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Lord of the Rings’ linguistics sparks creative U. Texas class

Alexander Pegg

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“A Elbereth Gilthoniel,” the Hymn of the Elves of Rivendell found in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy is in a language fashioned by the author J.R.R. Tolkien. Many fans, absorbed by their love of this epic world, have spent their free hours analyzing the lexicons and poems used in the books. Next semester, University of Texas students will do exactly that, but for credit.

Graduate student Fred Hoyt will teach a class called The Linguistics of Tolkien’s Middle Earth at the University of Texas at Austin.

“We can look at Tolkien’s languages as a way to introduce the historical properties of the real languages that he studied,” Hoyt said.

According to Hoyt, Tolkien was a professional linguist who specialized in European languages.

“One of the Elven languages, Quenya, has a lot of Finnish elements, as well as elements of Latin grammar,” Hoyt said. “Another, Sindarin, has a lot of Welsh elements. Every language has a history, etymologies, and complex relations (like a real language).”

Hoyt emphasized that students will not be learning to speak the languages, although there will be some memorization required.

“We’ll look at the languages, pull the words apart and look at their component pieces, analyzing rather than learning (to speak) them,” Hoyt said.

The writing portion of the class will produce research papers, while the non-writing section will create a database Web site to interested parties to find out about Tolkien’s languages.

At least one class session will include sound files of “Beowulf” in Old English, as well as “Kaleva,” a Finnish national epic, to help understand the relations between the languages Tolkien studied and the ones he created.

Hoyt also has a personal interest in the topic. After reading all of Tolkien’s books and books written on his languages, he said he began to look at real languages, leading him into graduate studies in linguistics.

Hoyt said you don’t have to be a philologist–professional linguist–to seriously contribute to the field.

“Most of the people who study Tolkien’s languages are amateurs who do this as a hobby,” he said. “Some of the most important studies in the history of linguistics were made by amateurs.”

Hoyt noted that a British magistrate discovered the relation between Sanskrit , Hindi and European languages in colonial India whose hobby was linguistics.

Jeffrey Lidz, a Northwestern linguistics professor who teaches syntax and language acquisition, believes this program is a feasible concept.

“Assuming that (Tolkien’s) languages have properties reminiscent of real languages, I don’t see why not,” he said. “It certainly is an interesting way to teach about linguistics.”

Some NU students have mixed feelings about the course.

“There is an enormous value in the study of constructed languages,” said Medill freshman Wes Meltzer. “It provides insight to how people view language consciously and how they see grammatical construction.”

Prajwal Ciryam, a Weinberg freshman, was more critical of the program’s merit.

“Since Tolkien’s languages are not fully developed, a study of how they are constructed may not be very enlightening,” he said. “However, the concept is fascinating. It’s very creative.”