Post 8htY18bUDHH

simon cook Sep 02, 2015 (00:41)

Language & Myth

In 'A Secret Vice' Tolkien writes: '... the making of language and mythology are related functions; to give your language an individual flavour, it must have woven into it the threads of an individual mythology... The converse indeed is true, your language construction will breed a mythology.'

And in a footnote to this passage he adds that language and mythology are 'coeval and congenital'.

Can anyone explain to me why language and mythology are (for Tolkien) coeval and congenital?

Tamas Ferencz Sep 02, 2015 (11:47)

Language and mythology are coeval and congenital - as soon as man was capable of weaving three words together to form a sentence he started telling stories; indeed one of the driving force of languages' evolution from their primitive forms was the need to express myths.
Tolkien was primarily a philologist, he spent his entire life poring over ancient texts and words embedded in the language for hundreds and thousands of years, trying to peel off phonetic changes and fluctuations in meaning to get back to the original story behind the word or text. So for him the reverse was just as natural and automatic - when he invented words and names for his Middle-Earth mythology, for his Eldarin and other languages, he automatically associated them with some sort of back-story, or indeed the word itself incited a spark that grew into a myth - think of how and old Anglo Saxon poem about Earendel eventually led to the name of Earendil and the myth of a messenger, a forerunner of Christ, seeking redemption from the Valar and being placed in the sky as a star with his Silmaril.

Shippey speaks about all this so much better than I can, in his Road To Middle-Earth and JRR Tolkien: Author Of The Century.

simon cook Sep 02, 2015 (11:56)

Thank you, +Tamas Ferencz. So, if I understand you right, the intimate connection of language and myth is not simply something peculiar to Tolkien's thinking about language but is, in your opinion, an objective fact about the early days of any language?

Tamas Ferencz Sep 02, 2015 (12:17)

+simon cook
"objective fact"? I cannot claim that. But I do think that the two are entwined.

P Arellond Sep 02, 2015 (15:59)

Myth is generally concerned with the larger questions of humanity, the world and God's existence. Tolkien met CS Lewis when the latter came to Oxford as an atheist.  They struck up a friendship around their shared attraction to myth. One night Tolkien told Lewis that Christ was the myth that actually entered the world. This so deeply impacted Lewis that it led to his conversion. So in that sense, I think the 'objective fact' for Tolkien was Christ, but that humanity's overriding quest for metaphysical answers is seen in the pervasiveness of myth in the earliest stage of language.

simon cook Sep 02, 2015 (16:41)

Thanks +P Arellond. But I was not asking whether Tolkien considered this or that (or any) myth an objective fact. What I was wondering was what (a) Tolkien and (b) experts today take to be the linguistic world of early speakers of a language. 

One might naturally assume that early humans used language primarily for utilitarian ends, that is, to communicate kinds of animals, and their relative danger, whether this or that nut or berry was edible or poisonous, how to sharpen a flint stone, and so on. Thus one might assume that language begins with simple actions and in reference to simple objects encountered in a primitive environment. It seems to me that Tolkien is making a bold statement in asserting that the earliest use of language is mythical, that as soon as people were using words while hunting they were also telling stories around the fire. If someone said to me 'but this is how all humans must have acted; the idea of people who only use language for practical ends and never tell stories is an impossibility' I would consider that a possibly insightful statement. Tolkien seems to say this, and more: he could be read as suggesting that even the words for lion or gazelle or spear form part of the mythology, and that the stories are actually primary to the practical. Again, I'm willing to believe this is an accurate insight into early human life. But I am no expert. I am wondering (a) if this was what Tolkien was indeed saying, and (b) whether it is generally accepted today with regard to early human use of language.