Feature: Tolkien’s Hobbit born of humble words

Galadriel

The fairytale opening line of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit is among the most memorable and beloved in literature: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” It’s an unassuming first sentence for what turns out to be an epic fantasy saga about good and evil and one of the most influential works of fiction of the twentieth century.

In fact, the Lord of the Rings had even humbler beginnings. Well before Tolkien had even conceived of the hobbit, let alone its habitat, the foundations of Middle-earth were forming, syllable by syllable, in of a collection of mysterious and made-up words.

More than a teller of stories, Tolkien was a lover of languages. An Oxford professor specialising in classical linguistics, he was well versed in Latin, Greek, Italian and Spanish, as well as the ancient Germanic languages Old Norse, Old English and Gothic. He was particularly intoxicated by his discovery of Finnish and proclaimed passionately of the inherent beauty of certain combinations of spoken sounds. (‘Cellar door’ was one such favourite.)

As early as his undergraduate years, Tolkien had begun creating an invented vocabulary of words and building it into a number of ‘Elvish’ languages, purely for the intellectual and aesthetic enjoyment of it. He equipped the languages with their own grammatical systems, with elements borrowed from Finnish and Welsh, and furnished them with the phonology that, much later, was thought of as the author’s “sentimentalised Celtic”.

But Tolkien understood that his invented languages lacked an essential element of any effectual language: context. So, by his own account, Tolkien was compelled to create a world for his languages to exist in. Extraordinarily, the entire fantastic mythology of The Lord of the Rings emerged from that impetus.

“The invention of languages is the foundation,” wrote Tolkien. “It is to me, anyway, largely an essay in ‘linguistic aesthetic’, as I sometimes say to people who ask me ‘what is it all about’.”

Admitting that he would have preferred to have had written the books entirely in Elvish, Tolkien continued to refine the language beyond the publication of The Lord of the Rings until his death, in works and papers both published and unpublished. He also developed, to varying degrees, several other languages for the inhabitants of Middle-earth, including Khuzdul, the Hebrew-flavoured language of the Dwarves; the “hideous” pidgin language of the Orcs; and the Black Speech, the sinister, slithery syllables spoken by the servants of Mordor and inscribed on the One Ring.

Linguist David Peterson, creator of the Dothraki and Valyrian languages spoken in the Game of Thrones television series (these days, Peterson is the guy to whom George RR Martin defers for translation advice), calls Tolkien the “godfather of modern language creation”.

“Tolkien, as far as we know, was the first person in at least recorded history to create languages for his own purposes,” says Peterson. “Everybody before him was creating it to create an international language that everybody could speak – like Esperanto – or because they thought angels were speaking to them. Nobody before him that we know of said, ‘Well, I love language. I’m going to create one.’”

Peterson also credits Peter Jackson’s original trilogy of films with highlighting Tolkien’s invented languages – called constructed languages, or conlangs, among fans and aficionados – and frequently doing so sans subtitles. Since those films, Peterson says, conlangs have become a staple and hallmark of superior fantasy and science fiction.

“You could just as easily see them putting out a Lord of the Rings trilogy that didn’t feature the languages at all,” Peterson says. “But Peter Jackson made a point of using them, and people loved it. That was huge. That was the spark that led to where we are today.”

Avatar was the first major production, after the Lord of the Rings trilogy, to incorporate a conlang as an integral part of its grand-scale world-building. Linguist Paul Frommer developed the Na’vi language from of a list of about thirty words supplied by writer-director James Cameron. Frommer is already expanding the language for an upcoming trilogy of Avatar films, and whether it’s his own Na’vi, Dothraki, Star Trek’s Klingon or any number of Middle-earth dialects, Frommer says that, for the audience, a work of fiction is enhanced by a robust, working language.

“Even for the most naïve viewer, there’s something that comes across when you hear consistent sounds,” says Frommer. “When from one scene to another, you might actually hear the same word, without knowing it, if the same thing is being spoken about. And so even on an unconscious level there’s a consistency that can come across with a real language.”

A ‘real’ language will also inspire better performances. “Actors are much more apt to do a good job with a language that has real grammar and real construction to it,” Frommer says. “They will know how to mould or shape a sentence, how to place emphasis on the right words, so it actually begins to sound like a real language, as opposed to ‘Ba-ba-goo-goo’.”

Living evidence of Jackson’s unwavering commitment to Tolkien’s creation, Australian dialect coach Leith McPherson has spent much of the last three years working on the filmmaker’s Hobbit trilogy, helping its cast contend with the exotic tongues of Middle-earth and lines far craftier and more crafted than ‘Ba-ba-goo-goo’.

“There was one particular day in the last block of shooting where I had Elves filming with Peter on Main Unit, Dwarves on another unit, Orcs on the motion-capture stage and a wizard recording dialogue for post-production, says McPherson. “I dumped high school French from my brain to learn enough Dwarvish to command an army, enough Black Speech and Orkish to curl a wizard’s toes and enough Elvish to make my way though a dinner party in Rivendell.”

McPherson’s duties included drilling an army of Maori Orcs – “The Maori vowel system and strong cultural connection of body, voice and language put them on the front foot with the Orc dialogue” – and helping actor Benedict Cumberbatch learn the Necromancer’s lines backwards, injecting the Black Speech with the necessary creepy quality when played in reverse in the final film.

But, fundamentally, aiding an actor in finding the voice of his or her character boils down to the same thing, whether the lines are in English or Elvish.

“You break down the dialect in a way that best helps the actor to learn it,” McPherson says. “The different vowel and consonant changes, the tune and distinctive vocal qualities of the accent.

“It’s about the integration of dialect with character and meaning. I see my job as helping to make the storytelling as engaging to the ear as it is to the eye. Sometimes realising the director’s ‘vision’ is actually about finding the right voice.”

There were hundreds of people on set focusing on the visual aspects of the Hobbit films, McPherson says, and only a few on hand working on the words in the script. Having learned early on of Tolkien’s own linguistic preoccupations, though, McPherson says she understood just how vitally important her role was. “I wrote that on each of my scripts,” she says. “‘The languages came first.’”

This feature originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald in December 2014.

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