Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The World of Silver Leaves: The Relationship Between Myth and Language in Tolkien, Star Trek, and Game of Thrones

This is a piece I wrote in 2016 while taking a class for my MA on Language Invention through Tolkien from Signum U. The class was great fun, and it allowed me to engage with Tolkien the Language Creator, a side to his creative genius which I think is largely misunderstood by the proliferation of books on "how to speak Elvish" and so forth.

My impetus for putting it here, as a blog post, has to do with a comment I recently came across on one of the many Tolkien message boards out there on the World Wide Web. The comment argued, in part, that the real genius of Tolkien's language creation was that it was "window dressing" and "didn't get in the way of the story."

Well, that's half-right. Tolkien's language creation doesn't "get in the way of the story." But in this case, half-right is all-wrong. I offer this short essay primarily as a rebuttal to this point of view.

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1. Flieger’s Bumper-sticker

“…language cannot be forgotten. Mythology is language and language is mythology.” J.R.R. Tolkien penned these words in a 1939 draft of the lecture which would eventually be published as the essay “On Fairy Stories.” Noted Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger has emphasized the importance of these words to our understanding of Tolkien as a sub-creator:
If I ever put a bumper sticker on my car, it’s going to say that. No modifiers, no explanations, just seven words that convey Tolkien’s bedrock belief about words and what they do… the whole text of “On Fairy-stories” is an extended gloss on that statement. (Flieger 242) 
It is perhaps appropriate, then, that these seven words are about as cryptic as the notoriously weighty essay they represent. To understand what Tolkien means by them, we must understand the context in which they are framed. After this statement of his “bedrock belief,’ he elaborates:
The mind, the tongue, and the tale are coeval. The human mind was endowed with powers of "abstraction", of not only seeing green grass and discriminating it from other things, or of finding it good to look upon, but of seeing that it was green - as well as grass and hence of inventing a words green... In fact many of these enchantments that are from a fairy tale are closely related in the mind to the very linguistic power that could invent all of those and set them free. When we can take green from grass and paint the sky or man's face with it, or blue from heaven and red from blood we have already an enchanter's power: the world of silver leaves and that fleece of gold and the blue moon appear. Such fantasy is a new form, in which man is become a creator or sub-creator. (TOFS 181)
“Coeval” is the key word in this paragraph: man’s ability to make words is inseparable from his power to tell stories. Thus, Tolkien believed, they began at the same time and in the same way, and to know the history of one is to experience the other. By extension, sub-creation—which Tolkien sees as having as its goal the “inner consistency of reality” (TOFS 59)—must reflect this. “On Fairy-stories” thus suggests a test by which invented languages—whether Tolkien’s or those popularized by successful multi-media franchises—may be evaluated.

2. An Illusion of Historicity

As a philologist, Tolkien was deeply familiar with the ways languages changed and evolved over time. His languages were thus “deduced scientifically from a common origin” in order to give them a character of “cohesion” and “consistency of linguistic style and an illusion of historicity.” Rather than creating a snapshot of a language at a single point in time, he worked out the philological processes by which that language would have, were it living, changed from its ancestor tongue. Tolkien’s process, according to his son Christopher, was to devise new words “from within the historical structure, proceeding from the ‘bases’ or primitive stems, adding suffix or prefix or forming compounds…following it through the regular changes of form that it would thus have undergone…” (LR 242)

But historical sound shifts would not, in and of themselves, satisfy the criteria laid out by Tolkien in “On Fairy-stories.” Language cannot stand alone any more than mythology. [1] To meet his test, changes in language must be coeval with events in the story. They must exist at the same time, and each must exist for the purpose of the other.

In the long and complicated internal and external histories of Tolkien’s Eldarin languages,  we find that their phonological development is always accompanies events in the mythology. Tolkien revised these events as often as he did the languages, and the result is a rich sampling of case studies in the relationship between language and mythology. For the purposes of this essay, two examples will suffice: the first from the earlier days of Tolkien’s mythopoeic endeavors, the second from their twilight years.

3. The Deep Sundering of Their Speech

In the years 1914-16, Tolkien worked on “Qenya,” the first of his Eldarin [2] tongues. In 1917, he began work on Gnomish, an Eldarin tongue related to Qenya. In addition to a lexicon of Gnomish words, he developed an outline of how Qenya and Gnomish had both descended from a common proto-Eldarin language. The sounds of Gnomish were “harder” by comparison, with a shift towards stops or plosives at the ends of words, and other consonants mutating following a pattern found in the Celtic languages. Thus Qenya “Manwe” became “Manweg” in Gnomish, and Qenya “Makar” became Gnomish “Magron.” (Weiner and Marshall 82, 92)

These consonantal mutations gave Gnomish a very different soundscape from Qenya, one which parallels the development of the Gnomish people in Tolkien’s fiction. For at the same time he was developing the historical links between Qenya and Gnomish, he was also making a myth about how they had become estranged:
‘Aye’, said Rumil, ‘for there is that tongue to which the Noldoli cling yet…and as I hold ‘twas but the long wandering of the Noldoli about the Earth and the black ages of their thraldom while their kin dwelt yet in Valinor that caused the deep sundering of their speech. Akin nonetheless be assuredly Gnome speech and Elfin of the Eldar, as my lore-masters teach me. (BLT 43)
From the beginning, Gnomish was the language of exiles. This aspect of the language, as well as its basic differences from the other main branch of the Eldarin tongues, would remain intact as Tolkien changed the name of the language from Gnomish to Noldorin in 1920, and continued its development up until the writing of The Lord of the Rings. But by the 1950’s, Noldorin had become Sindarin, and the reason for its differences from Quenya had changed. Now, the cause was the long separation of the Sindar, the Grey Elves, who did not complete their journey to Aman [3], and their speech became the lingua franca of the elves of Middle-earth for political reasons [4]. But through every change--whether through sorrow and exile, the will of an Elven-king, or the pride of the greatest craftsman to ever live [5] -- the development of Tolkien’s languages went hand-in-hand with the development of his mythology. There is no sense of either the languages or the stories existing as mere window-dressing for the other. They are truly coeval. The history of the development of Tolkien’s mythology is as much a history of words and sounds as it is of characters and events.

Weiner and Marhsall, writing in “Tolkien’s Invented Languages”, sum it up this way:
‘If there are two purposes for invented language - communication and art - Tolkien is (so far) the master of the art-form…Reading Tolkien’s major works is like looking at a painting in which a beautiful garden actually exists, having been planted the artist before the picture was painted. Tolkien created a self-consistent and technically convincing group of languages…Though they appear in their narrative context as perfectly contrived atmospheric devices, it is their pre-existence that ensures their success. (Weiner and Marshall 107-108)
Tolkien’s success as both author and language inventor set a precedent for imaginative fiction. With the rise of the commercial success of such multi-media franchises as Star Trek and Game of Thrones, invented languages are currently enjoying something of a heyday in the cultural mainstream. But the relationships of Klingon and Dothraki to their respective fictional worlds differs widely from Tolkien’s Eldarin tongues.

4. The Final Frontier

Klingon was created when linguist Marc Okrand was hired to create dialogue for an alien race in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984). In creating Klingon, Okrand had to work to incorporate a few lines of dialogue created by actor James Doohan for the original Star Trek film. “The plan, at this point, was not to create a ‘full’ language, but only what was necessary for the film—that is, just enough vocabulary and grammar for the lines marked as being in Klingon.” (Okrand et. al. 112-115) Although Okrand would go on to develop a sizeable vocabulary and grammar for Klingon, its early stages were not grown along historical principles, but rather to fill the needs of the franchise. (Okrand et. al. 124)

Of the languages associated with the Game of Thrones franchise, Dothraki, the language of a martial nomadic horse culture first introduced in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, is probably the best-known. In the books, Dothraki consists of a mere handful of words invented by Martin to have a specifically “harsh” or “alien” sound-sense. When the production of the Game of Thrones HBO series began, producers wanted a more fully-developed language so that Dothraki dialogue could be filmed. Mirroring the genesis of Klingon, linguist David Peterson was hired to create a more-fully developed Dothraki grammar and vocabulary. (Peterson 89)

Although there are many other commercially created art-langs [6], Klingon and Dothraki are probably the most widely known. Both are used both used as aids to verisimilitude and viewer immersion, and both have active communities of fans who interact with their creators. In these respects they are highly successful as artistic languages. But Klingon and Dothraki began as sub-creative afterthoughts, added on as narrative garnish for the benefit of an audience which had come increasingly to expect invented languages as a necessary piece of world-building. They are “perfectly contrived atmospheric devices,” but they do not have the deep relationship with their worlds which Tolkien’s languages have by nature of being coeval with his mythology.

Not everyone need take Tolkien’s approach; not everyone will be capable of doing so. It requires a great investment of time to organically interweave complex stories and languages,  and perhaps such an approach is not well-suited to the deadlines of blockbuster movies and hit HBO series. But its merits are evident in the rich linguistic landscape of Middle-earth, where mind, the tongue, and the tale are coeval.

5. The Speech of the Stars

 As I set out to write this essay, I spent the three months working on developing an invented language, “Treian,” to accompany a set of myths I was working on for an interconnected mythology of my own. This mythology already has several other invented languages, however I had never attempted the creation of a historical grammar for one of the languages beyond outline. This I now attempted to create, with the major sound shifts corresponding with major crisis in the mythology.

For example, the collapse of the ablauting vowel series “a e o” into a single vowel “a” accompanied the “fall” of certain stars of the Western sky (sentient and ensoulled beings in this universe) as a mixed reward and punishment for their standing aloof from a cosmic rebellion (paralleling one of the medieval theories about the origin of the Elves—that they were angels who tried to remain neutral during Lucifer’s rebellion). Also accompanying this fall were a number of consonantal changes, generally representing the simplification of aspirated and non-aspirated consonants into either non-aspirated consonants or parallel fricatives. An additional set of rules acted on the liquid semi-vowels, changing r > u and l > [r u] under certain conditions. Thus:

Proto-Treian *ohur > Treian ahur “ice”
PT. *emh > Tr. amh “water”
PT. *phehel > Tr. fāl “to shine”
PT. *pheheln > Tr. fāla “bright
PT. *kʰohanh > Tr. kānh “to dig, to delve”
PT. *kʰerl > Tr. kaur “country, land”

This project led to the composition of a somewhat lengthy historical grammar (now well over 20 typed pages) and a vocabulary of about 250 words derived from a smaller list of proto roots, to say nothing of about 60 typed pages of the associated myths.

Although this project has become far too involved to summarize in an essay of this length, I have come to have an understanding of just how much effort and patience is required for Tolkienian language invention. I have also found it to be an immensely satisfying experience, one which I will continue beyond this class. It has been eminently worthwhile for its own sake, and does not need the promise of publication or the eagerness of fans to bring joy to a patient and willing sub-creator. This aspect of joy is, I think, a key element which must be experienced to be known, but which cannot be overlooked if we are to properly understand Tolkien’s language invention.



[1] “As one suggestion, I might fling out the view that for perfect construction of an art-language it is found necessary to construct at least in outline a mythology concomitant…because the making of language and mythology are related functions (coeval and congenital, not related as disease to health, or as by-product to main manufacture)…” (MC 210-211)

[2] For the purposes of this essay, “Eldarin” is used to refer to whole family of Tolkien’s Elvish languages at their various stages of conception.

[3] But note that Tolkien did not necessarily consider time itself to be sufficient reason for Elvish language change. In the early 1950’s, Tolkien dealt with this question at length in The Dangweth Pengoloð. See The Peoples of Middle Earth 397.

[4] King Thingol of Doriath bans the use of the tongue of the Noldor (Quenya) among his subjects in Beleriand after he learns of the death of his kin in the Kinslaying of Alqualonde. “And it came to pass even as Thingol had spoken; for the Sindar heard his word, and thereafter throughout Beleriand they refused the tongue of the Noldor, and shunned those that spoke it aloud; but the Exiles took the Sindarin tongue in all their daily uses, and the High Speech of the West was spoken only by the lords of the Noldor among themselves. Yet that speech lived ever as a language of lore, wherever any of that people dwelt.” (TS 129)

[5] “The Shibboleth of Feanor” is a fascinating example of Tolkien’s powers of retcon. To address an apparent inconsistency in sound changes, he makes it part of the political strife within the Noldor caused by the polarizing personality of Feanor before the Noldor went into exile. See The Peoples of Middle Earth 331.  

[6] Peterson’s “High Valyrian” (also created for Game of Thrones) and “Irathient” (created for the SyFy show Defiance) to name just two.


Currently reading: The Stripping of the Altars
Current audio book: The Return of the King
Currently translating: The Dream of the Rood

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