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Was Tolkien a good conlanger? (was: Re: Good Books)

From:Jörg Rhiemeier <joerg_rhiemeier@...>
Date:Friday, March 5, 2004, 21:36

On Fri, 5 Mar 2004 15:16:42 -0000,
And Rosta <a.rosta@...> wrote:

> A separate message for the non-OT bit of this discussion... > > David P: > > Further, I remain to be convinced that Tolkien was actually a > > *good* language creator, rather than just a prolific, or highly > > public, one. > > I would like to try to convince you, then, but first I need to > know what you think are the criterial properties of being a > good conlanger.
A good question, and not an easy one. There are very different currents within the conlanging community, and every conlanger has her personal style. This reminds me of the discussion we had here when Jesse Bangs posted his famous manifesto two years ago. One could, for example, say that from a "naturalist" viewpoint, conlang X is a great achievement because the conlang really feels like a natural language, has a well-worked-out (and plausible) history, a vocabulary with interesting and realistic lexico-semantic distinctions, etc., and maybe conlang Y is a less fortunate creation according to the same criteria. But these criteria are meaningfully applicable only to languages that purport to represent fictional ethnic languages, while attempting to apply them to an auxlang or an engelang is as meaningless as rejecting abstract paintings as "bad art" just because they don't represent any (real or imagined) part of the physical world. Just as abstract paintings require a different set of measures (which in turn apply poorly to representational art), engelangs require a different set of measures than naturalist conlangs (which in turn apply poorly to the latter).
> Long-time readers of this list may recall that I have been > prominent in articulating my distaste for Quenya and Sindarin, > so I think I'm quite well placed to defend his reputation.
As a fairly long-time reader (I have been following this list for about four years now) I know that your chief interest lies in engelangs, which is something quite distinct from the "naturalist" approach Tolkien evidently applied to his conlanging. Me, I also follow the naturalist approach in my conlangs, and my *subjective* judgement of Quenya and Sindarin is that they are great (though not necessarily unsurpassed; Tokana, Teonaht and a few others are at least of equal merit IMHO) naturalist artlangs. Which doesn't mean that I'd do the same, and indeed, my style is different in some respects. From an engelang viewpoint, however, Quenya and Sindarin are most likely deficient (their morphologies aren't self-segregating, their lexical semantics are haphazard, and what else), but that actually misses the point because that's not what Quenya and Sindarin are meant to be. It would equally miss the point if I said that Rick Morneau's monumental work was bad conlanging because it doesn't feel like a natlang, has no history attached to it, etc., etc.; that would be meaningless because it doesn't attempt to render a fictional natlang, it is an engelang, and thus other criteria apply (of which I cannot say much, so I abstain from a judgement).
> > Yet, despite all this, and how hateful such words are to fans > > of fantasy and Tolkien (which includes a good many conlangers, > > I know), I claim that, as a conlanger, you should be glad of them. > > Why? Simply because, as a community, we need diversity.
Yes. Diversity is a virtue.
> Slavish conformity is the enemy of creativity, but mindless > heterodoxy is not a virtue in itself. For example, the glorious > pluralism of American culture is scarcely enhanced (except as > black comedy) by, say, white supremacists or New Age astrologers.
I wholeheartedly agree. New Age astrologers are a harmless and sometimes amusing nuisance. The world would be neither better nor worse if they weren't there. White supremacists are a disgrace; the world would be better without them. But that's enough said here on that matter; let's not get deep into politics.
> > If every conlanger was a Tolkienite, without exception, then it > > would be easy for someone like me (who dislikes Tolkien and fantasy) > > to dismiss the whole art (or craft or hobby) of conlanging, based on > > the logic, "Conlangers like X. I hate X. Therefore, I hate that which > > conlangers do." This logic is anything but logical, but who says that > > any opinion will be logical?
Opinions tend not to be logical. And that kind of "logic" is of course bullshit.
> If it's a goal of ours to at least be > > accepted or acknowledged for what we do (and I do know that there are > > some who wish for exactly the opposite), then at very least we can try > > to dismiss the stereotypes outright. This way, there'll be less for > > those who don't understand us to attack us with, and hopefully once > > they run out of weapons, they'll start listening. > > Like Andreas, I don't believe in pandering to the opinions of the > small-minded. > > However, if I may put words in your mouth, one could argue that > Tolkien is to us as Shakespeare is to Eng Lit. It is taboo to > criticize Shakespeare or to fail to pay sufficient homage;
Which is certainly *not* a good thing.
> [...] It is the same with Tolkien, for reasons that > I have described in my other reply.
I am of the opinion that Tolkien was a great conlanger and also a good fantasy writer (few works of fantasy fiction can compete IMHO, though there is certainly better *literature* than Tolkien's), but I am far from putting him into a sacrosanct position. He is one of several great conlangers of equal stature, and the same applies to his books. It is perfectly o.k. to me if someone dislikes Tolkien, his books or his conlangs. Even if he *was* the best, it would be perfectly o.k. to criticize him. Greetings, Jörg.


And Rosta <a.rosta@...>