m. c. de marco: The Accidental Conlanger

A star shines on the hour of our meeting: The Intentional Conlanger

In any discussion of conlanging, the elephant in the room is J.R.R. Tolkien, the man who invented languages at the rate most fantasy writers pop out trilogies. According to the Ardalambion,

The short answer to the “How many languages?” question must go something like this: “Apart from the extremely fragmentary or entirely fictional ones, he provided varying amounts of information about some ten or twelve languages, but only two of them are highly developed with really substantial vocabularies.” [“How many languages did J.R.R. Tolkien make?”, Helge Fauskanger]

Although the writer’s goal should be a ratio of twelve trilogies to one invented language, rather than twelve languages to one trilogy, there is a deeper reason why Tolkien is not the model for an accidental conlanger to follow. His conlanging was no accident:

Tolkien once said that he wrote The Lord of the Rings simply to create a world in which “A star shines on the hour of our meeting” (Elen síla lumenn’ omentielvo) was a common salutation. [“On Tolkien,” Langmaker]

Unless you’re a philologist who’s been working on toy languages since childhood, you do not write a trilogy for the sake of one line of Quenya. Your concern when writing a trilogy should not be changing the Quenya genitive ending (from -n to -o, according to the Ardalambion), or, like Tolkien, you will never get further than one trilogy. Writers should keep in mind always that Tolkien called conlanging “a secret vice,” a time-consuming mad habit that led him to constantly fiddle with his favorite languages when a writer would have been well into his third trilogy:

Even when something had appeared in print, Tolkien could not always resist the temptation to keep tampering. In the first edition of LotR, Frodo’s greeting to Gildor was elen síla lúmenn’ omentielmo. Later Tolkien decided that the last word should have been omentielvo instead, and this form was used in later editions. “Tolkien’s Not-So-Secret Vice”, Ardalambion (Helge Fauskanger)

If, for some reason, you need an entire language with which to say “A star shines on the hour of our meeting” in your novel, there’s a quicker way than growing up a conlanger and going to philology school: Steal one.

Do not under any circumstances steal Quenya. There are 6,912 living languages in the world and plenty of documented dead languages. Tolkien raided Welsh, Finnish, Old Norse, Arabic and other languages for vocabulary or structure. You can eliminate the decades of fiddling by just using Welsh, Finnish, Old Norse, Avestan, Old Church Slavonic, Nahuatl (Aztec), or Ahom.

September 14, 2008