First Impressions

For a couple of weeks now I’ve had all of the materials that I need to start working on the project, so I’ve begun to read through them leisurely to absorb the information that I’ll use.  For Finnish, I’m reading Fred Karlsson’s Finnish: An Essential Grammar, and for Welsh I’m reading A Welsh Grammar by Stephen J. Williams.  I’ve managed to find a free Latin textbook online to use for my comparisons, and my references on Quenya and Sindarin are from a page run by the University of Bergen in Norway and a few other sites.

One of the first things that I notice as I peruse my grammars of Welsh, Finnish, and Latin is how much bulkier they are than the resources that exist for Quenya and Sindarin.  Naturally, there’s not as much easily available information on these two invented languages as there is on their natural language inspirations.  This is mainly because, despite being used extensively in the lore of Middle Earth, Tolkien’s constructed languages simply aren’t as substantive as the natural languages that they’re based on (Fauskanger a).  A living language is an enormous and complex system of tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of words and just as many rules on how to put them together and modify them to convey meaning.  Building something of that scale would be a colossal undertaking, and none of his languages were quite complete in that sense.  On top of that, many of his writings in and on his constructed languages are unpublished, so there is still a lot about his languages that is uncertain.

Having said that, Tolkien’s languages are more fleshed out than most conlangs are, and there is more than enough content available for me to make comparisons.  In fact the comparisons are coming easier than expected; even after only having skimmed a few sections of my reference grammars of Latin, Finnish, and Welsh, it’s easy to see where Tolkien got his inspirations from.

Quenya is often said to be inspired by Finnish and Latin, and so far it seems like its nominal morphology demonstrates this best.  Quenya has ten different noun cases (i.e. ten different suffixes that attach to a noun to indicate its grammatical role in a sentence), the first nine of which are:  nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, possessive, locative, allative, ablative, and instrumental.  The tenth, the which many call the respective, is only recorded in one instance, so its function is not entirely certain (Fauskanger b).  Students of Latin will already recognize most of these; Latin has six noun cases (Bennet, 1918).  Finnish speakers will recognize all but the tenth;  Finnish has fourteen noun cases (Karlsson, 1999).  Like Finnish and Latin, Quenya is a heavily inflectional language, meaning that it uses affixes extensively to indicate grammatical roles, unlike languages such as English, which mostly use word order and particles like prepositions to express those relationships.

Sindarin, on the other hand, is widely acknowledged to be based on Welsh, and this shows best in its consonant mutations.  The term consonant mutation will probably be unfamiliar to anyone who hasn’t studied Welsh or another Celtic language, but their mechanism isn’t all too complex.  Some words in Welsh and in Sindarin, such as the definite article, some numerals, possessive pronouns, and other mostly grammatical-function words, cause specific changes in the first sound of the adjective or noun that follows it.  So, for example, the Welsh word for “people” is pobl, but when it follows the definite article y it becomes y bobl “the people” (Williams, 1980).  Welsh has three different sets of mutations, called soft mutation, nasal mutation, and spirant mutation; Sindarin has soft mutation, nasal mutation, mixed mutation, stop mutation, and liquid mutation (Fauskanger c).  These sets of mutations each affect sounds differently and only occur after specific words.

These two comparisons are only the beginning; as I delve deeper into the grammars of Welsh, Finnish, Latin, Quenya, and Sindarin, I will be able to describe the phenomena above in greater detail and make other connections between Tolkien’s constructed languages and their inspirations.

 

Bennett, C. E. (1918). New latin grammar. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Fauskanger, H. K.How many languages did J.R.R. tolkien make? Retrieved from http://folk.uib.no/hnohf/howmany.htm

Fauskanger, H. K.Quenya – the ancient tongue. Retrieved from http://folk.uib.no/hnohf/quenya.htm

Fauskanger, H. K.Sindarin – the noble tongue. Retrieved from http://folk.uib.no/hnohf/sindarin.htm

Karlsson, F. (1999). Finnish:  An essential grammar. New York: Routledge.

Williams, S. J. (1980). A welsh grammar. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Comments

  1. Rick Stevenson says:

    This is all very fascinating to me as someone who has always found the process of fictional language creation insurmountable. It’s interesting to see the different bits and pieces that are borrowed rather than invented, since looking at it without any kind of real linguistics knowledge never helped me to discern any of that.

    I’m almost more interested in the differences between Tolkien’s languages and their root languages than the similarities. The more I think about what you’ve said here, the more I wonder about the thought process of where to reuse established conventions and where to alter. I’d be curious as to whether or not your research grants you any insights into why these types of decisions might have been made.

    I’m not sure this is really part of your research, but this also makes me wonder why Tolkien would choose the languages he did as bases and not others, based off of what he took from each respectively.

  2. achennesseynil says:

    I found your research really interesting, because I’d read and watched The Lord of the Rings, but never really put much thought into the origin’s of Tolkien’s languages. Probably out of lazy thinking, I’d always assumed the languages were purely thought up out of the blue, so finding out that they borrow from actual languages was extremely cool.

    One thing I am interested in is if there is any reason behind which parts of actual languages Tolkien chose to base his languages off of in terms of syntax, or if Tolkien just picked pieces that would work based on how they sounded. Also, is there any particular reason that Tolkien chose Finnish and Welsh, or is it simply because of their weird formats?

    Keep up the interesting work!