Category Archives: Fantasy and linguistics

Fantasy and languages: Tolkien was a sort of cool guy

I think it’s time to write about fantasy and languages again. Seeing as I am very preoccupied with both linguistics and that I read lots of fantasy literature, I end up having a lot of thoughts about these things which I do not process in any kind of coherent or sane way. Until now…

What is very interesting about the fantasy genre, is that the grand work which is often thought of as the foundation of modern fantasy was written by a gentleman who was a philologist and a linguist (they didn’t distinguish all that much, back in his day.). I am, of course, speaking about the late professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, and his epic (in the right sense of the word!) trilogy “The Lord of the Rings”.

Well, actually, I am way more fascinated with the world he created than the actual stories he wrote, even though they are really great. This is because, to me, the stories which make up fantasy novels, novellas etc. are often windows into a world I would like to explore, just as much as they are interesting stories. (I am very often more interested in the grand scheme of things, rather than the fate of individual characters.) This means that I am very critical, probably too critical, when it comes to the depiction of the worlds where these “magical adventures” unfold. I also loooove books detailing background and history in the worlds I read about. And prequel novels. *drool*

I am a linguist, as you, the Enlightened Reader, might know. What’s more, I have especially studied historical linguistics, and I have been very interested in history, (theoretical) archaeology and political science for most of my life. Thus, it might be understood, that I can be hard to please. There are still fantasy writers whose worlds and stories please me immensely, and I thought I was going to write a little about them. I will also write about the less pleasing aspects of their writing, so be not afraid. This is not meant to be a praise-fest.

While writing this, I realize that I have so many thoughts on each of these authors and their worlds (and the languages in them!), that I might have to make this into a series of blog posts, rather than one enormously long one. At the present, I am hoping to write something about Tolkien, George Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire), Robert Jordan (the Wheel of Time), Scott Lynch (the Gentleman Bastard Sequence) and Steven Erikson (the Malazan Book of the Fallen). I will also mention C. S. Lewis (the Chronicles of Narnia) briefly in this blog entry, but to me, he does not warrant much more discussion; fantasy of Lewis’ kind is bordering more on (modern) fairy tales, to my mind, rather than what I see as proper fantasy literature (but this view may, at least partly, stem from that I have not read Lewis as extensively as many other authors. If you COMPLETELY disagree about Lewis and his ilk, please write a coherent, well thought out commentary/criticism of my views rather than rage-fuelled flaming 😉 ).

The rest of this entry will concern itself with Tolkien, then, in an effort to keep it short (short, haha!):

First of all, Tolkien’s linguistic realism is astonishing, and that, of course, is extremely attractive to me. He has done ground work with the languages (and cultures) of his world that is so extensive that I’ll bet all of it will never come to light, even though Tolkien-fandom is massively huge. As far as I know, every single personal name and place name has a meticulously thought out etymology and fits into a greater language history (just like in our world), that dates back to the very beginning of speech in Tolkien’s world (the awakening of the Elves, for those who are interested).

There are examples galore: Boromir, for instance, is a name of Elven origin, comprised of the two elements Boro- and -mir. (I don’t remember the meaning, but I’m quite certain one of the elements mean ‘shine’). In a touch of linguistic realism, Tolkien has even made it so that each of these elements come from a different Elven language, Quenya and Sindarin, seeing as these were “learned” languages already when someone was named “Boromir” for the first time (this mirrors the position of Greek and Latin as learned languages in mediaeval Europe). Western society sometimes uses Greek and Latin roots when making new words. Television is an excellent example, where tele- comes from Greek and has a meaning in the vicinity of ‘(from) afar’, whereas -vision ultimately comes from the Latin root that means ‘to see’. A bastard hybrid of a word, one might say (but it’s really cool!). A name like Aragorn, on the other hand, while also being of Elven origin, is purely Sindarin, and is also comprised of two elements.

Place names are equally thought through. I will use some easily accesible examples: Gondor is Sindarin, and means something like “Stone Country/Land”, because at least parts of Gondor are rocky and has a lot of mountains and hills (cf. the beacons of Gondor, if you want an image that is prominent in the story of the books, AND the movies of Peter Jackson). You have the same element -dor, in “Mordor”, which supposedly means “Black/dark Country/Land”, and additionally “Shadow Land” in Quenya (this is because Quenya and Sindarin, by Tolkien’s devicing, ultimately come from the same source language, in the exact same way as, say, English and Italian, and sometimes in language history, some forms are quite constant, even through thousands of years of change.). These names are quite simply made up, but believe me, this is the little snowflake on the tip of the iceberg. Tolkien was an accomplished philologist and an Oxford professor. This was child’s play for him (as it is for most linguists with a grasp of morphology).

And it doesn’t stop at the Elven languages, when it comes to the pervasiveness of Tolkien’s linguistic realism. There are so many things to write about. I always thought it was cool that Tolkien lets the Rohirrim speak Anglo-Saxon. This isn’t because he envisioned these people actually speaking Anglo-Saxon in his world. Oh, no. It is because the Common Tongue of (western) Middle-Earth is “translated” into English by Tolkien, in order for us to be able to read his books. At least that was how he envisioned it. The Common Tongue is the native language of the Dúnedain from Númenor, who founded the two kingdoms Gondor and Arnor. The language of the Rohirrim is then, similarly, rendered as Anglo-Saxon, because this would mirror the relationship between the language of the Rohirrim and the language of the Dúnedain that migrated back to Middle-Earth after hundreds of years living away in the West. They are clearly related, yet separated by language development. (Side note: Anglo-Saxon is usually thought of as a direct antecedent of modern English, though this is a “truth” with many nuances and variables. As far as I know, Tolkien did not mean for the language of the Rohirrim to be an ancestor of the Common Tongue, but rather, a descendant with the same original source.)

Tolkien can be criticized when it comes to historical and political realism. But I think his writing style is important to consider, when taking this criticism into consideration. Tolkien, above all, writes very romantic fantasy. And I do NOT mean romantic as in the romances between Lúthien and Beren, and the mirror romance, Arwen and Aragorn (which hardly features at all in the works published before Tolkien’s passing). NO. I mean romantic, as in literary romanticism, where the good people are morally upright, as well as skilled, beautiful and righteous in most concievable ways. The evil, on the other hand, are very evil, ugly, they are treacherous, selfish, they most probably smell bad, and are generally not really skilled at anything they do. (I’m talking about orcs here, mostly, or evil men. Evil men (i.e. evil humans) aren’t as bad as orcs though, and Tolkien has semi-religious (both meta and in-universe) reasons for this.). The only reason that Evil poses any real threat to Good in Tolkien’s world, the way I see it, is that evil creatures are myriad, whereas the good are too few. (This might be a good metaphor for Tolkien’s perception of the world, perhaps? The Good are few, and a are fighting an eternal uphill battle against evil people and evil emotions?) A romantic depiction of anything is by definition not realistic. Realism is the opposite of romanticism, in many ways, and to me George Martin is an excellent example of a writer whose scope is equally grandiose as Tolkien’s, but who definitely operates within literary realism. In any case, it cannot be disputed that romantic writing has strong traditions in European literature, so we’ll have to accept it for what it is. If you can’t bear romantic writing, Tolkien is not for you.

Apart from his romantic depiction of the world and the societies we meet in his books, Tolkien seems to have a solid grip on mediaeval politics and society, which isn’t surprising, seeing as he was a historical philologist. I for one, at least, have never found fault with the way he describes inheritance laws, dynasties etc. He also makes use of classic indo-europeans kinship ideals, which of course is not unusual, as many of these values still exist, at least in part, in modern (Western) society. Most of the societies we meet in Tolkien’s world are feudal societies, and in these romanticized feudal societies, everyone are satisfied with their place in it, and there is little social upheaval, as long as the ruler is a good guy. This is simply not realistic; of course the peasants at the bottom of feudal society aren’t always happy about their unappreciated , quite powerless, role in society. The evil societies we meet, on the other hand, are either totalitarian, completely ruled by fear and force (Sauron, for instance, would make any dictator from our world feel like an amateur!), or they are essentially chaotically anarchic, the strong tyrannizing the weak (E.g. the Orcs of the Misty Mountains, who the Fellowship of the Ring have an unpleasant brush with in the mines of Moria.). In a way, the evil societies, seem closer to bad real world societies, than the good societies do to their equivalents. Food for thought… (?)

I could go on and on about Tolkien, as you might understand. There are endless amounts of lore to explore when it comes to his work; the wet dream of any fantasy geek. Being a great fan myself, it’s not easy for me to write a neutral presentation of Tolkien’s work, and, obviously, I’m not trying to do that either. Still, I will argue, that even though Tolkien is perhaps the most appreciated fantasy author of all time, the amount of groundwork he put into his fantasy world and stories will never be properly recognized. And that’s a bold claim, I know! The legendarium is just too great to fathom without studying it for years (which many people have done!).

It’s not hard to see how his friendship with C.S. Lewis soured over the years. I believe I have read that one of Tolkien’s chief issues with Lewis’ fantasy was linguistic realism. When it came to languages, Lewis just came up with any old crap, and it seemed to do the trick, whereas Tolkien put in years upon years of work into his own world. (E.g. Aslan, Caspian and Narnia are all nonsense names, and or picked straight from our world and put into a fantasy world without further thought, it seems.). This allowed Lewis to be a more productive writer than Tolkien, as he didn’t work as much on background as Tolkien did. Lewis’ stories are quite good, by all means, but I think it is clear where my sympathies lie, when it comes to this schism!

If your goal is to publish fantasy novels, then Tolkien’s approach is way over the top, no doubt about that. On the other hand, if your main goal is to create an immersive, realistic, alternate world, then Tolkien’s approach might serve well as an ideal. I have been noodling on a fantasy world myself, for about five or six years now. I have got way more background stuff (including partially constructed languages!), than I have got stories. We’ll see if it ever escapes the depths of my hard drive…

And this, I think, is enough for this time. Tune in again later, if you want more discussion of fantasy the way it is processed by my brain. I think I might write about George Martin the next time. Or maybe Robert Jordan? (Jordan’s linguistic realism is horrible, however cool his world or stories might be.)

(Sources: I have used wikipedia, wiktionary and to check up on some stuff while writing this (I haven’t preoccupied myself with Tolkien to any particular degree, for almost ten years, so I had to be sure I remembered correctly.) I have not fact-checked stuff consistently either, and therefore I will not reference the sources more thorougly than this. This is a blog, filled with my notions, thoughts and musings, and I will not pretend like I am posting a scientific work!)

Americans and their crazy names

“Don’t these Americans know the difference between given names and last names!?”

Any European who cares about names and languages might have thought something along these lines when confronted with the boys whose given names are Jackson, Lafayette, Dylan or Hunter or the girls named Madison, Paris, Shelby or Courtney (all of these names are originally last names or place names). “Who would give such names to their kids?” you might ask yourself, and also “Why?”

As a name scholar (or at least former student of onomastics, the “science” of names), used to (Indo-)European name tradition(s), I am fascinated about how thoroughly different North American name tradition is from what still lives on in “the Old World”.  Or at least, it seems very different. This is my educated way of saying what my other, often non-linguist, friends often express in this way: “Man, Americans are so retarded they don’t even know the difference between first names, last names, cities, countries or anything! Gawd..!”

I started thinking about these things when I read the opinions posted about names on a fan page for the fantasy book series A Song of Ice and Fire (lately converted to the immensely successful TV series Game of Thrones). According to the internets, people in the United States have started naming baby girls Khaleesi, which is a fictional title meaning “Queen/wife to a khan-style leader”. This title is borne by one of the chief characters of the series (whose name is Daenerys, for the interested). I have a lot of judgemental crap to say about this particular issue, but I shall refrain! I will merely mention that many who watch the show, and have not read the books, mistakenly believe that Khaleesi is the name of the character.

Where I and most readers of this blog come from (Norway), no one I have ever heard of would ever even remotely consider naming their child King or Queen (or any equivalent in our native language, or any language that most people understand), much less Khaleesi (though on a side note, I think Khaleesi would be more acceptable for people who don’t perceive the word as a title). I believe that such names are unacceptable because there is a strict dividing line between what is a first name (Peter, Ahmed, Susan, Maria etc.) and what is a last name (Johnson, Smith, Hill etc.). (I use international examples of names here, seeing as I write in English). Unisex names are rare, and usually a result of cultural loans or language development. Furthermore, most people will have a quite clear intuition about what is an appropriate name for a person, and what is a name for a city, country etc. Tradition is key here! Thus, names like Brooklyn for a person of any gender or Paris for a girl (the fact that this is an Ancient Greek man’s name clouds the issue a bit) seem quite ludicrous in our tradition. They do however seem to be sufficiently acceptable in North American culture. As chaotic as North American name tradition may seem to outsiders, I will claim that there are clearly rules governing the naming of persons in North America as well! They are just quite different from the rules we are used to in European traditions.

What originally sparked the quite lively (and quite opinionated) debate on the fan page for A Song of Ice and Fire, was that a young mother asked the group what they thought about Valyria as a name for a baby girl. (For those not in the know: Valyria is the name of a fictional city-state, which conquered half a fictional continent and subdued and/or destroyed a bunch of fictional cultures and civilizations with fire and blood (and dragons). At some point, after all the conquering and butchering, the capital of the empire was consumed by some fiery apocalypse only known as “the Doom of Valyria”.) I pointed these things out, and ventured that since Valyria is the name of a city, and a city that isn’t supposed to have such a nice history at that, I could not be more opposed to giving such a name to any person (even though it might sound/look nice for a girl). To drive my point home, I commented that “Naming a girl Valyria, is equivalent to naming a girl London, Rome or Persepolis!” (Seeing as they are all the capitals of conquering, enslaving empires). Some guy then responded along the lines of “Persepolis!? That’s totally crazy! Who would ever name their daughter that?”

…  “Who would ever name their daughter Valyria?” was what I thought. At this point, the subjective, semi-judgmental me gave way to the linguist that is forever lurking very close to the surface of my consciousness, like a fish, ever waiting for some juicy fly to snap at.

If Persepolis as a name for a girl is unacceptable for most people in North America (which I reckon it probably is), then Persepolis must simply violate some North American naming rule(s). This implies that there actually are rules at all, which to an unknowledgeable outsider such as myself is quite significant in itself! The thing is, though, that this particular insight raises a lot of questions, as such basic insights are wont to do. I for one can’t describe the naming rules in linguistic/anthropological terms. I will forward some notions, though:

The constraints are definitely related to the sound and/or spelling of the names; the link between the sound of and visual impression of a form, and any given names the community has been in contact with, seems to be very important. Other connotations are also important (e.g. ethnic, social), but I think they are secondary, and so is the original meaning of a name. Which of these two are most important will vary, I believe, but sound/spelling will usually be more important! Let it be said, though, that the actual semantic meaning of a name is quite unimportant in most Indo-European naming traditions. These thoughts are vastly inadequate in trying to map such a vast territory as English-speaking American naming tradition, but they are at least relevant perhaps as preliminary hypotheses!

A professor in onomastics (once again: “name science”) whom I have great respect for, and who is also an extremely likeable person, once said to me (and I am paraphrasing): “With American circumstances, there can be no fun being a name researcher.” Implying: There does not seem to be any rules, and thus, any research would be quite meaningless. I quite agreed with him at the time, but my perspectives on language and naming have changed. The fact that there does not seem to be any rules to us name-culturally conservative Europeans, but that some names are still quite unacceptable “even to Americans” poses very intriguing questions to me: What rules actually govern the giving of given names to American infants, and how strict are they? How did these rules get the way they are? How different are these rules really from whichever rules determine what names are acceptable in (Indo-)European culture? And: Are we seeing developments similar to the ones that must have led to the current American situation in a Europe that is becoming more culturally diverse all the time?

These questions, my friends, would be enough subject matter to occupy an entire research center for name studies employing several researchers and graduate students for several years. Now, all I need is someone to cooperate with, and a fantastically big bag of money.

Linguist-man, out.

Literature: (22. Jun. 2014)