Language & Myth: A Secret Vice

It has been many years since I first read Tolkien’s lecture “A Secret Vice,” and since I’ve been discussing the nature of myth and words I thought it would be a good idea to revisit it.

I find it interesting that the reclusiveness of the language creator (or conlanger using today’s parlance) remains largely the same as in Tolkien’s day.  The only difference now is that we benefit from the use of the Internet to reach out to others that play the “Game.”

Like many before me, I began creating my own languages shortly after reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time.  There was a certain wonder and magic in the act, which has the qualities of art without the need or use of the audience or critic.  As Tolkien describes, it is largely a personal, intimate art form, uniquely individual and ultimately secret.

Yet the advice, no the prediction, of Tolkien is a treasure for any conlanger, as well as being a revelation with regards to the nature of language and myth as Tolkien saw it.

As one suggestion, I might fling out the view that for perfect construction of an art-language it is found necessary to construct at least in outline a mythology concomitant.  Not solely because some pieces of verse will inevitably be part of the complete structure, but because the making of language and mythology are related functions; to give your language an individual flavor, it must have woven into it the threads of an individual mythology, individual while working within the scheme of natural human mythopoeia, as your word-form may be individual while working within the hackneyed limits of human, even European, phonetics.  The converse indeed is true, your language construction will breed a mythology. (The Monsters & the Critics, pp.210-11; my emphasis)

It is easily discovered when reading about Tolkien, that his mythology was born of the desire to tell the story of his languages.  It is also easy to see why, given his field (philology), Tolkien had both an affinity for language and myth and their origins.

If we pause to study Tolkien’s observation above, a truly awe-inspiring thought is revealed.  Granted it is an observation any student of language eventually contemplates, but Tolkien takes it a step further to show its true implications.

When you learn a new language and begin to reach a certain level of proficiency, such that you even begin to think using that tongue, something changes.  It is subtle, but it is crucial to an understanding of Tolkien’s conception of the link between language and myth.  When you begin to think in another language it forces you to structure your thoughts differently, and in some cases think in a manner completely unlike how you would for the same thought in your native tongue.

Language breeds myth and myth breeds language.

To use my oft used quote from Tolkien, stated in the previous post, it is possible to create myth solely through the act of naming.  We call a tree a tree, but what does that really mean?  In Spanish we’d call it an árbol, and in Italian albero, and much more besides around the world.  In a sense, in naming an object, we are telling a story, particularly when we study the origin of the word and its relationship with others.

If language predisposes the speaker (or writer) to think a certain way, it follows that it may only lead to the composition of a certain specific mythology.  Think of it this way: though we live in a world where everything is translated, does Macbeth really work in anything but English?  Or Don Quixote in anything but Spanish?  Or Dante’s Divine Comedy in anything besides Italian?  To my mind, something intrinsic to the piece is lost, once it is divested of its original language.  It is comparable in art with the sense of place and aura of a piece, which is often lost once it is removed from its original intended setting.  The case in point here would be religious art in museums, many of which were once altar pieces.  Part of the essence of the piece is forever lost by this separation, and the same is true of language.

You may ask then, how does myth breed language?

Well this is more in the hands of the “artist” than the speakers of the language.  History and storytelling lead to the eventual growth of legend, which through the craft of said storyteller or writer may cause a language to evolve (at least stylistically) over time.  A mode of expression, or a meter of speech or a style of prose are both defined by the language and stretched by the skill of the myth maker.  I cannot claim to be an expert on the subject, but the implications for the language creator are great.

In this mechanism of language lies the rubric for the creation of new languages, particularly for the insular languages of a conlanger.  To build a language you must build a myth.  To build a myth you must build a language.  The two go hand in hand, building one off the other.  And I can say from experience, it truly works.

For many years, I have sketched language after language, never really getting very far.  I’ve read many books, and tried many guides/courses, but none can truly create the feel or sound of an authentic language.  However, once I began tying the notion of language with myth and a world, and subcreating them all at once, everything clicked.

I’d like to share a piece with you all, and hopefully prove my point.  This is not necessarily to say my creation is any good, but to show proof of the generative power of myth and language built as one.

Torum•af•idomar•ejenur Edir•asil•ajorif•ejenuë, jor Enediru•fene•diëj Ilen•enediriä.

In a courtyard of the palace grows the holiest of trees, where the queen tends it each day.

Fiër•orevisor•edir•umator Tier•orevisuë. 

Water dances in fountains around it.

Olen•aroj Juren•ofaj•udun•ario, Oliv•ir•efil•aroj Foliët•ofaj•udun•ario.

Its blooms are white, its leaves of silver and green.

Eruvol•af•il•aruj Edir•aruë, Ruchol•af•arifet•asan•enared•ofaj•il•erejinis.

The tree is a gift from God, given as a token of His esteem for the kingdom.

Jat Edir•afamuë•nachur, Arexid•ejinis•ariev Led•udejarië.

If the tree should die, the king must be exiled.

Ju Il•ir•enared•oxef•ejinis•ononejië, ir Efuriëfech•udejarië.

He has betrayed both God and country, and must never return.


2 thoughts on “Language & Myth: A Secret Vice

  1. Pingback: Tolkien lecture | Haloswat

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