Percorrendo la Trilogia: le Lingue di Tolkien con Gianluca Comastri

by Maria Laura Piro, translated by Enrico Spadaro

On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the release of The Lord of the Rings on theatres, we continue our journey to discover Peter Jackson‘s trilogy. This time we’ll be delving into the languages of the Elves and the other peoples of Middle-earth with expert Gianluca Comastri, co-founder of Tolkien Italia and author of the two-volume book Le Lingue degli Elfi della Terra-di-Mezzo (“The Languages of the Elves of Middle-earth”).

Hello Gianluca, thanks for being once again available to help us explore the world of Tolkien’s languages, this time in their cinematic transposition.

Hello and thank you for inviting me once again!

Can you briefly explain what was the importance of the invented languages in Tolkien’s legendarium?

To give a short answer, without languages there would be no legendarium – and vice versa. Tolkien had been interested in ancient languages since he was a child (and this is not just a figure of speech: it has been proved that at the age of eight he was reading John Rhys‘s Celtic Britain, three hundred pages full of etymological discussions, interspersed with passages in Latin and untranslated words in ancient Greek) and, as he continued his studies, he developed the conviction that ancient languages not only tell the myths of their respective peoples, but are somehow part of them, being inextricably linked to them. Thus, in the years around the Great War, while drawing up the first drafts of the legends of what was to become The Silmarillion, he found himself compiling pages of linguistic reconstructions that gave rise to Qenya and, a few years later, Goldogrin (the conceptual ancestors of Quenya and Sindarin). Decades later, in A Secret Vice, he wrote down the conclusions he had empirically reached from the beginning: the creation of a language and a mythology are functionally related, to the point that building a language will eventually generate a mythology.

How many languages did J. R. R. Tolkien invent?

This question risks opening up a bottomless pit. If we think only of the languages of Arda but, for example, consider that there are several conceptual stages, we should remark that, for example, Gnomish and Sindarin are two distinct languages. But we know that at least part of the material that gave rise to Gnomish was then merged, decade after decade, into Sindarin as we know it from The Lord of the Rings… If we want to narrow the field and refer only to the most recent phase, which consolidated since the publication of The Lord of the Rings (even if “consolidated”, in this case, is an optimistic definition: Tolkien worked on revisions practically until the late 1960s…) we would say that we have two partially usable languages, Quenya and Sindarin: a scant dozen that have a certain amount of lexicon and grammar while not being usable at all (Ilkorin/Doriathrin, Telerin and Nandorin among the Elvish, plus Adûnaic, Khuzdul, Ovestron and the mysterious Taliska of the Edains of the First Age); three or four languages of which we have only fragments, namely Valarin, Entese, Orkish and Black Language; finally, an unquantifiable series of almost entirely fictitious languages, such as Rohirric, the language of the Drûg, two words of at least one Haradrim tribe and the famous six Avarin dialects of which we have one word each.

Which of these languages were included in Peter Jackson’s first trilogy?

A certain amount of Sindarin and Quenya, with dialogue largely reconstructed by creating words and phrases not found in the original Tolkien materials, plus a few phrases in Rohirric, Khuzdul and Black Language and at least one word of Entese, the fascinating Burárum.

Even the least attentive viewer perceives that Elven Tongues are euphonic, while the Black Tongue of Mordor is very harsh. What does this mean?

This distinction echoes the notion that a language is an expression of the culture and personality of its speakers. Elves are aesthetes, lovers of beauty and harmony in all its forms, and their languages reflect this feature. Orcs, Uruk and the various servants of the Dark One are, on the other hand, obviously races that aim only to conquer and ruin, incapable of formulating thoughts that are not of crude brutality: their speech can only be as unpleasant as they themselves aspire to be.

Which experts were contacted by Jackson to include Tolkien’s languages in the films?

David Salo, who had become interested in Tolkien languages at a very young age and is the founder of a historic mailing list dedicated to them, Elfling, activated in 1998. In addition to reconstructing the words needed for the dialogues that Jackson needed for the script, he was also responsible for the inscriptions on parchment and stone that we see in some scenes and for the language parts of the soundtrack tracks.

Did the films make any changes or simplifications to Tolkien’s languages?

Where they incorporated phrases directly from the book, they were obviously faithful. For reconstructions, however, things are not always easy: even if you want to try to compose new words following Tolkien’s criteria (and obviously knowing the rules by which a word derives from an ancient etymological form! ) one has to reckon with the fact that the primitive roots listed by Tolkien are less than a thousand – so, although some of them may cover several shades of meaning, such as √OLOS which is glossed “dream, vision, fantasy” and thus may give rise to words covering the whole range of meanings included between these glosses, there is obviously no possibility of compiling a sufficiently large vocabulary. For example, “arrow” exists only in Quenya and is ‘pilin’, but since it derives from a root √PILIN, Salo deduced that the Sindarin form must itself be ‘pilin’, plural ‘philin’, and so was able to write the command that Elrond and Aragorn give to their elven archers in two battle scenes.

What are your favourite scenes in the films where one of these languages is spoken?

The one in which Gandalf sings a formula with which he tries to open the gates of Durin, “Annon Edhellen / edro hi ammen / fennas Nogothrim / lasto beth lammen”. Many years later I learned that, for that line, Ian McKellen had gone looking for recordings of Tolkien speaking Elvish and had tried to set his voice to recall the Professor’s intonation and cadence! Then I appreciated Frodo’s “Aiya Eärendil elenion ancalima!” in Shelob’s lair, which is one of the few parts dubbed in languages, perhaps the only one: what we hear is Davide Perino, not Elijah Wood, which made me appreciate that line twice as much.

And in the books?

Galadriel’s Namárië, no doubt.

In your opinion, did the actors know how to pronounce their lines well in Elvish? Who was the best?

The actors, in the original language, pronounce Elvish in an almost impeccable way, with correct cadences and accents and trying to concentrate on the correct pronunciation of the R, which is always trilling, as in Italian, and never “rounded” as in English. Moreover, in order to learn to master the Elvish language, they were subjected to a training that I have no hesitation in describing as ruthless.

Now let’s talk about Tolkien’s alphabets. Are they as numerous as the languages invented by the Professor? Which of them are present in the films?

The writing systems in use in the Third Age are basically two, the Cirth or Angerthas (the one in Balin’s epitaph) which is an alphabet similar to the historical runes, and the tengwar as in the inscription on the One (which even if it is a sentence in Black Language is still written in elven characters, more disfiguring) or on the doors of Durin. The tengwar is a phonetic system, in which each sign can correspond to a different sound depending on the language in which it is written, so there is no unique way to represent words: the inscription on the door of Durin is in a way, called Beleriand, that was in use for Sindarin since the First Era and is very different from that for writing in Quenya, although the characters are the same. So, the answer is no, we have far fewer writing systems than languages, but one of these two systems can give rise to a virtually infinite number of ways of writing.

Do you think there is a difference between the role languages play in books and the role they play in films?

Not from my point of view. Both in the films and in the book, the characters resort to Arda languages at moments of particular emphasis, when emotion takes over and the dialogue increases in intensity. This aspect is automatically rendered in the dialogues, since even the forms reconstructed by Salo are inserted in scenes where the characters’ lines are sufficiently in harmony with the Professor’s prose.

What would you recommend to those who want to delve into the vast world of Tolkien’s glossopoiesis?

I would advise to be very…very careful! Especially if it comes from self-proclaimed gurus who are more eager to imprint their methods and criteria on others than to achieve a truly greater understanding of Tolkienian linguistics and form critical thinkers. I believe that the most effective method is to look at what has been done so far by other authors who have tried their hand at formulating theories and explanations but then, as soon as you are sufficiently familiar with the basic concepts, to get hold of the original documents in Tolkien’s papers where most of the genuine knowledge is to be found, namely several volumes of the History of Middle-earth (I would also add the recent The Nature of Middle-earth) and the issues of Vinyar Tengwar and Parma Eldalamberon, and to work directly on Tolkien. At first glance, the Elvish languages, the only ones that can be studied methodically, may seem bizarre, but with all their limitations in grammar and vocabulary they can be approached in exactly the same way as any foreign language. However, they have the advantage of being the other side of the coin of a real modern mythology, extraordinarily evocative and fascinating, which certainly facilitates learning.

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