Tolkien and psycholinguistics

A good friend of mine has written a book. I'm quite excited about it. Being an academic I know lots of people who have published, because in universities that is the convenient way that pen-pushers measure how clever, hard-working, REF-able, or just highly-cited regardless of research quality you are. Publish or perish. Most of these publications are academic papers, very few are books, and even fewer are digestible by a non-specialist audience. In my experience, only one features hobbits.

Yesterday was the book launch and instead of a boozy reception with a couple of incoherent speeches in management speak by a publisher, there was a rather civilized afternoon mini-conference and a glass of something alcoholic, with salted peanuts. Tasty.

The subject of the book and the conference: Tolkien and Wales.

There were 3 talks (or papers as humanities academics call them) about different aspects of J.R.R. Tolkien's writing and career which particularly related to the Welsh language. As an scientist it amuses me when people give talks by standing at a podium and reading from a prepared script. It's a difference in culture, but Haley and I shared a knowing look.

The first talk given by Dimtri Fimi (UWIC) described something really strange about Tolkien, verging on the disturbing. If you've read The Lord of the Rings and any of the other Middle Earth epics, it won't have escaped your notice that large portions of it were written in 'foreign' languages. These languages were constructed from old J.R.R.'s imagination, but heavily influenced by present or historical European languages. The 2 mature languages which Tolkien developed were Sindarin and Quenya (both elven languages). They were modeled on Welsh and Finnish, respectively. Dr Fimi gave numerous examples comparing welsh grammar with sindarin grammar, and I was amazed that they both us almost identical mutations.

Now comes the wacky part. In a 1955 lecture, Tolkien claims readers of The Lord of the Rings would enjoy them because he had constructed languages, or particularly Sindarin (the welsh one) to resonate with all British people. He believed that the welsh language was somehow genetically imbedded in ever British person, because before the Romans, Angles, Saxons, Normans and any other invaders arrived Britain was occupied by the Welsh. To say that people love Tolkein's epic mythology because he has unlocked some hidden room in our genetic make-up which predisposes Britons to feel an emotional response towards the books makes you wonder if he had been at the wacky-backy. Many of the names sound welsh. Arwen, for instance, is actually a welsh girls' name (a shortened form of Arwenna) as well as being Liv Tyler's elven character. We were even treated to an antique recording of Tolkien speaking Sindarin, which I have to say, to my heathen ears sounded rather like when I accidentally tune into Radio Cymru.

Tolkien revealed this was his intention in a lecture in 1955, 2 years after Watson and Crick had discovered the structure of DNA, so genetics was a very new science and it is unclear to me from Dr Fimi's talk whether Tolkien truly meant genetics or if he meant it was some sort of telepathic, ancestral link (which presumably ignores ancestors who also spoke other languages). Its like suggesting that my favourite colour was blue because my great-great-great..... grandfather's favourite colour was also blue.

What a funny fish Tolkien was.

The second paper was by Simon Eckstein (Swansea University) and compared Tolkien with a contemporary of his, and author I had not heard of called David Jones. As you can tell from his name, he was of welsh ancestry, although born in England. The main thrust was that both Tolkien and Jones sought to create mythology that was unique to Britain. We have King Arthur (who was Welsh, incidentally) but we don't have anything as old Zeus, Odin or the Lorelei. Certainly nothing Bronze Age. Mr Eckstein asserted that this was because Welsh was the language of these legends, but they became inaccessible once the dominant language of Britain moved to that of the new invaders. In the Crystal Maze this would have been an automatic lock-in. The lock-in was so pronounced because welsh, being a bardic language, has a vocabulary which is difficult to translate into Old, Middle or even modern English. Eckstein gives the example of the word Hiraeth, which describes the feeling isolation when being taken away from someone or something you love. A bit like homesickness and yearning for the lush pleasant land of Wales.

I suppose if the stories were never written down and the indigenous (and minority) welsh-speaking population stopped telling or singing the stories, it is conceivable that many will have been lost. I can't help feeling that some legends should exist in some form. Maybe they were just evolved into the Arthurian legends and the Mabinogion.

Next and finally was the headline act, my friend Carl. He was a pro at giving his paper. The words were clearly written in a script but they were effortlessly and seamlessly delivered, in a way that made me think that all talks should be given this way. This talk was much less academic, but equally stimulating. He was talking about his new book, but gave us some lovely anecdotes about his research and how he had made discoveries which had been overlooked by others, who had been just a bit lazy. Quite incredibly Carl found references to Tolkien's understanding of welsh in hand-written notes in the margins of Tolkien's private library. He also went through hundreds of folios in the Bodleian Library of Tolkien's notes looking gems which had been badly categorized. It was funny to hear that Tolkien corrected the welsh grammar which appeared in welsh grammar text-books.

I really came to realise that Tolkien had a profound understanding of the way language worked. Its not clear if he ever spoke or conversed in the many languages he knew (he certainly corrected the Swedish and Dutch versions of The Lord of the Rings), but he seemed to love and devour grammar. Anyone who can create not 1, but 2 languages must be some sort of genius with linguistics.

I enjoyed the mini-conference immensely and having bought the book (no T-shirts were available), I'm looking forward to reading more about the crazy genius of J.R.R. Tolkien. However if I had been a person off the street (the Cardiff University community engagement team had advertised the event via university emailshots and in the Big Issue) I might have found it rather heavy on name-checks to academic texts and subject specific terminology; as someone who regularly gives public talks I'm wary of even using the word 'wavelength' in front of a non-specialist audience, let alone 'philology'.

Afterwards, Haley said she'd like to write a book and have a mini-conference on it. I rather fancy it too. It was jolly entertaining and a much better use of a Saturday afternoon than watching 22-ish men kick a leather egg around.

To see what all the fuss is about, go and buy Carl's book Tolkien and Wales