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A Secret Vice
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Group Reads > Group Read July-September 2016: A Secret Vice

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Michael | 453 comments Mod
This is a newly edited edition of Professor Tolkien's lecture about his love of creating languages, with lots of supporting materials and analysis from the editors.


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Rafael da Silva (morfindel) | 45 comments I will not participate in this group read, but as soon as possible I will read it. It seems be a book that I will enjoy.


Michael | 453 comments Mod
The discussion thread will be here even after the date of the Group Read schedule, so you'll still be able to join in, Rafael :-)


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Rafael da Silva (morfindel) | 45 comments Ok. Thank you, Michael.


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Gloria Sun (sunrequiem) | 9 comments I read the original essay and I'm looking for a pdf of the book (preferably a free one). Does anyone know any sources?


Michael | 453 comments Mod
There's unlikely to be a legally free pdf of the book as it has only recently been published. I'd recommend buying a copy or ordering one from your local library :-)


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Gloria Sun (sunrequiem) | 9 comments That makes sense. Thanks!


Michael | 453 comments Mod
Having just finished a book I needed (and wanted, to be fair) to read, I'm starting on A Secret Vice today. I know that there are some very knowledgeable members in our Group (including one of the editors of this book!), so I'm hoping for some well-informed discussion, given that it won't be coming from me! :-D


Michael | 453 comments Mod
As I'm not a philologist or language expert (I barely get by in my native tongue), I found Fimi's and Higgins's introduction to Tolkien's paper indispensable, not to say interesting in its own right.

I've heard the allegation, and the rebuttal, that Tolkien was a boring and indifferent tutor, so it's gratifying to read in the minutes of the society to which Tolkien delivered his talk that, "the society listened to various speeches, which, with the exception of that of Professor Tolkien, were remarkable for their singular lack of wit. Professor Tolkien then entertained the society with a series of amusing stories" (page xxxii).

I suppose it doesn't follow that a great writer is necessarily a great speaker, but, as a fan, it's good to have independent testimony that he was witty and entertaining in person.


message 10: by Michael (last edited Jul 21, 2016 11:12AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Michael | 453 comments Mod
I read the bulk of the A Secret Vice essay on a long drive (I wasn't balancing the book on the steering wheel, though, as I was a passenger), and I didn't get a chance to note down my many, many insights - I think there were two! Anyway, I did find this small nugget of interest and managed to retain it long enough to set it down here.

A major theme of the essay is Tolkien's love of the sound of words, and how the aesthetic 'fitness' of those sounds are, for him, enhancing of a word's meaning. However, he's also happy for the sound to stand by itself if it feels right. Towards the end of the essay, he quotes from the Kalevala in the original Finnish, noting that some of the words actually have no meaning but are used by the poet not simply to fill out the rhyme scheme, but for the joy and "merry freedom" of creation of something beautiful. This put me in mind of Tolkien's use of the same device in his own poetry, and particularly that of Tom Bombadil:

“Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!
Ring a dong! hop along! fal lal the willow!
Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!”
- The Fellowship of the Ring

I can't really think of anything else that exmplifies for me Tolkien's joy at the creation of sounds to fit a meaning, in this case not a word, but a person. These three lines encapuslate everything you need to know about Tom Bombadil's character - careless, mirthful, and deeply connected to nature.


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John Rosegrant | 51 comments That's an interesting connection you make about Bombadil and Tolkien's phonetic usage, Michael, and I think it is paralleled by Bombadil's overall position in the text. He doesn't have much to do with the basic plot of LotR--which is analogous to saying he doesn't have a lot of semantic meaning--but he adds a great deal in terms of magical beauty--perhaps analogous to phonetic beauty existing regardless of semantics.


Michael | 453 comments Mod
John wrote: "...he adds a great deal in terms of magical beauty--perhaps analogous to phonetic beauty existing regardless of semantics"

You've hit the nail on the head, John. TB is one of my favourite characters, possibly because of his apparent disconnectedness from the rest of Middle-earth, whilst somehow exemplifying it. I seem to remember reading somewhere that he is inspired by nature-spirits in Finnish folk-tales, and to me he does hark back to a less 'epic' tradition, being all the more powerful (both narratively and in effect upon the reader) for it.


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Hyarrowen | 65 comments I understood about one concept in ten in the book, but enjoyed it nevertheless. One thing that fascinated me was that language invention was a fairly popular hobby at the time - I can imagine all these people having fun with their weird hobby.

I still can't quite understand why JRRT thought that an invented language must have an invented mythology, made up in tandem with it. I think the Greek myths came into it somehow, but then I got a burst of white noise...


Michael | 453 comments Mod
I'll risk demonstrating my ignorance! (Please, somebody who knows what they're talking about chip in!)

I think Tolkien's feeling was that language evolves in concert with the belief system of the culture in which it arises as a means of expressing those beliefs. Once you can express those beliefs, they begin to effect the form and usage of the language, so there's a feedback between language and belief that appealed to Tolkien's aesthetic sensibility. This is why he didn't like Jesperson's invented language, Novial: it was functional, but had no context and no 'heart'. Therefore, in inventing his own languages, Tolkien devised the belief system and mythology in which they could be embedded and which acted as a framework and context for him to work out their imagined developements.


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Rafael da Silva (morfindel) | 45 comments In other words, Tolkien thought that a language must reflect a culture. He once Said that this was the cause for esperanto had failed as an usable language. It has no background from a culture . It is a soulless language.


Michael | 453 comments Mod
He seems to be relatively complimentary about Esperanto in this essay (if my car-journey memory is accurate), noting particularly that poetry was being written in it, of which he naturally approved. He does note Esperanto's limitations as a vehicle for poetic and literary expression, it being primarily a linguistic tool to aid international communication, but seemed to feel that efforts had been made by its developers to give it a European sense of identity. The relativity is with Novial, which he seems to have actively disliked, at least as a medium for artistic expression.


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Michael | 453 comments Mod
Hyarrowen wrote: "I still can't quite understand why JRRT thought that an invented language must have an invented mythology..."

I've just read the Manuscript section, which reminded me of another, more relevant, point on this. Tolkien writes, "The subtleties of connotation cannot be there [if] your words have not had a real experience in the world sufficient to acquire this."

So, your invented language might have a word for vulnerability, but only a language steeped in mythology could give us the expression Achilles' heel , with all the connotations that attaches to the story of the Trojan War.


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Hyarrowen | 65 comments Michael wrote: "Hyarrowen wrote: "I still can't quite understand why JRRT thought that an invented language must have an invented mythology..."

I've just read the Manuscript section, which reminded me of another,..."


Ah, good-oh! I could see the need for a cultural background - it was mythology specifically had me a bit baffled. But the Achilles' heel example makes sense.


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Dr. Andrew Higgins  (andrewhiggins) | 3 comments Michael wrote: "I'll risk demonstrating my ignorance! (Please, somebody who knows what they're talking about chip in!)

I think Tolkien's feeling was that language evolves in concert with the belief system of the ..."


Hi Michael

Totally agree. For Tolkien the invention of language which became a coeval and intertwined part of his myth-making (as he says in the drafts to On Fairy-stories 'mythology is language and language is mythology - the mind, the tongue and the tale are coeval') was first and foremost an exercise in his personal linguistic aesthetic. Auxiliary languages like Esperanto and Novial were designed to make language communication as simple as possible and given the evidence of Tolkien's language invention that was not Tolkien's intention. Also Tolkien believed that in order for a language to grow it must have a mythology (the tale and teller) and this was for him why languages like Esperanto did not catch on (in a letter he says Esperanto was a dead language because there were no Esperanto myths and tales to be told). For Tolkien the aesthetic pleasure was in the creation of the word form and contemplating the meaning that arose from it. Hope that helps.

All the best
Dr. Andrew Higgins (co-editor with Dr. Dimitra Fimi of A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Language Invention) - asthiggins@me.com


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Dr. Andrew Higgins  (andrewhiggins) | 3 comments Michael wrote: "Hyarrowen wrote: "I still can't quite understand why JRRT thought that an invented language must have an invented mythology..."

I've just read the Manuscript section, which reminded me of another,..."


Yes and this goes to the third element that we outline in A Secret Vice that Tolkien thought was an important characteristic of language invention - the language must have a history through which the words of the language have developed from proto-roots or stems. This is evident in how Tolkien constructed first his earliest Qenya Language (using the base roots outlined in The Qenya Lexicon) and then later in the late 1930's in 'The Etymologies' where his tree of Elvish tongues developed from a series of Proto-Eldarin base roots. Names and words in Tolkien's languages had a history and this is one way Tolkien's constructed his nomenclature to have a historic depth and inner consistency of reality in his Legendarium. His words carried within them a linguistic tradition as well as an inherent sound-sense.

Hope that helped
Thanks!
Dr. Andrew Higgins (co-editor with Dr. Dimitra Fimi of A Secret Vice - Tolkien on Language Invention. asthiggins@me.com


message 21: by Dr. Andrew (new)

Dr. Andrew Higgins  (andrewhiggins) | 3 comments Hi Everyone

So cool you are exploring the book that Dr. Dimitra Fimi and I co-edited. It was a brilliant project to work on. Over the next couple of days I will look over the discussion thread and add any comments.

You may be also interested to have a look at some really excellent posts my co-editor Dr. Fimi put together about the making and reception of this volume. You can find these on Dr. Fimi's blog here http://dimitrafimi.com/blog/

Keep exploring and discussing!
Dr. Andrew Higgins (asthiggins@me.com)


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Rafael da Silva (morfindel) | 45 comments Michael wrote: "Hyarrowen wrote: "I still can't quite understand why JRRT thought that an invented language must have an invented mythology..."

I've just read the Manuscript section, which reminded me of another,..."


This is só poetical.


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