Given that this site is full of references to SF/fantasy stories and made‐up languages, you may be wondering why there isn't anything much about the ones J. R. R. Tolkien came up with. Shouldn't I have a web page dedicated to deducing everything we can extrapolate about the morphosyntax of Proto‐Elvish? The answer is mainly that it's been done; but it also seems to me that anybody who goes delving too deeply into Middle‐earth philology runs the risk of uncovering things that were better left buried. If I take an epic fantasy world seriously enough to permit this sort of analysis, I'm liable to find it full of languages significantly stranger than I feel competent to deal with – weirder than famously exotic natural human tongues, weirder than the most artificial of philosophical language‐design schemes, and even weirder than imaginary languages concocted specifically to be alien (cf. “Europan”).
(If you don't care about any of this and just want an ordinary off‐the‐peg language for your ordinary off‐the‐peg role‐playing gameworld, I've got one of those too!)
Motherfuckers will read a book that's one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they think we're taking over.– Junot Díaz
Tolkien didn't originally set out to be one of the most widely imitated fantasy authors of all time; he only developed his tales of Middle‐earth as a backdrop for his real interest, which was the pastime of making up constructed languages. And the Elvish tongues that he invented are great if what you're after are naturalistic “conlangs” designed to match a set of highly personal aesthetic criteria… but the odd thing is that they make little sense in the context he put them in. If the professor had stuck to describing human languages from some fictional period of prehistory (the “conanlang” strategy), or indeed if he had followed his friend C. S. Lewis's example by setting them on Malacandra (AKA Mars), that would all have been perfectly reasonable. But the elements that made the Middle‐earth “legendarium” into the basis of an entire industry include some that make it quite inappropriate for the languages he created it to host.
Some of the unrealistic features of the languages of Middle‐earth are standard for even the least fantastical of fictional settings. Authors normally downplay barriers to communication because they think linguistic footnotes are dull. Tolkien disagreed, but still gave his “secondary world” an implausible level of linguistic uniformity: characters from regions that have been separated by hundreds of miles of wilderness for thousands of years still speak a common tongue (known conveniently enough as the Common Tongue). Things would be more workable if we could tell ourselves that the hobbits were switching back and forth between chatting to one another in their native “Vulgar Westron” (comparable to mediaeval Italian) and speaking to everyone else in a learned “Classical Westron” (comparable to Latin), but somehow I doubt Sam Gamgee got Latin lessons – it's already enough of a stretch that he's literate.
What's more, this analogy with Latin as a lingua franca is ignoring the fact that even before the Romans took over a big chunk of it, the Europe of classical antiquity was already in global terms atypically low on linguistic diversity – it may not have been a US‐style monoglot monoculture but it was notably less rich in microdialects than, say, New Guinea or Central Africa. The reason the continent has long been dominated by a tiny number of related language families appears to be that it was inundated in the mid to late Neolithic by waves of expansionist agrarian cultures. Before that, Europe probably had a more typical linguistic landscape with a multitude of tribal tongues that were members of many separate families (or “isolates” unrelated to all their neighbours), almost all of which went on to be lost without trace. Middle‐earth pretends to be set somewhere in that prehistory, but it doesn't pretend very hard!
Through the mediaeval period, Europe was still a morass of heavily overlapping language areas (the overlap between Romance and Germanic families is still wide enough to contain several officially multilingual countries), and the individual languages weren't uniform standard blocks – they were collections of more or less mutually intelligible local dialects (where ordinary people in border regions could communicate with their “foreign” immediate neighbours more easily than with visitors from other parts of their own country). Meanwhile there were widely dispersed minorities with languages of their own, like Yiddish and Romani, and a country's rulers might speak something else again. Thus for example in France as late as 1790 a survey classified only about a tenth of the population as fluent francophones! This situation changed after the development of centralised states with nationwide media and universal education, allowing the speech of the elite to be imposed as the sole officially accepted standard – giving us the modern status quo where each country is ideally expected to have a language of its own that stops neatly at the border.
The Halfling dialect of the Common Tongue also illustrates another linguistic stereotype that's widespread in the realms of fantasy: the hayseeds from the Shire are shown as “carelessly” speaking a “worn‐down” vernacular while the nobility of the great city of Minas Tirith preserve the traditional pure form of the language. That certainly matches how those aristocrats would prefer to imagine it; but in real life it's more likely to be the rural backwaters that preserve outmoded traits (such as a distinction between “you” and “thee” or between “witch” and “which”) while the prestigious accent of the metropolis mutates much faster, as the upper echelons of society continually adopt fashionable ways of speaking that differentiate them from outsiders and social climbers.
And then there are those vile and brutish trolls and orcs and lackeys of Saruman. Tolkien represents the barbarous and subhuman way they butcher the Common Tongue by having them talk like members of the urban lower classes (including specifically Cockney exclamations like “garn!”). I'm tempted to go into this topic at length, but then again perhaps it's best to simply ignore the trolls.
These are all relatively ordinary cases, though; the Elder Tongue of the elves is, or should be, a very different matter…
“Yrch!” said Legolas, falling into his own tongue.– JRRT, LOTR Bk II Ch 9
Through history, it has been the young who have dominated human speech communities, and not just because they were the overwhelming demographic majority; even today language change is driven by young people (in fact, mostly girls). Each new generation of children absorbing a mother tongue gets an opportunity to smooth off the rough edges, and kids then spend much of their time surrounded by others about their own age, so as they learn to fit in they adopt the linguistic mannerisms that are fashionable in that peer group. It doesn't matter if the way they speak might have been hard for their ancestors to follow, because their ancestors aren't around to complain – or even if they are, the fact that some decrepit and irrelevant old pedant finds the latest slang annoying is usually a point in its favour. But teenagers are already past the stage of maximum linguistic flexibility, and less and less likely to be able to pick up a new language without a foreign accent. Soon they're taking it for granted that the way they talk is the norm, and it's the way their children mispronounce things that's slovenly and ill‐educated.
Things must be quite different for an elf growing up as the only child born in the Enchanted Forest for a century, surrounded by great‐aunts and great‐great‐grand‐uncles who are still as lively, charismatic, and socially active as they were in the good old days before the wars! Those ageless ancestors are the prestigious members of elven society that youngsters are most likely to want to model themselves on. To take an example from “The Lord of the Rings”: that ship that sails off into the west at the end belongs to Círdan the Shipwright, an elf so absurdly ancient that he has a beard. Except that isn't his birth name; círdan is just the word for “shipwright” in Grey‐Elven (AKA Sindarin), a language that didn't develop until half an Age after he was born. And that's assuming he was born, instead of being one of the original batch of elves who woke on a lakeside as adults. Either way, why would he ever have stopped speaking his native tongue the way he first learned it?
It's not even clear that ordinary elven infants necessarily need to go through the process of assimilating a mother tongue, since apparently they have reincarnation with recall of their past lives. Instead they might come back from their time‐out using old‐fashioned turns of phrase that they picked up in the Halls of Mandos.
A lot depends on whether thousand‐year‐old elves are more psychologically comparable to curmudgeonly pensioners or whether like human children they remain open to new linguistic influences. For dwarves of course it's the former, but elves are portrayed as the kind of beings that might once in a while be prepared to adopt slangy pronunciations like saying “saur” (= “foul”, as in the name “Sauron”) instead of “thaur” (the earlier form of that root). There's actually an essay in amongst Tolkien's later revisions that goes into detail about that particular sound‐change, presenting it as a conscious and deliberate innovation adopted by adult elves as a matter of aesthetic fashion (or later as a badge of factional allegiance). This is a recognition of the basic problem with elven sociolinguistics that plays on the fact that the real driving force behind the differentiation of High‐ and Grey‐Elven was Tolkien's personal tastes as a conlanger. The trouble is, it's an obvious retrofit: a sound change where every instance of a dental fricative [θ] turns into a sibilant [s] is a routine case of the sort of systematic, regular phonological shift that's normal in human languages, where it's driven by articulatory corner‐cutting, not prettification (I've got a page over here full of fictional sound changes to demonstrate the kind of way it works, but for a real‐world example, that same change happened in Breton). If he had said that [θ] in particular words became something interesting‐sounding like, say, a voiceless linguolabial lateral fricative [ɬ̼], that would be more plausible as a decorative variation; but a few millennia of phonological mutations like that would produce something very unlike Elvish.
Another problem that Tolkien recognised but never permanently
settled on a solution to is the question: did those first elves on
the shores of Lake Cuiviénen wake up speaking fluent
Proto‐Elvish? If so, it's surprising that their descendants
weren't born with the same innate knowledge of the same eternally
unvarying language. (This is a trait perhaps most often seen
in dragons, whose phonological repertoires always seem
surprisingly human‐compatible considering their mouths are
“…their scripts and tongues have become dark to later men.”– JRRT, LOTR Bk II Ch 2
Any language that popped into existence only a few generations ago ought to be subtly alien in another way. Normal human tongues are all products of the same kinds of long‐term processes: they have spent tens or hundreds of thousands of years passing through the slow cycles of language change, which grind words down into rubble and then glue the bits together to make new ones. Look for instance at the English word “hasn't”. The “n't” suffix is still recognisable as a worn‐down form of the word “not” = “naught” = “nē‑ā‑wiht” (“not‐any‐thing”), while “has” is itself a compound of a verb‐root (Proto‐Germanic “*habjaną”, derived from an older root meaning “seize”) plus an inflectional ending “‑s”, which may have begun as a freestanding demonstrative pronoun. Our words are made from the ruins of older words, and we arrange them in grammatical constructions that are likewise built on the rubble of older sentence structures. Even the natural languages that do have a clear starting point to their histories – because they began as pidgins – carry the marks of having been hastily thrown together out of fragments from other languages. But what raw material was Elvish constructed from?
The surprising thing is that these chaotic processes of constant piecemeal phonological erosion and reconstruction have a tendency to push languages through three distinct overall “groundplans”:
Fusional: like Latin, Greek, or Sanskrit, where individual words signpost their role in the sentence by complex inflectional changes (the huge tables of grammatical paradigms so dreaded by students). A fusional conlang might express “the king of the elves attacked the dwarves” as something like, let's say, phlana eldoriē dorcom maluscīs, where the noun eldoriē = “of the elves” is second‑declension‐genitive‑plural (the genitive‐singular being eldīl), and the verb ending ‑scīs is first‑conjugation‐perfect‐indicative‐active‐third‑person‑singular (again all in one indivisible blob).
Century by century these grammatical endings erode away until they're hard to identify, requiring the use of extra words to make the meaning unambiguous (for instance, using an explicit preposition guo = “of” instead of just a genitive noun‐ending): now it's phlan' guo eldo yesćer malo amb' dorcu. Once redundant, the endings crumble away faster.
Analytic: like Vietnamese, Yoruba, or Classical Chinese (Modern English is also approaching this model), where phrases are assembled out of lots of individual uninflected words. Instead of verb endings the sentence gets extra subject pronouns and temporal modifier words and so on to do the same jobs: flan wo elð her iśće mal omm dorg her (literally “king of elf lot did attack against dwarf lot”).
The modifiers, routinely appearing in the same unstressed positions, tend (like “‑n't”) to lose their status as independent words and weaken into mere grammatical markers, often used redundantly. Thus in flan elð'er‑wo ti‑el‐mal‑eśśa dorr'er‑om the verb adds extra prefixed pronouns (ti‑ = “he”, el‑ = “them”) to clarify subject and object.
Agglutinative: like Turkish, Swahili, or Ancient Sumerian, where words can carry whole strings of affixes glued onto them as recognisable distinct elements – hlaan euðarô tyeumauśa dorarum. Note the consistent way ‑ar‑ turns up as a plural marker.
Over time, affixes accommodate to their immediate environment, merging together into irregular patterns. “The king of the elves attacked the dwarves” is lân ødhro chømôsh dorrum, but “of the dwarves” is the unpredictable form draro – the individual words and grammatical features have changed enormously, but the language's groundplan is coming all the way back round to fusional again.
There are of course more caveats and exceptions than you can shake a stick at, and there's nothing to stop a language spending millennia jammed at one point with, say, fusional verbs alongside uninflecting nouns; but then if it had clear sharp edges a triangular Great Wheel sounds as if it would provide an uncomfortable ride.
Tolkien's “Eldarin” languages covered less than half a turn of this wheel, progressing from somewhere not far before the fusional stage to somewhere not far past it; and this was probably no accident. Fusional languages have a reputation for being intrinsically superior for no better reason than that Europe inherited its literary culture from speakers of strongly fusional languages. Even nineteenth century philologists often thought of language change as a slide from the “sophisticated” fusional model towards the “degenerate” analytic model. But Classical Latin was itself just a carelessly mangled version of Proto‐Italic, and if we could track it back in time through Proto‐Indo‐European and beyond, we'd be likely to find that its ancestor was mostly agglutinative, and analytic before that. By Tolkien's day it was understood that languages can repeat the whole natural cycle any number of times, with no one stage in the process being superior by any objective measure. So when he chose to dress up Elvish as much as possible to resemble Latin (e.g. spelling names like Círdan with a quasi‐Roman “hard C”), Tolkien was purposefully drawing on old‐fashioned European stereotypes about the high tongue of the golden age.
Another thing that happens over the course of slow millennia as the languages of a given region go through repeated spin cycles together in the great linguistic washing machine is that they all end up pink. In Europe even the ones that aren't closely related tend to have definite/indefinite articles, a phonological inventory full of voiced/voiceless distinctions, a characteristic approach to relative clauses, and so on. It's always tempting to look at areal common features (like the way some parts of the globe seem obsessed with marking social status hierarchies) and interpret them as evidence of cultural traits seeping into the grammar, or perhaps vice versa; and if that was what it was, you might suppose that strangely‐familiar cultures in a fantasy world would automatically go together with strangely‐familiar grammars. But most areal trends don't make sense interpreted this way: what sociological factor would trigger the development of vowel harmony, or a dual number, or a uvular R‐sound? Most of it has got to be a matter of random local innovations that just happen to spread.
Not having had a chance to be eroded into a familiar pattern,
Elvish ought logically to look about as idiosyncratic as it could
get – I mean, if it wasn't for the fact that attempting
to extrapolate logically like this is about as useful as agonising
over the backstory of the Pac‐Man universe. Tolkien dreamed
up his imaginary world simply so that he had somewhere to put his
imaginary languages, which were always going to be “definitely of
a European kind in style and structure” because that was what he
had the clearest aesthetic preferences about. High‐Elven,
AKA Quenya, had a design that was avowedly influenced by Finnish
(one of Europe's few non‐Indo‐European languages), whereas
Tolkien's hobby required a grand canvas – stretching across multiple ages and continents and races with an epic history full of sunderings and exiles and long defeats – not so much because he was interested in fantasy geography for its own sake but because the Eldarin tongues needed room to develop and the elvish bards needed material to sing about. Then after he had made this style of high fantasy popular, innumerable similar fictional universes started being copied from his prototype, and these are much more likely to include various factions of quasi‐immortal elves worshipping pantheons of gods while warring with dwarves and orcs and trolls in a landscape that curiously resembles mediaeval Western Europe (with a map at the front of the book) than they are to preserve the linguistic appendices (at the back) that were the original payload of this setup.
A wizard did it.– Lucy Lawless (as Lucy Lawless), The Simpsons S11 E3
Issues like the above are only the tip of an iceberg that's not so much unseen as politely ignored due to the basic conventions of the genre. (Or wait, maybe that means it's a semi‐submerged elephant, not an iceberg. An ice dragon in the room? Whatever.) For anybody who stayed awake during their school geography lessons it can be hard to look at a map of Middle‐earth without being distracted by the implausible river systems and mountain ranges. Didn't Tolkien know anything about plate tectonics? Even if he had, he wouldn't have had his dwarves gossipping about the subject, because the world they inhabit isn't a four‐billion‐year‐old ball of iron in a silicate shell. The world of “The Lord of the Rings” may have a long recorded history, but it has no prehistory at all, and it wasn't spherical until some 3000 years ago! Middle‐earth is explicitly a Young Earth.
Noticing this can lead to bigger suspension‐of‐disbelief glitches. The great dragon's hoard of gold and jewels is in a cave, you say? Never mind the big lizard for now – how is there a cave? Is the landscape around here made up of layers of material with different properties, so that sometimes the dripping of water over the course of enormous lengths of time hollows out caverns in the sedimentary limestone strata? When did that happen? Where did the gold and jewels come from? Why should there be river valleys and volcanoes and gold mines, if the world wasn't formed via any of the same kinds of geological processes that produced ours? The answer to questions like this is: shush, you're not supposed to apply any of this type of modern‐day thinking to fairytales! Science fiction fans want plots to be more or less explicable in terms of real‐world science or quasiscience, though they make grudging allowances for the possibility that the writers of past generations might misrepresent conditions on Mars. But high fantasy has an automatic immunity to any scientific discovery made since approximately the Renaissance. And it's not just that elven loremasters are allowed to believe in a Man in the Moon; any elf aiming a telescope at a celestial body is in breach of the Terms and Conditions of the genre.
Not that anybody's rigorously consistent in applying this sort of woolliness. When we're reading fantasy shelfbusters, we'll happily swallow ideas that educated Ancient Greeks already knew were rubbish, but with some peculiar exceptions: we balk at plots that depend on outdated assumptions about, for instance, criminal justice (when trial‐by‐combat proves someone innocent of assault) or medicine (when true love's kiss cures the plague). In fact when it comes to medicine we have difficulty suspending our disbelief for things like bloodletting to treat pneumonia; the only way that would get into an imaginary world these days is as a reason for avoiding the Guild of Healers, even though it was still being recommended in medical textbooks printed later than “The Hobbit”! It is of course equally possible to set epic fantasy sagas on planets populated with seismomancers and magma elementals (or a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away), in which case they aren't bound by the genre rules of “traditional” folkloric fantasy. However, Tolkien was bending these rules from the very start when he gave native tongues to the “speaking‐peoples” of his fictional universe that were connected to one another in extended family trees of systematically related languages – those diagrams of language evolution are a concept from Enlightenment‐era philology, and one that soon inspired analogies in the field of natural history!
Now, human languages all work in the same general way, but how do we know there aren't viable approaches that we missed, either because our mental faculties are constrained by inborn limitations or just because our ancestors stopped trying out alternatives once they'd found something workable? Do we assemble sentences in nested syntactic tree structures because there's no other feasible solution, or might we discover that nonhuman languages work differently? Or consider the way we conceptualise our environment in terms of nouns verbing nouns. This seems so undeniably natural to us that philosophers have long insisted that dealing in predicates and arguments is the only possible way of doing propositional logic, but it's possible that it's just part of the package of conceptual habits we already had as proto‐sapient tool‐users before we developed the ability to articulate our thoughts; if so, we might find that space aliens share this perspective thanks to convergent evolution, so we only need one standard variety of Universal Translator. But that doesn't mean it'll work on Elvish, because elves didn't get their intelligence from natural selection in the first place!
It's possible for a high fantasy setting to involve a complex kabbalistic hierarchy of spirits and afterlives and magical domains with no sign of anyone claiming overall responsibility, but most are expressly the handiwork of some supreme being (or beings, or any manner of obfuscated compromise), and often we're told details of the worldbuilding process. Le Guin's imagined world of Earthsea, for instance, was summoned into existence with almost exactly the same magic word as Tolkien's Middle‐earth: “Éa!” for one, “Eä!” for the other. This similarity is hardly surprising, because Creators come in just three basic categories:
Epic fantasy settings usually go in that last category: they were made a bare handful of millennia ago with the primary objective of housing a population of worshippers – and this may mean different populations having different Creators. Unlike most of his imitators, Tolkien was careful to arrange that at least the races of elves and (especially) men were the direct responsibility of Eru, the ineffable Numero Uno of this fictive cosmology, rather than of His thoroughly fallible underlings; but even in Middle‐earth the same didn't apply to other races such as the dwarves.
If English evolved from Germanic, why are there still Germans?– Ka'a Orto'o (personal communication)
Tolkien's secondary world was allegedly the not‐especially‐distant mythic past of our everyday Earth, but other writers in the genre have mostly preferred to use settings without this connection to reality. Unfortunately this leaves the gods of most fantasy worlds looking like lazy, impatient plagiarists: all the best bits are cribbed wholesale from things that took aeons to develop on this planet.
Mind you, readers (and viewers and gamers) have got used to the idea that when an elven warrior is represented as saying “take my hand!”, his native language hasn't really evolved by coincidence to be word‐for‐word identical to English; no, this is just a translation convention, and what he said was yglomū mitzo'ni! Usually, the question of how he happens to look so much like a northern European with hair‐ and ear‐extensions never comes up, but if we need an excuse for it then in principle we could recycle the same one. Perhaps the demiurge in charge of designing the elves put some Creativity into the job, but it's all being filtered out in the same way – what yglomū mitzo'ni means is “grab my tentacles”… which makes it meaningful to wonder what he “really” looks like!
Settings that are explicitly alternate versions of Earth with added magic are a different matter; it may be unclear what kind of spell is keeping the two dimensions in sync, but whatever it is, there's clearly nothing coincidental about para‐Paris being inhabited by speakers of para‐French. However, if this makes you think that the most plausible way of getting an epic fantasy world would be to adopt a compromise solution and sprinkle magic fairy dust on top of an evolving biosphere, beware! When you're planning a trip to some corner of the multiverse where wizardry is an inheritable ability to focus willpower and emotions to warp reality, it's vital to check that it doesn't also have evolution via natural selection, because the combination is bad news. After all, there's no reason to imagine the first appearance of the “gene for magic” would be in a sapient species. And genes aren't trying to make life nicer for their carriers; they aren't even working for the benefit of their species; no, the only thing a gene “wants” is to maximise the dispersal of copies of that gene itself. So feel free to go and visit some biosphere where the wildlife has developed thaumaturgical powers, but don't come back. If you arrive early enough to find it ruled by parasitic para‐wasps that can turn you into a willing host for their larvae, you're relatively lucky, because all the non‐magical parts of that insect are vestigial. Give it another million years and the place will be a witch's cauldron of cell cultures whose sole purpose is to pump out clouds of retroviral hex‐chromosomes. As you step through the portal, they'll be rewriting your genome as a new pool of octarine goo.
Fantasy realms of undiluted creationism are safer, although more bizarre. The only fictional universe I know of that makes an effort to represent quite how crazy things would get in a world where all the myths are true is the role‐playing setting of Glorantha, which gets to cheat slightly by starting from the assumption that there must be humans around to come up with the myths.
One of the main narrative functions of elves in modern fantasy is wish‐fulfilment about an imagined lifestyle in tune with nature – but expecting them to manage this in an Enchanted Forest is cruel! In our world it has famously been said that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution; in theirs, nature is fundamentally inscrutable, since it's the product of the conflicting whims of beings that transcend mortal comprehension. Earth's flora and fauna naturally fall into families sharing large sets of characteristics (toothy, furry, viviparous mammals versus beaky, feathery, oviparous birds) just because all the members of a given family share a common ancestral bodyplan. A biome that was Intelligently Designed de novo last Wednesday, with each individual creature a separate expression of its maker's artistry, is never going to end up organised this way. Even if that Creator runs out of ideas and starts rehashing old favourites over and over again, what you get is the kind of ecosystem with one‐, two‐, and three‐legged varieties of heron. Folkloric secondary worlds do often seem to nod in this direction by having furry/feathery hybrids like griffins and owlbears and whatnot, but there shouldn't be any coherent taxonomic groupings to hybridise – the things that look something like lions and something like eagles are liable to turn out to reproduce via acorns. Come to that, if the existence of half‐elves is anything to go by there may not be any such taxonomic units as species.
We can probably assume that it was part of the plan all along for nature to be red in tooth and claw; after all, if the foxes don't live by murdering bunny‐rabbits then nothing about them makes any sense. (Sorry, El‐ahrairah, but you should have got the hint when Lord Frith gave you those sideways‐facing eyes.) However, if the locals have farm animals – a vexed question in some settings – then we should anticipate that the creatures tailor‐made for domestication by a beneficent providence would resemble perambulatory mushrooms rather than geese or goats. And in the absence of evolution, and in particular of fast‐evolving pathogens, none of these organisms have any use for overengineered adaptive immune systems. Indeed, if predators and parasites and prey aren't all locked in an eternal genetic red‐queen's‐race, there's no point leveraging chromosomal variability with a fancy diploid reproductive mechanism. In other words, there's no practical need for sex – if the powers that be have nonetheless taken the trouble to differentiate living things into what appear to be males and females, don't be surprised if the particulars turn out to be kinky in the extreme. And as for those “gods” and “goddesses”…
Then there's the physiology of the elves themselves. Obviously they aren't going to have any evolutionary vestiges like tailbones or wisdom teeth; everything's there because it's biologically or aesthetically appropriate. Their embryos don't recapitulate a developmental stage with gill‐slits, because their ancestors never grew up to be fish. Their hands aren't feet that have been put through a minor redesign to make them work better as manipulatory appendages, they're organs designed purely for their current role. And similarly, while we upstart monkeys do our talking with repurposed masticatory organs (using larynxes replumbed in a slapdash manner that leaves us uniquely vulnerable to choking hazards), they have articulatory organs that were designed with that function in mind all along. Imagine if elves' oral/digestive and nasal/pulmonary tracts were unconnected, and they had something like the syrinx of a parrot built into the latter, so they could drink and sing simultaneously… or come to think of it that sounds more like dwarves.
- glamour, also glamor, /ˈɡlamə/ noun:
- (1) a magic spell
- (2) an exciting and often illusory and romantic attractiveness
- [Scots glamer, alteration of English grammar]– Longman Dictionary
It's traditional in a created world for one or more groups of lifeforms to get special treatment: bonus skill levels in thinking and talking and maybe spellcasting that the ordinary birds and beasts and creeping buttercups don't get. Notice that these chosen peoples didn't first spend countless generations as savanna hunter‐gatherers, painfully puzzling out how to make firedrills and fishhooks and fur‐lined mocassins by trial and error; they were seemingly equipped with an instinctive urge to settle down in bronze‐ or (in the case of dwarves) iron‐age communities right from the word go, or whatever the word was.
This may or may not have required them to be equipped with brains! Supernatural Creators have metabolisms based entirely on miracles, so they habitually produce the sort of split‐level metaphysical systems hospitable to hocus‐pocus, where instead of everything working through traceable and mundanely materialistic causal mechanisms, there's a separate plane of occult essences. In such a cosmos, living things are special because they're full of élan vital; caterpillars turn into butterflies because they're attracted to the right Platonic form by morphic resonance; and magic works because the meaning of your incantation is a thing in its own right that can have a direct impact on whatever it refers to. So instead of elves being able to think for themselves because their skulls are crammed full of the kind of cells that have signal‐processing and data‐manipulating functions, each elf gets an immaterial soul hovering somewhere nearby in an adjacent dimension.
If organisms are animated not by adenosine triphosphate but by a ghostly vital essence, having a cerebral cortex as well as a soul is redundant – look at ents, which are remarkably nimble thinkers when you consider that their heads are made of solid wood. (This also means there's no reason numbing your skull‐meat with alcohol would have any effect on your cognitive processes – bad luck, dwarves.) And if their bodies are getting their marching orders telepathically from hyperspace, they need to keep their tentacles crossed that Whoever's in charge here won't realise that the simplest and most obvious way for messages to get from one mind to another is for them to hop across psionically without ever going near the material plane. That sounds as if it would work much better, but it would mean a setting with no need for conlangs.
As usual for fantasy worlds, natural law in Middle‐earth has back doors allowing wizard‐mode users to bypass the standard rules; what's less usual is that the speech‐recognition user interface doesn't require that their magic words are in any particular language. Most such worlds are stricter – perhaps because you can only rewrite the rules in the language they were originally written in, or perhaps just because the forces maintaining those rules are more open to persuasion in their own native tongue. Then again it's also possible that the Standard Arcane Language is a matter of established best practice in the Mages' Guild, and therefore more strictly enforced than the local laws of physics. After all, once you've devised a way to invoke Cure Baldness, and sorted out exactly which trivial decorative elements can be streamlined away without it turning into Summon Necrotic Blight, you don't want to have to go through those statutory safety testing procedures all over again just because the dialect you wrote the incantation in has had a couple of vowel shifts.
The existence of a special language with an intrinsic advantage for magical purposes can make it very important to learn the correct words for things. Wizards often invest a lot of effort in attempts to find out their enemy's True Name, though it seems to me it would be a lot more efficient to find the true form of the second‐person‐singular pronoun. Another aspect of this that gets little attention is that verbs are no less capable of being good or bad labels than nouns are, so apprentices would need to spend as much time poring over lists of different words for “open” as they do on words for “portal”.
If the Guildmasters have any sense they'll arrange for the Standard Arcane Language to be something that non‐initiates can't speak, full of labiodental trills and epiglottal implosives. That's assuming it's an auditory language at all; but then again, has any fantasy setting ever acknowledged the possibility that a gesture might itself be a magic word in a sign language?
Even when the language we're talking is a thoroughly routine euroclone, there are things we humans don't typically do in conversation because our syntax‐processing faculties hit some sort of bottleneck. Wizards who have kissed the appropriate Blarney Stone (or taken the precaution of being born elves) might lack these restrictions and be capable of much more:
It's useless to wonder about how exactly the grammar might allow them to do all this, because it works by magic. However, all of this would seem to require the existence of a college of glottomancy, and Google doesn't believe there's any such thing. Considering that oaths of fealty and binding contracts and sacred commandments are all made of words, you'd think some aspiring Dark Lord would have noticed how useful it would be to have the power to change what words mean… but apparently if anybody's ever done that, they've never been caught.
Dar fys ma vel gom co palt “hoc Pys go iskili far maino woc? Pro si go fys do roc de Do cat ym maino bocte De volt fac soc ma taimful gyróc!”– JRRT, A Secret Vice
Wherever it was they originally got their language from, Tolkien's elves weren't satisfied with it as it was and couldn't resist the urge to tinker with it to bring it more closely into line with their aesthetic tastes. This may be evidence against the theory that they'd received it as a gift from a terrifying otherworldly huntsman, since you'd think if they had then they'd try to avoid this sort of public insult to his competence.
But is this so unlike the way things happen in human languages? Yes, enormously different. Perhaps the single least intuitive thing about language change is that even when it results in major systematic reorganisations in complex patterns of grammatical mechanisms, it happens without anybody in particular doing it, as the unintended and largely unnoticed side‐effect of a million slips of the tongue.
What would a language end up like after a few millennia if all its changes were deliberately aimed at improving its elegance and artistic expressiveness? Well, I can think of one solid point of comparison, and it's not encouraging. Instead of working through the natural grammatical intuitions of the native speakers, intentional linguistic self‐improvement has to work on what people consciously believe about the language's grammar rules, and that's often a catastrophically different thing. When the seventeenth‐century poet John Dryden declared that sentence‐final prepositions (as in “that's what it's FOR”) should be avoided as ungrammatical, he was just plucking this prohibition out of the air so that he could claim to be superior to people like Shakespeare who broke the alleged rule; if it had been a real feature of English grammar, nobody would have needed to be told about it any more than they need to be browbeaten into avoiding sentence‐final definite articles. Most of the prescriptive rules dispensed by Victorian schoolteachers to forbid “split infinitives” and “singular they” and so on have a similarly unjustifiable basis, and the main effect of these taboos has been to turn ordinary competent native speakers into tongue‐tied neurotics.
Elves are generally presented as fizzing with natural talents and creative aptitudes, so we might hope that things would be different for them… but when it comes to linguistics, they must have started out about as clueless as it's possible to be. At the stage when their guidance was most needed, elven philologists had never had any opportunity to develop their expertise by comparing and contrasting their native tongue with others; indeed, it's not clear that they had ever encountered any reason to suspect there could be such a thing as a foreign language!
You might think that the ready availability of magic would make things easier: any time the king insists he wants some particular project carried out immediately (whether it's linguistic engineering or some other sort) but his experts don't know enough about the topic, they ought to be able to fix that in a jiffy with a few scrying spells. But something must be stopping the inhabitants of fantasy worlds from taking this approach, since otherwise wouldn't you think they'd have magicked up enough expertise about simple mechanics that they could replace all their rare and untrustworthy enchanted gizmos with equivalents that any normal workshop can churn out for a fraction of the price of a mailshirt? Even if Gandalf had some reason not to want to hand out binoculars and thermos flasks and fancy backpacks to the hobbits, that doesn't explain why Saruman's forces were so ill equipped. It's hardly as if Middle‐earth could be running on different laws of optics; it's just that magic‐users are bound by strict genre conventions to be basically incurious about everything else.
Never mind, though; a language masterfully fashioned by elvish wordsmiths may be an unrealistic notion, but that hardly makes it out of place in this setting, so let's just get on with trying to imagine what it would be like!
The easy answer is that for a start they wouldn't end up with the same shortage of rhymes for “love” that anglophone lyricists suffer from. Elven bards might well consider such fixes below their dignity, since after all poetic forms aren't meant to be easy; but that needn't stop them setting things up more subtly to stock the lexicon with families of close synonyms that vary conveniently in form, ensuring that whatever the context, one of them will fit.
The less obvious answer is that many of the changes they might end up introducing are unlike anything ever seen in natural languages. Instead of sound shifts applying to the whole lexicon equally, we might well expect different forces to affect different parts of the language. Common “function words” (“is”, “and”, “the”) might well be pushed towards a bland consensus standard of euphony while “content words” (“king”, “cloud”, “attack”) diversify into expressively unorthodox forms, resulting in sentences that look like nala na rçœfqḿ‐xxŵ ana. Meanwhile instead of being a natural consequence of the sound changes, the grammatical innovations are a separate layer of unearthliness: the difference between a language with peculiarities that artists can sometimes find ways of taking advantage of and a language whose every aspect has been optimised for poetry is potentially enormous.
Tolkien gave his Elvish conlangs no features like these; and in particular he left out one that I always felt would have fitted neatly into Quenya. The language has nine cases marked by different noun endings (allative fanyannar = “towards clouds”, locative fanyassen = “in clouds”, and so on), but instead of having a dedicated similative case for expressing analogies (as, for instance, Old Turkic did) it forms them the same way as English does (ve fanyar = “like clouds”).
In the beginning was the word, And the word was the bird, the bird's the word. Well, everybody knows that the bird is the word, Bird bird bird, b‐bird's the word, And the bird moved upon the face of the waters.– trad. Númenórean creation hymn
Tolkien toyed with the theory that Elvish might have been a made‐up language even from the in‐narrative point of view, in the sense of being artificially created by one of Middle‐earth's pantheon of Valar; but he never seems to have considered that the entity responsible might have been an actual God of Language like the Greek Hermes. Instead all of his supernatural conlangers were doing it as a sideline from their day job. While the idea that Elvish was invented by Oromë the Hunter didn't stick, it did remain canonical (with a brief mention in “The Silmarillion”) that when the Fathers of the Dwarves were created by Aulë the Smith, they were given Dwarvish at the same time. However, by far the highest‐profile fictional conlanger in Tolkien's works was Sauron, who got a whole paragraph in “The Lord of the Rings” explaining how he designed the Black Speech of Mordor as an evil scheme to establish a global lingua franca.
Oddly enough, the Valar had a spoken language of their own. When I say oddly, I don't mean to imply that it's surprising that entities imagined by Tolkien would turn out to have a language; what I mean is that Oromë and Aulë and even Sauron all oddly took it as read that they needed to construct a whole new language for their creatures, overlooking the option of letting them learn Valarin so everybody could understand one another. It's not as if it would have been beyond the capacity of flesh‐and‐blood throats to utter; the glimpses we get of Valarin in Tolkien's notebooks are, alas, a bit dull, with no excitingly exotic sounds or syllable structures – it may not be quite the same old shade of pink but it's nothing compared to Nuxalk or Taa. And it's not that there was some taboo against letting non‐Valar use it, either; Sauron himself was technically one of the Maiar, subordinate powers who spoke the language of their superiors.
The Valar and Maiar didn't need to speak Valarin, though. When they wanted to they could communicate perfectly well by telepathy – an ability that more or less comes with the territory, since if you need to speak your magic words out loud then your creation epic is liable to stall somewhere around the part where you say “let there be sound”. All of which goes some way towards explaining why for gods there's so often a hazy line between having an offhand thought and blurting out a holy edict…
One good thing about the gods speaking a bog‐standard human‐style language is that it means we no longer need to ask where they got the inspiration when they handed out similar ones to lesser beings. But then where did their own come from? We're back to having to imagine them beginning their existences by casually throwing together a fully functional shared language from abstract first principles. Still, at least the Valar had the advantage of being able to discuss their ideas telepathically; if the newly created elves also had to start by improvising a common language, that would be trickier. If you can't see the problem, look at what normally happens when people who don't have a means of communication in common have to devise a makeshift one: what you get is a pidgin, with very little vocabulary and less structure. At best, when backed up by a lot of handwaving, this is barely adequate to convey straightforward concepts like “bring more tomorrow and make a pile here” – and that's in an environment where everybody was already fluent in a mother tongue (and likely several others) that could be raided for a way of saying “tomorrow”, so this is still unjustifiably optimistic.
Indeed, if the elves were zapped into existence with adult minds roughly analogous to ours, the harsh reality is that they've got no chance. Learning a first language is something you do as a child or not at all; if they didn't wake with a native tongue preinstalled, the same way they presumably woke with the ability to process visual stimuli and walk on two legs preinstalled, they might as well have been abandoned at birth and brought up by wolves. Unless they can find a tutor who's willing and able to give them sorcerous memory implants, they'll be undyingly alingual. Or on the other hand, maybe elven minds aren't like ours – maybe unlike us they have a miraculous ever‐youthful propensity for soaking up linguistic influences all their lives? The trouble is, if this was true you'd expect the languages of the dwindling elven population in Middle‐earth to dissolve away rapidly in the torrent of borrowings from the Common Tongue.
And as for the idea of a supernatural intelligent designer with no mortal preconceptions who just happens to come up with something that closely resembles Latin (maybe with a few extra apostrophes) and settles on that as the most appropriate solution… it makes about as much sense as the idea of that deity thinking that human larynxes (and kneecaps and genitals and so on) were a good design. All these are obvious incremental bodges, improvised with no forethought from a long chain of previous models each of which also had to work. A version created by first figuring out the optimum end product and then implementing that scheme directly would look utterly different – and there's a danger that it would eliminate all the linguistic appendices along with the anatomical ones. I've already mentioned the psychic elves scenario; but setting aside that option, if you're designing their language at the same time as their minds (not forgetting the laws of physics), you might as well organise things so that chunks of raw sensory experience can be “serialised” into streams of frequency‐modulated chirps that are literal “soul‐dumps”. Receiving and understanding such a message would be essentially equivalent to remembering having had the experience oneself – a spectacularly efficient way of sharing knowledge! But it's not clear whether it's capable of communicating messages like “why would the king of the elves ever attack anybody?“, or of forming the internal narrative of a self‐aware mind, and that seems like it might present significant problems for storytelling.
In an instant he became aware that the tourist was about to try his own peculiar brand of linguistics, which meant that he would speak loudly and slowly in his own language.– Terry Pratchett, The Colour of Magic
So what would the first language of a newly created secondary world be like, if it was designed for roughly anthropomorphic (and anthropomorphosyntactic) elves by a worldbuilder who was competent enough not to need to copy everything from us (or Tolkien in particular)?
When asked to imagine a language designed “logically” from the
ground up, I suspect a lot of my readers will assume that it would
resemble FORTRAN or Java, but no; those are only languages in a
rather metaphorical sense. Yes, they involve arranging
things according to complex systems of rules – as does,
for instance, mahjong – and yes, something analogous
might perhaps work as a Standard Arcane Language used only for
spellcasting, but it's no good for conveying general‐purpose
messages: you can't apologise for a misunderstanding in Java
any more than you can load a garbage‐collection library in
Javanese. Source code in a programming “language” may
resemble a series of sentences, but the resemblance is a
superficial disguise; if there are two keywords
while” and “
volatile”, it's meaningless
to ask whether they rhyme, because as far as the compiler is
concerned they don't have pronunciations. The elements that
resemble words (like “
while”) and the ones that don't
->”) are all just conventional tokens
that might equally well each be represented by some arbitrary
hieroglyph or mahjong tile, if they weren't being designed by and
for literate anglophones.
Mind you, that does suggest one feature that a pure a priori conlang might have: given that they help to make the parsing of sentences easier and less ambiguous, elements analogous to commas and parentheses and so on might all be built in from the start as actual words of the spoken language. This is a trick that human‐designed “logical” conlangs have been known to incorporate… but what we're trying to imagine here isn't quite like one of those, either. Loglang schemes can only hope to find some relatively neat, objectively justifiable way of describing things, whereas we're talking about the single divinely anointed right way.
Natural human languages are very much not about doing things the one right way. In fact the answer to any “why” question about the workings of a language is almost always “it just turned out like that by historical accident”. Why does a glottal stop count as a form of the phoneme /t/? Why does the article “a” turn into “an” before a vowel? Why can you say “I've been to Fairyland” but not “I'm being to Fairyland”? Children don't bother to ask these questions, because they instinctively expect language to be something that only works if you take its arbitrary conventions as unconsidered axioms; so as adults we have difficulty grasping quite how much of it might have been done differently, and especially how many of its haphazard complexities might have been avoided if any forethought had been involved.
For instance, human languages (whether natural or unnatural) have whole subsystems of capricious regulations about what sounds can be combined in what ways to form syllables – “hung” is allowed; putting those three sounds in any other order isn't. But the only reason we need any such rules at all is the way we insist on choosing such ill‐assorted sounds for our phonemic inventories (or, usually, inheriting them without doing any choosing). Why not stick to a nice tidy table of vowels? Close/mid/open, front/back, rounded/unrounded, oral/nasal, and with one of four tones… that's 96 phonemes that we could concatenate in any order we liked – with no adjacent consonants to muddy the waters it wouldn't be hard to learn to distinguish them, meaning nearly a million distinct trisyllabic words like ỳǽǿ̨ or įą̀ẅ.
Some of the arbitrariness in human tongues is harder to spot, like the way languages come up with a small number of fixed lexical categories and subcategories, and then cram concepts into one or another of those pigeonholes. A lot of the time, there's broad global agreement as to which things should be treated as transitive verbs, which are countable nouns, and so on, but this consensus model is often at odds with objective reality (as when we consistently misclassify seeing a flash in terms of somebody acting upon something). Other times there's no consensus; closely related languages disagree for instance about whether wanting something to eat is a matter of being hungry, having hunger, or hungering. If you want to know how things look from the transcendent worldview of the entity that set it all up, you could find out by studying the grammar of a divine conlang. For example, a god who has gone to the effort of setting up an entire separate realm of existence to house Platonic forms might insist on treating them as primary and handling all material phenomena as mere instances of these eternal essences, so you get sentences that literally translate as “CAT EATs MOUSE”, “this CAT instance is ephemerally characterised by GREYNESS”.
Another much more overt instance of arbitrary convention is that in English the word for “elf” is an essentially random string of phonemes. We take this approach for granted, but if you hadn't seen it used, would it occur to you to invent it? The more direct approach is that the dictionary should be an organised catalogue where the form of the word tells you how it fits into the grand scheme of things. Plans for a universal language built on this logic have been presented occasionally in our world, where the obvious approach is to devise a branching hierarchy of categories and subcategories rather like the Dewey Decimal Classification, so that the word for “sapient coporeal being” is, say, he, and “elf” is heb, nested alongside hec = “human” and hed = “dwarf”. If the natural world is too young to be dominated by descent‐hierarchies, the Creator might need to use some alternative organisational scheme (or fall back on assigning names in strict alphabetical sequence according to time of creation), but whatever scheme is adopted, this approach has a few drawbacks:
Words are hard to distinguish from their closest synonyms. In English even if your cookbook misspells “roast beef” as “roast bees”, context will probably save you; but when your dictionary is ordered like a thesaurus, every recipe is a minimal edit distance away from a wide range of plausible but unpalatable variants.
The solution is to make the language systematically robust against a noisy environment: every sentence ends in a checksum, and preferably incorporates Forward Error Correction codes that can be used to reconstruct any missing data. This is wildly unlike anything humans find intuitive, but should be doable if you're designing its users' articulatory and auditory systems to suit. Still, if that's going too far, here's a more “naturalistic” option: design the language so that instead of freestanding “absolute” phonemes it uses ones with “relative” values. As a trivial demo, imagine there's a set of six vowel sounds, arranged in a ring, i‑e‐a‐o‐u‑y‑ and back to ‑i. The first vowel in eldo is one step onward from the starting point, then the next vowel is two steps further; so with a different preceding context the word might be pronounced oldy or ylde. Any miscommunication is immediately apparent because it means that every vowel from that point on is unaccountably displaced.
The range of phenomena possible in the universe has to exactly match the range of concepts classified in the dictionary. Mortals trying to design a perfect cataloguing system are liable to run into trouble when they discover too late how many chemical elements there really are; but it's much easier if you can create the catalogue first and then build the cosmos to match.
This implies a different kind of problem. In our world we take it for granted that when we encounter a new thing we can invent a new word for it. But if divine providence has already itemised all the things that are canonically recognised as existing, ontological improvisation is a form of borderline blasphemy that the grammar is unlikely to accomodate.
Any sort of shift in the forms of words after the language has been created (if, say, people start pronouncing heb as 'eb, or pen as pin) is a disaster, and one that can't be worked round by coming up with new, more easily distinguishable names for things, because there's no room for those in the hierarchy. Fortunately the solution to this is self‐evident: if the changes arise from flawed language‐learning, that's what needs to be eliminated. Why give people the ability to learn languages when they can be hatched with the ability to speak the only one they'll ever need?
I'll admit it's hard to see how the ideas described above could all be combined consistently into one blueprint, but that's another reason to give the job to Hermes (known to the Babylonians as Ea), since he's the god not only of Language but also of Magic and Cheating.
Well, what was the alternative? How would languages work in fantasy fiction if they followed the conventions of European folklore the way the rest of the genre does, which means without overthinking the logic of it all and in particular with no anachronistic linguistics? It seems to me the answer is that things would look something like this:
If this seems outlandish, that could be a sign that you're applying an inappropriately modern critical attitude to a world of walking, talking oak trees and enchanted costume jewellery!