Wednesday, September 25, 2019

This Elvish Craft: Language Invention as Recovery

Another old essay, to go with the one I posted earlier this month, about Tolkien's language invention. I pose an unlikely similarity between Tolkien and Russian zaumists.


1. Renaming the Lily

In her book In the Land of Invented Languages, Arika Okrent characterizes language inventors as “misguided souls” led through “hard work, high hopes, and full-blown delusions” to attempt to improve on natural language for philosophical, altruistic, and political motives. Only briefly, in her final chapters, does Orkent acknowledge another important reason someone might create a language, when she mentions Tolkien and others who create languages out of a sense of pleasure. (Okrent 2010)

Yet despite the short shrift Okrent gives this motivation in her book, it is evident that Tolkien considered pleasure—specifically the pleasure of finding fitness between sound and meaning—to be the driving force behind the language creation process. In his 1931 lecture A Secret Vice, Tolkien describes the way this impulse drove his own early language invention: “Certainly it is in the contemplation of the relation between sound and notion which is a main source of pleasure.” Going farther, Tolkien suggests that pleasure is a major component of the development of even natural languages: “The communication factor has been very powerful in directing the development of language; but the more individual and personal factor—pleasure in articulate sound, and in the symbolic use of it...must not be forgotten for a moment.” (MC 208)

Left there, Tolkien’s argument would be quite safe and unassuming; pleasure is a subjective experience, and there would be very little to be said for or against his secret vice beyond “he enjoys it.” This seems to be the conclusion Okrent draws about Tolkien’s language invention. But Tolkien progresses the theme of pleasure beyond mere aesthetic pleasure itself and into the realm of enchantment:

And with the phonetic pleasure we have blended the more elusive delight of establishing novel relations between symbol and significance, and in contemplating them... as soon as you have fixed even a vague general sense for your words, many of the less subtle but most moving and permanently important of the strokes of poetry are open to you. For you are the heir of the ages. You have not to grope after the dazzling brilliance of invention of the free adjective, to which all human language has not fully attained. You may say green sun or dead life and set the imagination leaping.
Language has both strengthened imagination and been freed by it. Who shall say whether the free adjective has created images bizarre and beautiful, or the adjective been freed by strange and beautiful pictures in the mind? (Monsters and the Critics 218-19)

For Tolkien, language invention is not just a means to pleasure, it is a way to set both mind and word free from the “habitual” and “associated notions” to which even poetry is subject; notions which words pick up naturally through constant use and the layering of meaning over time. Modern poetry is so full of “significant language” that to speak of green is not to speak of green itself, but to speak of green’s poetic associations with growth, spring, youth, innocence, and inexperience. To escape this detritus of meaning and recover the lost harmony between the signifier and the thing signified, Tolkien presents us with two possible solutions: the first is to study the poetry of the ancients, the second to cast off habitual and associated notions through language invention of our own. (MC 218-19)

Tolkien was not the only, or even the first language inventor to engage this concept. In his 1912 Declaration of the Word as Such Russian avant garde poet Alexei Kruchenykh states:

WORDS DIE, THE WORLD IS ETERNALLY YOUNG. The artist has seen the world in a new way and, like Adam, proceeds to give things his own names. The lily is beautiful, but the word “lily” [liliya] has been soiled and “raped”. Therefore, I call the lily, “euy” – the original purity is reestablished.” (Lawton 1988) 

Zaum—the “transrational” language which Kruchenykh introduces in his Declaration and its related manifestos—is more of an artistic effort than a functional language, but it has this in common with Tolkien’s own invented languages. Both men saw a need to recapture something important which had been lost in the relationship between the signifier and the signified.

But to say “the green sun” is different from renaming the lily. A lily is a real, concrete thing, which really exists in the real world. Although I can perhaps admire the freshness of the lily more if I call it by a fresh name, I have taken for myself only the role of the namer—a new Adam—not that of the creator. When Tolkien “set the imagination leaping” with a “green sun,” he takes upon himself the role of sub-creator and enters into Fantasy.

2. Green Suns

Tolkien returned to the theme of “green suns” again in his seminal essay “On Fairy Stories,” this time in the context of creating Fantasy: “Anyone...can say the green sun.... But.... To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will...certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft.” (MC 140)

These words, which Flieger has described as Tolkien’s “creative manifesto,” (Flieger 2012) echo Tolkien’s ideas in A Secret Vice. Just as language invention is a way to say what cannot be said with ordinary language, Fantasy is a means of seeing—and helping others see—what does not exist in the real world. To do such a thing is a “a kind of elvish craft,” an imitation of the enchantment Tolkien attributes to his own elves. (MC 122, 143) After going to great lengths to describe the nature of Fantasy and sub-creation, Tolkien lists three uses of Fantasy. Of these three, it is the first—“Recovery”—which resembles most strongly his sentiments about language invention.

Tolkien defines Recovery as “regaining a clear view” of things which we have taken for granted through familiarity. “We need, in any case, to clean our windows.... from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.” (MC 146). Just as the “significant language” of modern poetry obscured the fitness of sound and sense, so too the possessiveness which comes with familiarity obscures our ability to see the world clearly. Fantasy is a means of recovering that clear view.

This regaining of freshness is clearly related to the “strange and beautiful pictures in the mind” which drove Tolkien’s language invention, as demonstrated by the recurring leitmotif of the “green sun.” But Tolkien’s exploration of this relationship was not limited to essays. Within his fiction, he invests the elves with both an impulse for language invention and a need for Recovery. This should come as no surprise to us. Fantasy, after all, is an imitation of elvish craft. (MC 143)

3. The Elves as Language Inventors

Tolkien emphasizes the elves’ love for language invention from the earliest days of the mythology (BLT:I 155) to its twilight years. Writing the Dangweth Pengoloð in the early 1950’s, Tolkien sought to answer the question “How/Why did Elvish language change?” Pengolod—an elven philologist and author in the Dangweth’s narrative frame—answers this question in a way which sheds important light not only on why Elvish languages change, but on Tolkien’s thoughts about language change in general:

Weak indeed may be the memories of Men, but I say to you, Ælfwine, that even were your memory of your own being as clear as that of the wisest of the Eldar... your speech would change.... For Men change both their old words for new...and this change comes above all from the very changefullness of Eä; or if you will, from the nature of speech, which is fully living only when it is born, but when the union of the thought and the sound is fallen into old custom, and the two are no longer perceived apart, then already the word is dying and joyless...and the thought eager for some new-patterned raiment of sound. (PME 397)

According to Pengolod, the motivation for creating new words is the same for both races: when the union of sound and sense falls into “old custom,” the word and sound are no longer perceived as separate things. The word becomes “dying and joyless,” and a new sound is needed. The primary difference between human and elven language change lies in the latter’s skill. The elves consciously change whole sound patterns instead of individual words, in a manner reminiscent of how Christopher Tolkien described his father’s language invention process. (LR 378-9) Thus the “tongues of the Quendi change in a manner like to the changes of mortal tongues” albeit more artfully and deliberately. (PME 398, 400)

4. Conclusion

In A Secret Vice, Tolkien identifies the desire for a fresh relationship between sound and sense as the primary motive for the development of both real and invented languages. In On Fairy Stories, he further develops this idea as “Recovery” and names it as the first of the three benefits of fantasy literature. But Tolkien goes beyond theory, portraying his elves as artful language inventors across the fictional and textual history of the legendarium, their language invention motivated by a desire for Recovery. Both within and outside of his fiction, Tolkien’s works are a proof case for the value of glossopoeia as a means of Recovery—both for those who study Tolkien’s invented languages, and for those who make their own.

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