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

When a word dies

C.S. Lewis agrees with me (see previous post):

The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone “a gentleman” you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not “a gentleman” you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A. But then there came people who said – so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully – “Ah but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than John?” They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man “a gentleman” in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is “a gentleman” becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker’s attitude to that object. (A ‘nice’ meal only means a meal the speaker likes.) A gentleman, once it has been spiritualised and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.

The sad, unnecessary death of a word

I am going to share a pet peeve of mine that, I believe, is reasonable. Most pet peeves are nothing more than petty annoyances, but this peeve ranks beyond a mere annoyance and is heading in the direction of problem. I might even say, “serious” problem. My pet peeve is this: the misuse of the word epic.

Epic used to mean something. It had a great, objective meaning that it carried with it. When used rightly, it came with sweeping power, capturing the idea of a story far bigger than ourselves. It was a great word– a word that was once rarely used, and rightly so, because not very many things in life are truly epic.

Milton’s Paradise Lost, which poetically recounts the devastating fall of man and the subsequent removal from Eden is epic. Lord of the Rings might be considered an epic. God’s plan of redemption through Jesus Christ is the most epic story of all. The word described a vast and glorious concept of an all-encompassing story. It was a transcendent word. It was bigger than us.

But in the last three years the word has been destroyed. Epic has fallen from its heights and has been dragged through the mud. The word has lost all dignity, and recently, all meaning. The death of a word is a sad thing, and, as I mentioned earlier, a serious thing.

Words are the powerful vessels of truth. Truth is given and received in words– written or spoken. Ideas, concepts, principles– these are all communicated in words. God’s first relation to humanity was in the spoken word; and he continues to speak today by his written word. God intended the words he spoke to have clear and objective meaning; they were the means of communicating ideas and concepts. Man was created to receive and interpret the words of God. From the beginning of Scripture God has woven words into the fabric of human existence. We need words to survive, relate, and develop. God himself even said “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). These truth-vessels must be protected and maintained. When a word dies, in essence, some truth dies with it.

Let’s take the word epic, for instance. The objective meaning it once held is gone. These days, the word is used to describe anything one subjectively enjoys. A nice song is epic. Your car is epic. Queen Latifah is epic. Now, a perfectly useful word that could have been used to describe things that were truly epic is unusable. The word is dead. It cannot be used with precision anymore– it doesn’t mean anything. When I call something epic, instead of describing something of its characteristics, I am describing how I feel about it.

Language is as useful as it is precise. As words lose precision, language loses power. If no one can agree on the definition of a word, no one can say anything. The less potent our language is, the more impotent our culture will be. Satan wins a battle every time a word dies. By chipping away at our language, he cripples our ability to communicate truth, for truth must, by necessity, be communicated in words.