Planting Linguistic Seeds with Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”

What are some ways to get children invested in language and linguistics? James Tauber of Digital Tolkien explains how in this guest post series!

A Guest Post Series with James K. Tauber of Digital Tolkien

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 first 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.

My academic training is in linguistics, the systematic study of language. Like many linguists, I can trace my interest in studying how languages work to Tolkien. It’s not that I read Tolkien and decided I wanted to be a linguist. I didn’t know such a thing existed at the time. But rather, when I started studying linguistics, I realised I’d already picked up a few of the fundamentals and perhaps my initial interest from Tolkien. In this series of blog posts, I’d like to explore seven of these sorts of “linguistic seeds” that might be planted in the minds of children and young adults as they encounter language in the works of Tolkien.

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

It all started for me with The Hobbit which I first read at around ten or eleven.

Immediately I was confronted by these strange symbols.

What language was this?

Well, it turns out, perhaps anticlimactically, it’s just English! But it’s English written with a different kind of writing. It was intended to depict the writing of dwarves, but it’s in fact just a slightly modified version of the Anglo-Frisian runes that Old English was sometimes written in. For the eleven-year-old me, it was like a code to decipher. But there’s an important seed here:

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

The writing system, that is the system of symbols used to convey a language in written form, is NOT the same as a language itself.

Gandalf makes this point with the ring inscription (emphasis mine): 

“The letters are Elvish but the language is the Black Speech of Mordor.”

The same language can be written in multiple writing systems and the same writing system used for multiple languages. Yiddish, a Germanic language, is written in the Hebrew alef-bet. Persian, an Indo-European language, is written in the Arabic alphabet. Serbo-Croatian is written in the Latin alphabet in Croatia but the Cyrillic alphabet in Serbia. Writing systems are not the same thing as languages.


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

Let’s return to decoding these runes.

Tolkien doesn’t give explicit mappings between these runes and English sounds in The Hobbit but all the passages written in runes are provided in the Latin alphabet too so it can all be worked out. This is a very fun puzzle!

Some of the runes look quite a bit like the corresponding letters in the Latin alphabet. Some look completely foreign. Yet others look related to the Latin letters but actually represent something completely different—these so called “false friends” on the last line. Which brings us to a second little seed to plant in your minds…

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

Different languages have different sounds and when they adopt the writing system of another language, they adapt it: abandoning some symbols, repurposing other symbols for what are unused sounds in the target language for new sounds not previous covered; and sometimes inventing completely new symbols or modifications of existing ones.


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

Take a look at these four words, written in Hobbit runes and in the Latin alphabet.

Firstly notice one symbol is used for “TH” which is, of course, written as two letters in English. As a kid I thought of this as one rune representing two letters but that’s actually not the right way to think of it. “TH” is ONE SOUND. It makes sense to use one symbol.

It is an accident of history that in Modern English we use two letters for this one sound. In Old English we used just one: a “thorn” Þ which looks like the rune! Similarly with the vowel in “feet” or “door”. Notice only one vowel sound is written in runes and the sound for “door” is the same as “or”. “feet” and “door” do not have multiple vowel sounds. They each have just one vowel sound but two letters are written to represent that sound.

There are lots of other examples in English of multiple letters representing one sound. The “SH” in “ship” is a single sound as is the “CH” in “school” (corresponding to the sound usually written “K”). In the word “enough” the “GH” corresponds to the single sound more commonly written as “F”. The “OU” too corresponds to just a single vowel sound. In “ought” or “bought” the entire four-letter sequence “OUGH” is just a single sound.

And so we plant the seed that individual letters are not the same as individual sounds. Sometimes a sound can be expressed as sequence of multiple letters. Much of the time this has to do with the history of the language and the writing system and English is particularly complex in this regard, but that’s a whole jungle in itself and we’re just planting seeds for now.

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

In the next part of this series, we’ll introduce two more seeds using a new writing system and a way of making plurals that Elvish has in common with the ancestor languages of English.


Interested in learning more about language and linguistics in Tolkien’s writing? You can go to Digital Tolkien’s website or follow Digital Tolkien on Twitter @DigitalTolkien.