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Topic: The Common Speech

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Being lies with Eru - Rank 1
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Date: Jan 8, 2011
The Common Speech

Hey there. Are we to assume that the common speech is actually English, or that the inhabitants of Arda speak something else, and Tolkein simply wrote in English?

The reason I ask this is that the place-names seem to be in a langauge that is not similar to English at all. The placenames of the hobbits are exception in this regard, for the most part, but they also have unusual personal names.

On the other hand, as far as my limited knowledge will allow, some of the personal and placenames do seems to have Angelo-Saxon and Nordic origins, and the the languages of Rohan also seems to be based on those. Perhaps Tolkien imagined that the old speech of the men of the north was, more or less, Old English, and the common speech evolved along the same lines as modern English, while the speech of Rohan developed otherwise.

Yet on a third hand, we also hear in the Silmarillion that the speech of men was related to that of the elves, unclear whether this only thourgh contact, or if they have some common origin [Silm. Ch. 17 "Of the Comming of Men into the West"]. It would be quite difficult, as far as I can tell, to imagine a stream of development that would lead from Quenya to Old English, or even that they are decended from a common ancestor. It seems clear enough, even in this chapter that the name the men gave the elves Nómin, "The Wise ones" is probably related to the old English verb 'to know,' cnawan. Then again, it is difficult to see how the word could have developed from Nóm- into a form with the "k"... (unless it has something to do with teutonic vebal prefix... ge... hmm..., though we know from Greek and Hittite that the root probably didn't  develope that way... unless... hmm...)

So, anyone have any ideas about the philology of the Common Speech?

Also, how does the speech of Númenor factor into all this? It seems like it should have elements both from the tounges of men and of elves, but it's a tough nut to crack. I haven't seen how it's related to anything so far.

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Fundin, Lord of Moria - Rank 5
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I don't have time for a truly considered reply at the moment... but first welcome!

And briefly: Westron is not English, nor the language of the Rohirrim Old English (despite the 'coincidence' of Orthanc! which I think a bit of a slip actually).

Tolkien is the fictive translator, seemingly of the Common Speech directly, although his earlier approach (in place before The Lord of the Rings) was that the legendarium, or at least parts of it, had already been rendered in Old English by Elfwine.

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Being lies with Eru - Rank 1
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This would make some sense if personal and place names were also translated in old English (or even middel and modern English), but names in other languages were left as they were. It would be an ususual translation practice, but I suppose Tolkien could have had it however he liked.

I probably don't know enough Old English to get into this, but I do know modern English, Danish, and German, and a few odd bits from middle English and Icelandic, so I guess it will be enough of a base in Germanic languages to make the case about some words here and there.

1. As is well known, most of the names of the Dwarves have meaning in old Norse (a close relative of old English), and Gandalf actually just means: "Elf-Wand" in old Norse.

2. Either "Eor-" or "Eo-" is, if memory serves (don't have the tools to verify at the moment), the Old English root for horse, and is part of many names among the Rohirrim, Or Eorlingas, as they name themselves.

3. That gentilic ending, -lingas is also pretty clearly of Germaic origin, like "goslings" or "seedlings" and soforth. In fact, the Westron word "Halfing" also has this ending.

4. Speaking of halfling, it obviously translates pretty directly to Holbytla. Holb is, nearly in fact the German word for 'half,' (The real German is halb) a common phonetic shift between bilabials, from f/v to b, whereas it shifted to another bilabial in Icelandic, helming. (having fact-checked this, I found that I was, it this word is derived from the Old English hol + bytla which means "hole builder." I actually knew enough Danish to have guessed this, but the other explination came to mind first)

5. The word Hobbit is also obviously derived from a common ancestor, where the case ending has dropped, and the L underwent a full regressive assimilation to the B, as is common enough in natural languages.

6. Amost all of the Hobbit's family names are obviously modern English with some endings added, though the first names tend to be very unusual, and I would therefore guess, are inteded to preserve a more ancient stage of the language.

7. Gamling. Gamling, the older gentleman at Helm's Deep, who speaks of himself having seen too many winters, has a name that simply means "Old man," and is based on the nordic root for "old," gamall in Icelandic, gamle in Danish.

If we are to understand these as the actual words that the Rohirrim used, it seems inescapable to conclude that their language is of Germanic origin.

Given the relation this language is reported to have with the Westron and the peculiar Hobbit terms, it only seems reasonable to conclude that they are also based on a Germanic background.

Of course, if the family names of the Hobbits are original, as we might expect judging by the apparently exact rendering of their first names,  then we must assume that their language is little different from modern English, or at least so similar that it was instinctively translated.

Finally, though I didn't know it until half-way through this post, there is a good deal about the Old English origins of the language of the Rohirrim in the Wikipedia article, "Rohan."

At the end, it does attribute a similar explanation to what you gave to Tolkien, that the book was originally translated to Old English from Westron, and then to English.

Though Tolkien explained it this way, I find such an explination totally implausible. It would require that both Tolkien and 'Elfwine' had been totally out to lunch in terms of translation standards. It would mean that Elfwine translated all of the Hobbit family names, everything in the language of the Rohirrim, and of course all of the Common Speech into Old Enlish. However, all of the other language were left untranslated.

Then when Tolkien came, he would have had to translate the only Old English which was originally in the Westron, and Hobbit family names, into Modern English, and leave that which was originally in the language of the Rohirrim (as well as the Dwarf names) in Old English, though I have no idea how he might have known it.

Rather than postulate all of these impossibilities, I would rather just think that the languages of men are derived from some kind of ancient Germanic language (especially since the oldest names of the Eorlingas seem to be based on Gothic), and developed along very similar lines, and the common speech in the Third Age is simply identical to English, or very near-abouts.

I realizing we're talking about a fantasy-world, but I guess the dictates of logic should still be active there. Certainly, Tolkien generally made sure that it abides by principles of linguistic logic.

I suppose, at the end of the day, as someone involved in philology myself, I'll simply have to disagree with Tolkien's theory on the development of the languages of men and leave it at that. wink

It seems right, somehow, since Tolkien didn't intend for the weaving of the histories of Arda to end with himself, but rather wanted the lore to be retold and develope as real folklore does. I always liked to imagine (within the context of the myth) that our world was somehow in continuity with theirs, and has, given the similarities, simply changed over time and has forgotten it's origin. It would only make sense that some of their languages resemble ours (though perhaps not to the degree we see in the books).

Thoughts? Criticisms?

-- Edited by ninjaaron on Saturday 8th of January 2011 04:34:30 PM

-- Edited by ninjaaron on Saturday 8th of January 2011 04:35:22 PM

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Fundin, Lord of Moria - Rank 5
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I think my earlier post could have been clearer (my apologies). Tolkien is the fictive translator of The Lord of the Rings, but there is no indication (that I could find in the published account) that he was working with Old English for this tale -- in the sense of it having been rendered into Old English before being rendered into Modern English I mean (also Tolkien's choice of Old English to translate the language of the Rohirrim would seem to make such an idea a bit odd).

What I meant was, much earlier and well before The Lord of the Rings was ever written, Tolkien had imagined a scenario where a mariner named Eriol (later Elfwine) sailed to Tol Eressea and learned the history and legends of the Elves. Elfwine ended up rendering some of this into Old English. This is a very (very) simplified explanation on my part, but this idea still held 'behind the scenes' after The Lord of the Rings was published; but again, nothing in The Lord of the Rings itself speaks to any Anglo-Saxon Elfwine* as part of the translation process.

There JRRT simply explained (in Elvish letters interestingly) that he translated the tale, and in Appendix F 'the translator' explains or defends certain choices.

Tolkien's ideas can get confusing however: there was no one named Gandalf in Middle-earth for example, or Samwise, Eowyn, Theoden, Meriadoc, to name a few. These names are all translations. Samwise was actually called Banazir or Ban for short. There is no word 'Hobbit' among Hobbits, but it translates Kuduk, while 'Halfling' translates Banakil (noting the meaning 'half' in both Banakil and Banazir 'Half-wise' or Samwise). In any event, we really have very little attested of the Common Speech, but it existed long before Old English or Old Norse.

Aragorn is Aragorn's real name of course, as are the Elvish place-names. The translation process with respect to the Hobbit-names is a bit tricky (or can be), but for the Rohirrim, basically Old English is employed for selections of speech and names. Here again for instance: Eowyn would mean 'Horse-joy' in Old English and represents an unknown name of similar meaning in her language (in texts written but not actually published by JRRT himself, the initial sounds of her real name are hinted at).

This post might be a bit confusing as it only scratches the surface, but it's hard to briefly describe all the information in Appendix F (On Translation section).

'2. Either "Eor-" or "Eo-" is, if memory serves (don't have the tools to verify at the moment), the Old English root for horse, and is part of many names among the Rohirrim, Or Eorlingas, as they name themselves. 3. That gentilic ending, -lingas is also pretty clearly of Germaic origin, like "goslings" or "seedlings" and soforth. In fact, the Westron word "Halfing" also has this ending.'


With Eorl I think we have the patronymic -ing, -ingas rather than -ling; and here we don't have Eo(h) 'horse' I would say. That's how I think I understand it so far anyway, noting: 'The patronymic -ing is used occasionally to form common nouns, as cyning, 'king', but more often with personal names to indicate 'the son of', as in Æthelwulfing, son of Ethelwulf, or a tribe, as in Helmingas, descendants of Helm.' An Anglo-Saxon Reader (Krapp and Kennedy)

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*later, still unknown to the public, Tolkien appears to have dropped Elfwine with respect to the transmission of the Silmarillion and related legends -- although this is a bit of a murky issue in any case. Basically the late idea is that the Elvish legends pass through various Men's minds and hands, becoming influenced by mannish notions, and these largely survive through the faithful of Numenor to the Middle-earth kingdoms, with a notable haven of ancient lore being Rivendell...

... enter Bilbo and his translations from the Elvish. Bilbo arguably took over for Elfwine in an external sense (and he is obviously an 'Elf-friend' in any event), but there is no real indication of the further transmission to the modern translator, or at least not much is known after the time of Findegil or Sam's noted descendants.


-- Edited by Galin on Sunday 9th of January 2011 04:12:47 AM

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Fundin, Lord of Moria - Rank 5
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Hobbit-names

Since I skipped over this issue: some of the Hobbit names are 'real' names (as in, actually spoken in Bilbo's day), and some are not and have been translated by sense. It's noted in Appendix F that the Common Speech has been 'turned into' modern English, and is not itself English. Even Old English was a language that was far in the future compared to the end of the Third Age.

In the case of Hobbit-names the translator notes that the Hobbits of the Shire and Bree were notable for having family names -- which had obvious meanings in the current language, being derived from jesting nicknames or place-names or (especially in Bree) from the names of plants and trees.

These names presented little difficulty, but anything with a forgotten meaning was rather usually anglicized in spelling (Took for Tûk for instance). So a surname like 'Hornblower' for example, has been rendered into modern English based on meaning, but we don't know the actual form in the Common Speech (I'm not sure if it was published somewhere, but in unused drafts for the Appendices we have Raspûta).

Hobbit first names are treated similarly: maid-children often had flower or jewel-names, and these are translated. Names without known meanings are not translated, and there are yet: 'many inevitable but accidental resemblances to names we now have or know.'

But Tolkien anglicized some, because he notes that a was a masculine ending, and o and e were feminine. So Bilbo, though essentially retained, was really Bilba it seems, while female names could be altered too. Short names such as Tom, Tim, Mat (even Sam!) were said to be common as abbreviations of actual Hobbit-names, such as Tomba, Tolma, Matta 'and the like', and thus, I would say, some might only seem to be more well known names in their short forms.

So Bilba is seemingly a real name in the Common Speech while 'Frodo' is very arguably a translation (in unused drafts for the Appendices, Frodo's real name is said to be Maura). As noted already, based on ancient English, 'Samwise' is said to be a translation of Banazir, apparently because the meaning was known. Sam's Elvish name reflects the meaning 'Half-wise' as well, in Perhael.

It is noted that in some old families, especially those of Fallohide origin, it was the custom to give high sounding first names. Most of these were seemingly drawn from legends of the past (the legends of Men and Hobbits), and many while now meaningless to Hobbits closely resembled the names of Men in the Vale of Anduin, or in Dale, or the Mark -- they have been turned into those old names, largely of Frankish and Gothic origin, that are still 'used by us or are met in our histories' thus preserving the often comic contrast between the first-names and the surnames, of which the Hobbits were aware.

The name Kalimac, though its meaning was 'now' unknown, was 'translated' with Meriadoc, because the shortened form Kali meant 'jolly, gay' in Westron -- thus 'Merry'. Plus there is the Celtic feel to consider: 'The folk of the Marish and their offshoot across the Brandywine were in many ways peculiar (...) it was from the former language of the southern stoors that they inherited many of their odd names (...) These I have usually left unaltered (...) They had a style that we should perhaps feel vaguely to be 'Celtic'.

Jim Allan (An Introduction To Elvish) has a section on Hobbit names which is much fuller than this post, and he too notes that Tolkien has stated that he '... has not changed any of the original Brandybuck names save for Kalimac...' but goes on to note that Gorhendad is perfect Welsh for 'great grandfather' and allows that this may have been a nickname or title, and that Tolkien may have naturally translated this example (in unused drafts for the Appendices we have Ogmandab).

I think this would imply that many of the Celtic type names are genuine forms, so to speak -- despite that some appear to be based on known names from Primary World sources. And yet Meriadoc is not, for we know his real name is Kalimac Brandagamba... and moreover, that a translation 'Marchbuck' would have been nearer than Brandybuck! noting Tolkien's fun with the names at the end of Appendix F.

In my opinion anyway, it's wonderfully detailed (again, even more detailed than this). Pure Tolkien in my opinion!


-- Edited by Galin on Monday 10th of January 2011 09:05:55 PM

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Tom Bombadil
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There is a whole book on the background of every name and character that Tolkien used, but I gave it to Half Price Books in Clearlake before I moved to another town. Too make space for more important things

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Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!
Ring a dong! hop along! fal lal the willow!
Tom Bom, Jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!

Tom Bombadil
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But if you are interested in the linguistics, you should take a look at E.L.F. Elvish Linguistic Society. I get the Vinyar Tengwar. I would highly suggest it. It is really thourough

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Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!
Ring a dong! hop along! fal lal the willow!
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Fundin, Lord of Moria - Rank 5
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Bumped due to possible interest about Tolkien's conceit of translation (or at least a recent discussion about it).

 

And naming!



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