Many believe that the world is experiencing a mass extinction of cultures, and that a loss of one culturethe collective intellect, memory, and values of a people transmitted from one generation to the next through language, stories, and art and other objectsis as profound as the loss of a biological species.
One of the best indicators of the health of the world's cultures may be the state of its languagesand many are rapidly disappearing. Cultural anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis explains: "A language isn't just a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules. It is a flash of the human spirit, a vehicle though which the soul of a particular culture comes into the material world. And when we lose a language, we lose a vital element of the human dream."
Despair over the loss of cultures and languages resonates throughout Tolkien's narrative in The Lord of the Rings. The Elves are disappearing from Middle-earth. High and Common Elvish, languages that few outside of the Elves speak or understand, are vanishing along with thousands of years of Elvish culture and knowledge.
Likewise, the cultural realm of the Dwarves is dwindling, with only a few strongholds remaining. And though in many ways the hobbits live an idyllic life, they are culturally isolated and have little knowledge of the outside worlda characteristic that threatens to destroy them.
Yet it is from the hobbitsthought of by Elves and Dwarves as insignificant and powerlessthat hope arises against the threat of extinction for all of Middle-earth's cultures.
Tolkien's Love of Languages
Tolkien's fascination with language and culture resonates throughout The Lord of the Rings. Professor of English Jane Chance explains that Tolkien was enchanted by language and by the power of language:
Tolkien well understood the power of the written and spoken word, philologist that he washe knew that words were magic. ... For Tolkien, words provide the means to unify and extend the social community, to understand the various species of nature, and to cross the boundaries of time (past and present) and space (the equivalent of earthly supernal, and infernal in Middle-earth).*
One of the most vivid expressions of Tolkien's ability and interest in languages was the creation of his own. Over the course of his life he invented several languages, such as Elvish (including Quenya and Sindarin), Dwarvish (Khuzdul), Entish, and Black Speech.
For Tolkien, language was the beginning of a culture rather than merely a product of it. "The invention of languages," he wrote, "is the foundation. The 'stories' were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse."**
Many character and place names in The Lord of the Rings are related to words from old and modern languages. In his book Hobbits, Elves, and Wizards, Michael N. Stanton provides examples of the historical links for some of Tolkien's characters and settings. A few examples follow:
Tolkien's High Elvish language, Quenya, was inspired by Finnish. Tolkien taught himself Finnish in order to read the Kalevala, a 19th-century compilation of old Finnish songs and stories arranged by Elias Lönnrot into a linear epic poem and completed in 1835 and revised in the mid-1800s.
The Kalevala epic parallels the real history of the Finns. It played a key role in preserving the oral legends and songs of the Finns, which linguists think date back to preagricultural Finland. As cultural anthropologist Wade Davis notes, "it goes back to the time of the shaman ... when people lived by poetry of an oral tradition. ... By definition, the entire language was the vocabulary of the best storyteller." In 2001 Wade Davis traveled to Finland to meet Jussi Juovinen, one of Finland's last great rune singers, and to hear him sing the Kalevala. Juovinen began to learn the poems from the elders of his village when he was a child and committed the songs to memory.
Hear part of the Kalevala.
The publication of the Kalevala helped protect the ancient Finnish poems and the Finnish language itself, while helping to solidify a sense of national identity among many Finns. Although Finnish is now safeguarded by its status as a national language, it was once in danger of fading, as are many languages today.
Some experts believe as many as 10,000 languages were once spoken around the world. Today around 6,000 languages remain, and that number could be reduced to 3,000 in the next hundred years.
Tolkien created Middle-earth as a home for his invented languages. Just as the artistry, beauty, and essence of the Kalevala is intricately tied to the Finnish language, each invented language in The Lord of the Rings plays a seminal role in the evolution of events and development of the characters in Tolkien's story.
Examples of Tolkien's Languages in The Lord of the Rings
Black Speech: "Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatulOne Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them"
Quenya: "Elen sila lûmenn' omentielvoA star shines on the hour of our meeting" (
Dwarvish: "Khazâd-ai-mênu!The Dwarves are upon you!"
Noel, Ruth S. The Languages of Middle-earth. Houghton Mifflin, 1980.
Stanton, Michael N. Hobbits, Elves, and Wizards. Palgrave, 2001.
The Elvish Linguistic Fellowship
A Web site devoted to the scholarly study of the invented languages of J.R.R. Tolkien
Viena Karelian Folklore Villages
More about the past and future of Finland's rich folklore legacy