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A Natural Product of our Humanity : Tolkien's Philosophy of Language

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For Tolkien, sound-symbolism was not a theory, but an absolute reality. The link between meaning and sound was the foundation of his invented languages and an essential part of his linguistic beliefs. Tolkien’s ideas about phonetic fitness were
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  8 Hither Shore 13 (2016)   “A Natural Product of our Humanity”:  Tolkien’s Philosophy of Language Ross Smith (Madrid) T he ull quotation o the words included in this title is: “Language—and more so as expression than as communication—is a natural product o our humanity” (MC 190). Tese words encapsulate two o olkien’s undamental linguistic principles, namely that the expressive, emotional, creative side o language is at least as important as its communicative unction, and that lan-guage is inextricably bound to our identity as human beings.A good starting point or a paper about a amous academic’s Philosophy o Language is to define what we mean by “philosophy” in this context. Te Concise Oxford English Dictionary   offers the ollowing as the second option under this entry: “a set o theories o a particular philosopher”. It is likely that olkien would not be too happy with the word “philosopher”, regarding himsel first and oremost as a “philologist” (see Shippey on this distinction), but otherwise the definition is acceptable. Te ocus o this paper is thereore to analyse the distinct theories that together can be viewed as olkien’s overall philosophy on the subject o human speech.When we examine the separate strands o thought that can be said to make up a coherent theory o language in olkien, two undamental concepts come to mind, these being the centrality o words to our sense o community, and the centrality o word-sound to meaning. In other words, the question o how language relates to the social, geographical and historical scope o a given human community, and how the sounds o a language are an essential com-ponent o the meaning o words. Native Language T he first o these components, i.e. language as a undamental actor in the human community, brings us to olkien’s notion o what he called “native language”. As has been noted by a number o scholars, olkien’s idea o a “native language” did not coincide with what is ordinarily meant by this term, perhaps even more nowadays than when he wrote, with the concept o “native speaker” being an established part o our modern language-learning vocabulary. olkien was not reerring to the language people learn as inants, the language o their parents and community, but rather to an individual, inherited linguistic iden-tity. As he said in his much-cited paper English and Welsh : “We each have our own personal linguistic potential; we each have a native language” (MC 190). Elsewhere he uses the phrases “inherent linguistic predilections” and “native Philosophy of Language   Hither Shore 13 (2016)  9linguistic potential”, as well as “the individual’s innate linguistic taste”, to try to convey what he means. In essence, when he uses the term “native language” olkien is trying to express, in terms understandable to the rest o us, what he himsel had elt on the prooundest level at various stages o his own lie, with respect to an essential identification he noted between certain languages, or dialects, and his own innermost sensations.wo salient examples o this in olkien’s case are the Middle-English dialect o the region o England historically known as Mercia, and the Welsh language. Tere are numerous reerences in olkien’s papers and letters (see Hemmi) to the strong identification he elt with the West-Midlands area o England, which borders on Wales, and a commensurate identification with the language histor-ically spoken in that part o the world. In one o his letters (to the great English poet W.H. Auden), he even goes as ar as to say: “I am a West-midlander by blood (and took to early west-midland Middle English as a known tongue as soon as I set eyes on it)” (L 213). olkien is thereore suggesting that there was a special bond between his cultural sensitivity, his sense o his own place in the world, and the dialect o English spoken in that geographical location many centuries earlier, to such an extent that merely seeing the language written was enough to understand it, despite the intervening centuries. Tis, then, is the essence o “native language”; an innate empathy with a given tongue, the stirring o “deep harp-strings” when one comes into contact with its phonemes.Better known is olkien’s inatuation with the Welsh language, which he remarked had its srcin in words written in Welsh on the sides o the coal trucks that passed along the roads o his childhood countryside en route rom the mines in Wales to the rest o Britain. olkien’s love o Welsh and how he used it in his invented languages is well documented and requires no urther elaboration here; what is o particular interest or our purposes is the relation between Welsh and olkien’s notion o native language. As mentioned above, olkien’s childhood home was close to the Welsh border and in his philological mind the ancient roots o English and Welsh mingled in that rontier space: there was a “constant reflection, in the Welsh borrowing o older date, o the orms o West-Midland English” (MC 189). Further reerences are made to this linguistic melange, including Old Mercian and some ancient Norse, in his stories Te Lost Road and Te Notion Club Papers . As time went by, olkien’s identification o his own “native language” pushed urther back in time to the lost tongue that lay behind the Welsh that he ound so attractive, this being the ancient Celtic language—British or Brittonic—spoken in England beore it was obliterated by the successive conquests o Romans, Angles, Saxons and Danes. Welsh, along with Cornish and Breton, is a neo-Brittonic language; to get to the essence o his aesthetic predilections, thereore, olkien elt he had to go to the source. He sums up his eeling about the deep-rooted Welsh and extinct Brittonic tongue in the ollowing terms: Ross Smith  10 Hither Shore 13 (2016)  For many o us it rings a bell, or rather it stirs deep harp-strings in our linguistic nature. In other words: or satisaction and thereore or delight—and not or imperial policy—we are still ‘British’ at heart. It is the native language to which in unexplored desire we would still go home. (MC 194)As mentioned above, in all these reerences to the concept o “native language”, olkien is trying to communicate to us exactly what he elt when he came into contact with certain languages. He is not trying in any way to “prove” that we all have a native language, since he knew that would be impossible, but he does suggest that there is something in all o us that, i given the chance, will resonate deeply with a specific tongue or dialect. And indeed, olkien himsel wished to give his readers that chance, by including in Te Lord of the Rings  names o characters and sites that were “mainly composed on patterns deliberately modelled on those o Welsh”. Yet olkien’s love o the ancient Celtic language o southern Britain goes beyond the merely linguistic, or even aesthetic: there is a very powerul emotional component as well, which is intimately linked with the idea o “home”. In the above quote he says that our native language is the one to which we “would still go home” and the notion o home repeatedly comes up in olkien’s discussion o native language. In reality, his overarching concept combines language, people and place. As he said o Welsh: “Welsh is o this soil, this island, the senior language o the men o Britain” (MC 189). Tus, British soil, the island o Britain, and especially its southern hal, mingles with the language and the olk. Tis is an essential actor o the psychological aspects that underlie olkien’s theory o language in this specific area. As is well known, olkien was not born in the UK but in South Arica, which is where he spent his early childhood. Tis act seems to have caused him a certain amount o existentialist discom-ort during his lietime and he elt obliged, as i seeing himsel as an outsider, to make repeated affirmations in his letters and work concerning his love o England, o the English countryside, o English culture and o Englishness in general. He amously said that he wanted to create a new mythology “or England; or my country” (S xii). He was even prepared to define himsel by exclusion, saying in a letter to his son Christopher (L 53): “For I love England (not Great Britain and certainly not the British Commonwealth)”. Fortunately or his non-English admirers, olkien was prepared to be a bit more generous in relation to the ideal climate or his personal mythology: It should possess the tone and quality that I desired, somewhat cool and clear, be redolent o our ‘air’ (the clime and soil o the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts o Europe). (S xii) Philosophy of Language   Hither Shore 13 (2016)  11In English and Welsh  he also reers to the “north-west o Europe” in positive terms as regards its ancient Norse and Germanic tongues, saying that with so many linguistic and cultural interconnections it can be regarded as a single philological province.Tereore, olkien’s native language and personal linguistic predilection was clearly delimited geographically, to Wales and the bordering zone o middle England, at its most restrictive, and north-western Europe at its most expans-ive, and this evidently coincides with the location where he elt especially “at home”. He considered that everyone had a native language even i it is in a dorm-ant condition, and evidently one’s native language varies depending on one’s ancestry. As a component o his linguistic philosophy, we can say that the idea o “native language” reflects olkien’s belie that a people, their language, their country and their mythology orm a whole which goes back to the most distant past and which, though perhaps only aintly, can still pluck at the strings o our emotions even without our knowing exactly why. As mentioned above, he hoped that these distant resonances would be elt by the readers o his fiction through the use o names derived rom an ancient Celtic tongue and he was prepared to cite songs, poems and exclamations in languages that presumably none o his readers could possibly know but which he hoped would be comprehensible to them on a level deeper than that o ordinary linguistic meaning.Te use o Sindarin and Quenya in Te Lord of the Rings  is in some ways a philological experiment in linguistic perception and aesthetics, the outcome o which, on the basis o the available evidence, was very satisactory. Te reac-tions o the readers o the early editions o Te Lord of the Rings  in the 1950s and 1960s ranged rom comments simply mentioning how nice Elvish sounded to requests or detailed explanations o the languages’ grammar and phon- ology. Whether or not olkien’s readers—in those days, English speakers mainly rom a similar cultural background to the author—were actually tuning in to their own “native language” is hard to ascertain, but it is certainly one possible explanation o the success o olkien’s daring decision to expose his readers to untranslated art languages.Te Elvish that is sprinkled through olkien’s fiction provokes a reaction not only in readers, but also in the characters themselves. When Frodo, Sam and Pippin first hear the Elves singing in the woods o the Shire, the ollow-ing happens: One clear voice rose now above the others. It was singing in the air elven tongue, o which Frodo knew only a little, and the others knew nothing. Yet the sound blending with the melody seemed to shape itsel in their thoughts into words which they only partly understood. (LotR 79) Ross Smith  12 Hither Shore 13 (2016)  In other words: Even though the Hobbits had no prior knowledge o Elvish, they could partly understand the language. Quite possibly the Hobbits are having an experience which is parallel to the book’s English readers; in the latter case, olkien’s choice o phonemes evokes a distant memory o Celtic British, while or the Hobbits, the sound o Elvish evokes echoes o the srcin o their own tongue. Whatever the case, Elvish has a powerul impact on the Hobbits, so powerul in act that in moments o extreme danger both Frodo and Sam suddenly quote entire passages o Sindarin or Quenya. In Sam’s case, this happens when he is conronted, alone, by the monstrous Shelob and the power to utter Sindarin seems somehow to come upon him when he seizes the shining Phial o Galadriel. For his part, and also eeling inspired by Galadriel, Frodo cries an invocation to the elvish hero Eärendil in Quenya to raise his own courage and dismay his enemy. In both cases, we are explicitly told by the narrator that neither o them knew the language they had spoken.How, we might ask, is this possible? I think the answer is that in our world, it isn’t, but in a sub-created world, these things can be allowed to happen, perhaps as a testimony to the special power o the Elves and the languages they spoke. olkien vaguely suggested that Sam and Frodo might be repeating Elvish phrases that had subliminally entered their memories during their sojourns among the Elves at Rivendell and Lothlórien, but he seems to accept that there really is no “logical” explanation: a case o Elvish magic, as Sam might have said.In any event, J.R.R. olkien was not the only 20 th  century British author to include the idea o a primeval language, understandable on a purely intuitive level, in his fiction. In 1951, three years beore the publication o Te Fellowship of the Rin g, the Anglo-Welsh author John Cowper Powys, who like olkien was deeply interested in mythology and made it a cornerstone o his literary creations, published his great novel Porius , which is set in Wales during the post-Roman period o British history. Cowper Powys also loved the sound o Welsh and included Welsh terms in Porius  rather like olkien included Elv-ish words in the Lord of the Rings , in order to provide it with a kind o ethnic credibility and depth. He too assumed his readers would not understand any o it. But in addition to Welsh, Porius  contains other linguistic variants, one o which is the Language o the Giants. In Porius , the srcinal inhabitants o the land are Giants, called the Cewri, and their language is both ancient and magical, and is known only to those with special powers (specifically, Merlin, known here as  Myrddin Wyllt  , and the Druid o the indigenous British people). Te central character, the Brythonic prince Porius, learns a ew words o the language rom one o the Druid’s acolytes. One phrase he memorises is ungerong larry ong  , which means “endure until the end” (Powys 465), and this becomes Porius’s secret mantra or war cry, to all back on or courage or clarity o mind, rather like Frodo and Sam in their use o Elvish. Te language has special attributes: “certainly there did seem to Philosophy of Language
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