Tolkien’s fascination with words and language

Tolkien had a fascination with words. He seems to have been obsessed with them. Shippey writes, “On some subjects Tolkien simply knew more, and had thought more deeply, than anyone else in the world.” The following description of Tolkien’s ideas about the intrinsic beauty of languages fascinates me, and it puts to words something I’ve known to be true for a long time but have never set to expression: tolkien

[Tolkien] thought that people, and perhaps as a result of their confused linguistic history especially English people, could detect historical strata in language without knowing how they did it. They knew that names like Ugthorpe and Stainby were Northern without knowing they were Norse; they knew Winchcombe and Cumrew must be in the West without recognizing that the word cwm is Welsh. They could feel linguistic style in words. Along with this, Tolkien believed that languages could be intrinsically attractive, or intrinsically repulsive. The Black Speech of Sauron and the orcs is repulsive. When Gandalf uses it in ‘The Council of Elrond’, ‘All trembled, and the Elves stopped their ears’; Elrond rebukes Gandalf for using the language, not for what he says in it. By contrast Tolkein thought that Welsh, and Finnish, were intrinsically beautiful; he modelled his invented Elf-languages on their phonetic and grammatical patterns, Sindarin and Quenya respectively. It is a sign of these convictions that again and again in The Lord of the Rings he has characters speak in these languages without bothering to translate them. The point, or a point, is made by the sound alone–just as allusions to the old legends of previous ages say something without the legends necessarily being told.”

J.R.R. Tolkien:Author of the Century, by Tom Shippey

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