NewsWire: Elf Discovery –

by Apr 19, 2001Other News

Thanks to Ben P. for sending in the note about this article…

Elf Discovery – The elves are speaking. Do you hear them? You will.
by Glenn Gaslin – 4-19-2001

Fewer than 100 people on Earth speak the language of the Chickasaw Indians, a tribe that now inhabits a swatch of Oklahoma. Their tongue is one of harsh consonants and low, long vowels, of words such as takolo lakna okchi. Of those fluent in Chickasaw, no one is younger than 55. Decades from now, nobody will speak it anymore.

At least 100 people, and probably more, are now fluent in Klingon, the language of an alien species from a 1960s TV show. It is a dialect of inhuman sounds — ghobchuq loDnI’pu’! — and a predictable, easy grammar. Last year, Hamlet was translated into Klingon and published by Simon & Schuster.

Soon, a stranger, older language will make a surge into the national voice box, a smooth, lyrical tongue with ancient roots and a big Hollywood budget. It will be spoken by Cate Blanchett and Liv Tyler. It will be programmed into Playstation games and a variation will be inscribed on toy rings.

You will, if you pay attention to such things as movies, soon be hearing 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, to oversimplify things, became The Lord of the Rings, which, as everyone knows, is a 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 about a made-up language. And soon it will be three big movies about a made-up language.

Later this year, the first of an expensive trilogy of films will attempt to turn J.R.R. Tolkien’s rhetorical visions into something visual and profitable. Director Peter Jackson — he’s best known for Heavenly Creatures and less so for the demented Muppets take-off Meet the Feebles — has spent $270 million of New Line Cinema‘s money and the past year and a half in New Zealand filming. Despite being an adaptation of a giant novel about a fake language, these movies will be big. Star Wars big. By the end of this year, wizards and orcs and dark lords will be everywhere. And so will the Tolkien faithful who have been studying Quenya (and the other elvish languages) all these years, as they always have been. You just might not see them.

“Tolkien fans have never really had a chance to reveal themselves,” explains Marcus Smith, a linguistics graduate student at UCLA who knows Quenya — its vocabulary, its grammar — quite well. “The media will be interested in us for a little while, and after the movie dies down, we’ll be back to the way we were.”

The way they were is this: widespread, 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 throughout most of this decade. It covers not only the elvish tongues (Quenya and Sindarin are the most prominent), but those of dwarves, men and talking trees. It does not cover the vanishing sounds of the Chickasaw, but there’s logic in the fact that somebody like Marcus Smith would study those, too.

First, though, 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. The elves of Tolkien are essentially immortal, magic poets.

And you should keep in mind that 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. His apartment in West Los Angeles is the sparse living space of a graduate student: books and folding chairs. 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. “But I’m pretty open about it.”

Marcus spent four years in Spain as a child, and began to learn Spanish. In high school, living in Palmdale on the edge of the Mojave, he 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”). He started translating the book’s poems. He started making up his own languages, too, challenging the way pronouns work, or how a word can show possession of another word. Just like John Ronald Reuel did. Marcus is pursuing a Ph.D. in linguistics. Just like Tolkien did. But unlike his long-gone mentor, he plans to preserve dying tongues instead of ensuring the future of made-up ones.

Marcus explains to me that, in creating Middle Earth, the setting for his books, 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. Indeed, the words you will hear most in the upcoming $270 million Hollywood fantasy will be words in the Black Speech, the inscription on the ring itself: 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. He created it as a means of relaying poetry and legend. Nothing modern. Nothing about Oprah.

“I know that I cannot carry on a conversation in Elvish,” says Marcus. “I don’t think anybody could. I’ve met people who’ve said they were fluent in Elvish, and, after a couple of minutes talking to them, I realized that they know nothing.”

The study of Elvish is mostly academic, a rolling debate on paper and e-mail. Since Tolkien wrote volumes of contradictory information, much of it still unpublished, says Marcus, “a lot of people argue.” Why, for instance, would Tolkien change his mind and decide that possessive words don’t actually end in “av,” as described in his earlier notes, but instead in “m”?

“Sometimes,” says Marcus, shrugging, not willing to fight with J.R.R., “he just changed stuff.”

I ask Marcus to teach me some of the basics, and he opens up The Lost Road, one of 12 books of unfinished notes and stories published by Tolkien’s son after his death. These are some of the things Marcus says, which I do not absorb:

· “In Sindarin, you’ll almost never find a word that ends in a vowel.”

· “Quendian never ends in l’s.”

· “See this n with the tilde over it? In Spanish you would expect that to be like a nyeh, but actually here, it’s an unh. So this word would be unhwarmo.”

Reminder: They are making a movie about this.

The life of a linguist, especially so close to Hollywood, can be, sometimes but not often, glamorous. The late UCLA professor Victoria Fromkin created the language spoken by Chaka, the furry ape guy on Land of the Lost, and Mark Pearson, now a lecturer at the university, developed an alien lingo for Dark Skies, NBC’s X-Files rip-off. But assignments like this come rarely.

“There is not nearly enough demand to support even one linguist working full-time as a Hollywood consultant,” says Pearson.

Most movies just let their aliens speak gibberish; most elves speak English. 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.”

Like Elvish, this is a hobby, though one that makes sense, one that completes the gap between an Oxford professor’s woodland creatures and the people of our own Earth rapidly losing their culture. Professionally, Pearson works with Malagasy, the native tongue of Madagascar, and Marcus Smith digs the hard consonants and long, sorrowful vowels of the vanishing Chickasaw.

“You can’t imagine a language less like English,” he tells me. “Would you like to hear some?”


“Chokema,” he says. “Schlavanka!”

It’s no accident that the great battles in The Lord of the Rings describe the end to an age of magic, the last gasp of elves and wizards and dark lords and rings that make you invisible. The book tells of the dawn of man’s reign, and the elves, in the end, took their language and followed their ancestors to the Undying Lands.

Today, then, the most popular invented tongue on 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 the soon-to-flourish Elvish would tell me that only one Native American tongue, Navajo, will, outside scholarly circles, survive the next 100 years.

“We’re working to document these,” says Marcus the Quenya speaker, the Chickasaw speaker, “before they disappear forever.”


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