Planting Linguistic Seeds with Tolkien: Part 2

James K. Tauber of “Digital Tolkien” reveals how Tolkien’s fictional writing systems and languages highlight significant patterns in the English language.

James K. Tauber is a philologist, linguist, and software developer who works with scholars around the world using computers to better understand languages and texts. This is the second of three guest posts, based on a presentation given at New England Moot in 2019, on how Tolkien’s works can be used to introduce children and young adults to some fundamental ideas in language.

In my previous post, I looked at the runes in The Hobbit and how they can be used to introduce some core concepts in the way that languages and writing systems interact:

Seed 1: Writing systems are not the same thing as languages,

Seed 2: Letters borrowed between writing systems aren’t necessarily used for the same sound,

Seed 3: Individual letters are not the same as individual sounds.

I was fascinated by The Hobbit runes at age eleven, but the real turning-point in my own linguistic seed planting was my twelfth birthday. My aunt knew I was a huge Hobbit fan and so bought me… The Return of the King. I hadn’t read the first two parts and so didn’t want to start with the story. Instead I just browsed the Appendices. And boy did I find something of interest…

The tengwar! And a new set of runes that are mapped to sounds in a completely different way to the Hobbit runes.

Seed 4: Sounds in a language can be organised and described based on how they are produced

A chart of tengwar letters from Tolkien’s Appendices

The bows and the stems looked so systematic, like there was a pattern to them. And there is! A pattern intimately tied to the sounds they represented and how those sounds are produced by our mouths and throats.

And so we come to what became one of the most significant seeds planted in teenage me: there’s an organising that can be done of the sounds in a language and sounds can be described in terms of how they are produced.

Seed 4: Sounds in a language can be organised and described based on how they are produced

Let me explain with some tengwar examples…

Notice you can have a single curved bow on a letter or two bows. In tengwar this indicates whether the consonant is voiceless or voiced—in other words, whether or not the vocal chords vibrate. Sounds like “P” and “B” (in the International Phonetic Alphabet, /p/ and /b/) both involve closing the lips briefly and then opening them to release a burst of air. The difference between them is whether you also vibrate your vocal chords. The relationship between “T” and “D” (/t/ and /d/) or “K” and “G” (/k/ and /g/) or “F” and “V” (/f/ and /v/) is the same, voiceless or voiced.

Now the difference between a /t/ and /p/ and /k/ is where in your mouth you stop the air. If you put your tongue behind your teeth, that’s a “dental” /t/. If you use your lips, that’s a “labial” /p/. And if you use the back of your tongue against your soft palette, that’s a “velar” /k/. That difference is called the “place of articulation”. And the tengwar uses stem placement and an underscore to indicate this in a systematic way! Now voicing and place of articulation are alone not enough to get some of the other sounds shown here. Another way consonants vary is the manner in which the airflow is modified.

We’ve already seen the “stops” where you actually stop the air and the release it. There are also fricatives where you don’t completely stop the air, you let a bit through causing some turbulence. If you do this with your lips and teeth you get F (/f/), if you do it with your tongue on your teeth you get “TH” (/θ/) and if you do it with the back of your tongue you get the German “CH” sound in Bach (/x/). A third manner in which you can modify the airflow is to let it through the nose instead. And this is how you get “N,” “M,” and “NG” (/n/ /m/ and /ŋ/). Again, though, the tengwar systematically represent this manner of articulation with the height and direction of the stem.

There’s a lot more complexity to the tengwar, its history and its use for different Elvish languages. And not all the letters are organised so systematically. There are the so-called “Additional tengwar”. But the point is the rows and columns and the “meaning” of the stems and bows and underscores introduces many important phonetic concepts and terms. My first phonology class at university was filled with terminology I’d already learned from Tolkien! But even more generally, the tengwar is what really opened up teenage me to the idea that language had patterns that could be studied like a science! 

Seed 5: Individual sounds in a word can cause changes in other sounds around them

Let’s turn to a different area of language patterns: how plural forms are made. Now you might think in English we just add an “s” but that’s a property of our spelling, not the language itself.

We sometimes add an “S” (/s/) sound (like in hobbits or orcs) and sometimes a “Z” /z/ sound (like in goblins or wargs). We use the voiceless /s/ or the voiced /z/ depending on whether the preceding sound is voiceless or voiced. Which plants another seed…

Seed 5: individual sounds in a word can cause changes in other sounds around them

It actually gets a little more interesting in English words ending in “f”.

We get “cliffs” but “wives”. Note the spelling change of the “f” to the voiced equivalent “v”. But should the plural of dwarf be dwarfs like cliffs or dwarves like wives? Disney said the former and that was by far the more common of the two in 1937 when Snow White came out. In The Hobbit, however, published the very same year, Tolkien used dwarves.

He actually addresses this in Appendix F. But note what he says:

He suggests that if it were more like man / men or goose / geese, the plural would have been dwarrows. Now we don’t have time to get into why that might be the case but I want to come back to the man / men / goose / geese example…

This is another way to make plurals in English. Change the vowel.

Man > men; woman > women (notice both vowels change even though only one in the spelling); foot > feet; goose > geese; mouse > mice. This is a process called umlaut or i-mutation which happened in Germanic languages. These plurals did have an ending “iz” two thousand years ago. First the “z” dropped off. Then “i” influenced the preceding vowels. This is called vowel harmony, where vowels in a word try to become more alike. Once i-mutation happened, it meant one could tell the plural just from the earlier vowel and the “i” at the end was redundant. By the time we get to Old English, the “i” was no longer pronounced or written. Other sound changes like the Great Vowel Shift further changed things, but you get the idea of a general historical process that happened.

Tolkien made extensive use of i-mutation in the plurals of the Elvish language Sindarin, and this sometimes goes by the Sindarin word prestanneth.

The Sindarin for “hill” is Amon as in Amon Sûl but the word for “hills” (plural) is Emyn as in Emyn Muil. Barad is “tower” but “towers” would be Beraid. One Orod, many Ered

Those of you who play Lord of the Rings Online may have come across craban vs crebain, grodbog vs gredbyg, morroval vs merrevail. Aragorn is a Dúnadan, one of the Dúnedain. Note that in the Quenya, a more conservative Elvish language, the “i” is still there: Núnatan vs Núnatani. The vowel harmony and subsequent loss of final “i” only happened in Sindarin. But it’s the same sort of process that happened in English and other Germanic languages.

We see Tolkien using realistic language changes in the creation of his own languages, and observing the phenomena in Tolkien can highlight these linguistic concepts in our own languages like English.

In the third part of this series, we’ll introduce our two final seeds, focusing on some of the names in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.


Author: EliseTC

Fantasy Literature Scholar and Literacy Educator MA: Teachers College Columbia University Student at Signum University

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