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Have you ever tried to make your own language? It’s a concept I’ve been fascinated with since I was little, and has led to exploration into font and code creation. In all of history though, while many languages have been made for fun only a few have made their way into the public square. Things like Pig Latin are spoken across the United States by millions of children. That being said, no one has done this more famously than J.R.R Tolkien.

Elvish? That’s Not Real Right?

Wrong! J.R.R Tolkien’s creation of the Elvish language in Lord of the rings is an impressive feat. Not only did he create the spoken variation of it, but a written form as well. While he felt this language was unfinished, before he died it had 7,000 words in its dictionary (that’s only Goldogrin alone).

This may seem easy enough, as replacing each sound in the English alphabet with a different sound. That would be the case if Elvish was a coded language or a language with direct translations into English. J.R.R Tolkien’s fascination with language would not let him do something so simple, so he went a step further.

New Sounds

There are 800 phenomes in languages across the world, or rather 800 different sounds that the human mouth can and does make somewhere. In English, we access 40 of them, and Tolkien’s Elvish uses 88 of them (by my count). Elvish doesn’t just change the “a” sound to an “o”, it doesn’t use English as a base for any of its words. Tolkien took the time to choose which sounds would be included in his language and started from scratch.

New Words

In languages across the world, you can find direct translations of common words. Words like water and cat have equals in languages across the world because both things exist in cultures internationally. Sometimes though, you have words like “ya’aburnee”. An Arabic word that in English would mean “you bury me”. Surprisingly this is a declaration of love, stating a person’s desire for their loved one to bury them because they wouldn’t want to live without them. Elvish does the same thing, where it has words that would be specific to the Elvish mindset. The word “gwador” means brother-in-all-but-blood, something we don’t have a single word for in English.

New Rules

Tolkien also created specific rules for syllables in Elvish, a concept not present at all in English. While four different syllable types exist in all languages, open, closed, heavy, and light, Elvish has rules specific to it for how these types are pronounced. Stress will be placed on certain syllables based on word length and where the heavy or light syllables fall.

New Letters

J.R.R. Tolkien did all of this, creating a language out of unfamiliar sounds, with brand new words specific to the culture of a self-created society, and then adding new rules to it. After he did all of that, he then created a written form of it. Elvish writing has unique characters that look nothing like the languages of the world. Tengwar, the name of the characters used to write Elvish, isn’t just for one language though. It’s also not the only script Tolkien created, because Tolkien did this again, and again, and again.

Why Does it Matter?

J.R.R Tolkien’s work is a master class in creating a new language, but it also helps us take a deeper look into what makes a language. Sometimes we see it as a collection of sounds with meanings, and while that is true, there is more to it than that. Language reflects culture, language is how we communicate who we are, and Elvish was made with that in mind. We probably don’t view languages from different cultures in this analytical way, but maybe we should. Do we ask ourselves why people speak the way they do? Or why they culture is different from ours? So go out and try to make a language! See how difficult it can be and see how hard it can be to pull your language away from your culture. Until then, namárië.



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