Inside Language: Linguistic and Aesthetic Theory in Tolkien

Inside Language: Linguistic and Aesthetic Theory in Tolkien. Ross Smith. Berne and Zurich: Walking Tree Publishers, 2007. ISBN 978-3905703061. Softcover. 154pp. $16.20.

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Reviewed by Jason Fisher

[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 27.1/2 (#103/104) (2008): 172–76.]

In this slim volume, Ross Smith intends to provide “the general reader [...] an informed introduction to Tolkien’s views on language and their historical relevance” ([i]). Such an introduction must necessarily be slim, considering that Tolkien never produced any single cohesive account of those views — though he touched on them, often indirectly, at many points in his writings. Nevertheless, and in spite of the relatively meager vein he has to mine, Smith aims to “examine these relatively neglected areas of study and attempt to provide an all-encompassing account [...] of Tolkien’s ideas and theories in relation to language, linguistics and aesthetics” ([iv]).

This is a bold (perhaps even a rash) promise, on which Smith cannot quite deliver. Let me begin, however, by pointing out some of the better qualities of his monograph. Simply opening a dialogue about Tolkien’s linguistic aesthetics is long overdue, as remarkably little of any substantial length has been written about it before. Far more often, scholars either take these views for granted, citing Tolkien’s own statements on the subject without elaboration, or else ignore them altogether. The Tolkien scholarly community seems to have largely bifurcated into two distinct groups, one focused on the literary qualities of his work, the other on his invented languages — much like the artificial, and indeed detrimental, “bogeys Lang and Lit” (Tolkien, “Valedictory” 230) that Tolkien discerned in British education. Occasionally, and in the best studies, these two commingle; however, this is the exception, not the rule. Smith’s book is another laudable attempt at reconciling them.

Smith’s writing is generally enjoyable and quite readable, and he is occasionally insightful, as when he writes that Tolkien “was profoundly aware of the shades of meaning that words take on and also shed as they develop through the centuries” (29). Likewise, he hits paydirt with the observation that “[i]n practical terms, there were two main results of this fascination with individual phrases and lexemes, and his endless patience: Tolkien’s reinterpretation of certain old texts, which helped enhance his scholarly reputation, and the obtainment of an enormous lexicon for his private languages and fiction” (82).

Also to his credit, Smith makes lively and sometimes novel comparisons between Tolkien and other authors and linguists — including Jorge Luis Borges, Umberto Eco, Roman Jakobson, Otto Jespersen, Owen Barfield, and David Abram, to name a few. Against the more establishmentarian linguists of the day, most notably Saussure and Chomsky, Smith contrasts Tolkien’s thinking. There is one unfortunate oversight I must point out. Smith casually remarks that “[w]e do not know the extent to which Tolkien was familiar with the work of Jespersen” (56); but we do, in fact, have a pretty good sense of this. Tolkien refers explicitly to Jespersen’s work three times in his essays for The Year’s Work in English Studies. In two instances, he refers briefly, but favorably, to books by Jespersen (Tolkien “Philology (1924)” 52, “Philology (1925)” 56) — in the latter case, Tolkien apparently read Jespersen’s book in the original Danish! In the third instance, Tolkien greets the arrival of Jespersen’s Philosophy of Grammar with a lengthy and glowing review (Tolkien “Philology (1924)” 28-32). Taken together, these lesser-known writings demonstrate much more than a passing acquaintance, and indeed considerable engagement, with Jespersen’s theories. It is quite a shame Smith failed to take advantage of this material.

Smith is on firmest footing in his discussion of Barfield — after all, Barfield and Tolkien both denounced Max Müller’s infamous characterization of mythology as a “disease of language” (Tolkien “Fairy-Stories” 121, Barfield 89) — however, that ore has been well-mined already (see Flieger 67-72). The discussion of Borges is some of the most fascinating in the book, but after a little while, one begins to feel that Borges is everywhere, mentioned almost as often as Tolkien himself, and being forced to fit even in the absence of any evidence to connect Tolkien to him (or vice versa). One gets the feeling that Smith has made a special study of Borges (independent of his study of Tolkien) and seems determined to make as much use of it here as possible. Indeed, it is too often the case with Smith’s comparative portraits that the mere highlighting of similarities or differences serves as a proxy for a direct relationship which has not been (and usually cannot be) established.

However suggestive they might be, such cases are therefore of limited illustrative value. By contrast, I wonder whether Smith might have made fuller and better use of Ernst Cassirer’s Language and Myth. Smith stresses the views Cassirer, Barfield, and Tolkien held in common — though Smith fails to observe that Cassirer was also dismissive of Müller (Cassirer 6, 80, passim). They evidently differed on some points as well, as where Cassirer believes that “[m]yth never breaks out of the magic circle of its figurative ideas. [...] But language, born of that same magic circle, has the power to break its bounds; language takes us from the mythmaking phase of human mentality to the phase of logical thought and the conception of facts” (Cassirer ix-x). I am not sure Tolkien would agree with the spirit of this viewpoint. Would Tolkien have known Cassirer? He very well might have (though I cannot point to an explicit reference). Language and Myth was first published in English in 1946, but originally in German (as Sprache und Mythos) in 1925. Tolkien could have known the translation or known or read reviews of the original in any number of journals, Wochenschriften, or Jahrbuchen. There seems to be some genuine potential for mining this vein further, yet Smith’s use of Cassirer is almost throwaway.

Smith’s discussion of Eco yields somewhat more, yet it, too, is not taken far enough. Smith points out that Eco is the only major philologist/writer since the time of Tolkien and Borges. Of Eco, moreover, Smith writes: “His knowledge of the major European languages ranges from excellent to absolute, and he puts this to good effect by collaborating closely with the translators of his novels and bombarding them with recommendations about the best way to render his work in their respective tongues” (5-6). This certainly reminds one of the Nomenclature Tolkien prepared for prospective translators of The Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, Smith fails to capitalize on that additional resemblance between the two authors.

There is much material in Smith’s already slim volume which feels like nothing more than window dressing. Were it excised, however, the remainder might be so small as to collapse for lack of support. The second chapter, for example, has almost nothing whatsoever to do with Smith’s stated purpose of illuminating Tolkien’s linguistic aesthetics. Its twenty-six pages, rehashing arguments and issues well known to the point of banality in Tolkien studies, are better suited to its original audience at English Today than even to “the general reader” of critical works on Tolkien.

Much the same may be said of the fifth chapter, which rehearses the history of invented and artificial languages before and after Tolkien’s own. While some of that discussion is pretty interesting, the languages under discussion meet Tolkien’s own work only at a tangent, with coincidental rather than causal relationships. And even where Tolkien has offered comment, Smith typically overlooks such concrete material for more tenuous assertions of his own. Such is this case with a 1932 letter published in The British Esperantist, where Tolkien writes tellingly: “it seems to me, too, that technical improvement of the machinery [...] tends [...] to destroy the ‘humane’ or aesthetic aspect of the invented idiom” (Tolkien, “Philologist” 182). This goes completely unmentioned by Smith, who neither makes full use of Tolkien’s various statements on Esperanto nor of the scholarly work that has been previously published on that subject (e.g., Smith and Wynne). The other artificial languages discussed in the chapter, though they hold much interest in their own right, have even less appreciable value for understanding Tolkien’s views. Still less with Smith’s few examples of literary glossopoeia. These consist of Orwell’s Newspeak and Burgess’s Nadsat (neither of which is a genuine invented language), with a lengthy and largely irrelevant digression into Russian Futurism thrown in. But Smith misses more than he includes — as but one example, the fragmentary language Edgar Rice Burroughs invented for Tarzan of the Apes and the books of that series.

I also must find fault with many smaller statements throughout the book. Lest this review devolve into a laundry list of complaints, I will give only a few select examples. Smith refers to “the chimerical relationship between sound and emotion” (20), but can chimerical (“imaginary, prone to fantasizing”) really be what Smith means? And if it is, can he possibly be correct? “[The Lord of the Rings] has been translated into every major language and a number of less widely-spoken ones as well” (25). Well, no, that’s simply not true. Major languages into which a translation has not been undertaken include Hindi/Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi, Javanese, Telugu, Vietnamese, and Tamil — together representing nearly one billion combined speakers. Among lesser-spoken languages, there is no Welsh translation, all the more conspicuous given Tolkien’s special fondness for that language. Footnote 24 (34) repeats the contents of footnote 11 (17) verbatim, clearly an artifact of the previous life of these two chapters, and the web link is no longer valid in any case. Also, one gets a little weary of the promise to explain something “further on”; the exact phrase “further/farther on” occurs at least six times in the early part of the book (12, 19, 29, 33, 37, 53), and there are also variations such as “discussed in a later chapter” (11, et seq.). Eventually, I stopped keeping track. Smith tells us that Tolkien “had little choice but to recur to the modes of classic chivalric literature, which he could feel sure would be recognised by his readers” (42); however, what about Smith’s earlier point that Tolkien seems almost not to have cared about his readers at all (11)? He is probably exaggerating one or the other; or at least, he ought to explain how both might be true. In comparing Tolkien to Wilkins (85-6), Smith avers that “Tolkien’s Elvish languages are essentially a posteriori creations, derived from Finnish, Welsh, Greek, Latin, and, to a lesser extent, Germanic sources”; however, I think this may be overstating the matter. One can easily argue the presence of a considerable number of arbitrary (that is, a priori) elements as well. Smith goes on to say that the “one point in common” between Tolkien and Wilkins is grammatical agglutination, yet the majority of languages, real and invented alike, operate in that way. If this is indeed all they have in common, then they have essentially nothing in common after all. “Quenya verbs inflect for case,” Smith says (90). Surely he meant to say that its nouns so inflect. “Tolkien’s invented languages are as complete as any” (92). If restricted to fictive languages, then, in the main, yes; but this is hardly true of invented languages in general. The lexis of Esperanto is many times the size of that of Tolkien’s most developed languages — and Tolkien’s least developed are barely skeletal. And let me stop there and sum up.

One is left, finally, with the impression of an unfinished, superficial, and largely inconclusive work (though I admit I may be more difficult to satisfy than most on this topic). This is not surprising, really, as the book’s thesis rests on profoundly subjective and personal subject matter, on which Tolkien left few definitive statements behind. To his credit, Smith opens the door to further study; however, his own monograph uncovers little that is new, and ignores much than has come before. Tom Shippey, for example, foresaw some of Smith’s central conclusions thirty years ago in his essay, “Creation from Philology in The Lord of the Rings,” yet of that Smith makes no mention at all. Shippey has continued the work, though Tolkien’s phonosemantic preferences have never been his primary bailiwick. Smith cites a little of Shippey’s subsequent work, if not much by others, but who will cite Smith? We can only hope that while Inside Language has done relatively little to advance our understanding of Tolkien’s linguistic aesthetics, the book may prompt others to move the subject forward.

Works Consulted

Barfield, Owen. Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning. 2nd ed. Middletown, Connecticut: The Wesleyan University Press, 1973.
Burroughs, Edgar Rice. Tarzan of the Apes. New York: The Modern Library, 2003.
Cassirer, Erst. Language and Myth. Trans. Susanne K. Langer. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1946.
Flieger, Verlyn. Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World. Revised ed. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 2002.
Shippey, T.A. “Creation from Philology in The Lord of the Rings.” J.R.R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam. Ed. Mary Salu and Robert T. Farrell. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1979. 286-316.
Smith, Arden R. and Patrick Wynne. “Tolkien and Esperanto.” VII: An Anglo-American Literary Review 17 (2000): 27-46.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1983. 109-61.
—. “A Philologist on Esperanto.” The British Esperantist Vol. 28, No. 325 (May 1932): 182.
—. “Philology: General Works.” The Year’s Work in English Studies, Vol. 5 (1924): [26]-65.
—. “Philology: General Works.” The Year’s Work in English Studies, Vol. 6 (1925): [32]-66.
—. “Valedictory Address to the University of Oxford.” The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1983. 224-40.

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