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.
Fred Hoyt plans to use Tolkien’s work to interest students
in the study of linguistics with a course he will teach in
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,”
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
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
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 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
“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
“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
Photos: Marsha Miller
A Map of Middle-Earth and the Undying Lands
from “A Tolkien Bestiary” by David Day
Random House, 1995