Elen síla lúmenn’ omentielvo
‘a star shines on the hour of our meeting’
This is Frodo the hobbit’s greeting in High Elvish, or Quenya, to the Elf Gildor (The Lord of the Rings, book I, chapter iii)—perhaps the most celebrated utterance in an invented language, and arguably one of the most beautiful, both phonetically and grammatically.
Invented languages in literature
Made-up languages are not unusual in fiction. As long ago as 1516, Thomas More (Utopia) gave his readers ‘A meter of iiii. verses in the Utopian tongue’, the first line of which goes Vtopos ha Boccas peula chama polta chamaan.
In A Voyage to Lilliput (1726), Jonathan Swift has the Lilliputians say various things in their own language, such as Lumus kelmin pesso desmar lon emposo ‘swear a peace with him and his kingdom’. There are words and phrases from all the countries which Gulliver visits, but none represent what one might call worked-out languages.
Readers of the Tintin books will recall the extensive vocabulary of Syldavian (e.g. the national motto Eih bennek, eih blavek!), which is a much more thoroughly worked-out language based on Germanic but made to look Slavonic. In all these cases, the fragments of language are introduced to complement the other cultural features of the invented countries and add an authentic flavour.
Tolkien’s invented languages
Tolkien’s linguistic invention is radically different. Although at the start the snatches of alien language encountered in The Lord of the Rings appear to be there simply to convey the right flavour, the reader gradually becomes aware that the two main languages (both principally spoken by the Elves) are in fact fully formed and fully worked out. The phonology is consistent, the grammar is functional, and there is a large vocabulary with an extensive word-forming system. Moreover, the two main languages are related, as (for example) French and Spanish are related, and the historical developments of sound and meaning have also been worked out in authentic, plausible detail—the ‘sound laws’ operate realistically like those that have caused French to differ from Spanish.
The languages, in fact, have an existence of their own, outside the fictional narratives in which they occur. Tolkien was an inventor of languages before he began writing legend, and had already begun to devise the early versions of the Elvish languages before the legends that eventually became the Silmarillion formed in his mind. Indeed, he says that the languages brought the ‘legendarium’ (as it is usually called) into existence, rather than the other way round. ‘“Legends” depend on the language to which they belong; but a living language depends equally on the “legends” which it conveys by tradition’, he once wrote.
Why invent languages?
Tolkien wrote an essay on the subject of inventing languages, and called it ‘A Secret Vice’. He believed, and it seems likely, that many more people go in for it than admit it publicly. There are a number of worked-out languages to be found out there on the Internet, but one suspects that their creators are the flamboyant or extrovert few.
Tolkien believed that pleasure in the articulate sound of language and the articulate use of it was as important as the purely functional communicative aspect of language. Your invented language is unlikely to be taken up and used as a medium of communication by many people. It therefore has to be your enjoyment of its beauty that motivates you to create it. And by ‘beauty’ of course one means not just the (possibly subjective) aesthetics of the sound system, but the indefinable fitness of the vocabulary (personally, I find the Blefuscudian name for ‘a most delicious wine’, flunec, slightly more ‘fitting’ than the Lilliputian name glimigrim), the technical functionality of the grammar, and (for the real enthusiasts) the underlying historical philology.
Tolkien thought that human artistic creation happened because humans are created in the image of a creator; to devise languages within an invented world would then be to imitate the one who spoke the universe into existence. Perhaps, more mundanely, it’s like building a model railway with detailed buildings and moulded landscape and train timetables; perhaps, then, it’s a geek’s pursuit. I don’t know. One thing about your invented language beats model-making: you can carry it in your head, work on it as you walk or commute, and chant, recite, curse, or pray in it!
Átaremma i ëa han ëa · na aire esselya · aranielya na tuluva · na care indómelya cemende tambe Erumande…
(start of the Paternoster in Elvish)
To find out more see: E. S. C. Weiner and Jeremy Marshall ‘Tolkien’s Invented Languages’ in Michael Adams From Elvish to Klingon. OUP 2011. pages 75–109.