Mae govannen, dear followers, and happy September!
Yesterday, it was exactly 45 years since JRR Tolkien passed away. Thus, we found it appropriate to make him the linguistic patron saint of September!
(Also, the 22nd of September is the birthday of Bilbo and Frodo, so even more appropriate!)
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is probably one of the most well-known authors of modern times, but did you know that he also devoted his career to linguistics and literature? He was a specialist in English philology and ancient languages and was mostly active at Oxford University during his long career in academia, although he spent some time at the University of Leeds (1920-1925). He also contributed significantly to the Oxford English Dictionary, mainly on words beginning with ‘w’. In Leeds, he produced a vocabulary of Middle English, as well as an edition of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, which served as standard texts for decades.
After returning to Oxford in 1925, Tolkien held a lecture on the old Germanic poetic saga Beowulf, ‘Beowulf: The monsters and the critics’ (1936), which he had spent years translating. (He also adapted many of the themes and stories from Beowulf into his Middle-Earth books.) This lecture revolutionised the way this poem was interpreted for good, and remains influential for the field of Old English literature criticism even today. A favourite Tolkien-trivia fact of the HLC: when he gave series of lectures on Beowulf, he would begin the first one by entering the lecture hall loudly reciting Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon!
Tolkien was an expert on many other languages than English, in particular classic ones such as Latin, Old Norse and Icelandic, Gothic, Welsh, and some Finnish (particularly as read in the mythical work ‘Kalevala’). These influences are noticeable in his extensive conlanging (language construction). The Elvish languages in the Middle Earth stories, for example, are largely based on Finnic and Welsh language elements (the ‘well met’ phrase used in the beginning of this post is from one of Tolkien’s Elvish languages, Sindarin). Although he could read and write many modern languages fluently, such as Spanish and French, it always frustrated him that, when he was travelling the countries where these languages are spoken, he was not able to speak them.
We could write about Tolkien forever; the impact of his Middle-Earth series is undeniable and we’ve only scratched the very surface of his conlanging (which I know we could go into in great depth). It is said, however, that Tolkien never appreciated the fame he received from his non-academic work, but wished people would be more familiar with his role in academia.
So, today we thank JRR Tolkien for his great contributions to the field of historical linguistics, philology and literature criticism!