Lord of the lingo

Seth Freedland

He may call it only a “minor avocation,” but Northwestern cataloging assistant Ronald Carrier has been studying author J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional languages since he first read the books in the fourth grade.

As a member of the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship, an international organization devoted to Tolkien’s languages, Carrier blends his love for both linguistics and “Lord of the Rings.” He pores over characters, metrical art and vocabulary — and hopes someday to be fluent in a language no one speaks.

A former NU philosophy graduate student who is now studying library science at Dominican University in River Forest, Ill., Carrier, 37, points to a life-long interest in language as his springboard into the world of Elvish.

“One thing that really stuck out to me (about Tolkien’s writings) was the use of language,” said Carrier, who works in the Transportation Library. “He created real languages that people could speak. Nobody else has done that.”

Tolkien’s languages gave birth to a broad spectrum of tributes, Carrier said.

“Studying Elvish is one manifestation of Tolkien’s fandom wanting to interact with ‘Lord of the Rings,'” Carrier said. “People want to create something ‘Tolkienian’ themselves. Languages are just one way that shows up.”

Carrier attempted a rare feat by translating a Tolkien poem into Quenya, the most developed form of Elvish.

“The main problem is the vocabulary,” he said. “It’s such a grueling process that I limited myself to just translating the passage at the expense of losing the meter.”

Like Carrier, Tolkien himself began as a linguist. He started creating Elvish as a British lieutenant in World War I. Tolkien wrote the trilogy to provide a showcase for his invented lexicon.

“He created this world purely for characters to speak his languages,” Carrier said.

Tolkien’s popularity survives to this day, but most of his recent fans were introduced to “Lord of the Rings” by the new film adaptation.

Carrier, unlike many of the other members of the Elvish linguistic group, enjoyed the popular movies.

“I bought the DVD set,” Carrier readily admitted. “Commercialization is a natural part of movie-making. I’m impressed with what (director) Peter Jackson has put in.”

When Carrier tells people about his hobby, he usually receives what he refers to as “polite confusion” — lots of smiling and nodding.

Indexing assistant Zornitza Tzvetkova, one of Carrier’s co-workers, said she’s noticed his affinity for odd dialects.

“It doesn’t surprise me that he knows a lot about these languages,” Tzvetkova said. “He’s very smart.”

When asked what his life would be like without Tolkien’s work, Carrier shrugs and shakes his head.

“It has been a part of my entire life,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine picking it out.”

Like most readers, Carrier says he’s a fan of Tolkien simply because of the originality of the tale.

“Lord of the Rings appealed to me because I really enjoyed the fantasy genre,” Carrier said. “It’s a really good story and, at the end of the day, that’s all you need.”