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Book Review

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A Secret Vice
Tolkien on Invented Languages (Hardback)


Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Edited by: Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins
Publisher: Harper Collins
RRP: £16.99
ISBN: 978 0 00 813139 5
Publication Date: 07 January 2016

J. R, R. Tolkien may have been best known as the writer of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but he was also a respected academic, holding the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon and Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford, from 1925 to 1945 as well as the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature and Fellow of Merton College, Oxford from 1945 to 1959. It was his love of language that created the seed which would one day become the stories he is now best known for.

A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages, edited by Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins, presents two pieces by Tolkien which specifically examines language, its creation and development. The first, and the title of the book, is taken from one of Tolkien’s lectures. There is a forward by the editors which formalises how they treated the text, what amendment had been made and how they dealt with anything which time might have obscured. They then provide an introduction.

Now, it may seem a hefty price for a reprint of two of Tolkien’s works, but there is a lot of value in the introductions which combined with the notes and the coda, actually makes up the bulk of the book. There is nothing wrong with these both as writers as well as editors Fimi and Higgins provide a fascinating insight into Tolkien and his love of Languages.

Middle Earth is built up from its languages. Tolkien spent many years working out how a single language can change both through time and through distance, hence the languages of the Elves are slightly, but significantly different both from each other - think of it as a regional dialect, but also from the original tongue. Even I, as a long time Tolkien fan, found much that was interesting, such as the fact that Moria and Mordor both come from a root word for black, which made sense.

The second piece, Essay on Phonetic Symbolism, sounds like a heavy and boring piece, but is anything but. It looks at how sounds denote a language. Put another way: Could you do an impression of say, an American, A French man or a German without using any words and have another understand. That is because those languages have specific types of sounds associated with them which come from their original root language, in the case of the romantic languages, Latin, for most of the others the root would be Germanic. Oddly only the Basque language, although surrounded by Romantic languages -Spanish and French – has no connection to either of them and no known root language.

So, a more interesting book than it at first seems. Well worth a look if you’re interested in languages and there are even more than a few tit bits for fans of Middle Earth.


Charles Packer

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