Tolkien can be seen as the father of invented art languages. His Middle Earth mythos, whose tales have thrilled generations of readers, and latterly cinema goers also, only came into being because of his fascination with language and desire to create his own languages.
Elvish, which exists in two main forms in his work – Quenya and Sindarin, is the best known of these, and is thought to be heavily influenced by Finnish and Welsh, two languages Tolkien found aesthetically beautiful.
But behind these largely complete languages exist a whole complex body of linguistic development, for as a scholar Tolkien was well aware that languages do not come into being fully formed, but organically grow and change over time. He began work on his ‘Elvin tongue’ while still a schoolboy in Birmingham and was still working on it when he died over six decades later.
But the family of Elvish languages extends far beyond these two variants, and even they form only a small part of Tolkien’s full creative linguistic achievement. He based the secret language of his dwarves – Khuzdul – on a Semitic, largely Hebrew, base which has led, along with some of his depictions of the dwarves as gold-obsessed, to allegations of anti-semitism.
The race of man in his mythos were granted their own family of languages also, led by Adunaic, the language of the noble race of Numenoreans whose pride led to the sinking of their island utopia before the events depicted in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.
From this base descends a panoply of ‘Mannish’ languages in Middle Earth, which Tolkien had once intended to depict separately by ‘translating’ them into different Germanic tongues. Rohirric, the language of Rohan, was to be rendered via Old English, of which Tolkien was himself a leading philologist and professor. The language spoken by the people of the Dale, terrorised by the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit, would be rendered via Old Norse, and the language of the Kingdom of Rhovanion would be rendered via Gothic.
Even the ‘Black Speech’ of Mordor had variant forms, including the higher version which is inscribed on Frodo’s one ring to rule them all, and a lower demotic version spoken by the Orcs.
As early as the 1930s Tolkien had developed such a complex linguistic history for Middle Earth that he wrote a number of versions of a language treatise, entitled the Lhammas, to explain the linguistic lineages and etymologies of the tongues of Middle Earth.
Tolkien sought to explain his passion for creating languages, a process he termed glossopoeia, in an essay entitled ‘The Secret Vice’, which goes some way to revealing how his linguistic interests led ultimately to some of the best-loved literature of the 20th century. The complexity of his linguistic creations naturally required the creation of concomitant cultures to be expressed via those invented languages and it was in this way that Middle Earth came into being.
Tolkien’s expansive and exhaustive achievement of linguistic creation has been influential in the genre of fantastikal literature ever since, as he demonstrated conclusively the role that linguistic invention can play in world-building. That influence can be felt even today, with the invention of Dothraki and Valyrian for the ‘Game of Thrones’ television series, based on George R.R. Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’.