Tolkien as a Linguist

J.R.R. Tolkien was always fascinated by languages. In college, he specialized in Greek philology and graduated with Old Icelandic as a special subject. After graduation, he worked for the Oxford English Dictionary from 1918 to 1920, then taught courses at the University of Leeds. Among these were Old English heroic verse, Gothic, Old Icelandic and Medieval Welsh. He also became one of the most well-regarded authorities on the Beowulf mythos.

He was particularly impressed by the Finnish language, once remarking that finding a Finnish grammar book was like, “entering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavor never tasted before.”

As a linguist, Tolkien is perhaps best known for his constructed languages, particularly the ones that appear in The Lord of the Rings and his other books and short stories pertaining to the fantasy realm of Middle Earth. Of these, the Elvish language of Quenya is the most well-developed, containing a lexicon of over 25,000 words. The Elvish language of Sindarin and the human language Adûnaic are also fairly well-developed.

Two academic journals, Vinyar Tengwar and Parma Eldalamberon, are dedicated exclusively to editing and publishing Tolkien’s large number of unpublished linguistic papers.


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