Talking Elvish 1/2/2003
The Lord of the Rings trilogy is sparking interest in Quenya, Tolkien's invented language of the elves.
Thursday, January 2, 2003
Fewer than 100 people on Earth speak the language of the Chickasaw Indians, a tribe that now inhabits a swatch of Oklahoma. None is younger than 55. A century from now, nobody will speak it anymore.
At least 100 people are fluent in Klingon, the language of an alien species from Star Trek, the 1960s TV show. Last year, Hamlet was translated into Klingon and published by Simon & Schuster.
This December a stranger, older language surged into the national voice box, a smooth, lyrical tongue with ancient roots and a big Hollywood budget. It''s a tongue spoken by Cate Blanchett and Liv Tyler. It''s the language of the Elves.
In 1915, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, a 23-year-old graduate of Oxford University, started work on a fictional language he thought would be pretty neat. He based it on Finnish, and he called it Quenya. Soon he created a people to speak this language -- his Elves -- and a history, a land, a world in which they could speak it-- Middle Earth.
This story became The Lord of the Rings, which, as everyone knows, is the seminal work of fantasy literature, of swords and wizards. Sure, it''s a tale of a band of short, simple folk (Hobbits) who like to smoke pipes and go on a quest to vanquish evil, but what most people fail to realize is that Rings is a big book (and now a trio of big movies) about a made-up language. "The media will be interested in [Tolkien fans] for a little while, and after the movie dies down, we''ll be back to the way we were," explains Marcus Smith, a linguistics graduate student at UCLA who knows Quenya quite well.
The way they were is this: Wide-spread, well organized, passionate, quiet and very, very serious. The landscape of Tolkienian linguistics includes scholarly journals, dictionaries and source books (many of them contradictory), societies, fellowships and schools. Not action figures. Not yet.
Scholarship stretches across the globe and covers not only the Elvish tongues (Quenya and Sindarin being most prominent), but those of dwarves, men and talking trees.
First, it''s important to note that the Elves of Middle Earth are not the elves of your imagination. They are not sprightly, mischievous imps in green tunics. They are stately, sober and wise. And the humans who study Elvish do not resemble those you might expect to speak Klingon. They will not wear prosthetic foreheads and salute William Shatner. They are more likely to know Native American words for orange juice and read Beowulf in the original Old English. They are, like the professor who started it all, serious people.
Marcus Smith is a serious person. He explains that his study of Tolkien led him to a career in linguistics. "Most people don''t talk about it in public. It''s sort of a weird thing to do," he says.
In high school, Smith dived into German and Middle English and prose older and more scarce. He read the 1,137 pages of The Lord of the Rings, including the appendix describing the grammar and history of the Elves, who said beautiful things such as, "Elen síla lúmenn'' omentielvo." ("A star shines upon the hour of our meeting.")
Marcus explains that, in creating Middle Earth, Tolkien tried to write a dense new mythology, complete with thousands of years of history and languages that evolved, split and bore offspring. The language of the dwarves has a Hebrew influence, and the orcs grunt in the Black Speech, a twisted Quenya. The inscription on the powerful ring that Frodo Baggins carries is Black Speech : "Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul." Or, rather: "One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the Darkness bind them."
People do not get together and talk in Quenya about the new offering from Oprah''s Book Club. It''s not like that. Tolkien designed the language to be used by magical creatures who lived in an imaginary world a long, long time ago. "I know that I cannot carry on a conversation in Elvish," says Marcus. "I don''t think anybody could."
The life of a linguist, especially so close to Hollywood, can be glamorous. Mark Pearson, a lecturer at UCLA, developed an alien lingo for Dark Skies, NBC''s The X-Files rip-off. But assignments like this come once in a lifetime.
"There is not nearly enough demand to support even one linguist working full-time as a Hollywood consultant," he says.
Most movies just let their aliens speak gibberish. But where Hollywood lacks invention, Smith and Pearson and a few of their peers make their own fun, digging into what they call "constructed languages." There are hundreds of these whimsical, just-for-the-hell-of-it tongues out there, complete with syntax and grammar, and serious people behind them. Smith has created a few, and Pearson has worked on the same one most of his life.
"There is a certain secrecy that surrounds this particular hobby," admits Pearson. "I took a lot of flak in high school when people found out that I spent all my spare time making up verb paradigms for a language that doesn''t even exist."
It''s no accident that the great battles in The Lord of the Rings describe the end to an age of magic. The book tells of the dawn of man''s reign, when the Elves took their language and followed their ancestors to the Undying Lands. Today, the most popular invented tongue on this Earth, the language of the Klingons, is based on that of an American Indian dialect, Mutsun, whose last speaker died in 1930. And it''s fitting that a man who studies Elvish would tell me that only one Native American tongue, Navajo, will, outside of scholarly circles, survive the next 100 years. "We''re working to document these," says Smith the Quenya speaker, the Chickasaw speaker, "before they disappear forever."