Myth and design are important to languages. Language can be preserved through the telling of stories and also through the design and time that went into them. If you have stories written in a certain language—timeless, good literature—then there is a greater chance that the language will be preserved or at least stand a chance of coming back. This is true for Old English with Beowulf and Cryst by Cynewulf also in Old English. Theologians believe that in the early thousands B.C., there was a tower in Babel where all the languages were born by divine actions. Those languages probably don’t exist anymore as language changes throughout its life if it wants to survive. Melvyn Bragg, author of “The Adventure of English” says many times that English chose rather to evolve than to be left behind. Languages change, but they maintain some rules that show them to be a living, breathing language.
A language must have several functioning aspects before it can be considered a language. The first would be pragmatic function, which according to “Language Files” means that it must serve some useful purpose (Language Files 18). But what defines what is useful? Is Old English useful? Several linguists, particularly English speaking ones, probably would argue that it is while others would say it is not.
A second function a language must have to be a true language is interchangeability: the ability to give and receive messages. The Files says this means words must be able to be given through messages, speaking, or even singing (Language Files 18)!
Next is cultural transmission. This, they define as a “feature of human language is that there are aspects of language that we can acquire only through communicative interaction with other users of the [language]” (Language Files 18). This means that people can speak to each other, understand and gather cultural information from speaking to other speakers of the language.
The last, of several, that is important for this project is productivity. This means that novel messages or ideas can be built up in the language (Language Files 22). Meaning that humans can talk to each other in new ways that have never been said before. Essentially, there must an unlimited number of sentences that speakers of this language can put together. This would mean that the language is complete, and just too huge to ever be in one “dictionary”.
To break it down, language must be able to be spoken between two speakers of the language (not necessarily human, not animals either), it must be able to function for messages and songs, must be useful, and culture must be able to be gathered from it.
So where do languages come from? From what is needed for a language, it can be guessed that language comes from people. Creatures who speak with words, syntax, arbitrary and hidden meaning, snark, hypothetical situations, joy and happiness. Language comes from expressions and things that can be expressed in patterns and order. Languages can be spoken in dialects, high class and low class, and with special organizations for passionate moments. Some languages are formed through almost onomonipia-like ways. The words can sound like the thing they are describing. Two languages that have come into being in the last century, hitting fame at almost within the same decade, are very different and yet very much alike. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish languages and Star Trek’s Klingon are both invented languages that follow most of the rules but are very different in design and completion.
Beginning with Tolkien will help lay the foundation for all that must go into creating a language and where inspiration can be drawn from. Tolkien had a vast, nearly life-long exposure to languages and myths that would later create his vivid world. It is fair to genre writers today, especially ones in love with Middle-Earth, to say that it took John Tolkien nearly his entire life to create the world that he did. But he was determined to have stories, histories, myths, and cultures to go with his languages. He is quoted for saying that no language can survive without its myths in a letter he wrote to a school friend (Adams 98). From childhood, he was determined to tell the stories that he hoped would make languages last. Today, we can safely say he was successful as there is hardly a person out there who does know what a hobbit is.
Tolkien grew up reading Native American stories, Arthurian legends, Viking legends, and books by George Macdonald all which fueled his interest in myth, stories, and of course language (Parker 7). Some of the languages Tolkien learned growing up were: Greek and Latin (which he spoke often in school), Middle and Old English, Old Norse, Welsh, Spanish, Italian, and Gothic, which is an old Germanic language. He also had a working knowledge of Russian, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Lombardic (Noel 4).
As a child, Tolkien learned Spanish and played with the words to creat what he called Neffarin, a language that had very few words and was mostly a child’s attempt at language. But in 1915, when Tolkien was about fourteen years old, he was working on an exercise book about the Gothic language. Tolkien grew frustrated with the lack of vocabulary and went on to invent words for it and fill in the blanks. He stood by the Germanic rules and the sound-laws and created the beginnings of his first language called Gaustik (Adams 96). With this started and his years at Oxford as well, Tolkien discovered Finnish in a story about Kalevala but they were in English. Once he had a hold of the original Finnish, he began to pick that up and create the language that would be his High Elfin language of Quenya (Adams 97). As is evident, these languages of Middle-earth were not created over the course of his writing his great books. The myths and legends that are now The Silmarillion were in the works as long as Quenya long before the famous line about a hobbit in a hole. He was determined to give his language a history as he thought was right.
Tolkien drew on a lot of myths and legends he’d read as a child to fuel his own stories. Contrary to popular belief, he didn’t invent every story and event in his fables. A lot of it was taken from other older stories just like writers of today do. The best example is from the Old English poem Crist which inspired Tolkien’s most beautiful legendary figure: Elendil.
Borrowing heavily from the Old English poem Crist Tolkien created Elendil, his first high king of Gondor and Arnor in the second age of his Middle-earth (Tyler 141). The name comes from the epic poem that goes:
“Eala Earendel engla beorhtast
Ofer middangeard monnum sended.”
Which translates to:
“Hail Earendel, brightest of angels,
Above Middle-earth sent unto men” (Noel 4)
There are two great instances in this poem that Tolkien took from the Old English. First, the story of Crist by Cynewulf is of course the story of Jesus the Christ sent to earth by the Christian God. The name Earendel is guessed to mean something of a heavenly light. This is the name that stuck with Tolkien as he created his myths of the great king of Gondor Elendil, which we will see in his first poem about his Middle-earth in 1914. The other word used in Crist that Tolkien borrowed was middengeard which is Old English but comes from the Scandinavian word Midgard which means middle-earth (Noel 4). In Scandinavien mythology, Asgard is the land of the high people, or the gods, and Midgard is the land of the humans. So here again we can see how Tolkien simply borrowed from what he knew and loved.
He used the name Elendil in 1914 but he called him Eärendil in a poem he wrote in an invented language based on Finnish (Noel 5). This was the language that of course became his High Elvin tongue Quenya. The poem was thus:
“Ai lintulinda Lasselanta
Pilingeve syer nalla ganta
Kuluvi ya karnevalinar
V’ematte singi Eldamar”
You can see here that his myth is already growing and becoming what it would be, even in this early stage. We can see the words familiar to Tolkien fans everywhere: Eldamar and Valinar which will later feature heavily in his master mythological work The Silmarillion. But this was just one of his many languages and was in fact the High Elvin language. There are three dialects of the Elvin tongue: Quenya (High Elvin), Sindarin (the Sylven Tongue), and the Black Speech which is the speech of Mordor and will not feature much in this essay.
The dialects of the Elvish tongues split near the beginning of Tolkien’s myth. In this chart from Ruth S. Noel’s master work on the fourteen languages of Middle-earth, we can see that most dialects and languages of Tolkien’s world started from Quenya. This is because it was his language of creation. In the beginning of Middle-earth, it was the language of the gods that created the world.
It can be seen that Quenya (the language of creation) was elevated as the other languages were created. Tolkien called the speech at first Eldarian because the elves were called the Eldar by the gods in their own speech (Noel 56). But he realised later that this was not correct because later Elves would begin their journey West into the Gray Havens and later become the Gray Elves with their own language, which was Sindarin. So the name changed to Quenya as it now applies to many elves in Middle-earth (Noel 56).
A second dialect in this early stage was Teleri who were the Sea Elves. They lived nearer the edges of Tol Eressea in the early days of Middle-earth which is farther away from where Quenya and Sindarin were spoken and thus had a slightly different dialect.
There is a tie in the Old English story at about this point in Tolkien’s world. Bragg retells the story of English struggling in England when the Normans came over and implemented French (according to Bragg) into the courts and English suddenly became the language of the lower class (Bragg 44). Where Kentish became the langauge of vulgarity and comedy, so to did Sindarin float down the chart of class.
The story in Middle-earth is that King Thingol’s brother was slain in a Sindarin-speaking area, he declared that no Sindarin Elf should ever speak or answer in Quenya which was the language of the Noldar who had begun the slaying (Noel 57). Any Elf who spoke Quenya was then branded a traitor and a kingslayer (Noel 57). This is Tolkien, the master, at work creating reasons why the language moved and eveolved much like Old English. He was determined that his languages have myths and histories behind them to back them up. So that they would last. Any linguist who comes digging in Midde-earth’s back yard won’t be sorry. Thus, in Middle-earth Quenya was kept as the language of lore which is why in The Lord of The Rings the reader sees Lady Galadriel, “who was high among the Noldar” singing her lament in Quenya not Sindarin which was the language of her people (Noel 57).
Tokien’s Quenya words tie back to Old English often as well even though the grammar is innately based on Latin and Greek rules. Take the Quenya word athelas for example. Anyone who knows and loves the popular movie elf Legolas will know that the suffix in his name las means “leaf”. If one has seen the movies, they will recognize the name athelas as the herb that Strider uses to slow the poison in Frodo’s wound. So it’s an herb and we see the Quenya word las meaning “leaf”. But the Prefix athel is in fact an Old English word meaning “noble”. But in Tokien’s world, athelas means “king’s weed” or “king’s leaf”. Here we can see Tolkien’s brilliant blending of his High Speech and Old English: athel for noble will come over in his Quenya to mean “king” of course!
Another example of his blending Old English is in the Black Speech, which will not be discussed in depth in this essay. The word Mordor is of course in a dialect of Elfish as the Black Speech is a corrupted form of Quenya (Tyler 65). In Old English, Morder means “murder”. In Elvish though mor is “black” and dor means something similar to “country”. This phrase was close to Tolkien’s heart as he loved the countryside but was forced to move to Birmingham which was called The Black Country because of its pollution (Noel 60). Hence, Mordor the black country.
There are numerous other instances where Tolkien ties in his stories with others such as Sigurd slaying the dragon from Norse mythology and even Avalon and his Avallónë which was a heaven-like place nearer to Valinor—a place loved by the Elves. And also Iwernin which sounds awfully close to Ireland (Adams 99).
Now that we’ve covered Sindarin and Quenya’s origins, we can look at how to use them from a linguistic point of view with some help from Language Files by the Ohio State University. We can see how Tolkien put the language together so that there was just enough for him to work with. Sadly, none of his languages are complete enough to be able to be learned fluently. Ruth Noel, the author of the guide to the Middle-earth languages, says that “it is doubtful the he ever created enough vocabulary for a living language…we cannot reconstruct the grammar and usage of Elvish without some guesswork” (Noel 61). The work that was done here is taken from passages in all of Tolkien’s works to help us get a picture of what goes in to making a language.
Language Files says there are two types of languages: Formal, which are formed with logic over time and can be used to write all the designed features discussed earlier (Language Files 23). The second kind is Constructed language, which is entirely man-made and may not imitate all the properties necessary to be a living language (Language Files 23). Starting with the basics, Noel gives us some verbs from Tolkien’s Quenya and Sindarin. Quenya can be conjugated in five tenses and Sindarin in six. This makes sense as Quenya was the “Old English” of Middle-earth and the language of lore rather than of everyday speech.
To conjugate a Quenya verb in the present tense, you start with the root as is discussed in chapter four of Language Files. It would seem that all of Tolkien’s verbs are free morphemes meaning they can be used alone. At least, all of the ones that we know. There appear to be no bound morphemes in any of the three major Elvish dialects (still including the Black Speech). First of all, take the verb laita which is the present Quenya for “praise”. The free morpheme (root also) is lait. To make most Quenya verbs present tense, the suffix is –a. So lintulind which is the Quenya for “swiftly sing” would be lintulinda in the present (Noel 62, 62).
There are only two known imperative verbs in Quenya currently and those are ele! And laite! which mean “behold” and “praise” respectively. These may fall in the category of function words rather than morphemes.
The past tense suffix for Tolkien worked in suffixes for his tenses like most Latin-inspired languages, changes with plurals and pronouns used so it has so far been near impossible to pick out what the suffix is. Some known ones are: -ier for a plural, -e is used when there is no plural or pronoun, -ienyes when “it” is present. This just goes to show how incomplete Quenya really is. The future tense is similar in that the suffixes change with number and pronouns (Noel 63).
Sindarin is much more complete, though still greatly lacking in all things that make a language. The present tense is usually –a unless a pronoun suffix is present in which case it is –on making nal, “cry” into nallon meaning “I cry” (Noel 64).
There are several imperative orders in Sindarin which would make the direct or order declarative sentences simpler than they would be in Quenya. All imperative words in Sindarin have the suffix of –o. Hence, dar meaning “to halt” would be daro! “halt!”. Sindarin also has a past participle which is lacking in Quenya. The suffix is simple again as this is probably the language Tolkien worked with most as did his people of Middle-earth. The best example is dỉriel which has the suffix –riel attached to the free morpheme dir and means “after having gazed” (Noel 64). This shows how Tolkien also barrowed from the construction of Old English in that one word can often mean an entire Modern English phrase.
The list goes on and Noel even goes into detail about plurals with each tense. As is evident, the roots do not change, but prefixes are added when there is a pronoun and the suffix can be effected but tense and subject (or pronoun) and the number of the subject. Plurals can be changed in Sindarin for example by changing vowels, just like in English. For example adan “man” can become edain “men” and amon “hill” becomes emyn “hills”.
The challenge for Tolkien was of course vocabulary. His grammar and syntax rules can be derived from his use in all of his stories. The problem comes in with vocabulary much like what he found when studying Gothic. Michael Adams, author of a great book about many invented languages and dead languages from Old English to Gamer Speak, says “His instinct that a name must have a story, hence an etymology, was to cause him considerable difficulty, as the growing sophistication of his philological scheme made it increasingly hard to account for names invented decades earlier and now embedded in the legendarium” (Adams 105). He is of course speaking of things written in, perhaps, The Hobbit that he now had to work around as he created more myth and stories to go with his language. Sadly, Tolkien’s desire for perfection lead to limiting his beautiful languages in the end. He was said to have a “severely highly personal is not heretical views about language” (Adams 106). This probably stopped him on many occasions from simply “filling in” some missing ideas or words. Thus it lead to Elvish—or any of his interesting languages— not fulfilling the requirements for a Living Langauge. Yes, there are songs in Quenya and Sindarin in his stories, and yes it is used some to communicate back and forth. But anyone outside of Tolkien’s head or not born and raised among the Sylvan elves will never entirely know what to say in every situation. With so much effort and love given to a language and dialects, it is nearly heartbreaking that it cannot function and stand on its own.
So what does a created language that can stand on its own look like? To that I say what does it take to make a language be? To Exist? To live? To be or not to be? In the words of the Prince of Denmark in the original Klingon, I ask “ taH Pagh taHbe?”
From the far reaches of the Star Trek galaxy comes the language hundreds are studying online and using for Internet communication among its elitists. Klingon was noted by Adams as being the largest constructed language on planet earth (it’s ironic because it’s an alien language). The speakers of Klingon apeared before the language in 1967 when the episode “Errand of Mercy” first aired in March (Adams 112). The language had to then grow into something that matched its people. Thus it was described as brutal and guttural by others of the United Federation of Planets of which Kronos, the homeworld of the language and the Klingons, is not a part of.
With the background established, the language was created to fit the people who spoke it. Klingon first appeared in full sentence form in the movie The Search for Spock in 1984 and was created by James Doohan who recorded the lines and then played them back for the actor who played the Klingon captain (Adams 113). Before this, the only alien language in the Star Trek world was Vulvan which had been slapped together when it was decided that Vulcans should speak only in their own language when addressing one another in the second Star Trek film. Klingon had greater demands and had to be more mature than Vulcan.
The men who set out to work on Klingon after Doohan were Harve Bennet the writer and director of some of the films and linguist Marc Okrand who had a background in Native American dialects and Asian languages (Adams 113). The first thing that Okrand decided was best for the language was to make it real. Klingon was to be used in many films and episodes to come so he decided to devise phonological and grammatical systems and to use consistent vocabulary (Adams 115). He only “translated” needed lines into Klingon, but in the years to come, and by the 90s, he would have enough to fill a dictionary and a traveler’s guide to Klingon.
The first thing Okrand tackled was the sound of Klingon. It was after all an alien language and needed to sound unlike anything on earth right down to the sentence structure. This made the pragmatics difficult to deal with as the lines still had to be spoken by English speaking actors and therefore had to be pronounce-able and be able to be committed to memory (Adams 115). The phonology therefore was meticulously planned out and is still one of the hardest things modern Klingon learners deal with. Many of the sounds are, of course, very alien and hard for English-speakers to create.
A great example is the word Klingon. Okran wanted a lot of alien sounds in the language but also wanted to avoid the /k/ that a lot of alien langauges seem to gravitate towards. Somehow /k/ is very alien-looking: Krypton, Klytus, Kaylar are just some of the examples of alien /k/s. But there was the problem of the /k/ already being present in the word Klingon. Seeing as how it was hard for non-native speakers to get their tongues around some of these Klingon sounds, Okrand ran with that. He says that “all of the names previously transcribed with /k/ were earthlings’ mishearings of Klingon sounds unavailable in the inventory of English consonants” (Adams 117). If one tries to pronounce the Klingon /tlh/ sound with the English /I/ sound after it for the Klingon word for Klingon tlhIngan, it does indeed sound like the English velar stop of /k/. But it’s not.
So the real sound then is actually a very Klingon /thl/ and a native speaker would tell you that she speaks thlIngan Hol “the Klingon Language”. How is it pronounced? Okrand says to make this sound, which appears in other Klingon words, “the tip of the tongue touches the same part of the roof of the mouth it touches for /t/, the sides of the tongue are lowered away from the side of the upper teeth, and air is forced through the space on both sides between the tongue and teeth” (Adams 116) which makes this a kind of alveolar voiceless sound. This was just the beginning. To get that guttural sound that Klingon was rumored to have, more interesting sounds had to be added. The most obvious one is the glottal stop that happens many times in heard sentences. Like the stop in English’s /t/ in “kitten”. Adams gives the example of Qo’ with the stop signified by the apostrophe. The stop is voiced a little before and after the /o/ sound giving Klingon its choppy sound (Adams 116).
There are many other great examples of velar fricatives in Klingon like their /h/ sound and many palatal stops like in their /d/ sound as well. However, there are no sounds in Klingon that do not occur in other languages but the conglomeration of sounds in one language is unique to Klingon (Adams 117).
What has made Klingon so easily accessible to the masses who desire to learn it is the fact that it does not need runes or any special characters to write it. Yes, there are Klingon symbols in the movies and shows, but they cannot be tied to the sounds and language. Yet. Klingon is currently written in the Arabic letters like English but with some interesting things going on with apostrophes to signify stops and large letters to show when something is a more common sound. This came from Okrand transcribing the language for the actors and is still how linguists learn it to day (Adams 118). Okrand also was very specific in making the technical rules for Klingon. The way a sentence is set up is object-verb-subject. Okrand is recorded as saying that he didn’t choose this simply because it was the opposite of English, but because it was the least likely setup to be found in any language thus making it remain feeling alien (Adams 118).
As Klingon grew through the years, syntactical rules, suffixes and prefixes that didn’t exist before, and more vocabulary were added to it. Where Tolkien halted saying that every word had to have deep, derivative meaning, Okrand saw that his language had to evolve or fall behind as it became more and more in demand. He even used simple or pun-like ways to get words he needed all based on things he knew. In Klingon, Hat sounds a like the English “hot” and means temperature. And more interesting, Das means boot in Klingon and was inspired by the film Das Boot, which the design of the bridge in the Klingon starship in Star Trek III was inspired by (Adams 125). So where Tolkien held back, Klingon pressed on, not content to be left behind and incomplete.
Now, we have enough Klingon that the Klingon Language Institute, a website started by a group of fanatics in 1992, has translated many pieces of cannon literature into Klingon including Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the bible which you can buy in KLV (Klingon Language Version) from their website. From what we can see here with this brief analysis of Klingon, it does indeed cover all the bases laid down in Language Files: It has pragmatic function, interchangeability, cultural transmission, and productivity. Where Elvish falls short with vocabulary and rules enough to translate anything, Klingon has taken the reins and evolved into a perfectly speakable constructed language.
Adams, Michael. From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.
Bragg, Melvyn. The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language. New York: Arcade Pub., 2004. Print.
Mihalic̆ek, Vedrana, and Christin Wilson, eds. Language Files: Materials for an Introduction to Language and Linguistics. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2011. Print.
Noel, Ruth S. The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980. Print.
Parker, Victoria. Writers Uncovered: J.R.R. Tolkien. Oxford: Heinemann Library, 2006. Print.
The Klingon Language Institute. www.kli.org. The Logical Language Group. Web. 26 Nov. 2013.
Tyler, J. E. A., and J. R. R. Tolkien. The Tolkien Companion. New York, NY: St. Martin’s, 1976. Print.