Ring of Words

All nerds idolize J. R. R. Tolkien, and many of us realize that Tolkien’s greatness was due in part to the depth and detail of his language, both in English and in his many invented languages. Ring of Words, by OED editors Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner, details just how complex are the roots of Tolkien’s wordcraft.

Tolkien himself worked on the OED early in his career—something I for one did not know. Part I of Ring of Words details Tolkien’s life as a lexicographer, working in the minutiae of the W’s. I confess that even I found this section too esoterically detailed to read all the way through. If, however, you are interested in the etymology of “walnut” and “waistcoat” and “wallop,” by all means check it out—“walnut” is more complicated than you can possibly imagine.

Parts II and III are more generally interesting. Part II, “Tolkien as Wordwright,” concerns Tolkien’s work as a writer and as a philologist. It begins with a discussion of what “philology” means. The authors (and, they say, Tolkien) prefer a sense of the word more general than “simple” linguistics, an older and more general one.

The study of texts, whether ‘literary’ or not, leads naturally both ‘out’ to the study of the society and culture to which the texts belong, and ‘in’ to the study of the language in which the text is written. Tolkien and Gordon’s edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example, may seem specialized to those unfamiliar with such scholarly texts, but in fact it is multidisciplinary in its scope: it includes an an analysis of the 14th-century dialect in which the poem is written, the verse techniques, the characteristics of characterization and narrative, the historical, fictional, and mythological sources, and the ideology and customs of the text’s contemporary audience. A philologist has to be able to handle all these areas…

…The modern term linguistics is a poor substitute, implying as it does a sole rather than a primary focus on language.

[I don’t know whether linguists would agree with that characterization of their discipline.]

From this RoW goes on to discuss Tolkien’s love for the raw sounds of words (reflected in customs of the Elves in his “legendarium”); his propensity for “compulsive fascination” with individual words, allowing them to “put down roots” and lead to great flights of creative imagination (most spectacularly in the case of the Ents, from the obscure Old English word ent); and then his use of creative archaism. Tolkien was an admirer of William Morris, who following in the tradition of Sir Walter Scott filled his historical romances and fantasies with mock-archaic language. Much 19th century (and come to think of it, 20th and 21st century) pseudo-archaism is fairly dreadful. Tolkien, with his deep knowledge of actual archaism, was able to make a much better job of it than Scott and Morris and their lesser imitators.

Tolkien, writing pure fantasy, was not exactly faking ‘period’ idioms; rather, he used Old English and Middle English language and literature as sources for his invented language and idiom. This is actually a rather subtle business. Tolkien tended not to use archaic Old English words directly, but rather extrapolated how they might have evolved had they survived into modern English. He also shaded his language to fit specific contexts, both in narrative and in dialog. He writes of the Shire in ordinary modern English, but of the Elves and the men of Rohan and Gondor in “higher” language. Even individual characters—particularly sensitive Frodo and well-traveled Aragorn—change their diction to suit the circumstances.

Part III, “Word Studies,” is simply a list of interesting words used by Tolkien, where he got them, and how he adapted them. Some words I would have thought he simply invented himself—“bee-hunter” as applied to Beorn, “elf-friend,” “sister-son”—turn out to have fairly deep linguistic and cultural roots. Some—“Arkenstone,” “mathom,” “smial”—are modernized versions of Old English words. Some, especially Rohirric words such as “éored” and “Mearas,” are delibarately un-modernized Old English words. Fun fact: the word “dumbledore” actually means “bumblebee,” appears in (some versions of) Tolkien’s poem “Errantry.” In reading the word studies I was repeatedly struck not only by how much I didn’t know, but by how much there was to know.

[Several of the word studies—Elf, Fairy, Faërie, Dwarf, Gnome, Goblin—remark on Tolkien’s annoyance at the light and sentimental popular conception of those mythical beings. I have to assume he would be heartened by the modern reinterpretations of such by the likes of Neil Gaiman and Susanna Clarke. If you have somehow not yet read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, for goodness’s sake do so at once.]

To close, two pretentious typographical notes:

  • I was greatly pleased by the books free and casual use of the archaic letters þ, ȝ, ð, and æ.
  • The body text of the book is set Minion, a typeface heavily inspired by typefaces of the late Renaissance. It is not however in any way an actual revival of those old fonts, even a creative one (as are, say, Bembo and the various Garamonds), but a modern creation. In that it is a sort of typographical analog of Tolkien’s reinterpretations and modernizations of ancient words. Was that intended, or am I merely being pompous?

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