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Tolkien and the Tongues of Middle Earth: Hobbits, elves and orcs teach lessons in linguistics

One of the most popular works of fiction in the 20th century, “The Lord of the Rings,” was written by an academic. A philologist to be precise.

J.R.R. Tolkien, author of “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Hobbit” and other stories of Middle Earth, spent his professional career as a philologist—a classical linguist—immersed in Old English and Old Norse as a professor at Oxford University in Great Britain. It is only fitting that his works of fiction and fantasy continue to influence others like Fred Hoyt to pursue the study of linguistics. Hoyt, a graduate student in the Department of Linguistics, plans to use Tolkien’s work to interest other students in the study of linguistics with a course he is teaching in the spring, The Linguistics of Middle Earth.

Graduate student Fred Hoyt
Fred Hoyt plans to use Tolkien’s work to interest students in the study of linguistics with a course he will teach in the spring.

Hoyt’s first exposure to Tolkien and the languages Tolkien created for his world of Orcs, Elves and Hobbits came in grade school when he and his mother read “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” aloud.

“I just wanted more,” Hoyt said. “At that time there were very few sources of material about Tolkien’s languages available, aside from ‘The Lord of the Rings’ itself. There came a point there was nothing else to go to except the real stuff that Tolkien’s languages were based upon, so I started checking out books about Old English and other languages.

“I wish that I had known about linguistics as an undergrad,” Hoyt said.

While studying English literature, he rediscovered his interest in Old English and was first exposed to linguistic theory. By teaching a course involving literature that has become part of the popular culture, Hoyt thinks he will expose students to the foundations of language.

Hoyt explained that the Tolkien stories evolved from the languages, which he needed to place into context.

“Every name Tolkien used in his books has an etymology,” Hoyt said, “It has a linguistic history. He didn’t include a single name without exhaustively going through and determining what the possible etymology might have been, given the groundwork he had laid. And then he started writing the story because he needed something to do with the languages. Tolkien believed that you couldn’t separate a language from its cultural context.

“Since he was inventing languages he needed to invent a cultural context to go with it,” Hoyt explained. “You can study his invented languages and still see things about real languages. All the patterns that you find in Tolkien’s languages are patterns found in the world’s languages. He quilted things together.”

Though The Lord of the Rings offers glimpses of Dwarvish, the Black Speech or Orcish, Tolkien more fully developed the Elven languages of Quenya and Sindarin.

“Of the two languages he developed the most, one is partly based on Latin with a Finnish pronunciation, if you will,” Hoyt said. “The other is based largely on Welsh. Once we look at those languages then we can talk about Finnish, and we’ll talk about Welsh.

The inscription on the One Ring means 'One ring to rule them all, one ring to bind them, one ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them'
The inscription on the One Ring of Sauron written in the Black Speech means “One ring to rule them all, one ring to bind them, one ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”

“Tolkien also developed elaborate correspondence rules between the two languages,” Hoyt added. “He imagined that they had a common source so he had to define rules of linguistic change that would allow him to relate Welsh phonology to Finnish phonology. Once we look at those two languages and how they relate to each other we can talk about the same relationships in real languages. For example, how is Welsh related to English, or German or Latin? I think that’s the most fascinating part.”

Though the course is based on Tolkien’s languages, students shouldn’t expect to come out of it speaking Dwarvish or Elvish. Rather, Hoyt said, they will learn the patterns Tolkien used in the languages and how to find patterns in one’s own way of speaking.

“Meta-linguistic awareness is the idea that you are able to reflect on your own speech habits,” Hoyt said. “Linguistics is the study of what all human languages have in common in terms of how they put words together to make larger expressions. If there is one thing I hope students get out of this class, it is to become aware of how they are saying things.”

Tolkien’s languages, like real languages, are based on internal patterns as well as how they relate to others. It is in the analysis of these patterns that has interested linguists around the globe.

“What I do in linguistics has less to do with literature studies, and much more to do with computer science or statistical-based psychology,” Hoyt said. “You spend a lot of time looking for patterns. You’re investigating and looking for relationships in complex information and learning to formulate arguments based on them.”

Robin Gerrow

Photos: Marsha Miller

A Map of Middle-Earth and the Undying Lands
from “A Tolkien Bestiary” by David Day
Random House, 1995

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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