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Invented Languages and Names

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Why are languages so important in Tolkien’s writings, to the point where linguistic invention is often cited as one of their most original aspects?

J.R.R. Tolkien once said that he had written The Lord of the Rings to create a world ‘in which a common greeting would be elen síla lúmenn’ omentielmo, and that the phrase long antedated the book’. Even though this statement was meant partly in jest, it is undeniable that languages were often the starting-point of his stories: as Tolkien remarked in the foreword to The Lord of the Rings, those of ‘The Silmarillion’ were ‘primarily linguistic in inspiration and [were] begun in order to provide the necessary background of “history” for Elvish tongues’.

An inventor of languages since his youth, he pursued this hobby during the First World War, as he composed the first versions (The Book of Lost Tales, published in The History of Middle-earth) of what would become ‘The Silmarillion’. And the languages continued to evolve with the stories. For Tolkien—the scholar—was as much a specialist of literature as he was a specialist of languages.

Can Tolkien’s invented languages be learned and spoken just like other languages?

As the work of a single man, these languages cannot exist beyond what the man has created: you cannot ‘invent’ new vocabulary without betraying the genius of the author, no more than you can continue the stories he wrote.

You can study the grammar, the lexicon and the evolution of the languages, but you cannot ‘speak’ any of them. Moreover, you should be particularly suspicious of anything you find on the Internet purporting to be Tolkien’s own invention. Though his most ‘advanced’ languages show a fair amount of grammatical and lexical development, and though their pronunciation is reasonably well-documented, these languages do not constitute a system, and have evolved and matured over the course of Tolkien’s lifetime—so much so that the information we possess about them is often found to be contradictory.

It is therefore not possible to make use of them like we would with ‘real-world’ languages; but we may still wish to learn all that we possibly can about Tolkien’s fascinating linguistic creations.

How reliable are the things you find about ‘Tolkien’s languages’ on the Internet?

As reliable as anything you find on the Internet!

We can however recommend at least the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship (ELF), and their work on Elvish languages.

What is the meaning and correct pronunciation for the name Smaug?

“The dragon bears as name – a pseudonym – the past tense of the primitive Germanic verb Smugan, to squeeze through a hole: a low philological jest.” (In a letter by J.R.R. Tolkien to The Observer, in 1938.)

The name 'Smaug' is pronounced sm-ow-g, as in 'owl' or 'howl'. (And therefore not sm-aw-g, as in 'law' or 'board', and most definitely not sm-o-g, as in "smog"!)

Originally, the dragon was named Pryftan, from the Welsh pryf: "worm"; and tan: fire.


May I use names (of places and characters) invented by J.R.R. Tolkien?

On this issue, please see our "Permissions and Requests" section.

What is "Arda"?

Arda is the name of the world created by Ilúvatar, in which unfold the tales of the Silmarils, the Elves, the Gods, and the entire history of Middle-earth. It means "kingdom" in quenya, one of the Elvish languages created by J.R.R. Tolkien.

What does "Elen síla lúmenn’ omentielvo!" mean?

“Elen síla lúmenn’ omentielvo!” means “A star shines on the hour of our meeting!”, in Quenya, or High-elven, which together with Sindarin, or Grey-elven, is one of the two chief Elvish languages of Middle-earth.

Who are the Valar?

The Valar (sing. Vala = “(angelic) power” in Quenya, one of the Elvish languages invented by J.R.R. Tolkien) are the “gods” of Middle-earth, living “beyond the world”, in Valinor.

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