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The Hobbit: Speaking Tolkien Elvish

Tolkien Elvish

I just finished watching the new trailer for the upcoming film The Hobbit, the prequel to the Lord of The Rings series which is due to be released late next year.

Like a lot of people I’m a huge fan of Tolkien’s books and Peter Jackson’s films, and I think their huge success is due in part to the mammoth effort that Tolkien put into creating all of the intricacies of Middle Earth lore and languages.

As a linguist I’ve always been impressed by the detail of his Elvish dialects with the beautiful Tengwar alphabet (resembling a mishmash of several Eastern alphabets such as Sanskrit and Georgian with vowel diacritics) and a complete grammar (from what I understand Quenya and Sindarin were heavily influenced by his knowledge of Welsh).

It leads me to ask the question:

Do you think it’s feasible that a purely fictional language like Tolkien Elvish could ever be made to become a spoken, living language?

That is, if a group of people attempted to teach their children Elvish as a native language and to communicate solely in Elvish could it be successful in vitalizing the fictional language?

Klingon: A case study

Did you ever hear about d’Armond Speers, the guy who spoke only Klingon to his son for the first three years of his life to see if he’d acquire it as a first language? You can read about it here.

There doesn’t seem to be any published data from the experiment which ultimately ended in failure (the child, Alec, never retained Klingon), though Speers made this remark which would suggest the feasibility of a successful outcome if it was done differently:

Alec very rarely spoke back to me in Klingon, although when he did, his pronunciation was excellent and he never confused English words with Klingon words.

Despite what some would consider to be borderlining child abuse (it’s not the nicest language to listen to!), it was an interesting experiment that I wish had of been documented more thoroughly.

A few adult enthusiasts have also learned Klingon and Elvish to some degree of usability (check out Benny Lewis’ Klingon video or read about David Salo and Tolkien Elvish), however it’s not for the purpose of engaging with a community of real-life speakers but more for fun or interest.

I think the real determining factors in whether or not a fictional or invented language can succeed depend on a genuine need for it (Esperanto was invented and has achieved a degree of success due to a perceived need for a truly international language) or if it’s ideologically motivated (Modern Hebrew, though not fictional or invented per se, had a successful and rapid revival because of its religious significance).


What are your thoughts?



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  1. My experience with created languages is that 'need' is not enough to create something that is truly a language. But I can't pinpoint what other elements are required. An international sign system was created for international functions attended by Deaf people and it never has become a language. For one I suppose it had a limited number of users and requirements but I think also because it was purely functional. Language needs to have some sort of cultural heart (for want of a better term) as well. I don't think that is something that can be manufactured. My other experience was with Signed English – the attempt to make grammatical English appear in sign. This was for educational purposes. It's also regarded as a system and I think rightly so. Done properly Signed English is very clumsy, painstaking and time consuming. Watching those who use Signed English was always confusing to me and I realised it was because the users had morphed it into another language. They weren't really signing in English even though it had the appearance of it. Many of those who have continue to sign after leaving school have gone on to learn Auslan – which is a language and have found it liberating. Mostly for its ease of use and communicating. It isn't bound to an external other structure. Anyway all that to say that in answer to your question, I think a manufactured or constructed language would never truly have all the elements of language unless it persisted through a number of generations and took the course and influence that comes with natural language evolution. I think also it would only persist if there were other requirements such as community, generational sharing, mutual and shared experiences amongst many other things I'm sure I haven't thought of.

  2. As a complete layman in regards to the theory of language I cant make an entirely erudite comment on your statement Donovan. But I do wish to state that I believe that cultural and historical factors must play an important role in the translation of an invented language from fictional to actual. I know enough 'Sci-Fi' and Tolkien geeks to understand that to a small subset of people fictional languages like Klingon and Elvish are as real to them as English, French or Italian. It is all relative to the eye of the beholder I guess. Whilst that does not, of course, make these languages globally acceptable, I guess the feelings expressed by the people who have taken the time to familiarize themselves with these invented languages should be in no way diminished by the fact the language they are using was artificially constructed rather than grown and altered organically over a process of time and historical influence. Who knows what will happen in the future? Enough gaming slang has become part of the common vernacular that it wouldnt be entirely inconceivable that invented languages like Elvish wont, in some way, influence modern English or other languages. Guess time will tell.

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