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Constructed languages

In life we are the servants of language. Words are all we leave behind us. Our relics are only significant by the names they receive. It is the so named Works of the Romans, not any work alone, that inspires wonder – and it is only the name Work which causes us to regard the aqueduct at Nîmes as more wonderful and more attention-worthy, more sympathetic, than any arch of weatherworn stone in Utah’s Zion. The name of Apelles the painter was a byword for excellence in his art for a thousand years after the last man who had seen his pictures was dead.

Language is all we have in common. What we make are only words; what we leave are only names. We were given, undeservingly, an intelligence equal to the span of the world in which we find ourselves; the side effect is that we each become our own world. Only the necessity of communication keeps us from regressing from one another into private languages. Therefore, what can be said in any language can always be said in another – because while not every thought can be communicated, if a thought can be communicated to anyone, it can be communicated to everyone.

Think of how strange it is, that only because you both speak the same language, you can communicate with someone separated from you by decades of age, by country and climate, by sex, by class, by way of life. And think how absurd it is, that someone of your own age, sharing your background and your circumstances, cannot communicate across that shorter distance, if you do not share a language.

It is possible to know things in one language which you do not know in another: not because they cannot be said in both, but because translation is a kind of alchemy, where solve must precede coagula. What you take in whole may not be accessible to you in another language, even if you speak them both, until you have taken it apart in one language, to put it back together in another.

There may be things you can only learn by creating a language: by the act of creation, or by the way the created language fills a gap. The world is not written in the language of mathematics, but in the language we have created for mathematics we have something that maps to nature’s language. But my concern for now is with languages created for pleasure, not for purpose.

In the canon of constructed languages, Tolkien is the Old Master. Much of the appeal of reading Tolkien is to discover things that he knew, in silvery Quenya and in Sindarin’s rushy breezes, that he did not quite know in English, and could not always translate. Indeed, On Fairy-Stories has the air of a poor translation from a patois of Elvish languages inside his head. And A Elbereth Gilthoniel silivren penna míriel teaches you something without having to see a translation at all; but you can feel that you know it, whatever it means, under branches screening stars.

Tolkien is sometimes derided as pseudo-Biblical in his diction; but this is simply wrong. The powerful cadence of the King James Version is imparted by a plangent alternation between etymologically disparate English synonyms – which, while it has its own majestic effect, misrepresents the straightforwardness of the original Hebrew. But Tolkien is etymologically almost pure: page after page, he goes on in a kind of alternate or underground English, the revenant language of Chaucer, the sleek hull of maiden-voyaging English before it was barnacled with borrowings from Latin and Greek.

This language – a constructed language of a sort, purely by selection – is, even before myth and archetype, the deepest source and means of his power. You do not need to be a linguist to feel the difference in the depth of Tolkien’s English, any more than you need to understand music theory to hear the sadness of a minor key.

Some purposes require their own languages. Mature poetry has its own grammar; vital religions employ their own dialects, even their own languages (and a wise missionary does not translate everything); and every profession must find its own jargon, to ennoble the commonplace or to make commonplace the extraordinary. And every language supports another, floating language, of idioms and proverbs – one which can sometimes be carried over whole into new waters, as Erasmus did in his Adagia, which restored to the Renaissance the floating language of antiquity.

Art, even mimetic art, is still only sometimes the recapitulation of a natural process. As often, artistry is the power to throw a natural process into reverse. A picture suggests a story; a title finds a poem; a stain on a wall evokes a picture. The constructor of a language only begins by finding, in the space between real languages, the pleasing or striking form of a new and unheard language. The art is to evolve, from this shadow, the succession of necessities making up the thinkable history that would have formed that language – that would have learned all that that language knows.