Jan 21, 2015

Constructed Languages – Linguistics as an Art Form

written by Jeanette Koenig

In my last blog, I talked about constructed languages that were created for some purpose. Esperanto was intended to serve as a universal, culturally neutral means of communication by virtue of its easiness to learn, thereby breaking down international and cultural barriers. Other languages, such as Klingon, were created to provide greater realism in fictional settings. The fact that they might be taken up by fans who learn to speak them fluently and to translate other works into them is entirely incidental. The point is, however exotic the language, the creator had some specific goal in mind when developing the phonology, grammar, and vocabulary.

But sometimes languages can be invented for their own sake, purely as an intellectual endeavor. Writer J.R.R. Tolkien spent his life creating entire families of languages with varying degrees of development: several elven languages, a number of human languages, and a host of independent languages, including the Black Speech and the languages spoken by dwarves, ents, and orcs. While one might think that these languages were created to give his stories more realism, it was actually the reverse that occurred: Tolkien developed his languages first, and then to give them context, he established a detailed historical background from which his stories emerged. (Incidentally, culture is not neglected in the study of either Klingon or elvish. Compare, for instance, the Klingon greeting “nuqneH” (literally, “what do you want?”) with a typical Quenya elven greeting “Elen síla lúmenn' omentielvo” (literally, “a star shines on the hour of our meeting”).)

Tolkien spent most of his life developing and revising his languages for the sole purpose of his own enjoyment. Tolkien was a philologist—a word lover—and he studied and invented languages like a wine connoisseur experiments with new wines. It is not possible to learn to speak any of his invented languages in the same way that one can learn to speak Klingon. Klingon has a published grammar and dictionary readily available for purchase. Its evolution involves a growing vocabulary with a grammar that remains internally consistent. On the other hand, though Tolkien wrote thousands of pages about his languages, most of that work is unavailable to the public. What little that has been posthumously published has been painstakingly used by scholars to piece together grammars, but gaps remain.

Furthermore, Tolkien didn’t just experiment with language structure; he experimented with language change, giving his languages internal histories: within his fictional universe, his languages evolve over a fictional timeline. For example, Sindarin (the elvish vernacular) first passed from Common Telerin to Old Sindarin, thence to Sindarin, and from there to various other dialects such as Doriathrin. Sindarin has a very complicated morphology as a result of complex phonological changes that supposedly occurred over time.

As if that weren’t confusing enough, over the course of his life, Tolkien constantly revised and re-revised his languages, which gave them an external history as well; the Quenya that appears in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is quite different from Tolkien’s early Quenya. His languages were in a constant state of flux, so that it is sometimes impossible to get a definitive description of what he ultimately wanted. As the website elvish.org points out, “At no time were Tolkien's languages fixed or finalized or free from even fundamental change or reconsideration; achieving such a state was explicitly not Tolkien's purpose” (http://www.elvish.org/FAQ.html). Hence, much of the elvish dialogue (and certainly nearly all of the orcish) used in the Peter Jackson films is conjecture, and there is no way to tell whether Tolkien himself would have recognized it as his own.

Therefore, the purpose of Klingon as opposed to Tolkien’s languages is very distinct: Klingon can be studied by people who want to speak it fluently, regardless of their interest in scholarship, whereas Tolkien’s languages are of no use to anyone who wants to use them to carry on conversations; their attraction lies primarily with linguists and poets. To be sure, Tolkien did write and translate into Sindarin and Quenya. He even wrote in these languages without translating his poems back into English, because he was more interested in how they sounded than in what they said. Scholars who have made careful study of Tolkien’s languages have themselves composed extensive texts in Quenya and Sindarin. But Tolkien wrote far more about his languages than he did in them, because the joy was more in the creation than the actual use.

One may wonder why some people have put so much work into studying constructed languages. It is easy to understand for Esperanto: it is a recognized means of communication that takes very little effort to learn, assuming you can find someone to speak it with. Esperanto speakers have formed a network in which they host travelers in their homes (usually for free). It would certainly be worth my while to learn Esperanto if I were planning to go walkabout. But why do people spend time studying Klingon or elvish? Why not put the effort into learning a natural language that can be used? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that ultimately, once all of the basic necessities of life have been provided, humans find a need to create or explore something for its own sake, without regard to utility. From this we are given art, music, literature, and yes, even new languages.


Ardalambion. Of the Tongues of Arda, the invented world of J.R.R. Tolkien. http://folk.uib.no/hnohf/index.htm

The Elvish Linguistic Fellowship. A Special Interest Group of the Mythopoeic Society. http://www.elvish.org/

Fauskanger, Helge. Quenya Course. http://folk.uib.no/hnohf/qcourse.htm

Glǽmscrafu. Tolkien's linguistic cellar http://www.jrrvf.com/~glaemscrafu/texts/index-a.htm

Okrand, Marc. The Klingon Dictionary. New York: Pocket Books. 1992.

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