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How To Invent A Language – Tolkien and Philology

Sindarin script

Sindarin script. Fun, right?

Have you ever invented a language? I’m not talking about using Pig Latin or one of the nonsensical kid’s games where you stick the letters IB in front of every vowel and wind up with sentences like Ibi dibon’t wibant tibe ibat wibork tibodibay.

I mean a language with grammar and syntax. You invent the words, you invent the rules that say “Here’s how my language works.”

Me either, but Tolkien invented about 20, with varying degrees of completeness.

Why would a person do such a thing?

For fun, of course.


Here is a definition from the most irrefutable of all sources, the Free Dictionary Online by Farlex.

Comparative and historical linguistics

I would simplify that for today and say that a philologist is someone who loves words. Word origins, word corruptions, word evolutions, changing alphabets, and on and on and on. It’s been a long time since I took a year of Attic Greek, but I do remember that the prefix “phil” has to do with love.

It would be accurate to call Tolkien a lover of words. A hardcore, deviant lover whose appetites for language could not be satiated by the meager offerings that human history could provide. Insatiable, this man! So he invented new delights for himself, for his own amusement.

Language and Tolkien’s books

The languages were invented first as a kind of intellectual game, and then he needed somewhere to put them. What other book has been created that way?

I’m not sure on the timeline of when each language was created or conceived of or placed in the Middle Earth universe, but take a look at this list of Tolkien’s created languages:

  • Elvish, including more than a dozen different dialects like Quenya and Telerin
  • The languages that men speak, including Taliska and Adunaic
  • Dwarf talk! Khuzdul
  • Tree speech! Entish
  • The gods, known as the Valar, speak Valarin
  • The orcs do their own thing, but I can’t find an official name for Orcish
  • The “Black speech,” which is what the ultimate bad guys speak when they plot and hiss and menace

These languages are the reasons why I think Tolkien’s books don’t read like other fantasy. Or like anything else, really. Who else would create a bunch of languages, alphabets, maps, etc, and then think, “Well, I don’t want these to only exist in my head so I better create an enormous mythology for these languages to live in. I probably need some talking trees for that slower-sounding language…”

Much has been written on this topic, in more detail and greater length. If you’re interested in knowing more, I suggest:

The Road To Middle Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created A New Mythology by Tom Shippey

So far, the early chapters of this book are the most accessible for the linguistic layman. They aren’t easy, but it’s readable.

This article, still one of my favorite pieces The Onion has ever done: Don’t Come Crying To Me When You Need Someone Who Speaks Elvish.





Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Heather September 14, 2011, 9:47 am

    Ever get the sneaking suspicion that maybe, just maybe, the guy was toying with the idea of what it might be like to actually be, if not just a god, just plain GOD? I do not mean this to come off as sacreligious and it certainly is NOT a slam, but I know it may sound that way. I mean, come on. . . Elvish, Drawf, AND a language just for the gods of his own mythos? I think it’s cool and intellecutally rockin’. But still, ya gotta wonder. . . .