The Hobbit, are immensely popular and a widely acclaimed masterpiece in fantasy, his invented languages resulted in Middle Earth, not the other way around. A fascination with language had gripped Tolkien in his youth, before writing mythical tales ever entered his thoughts. In fact, one of Tolkien’s apparently controversial claims about languages, both a priori and a posteriori constructed languages and natural languages, was that no matter a tongue’s effectiveness or practicality, it was nothing until there were myths and a culture surrounding it. “Tolkien essentially wrote The Lord of the Rings [and The Hobbit] in order to give his languages a world in which to exist,” said Dawn Catanach (Catanach 1). It has also been noted that “In some strange way, the articulation of Elvish and the other languages of Middle Earth were the catalysis for the rest of his [Tolkien’s] mythos” (Morris 2).

Known as a lexicographer, linguist, philologist, and philosopher, J.R.R. Tolkien is known most of all as the author of The Hobbit and the creator of Middle Earth, clearly a product of his studies in philology. Tolkien’s language studies, undoubtedly without which The Hobbit could not be the same and without which Bilbo Baggins could not exist, have influenced not only his works but the writings and linguistic knowledge of philology students and authors around the world.



Works Cited

Adams, Michael. From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.

Catanach, Dawn. “The Philosopher and the Philologist J.R.R. Tolkien, Martin Heidegger, and Poetic Language.” Unm.edu.University of New Mexico, 2006. Web. 6 Feb. 2014.

Morris, Simon Conway. “Darwin’s Compass: How Evolution Discovers the Song of Creation.” Ed. Michael Byrne. Science and Religion in the Twenty-First Century. Ed. Russel Re Manning. 1st ed. London: SCM, 2013. 34+. Print.

Sale, Roger. Modern Heroism; Essays on D.H. Lawrence, William Empson, & J.R.R. Tolkien. Berkley: University of California, 1973. Books.google.com. Google, 2012. Web. 7 Feb. 2014.

Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. The Hobbit. First ed. Boston: Mariner, 2007. Print.


About Rachel Clark

Rachel hoards office supplies, has 12.5 hours of Bach on her iPod, and occasionally forgets her own name. Other than that she's a normal person who likes to write.
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One Comment

  1. Awesome work! This makes poor George MacDonald’s tribute look very small.

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