Bottling the essence of languages: Tolkien’s ‘A Secret Vice’

From sound aesthetic to Finnegans Wake, a new book explores Tolkien’s relationship to language. Here’s my review for the New Statesman.

A Secret ViceA Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages
Ed. Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins
HarperCollins (223pp, £16.99)

Horsemen, barbaric yet noble, chant ­battle cries. Ridge-browed aliens do the same. Their words are harsh and guttural – as warlike as their weapons. Yet the Dothraki, from Game of Thrones, and the Klingons, from Star Trek, are also standard-bearers for an activity that is solitary, cerebral and painstaking: their languages are entirely made up. For the first time since the pre-1914 vogue for “international auxiliary languages” such as Esperanto, Dothraki has helped to make language invention cool.

Unlike Esperanto, Dothraki and Klingon were not created as communication aids. You can read Hamlet in Klingon, but the language was devised solely to lend a space opera atmosphere and realism. As with Dothraki, its complex grammar and substantial lexicon are far less important than its distinctive, evocative sound. And “sound aesthetic” is central to the older inventions of J R R Tolkien, without whom neither Dothraki nor Klingon is likely to have been conceived. In The Lord of the Rings, we read elegies in Elvish (“Ai! Laurië lantar lassi súrinen . . .”), battle cries in Dwarvish (“Khazâd ai-mênu!”) and slander in Orkish (“Uglúk u bagronk sha pushdug Saruman-glob búbhosh skai”).

Like a linguist version of the ­super-sniffing hero of Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, Tolkien wanted to bottle the essence of languages…

Continue reading at the New Statesman…

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5 Responses to Bottling the essence of languages: Tolkien’s ‘A Secret Vice’

  1. Sue Bridgwater says:

    Reblogged this on Skorn and commented:
    A book that’s high on my reading list – add it to yours!

  2. Jan Hawke says:

    Reblogged this on Jan Hawke INKorporated and commented:
    Absolutely fascinating article on Tolkien’s not so vice – assembling fictional languages, feegled from the New Statesman…

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Perhaps quite understandably from their (or, as a personification, his?) point of view, The New Stateman does not want to let me read it because I have the Vicious Hobbit-like temerity to block ads as I browse (ah, well…).

    But the general subject made me wonder if you had happened to run into the business of the Paramount Axanar lawsuit? Or, for that matter, the Language Creation Society? The latest I’ve run into:

    • John Garth says:

      Yes, I have heard about the Klingon lawsuit, and the Language Creation Society too, though I can’t comment in an informed way on either of them. Regarding the New Statesman firewall, I simply switched off my ad-blocking software for that site. This kind of restriction may be a minor irritant, but I think it’s understandable. Journalism these days is struggling to find a financial model that will help it survive.

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Thanks! I’ll Consult my Experts about selective switching off. My wife’s a print journalist (national daily newspaper), but inevitably involved with the website as well, and I get the impression it is indeed a ‘business’ trying to get all the balances right between what’s free, and how much to charge for what, and what packages and options are practical, and how to take advantage of internet without accidental disadvantage to your wonderfully loyal print subscribers, not to mention ‘resource allocation’, and so on…!

        I haven’t managed to follow the lawsuit, or its language aspect, in much detail, yet, but it is fascinating. I think I’d tend to be ‘proprietary’ if I were clever enough to invent a language, yet also delighted to see it ‘take off’ in the hands of fans (not trolls) and not all depend on me.

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