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

From:Jörg Rhiemeier <joerg_rhiemeier@...>
Date:Saturday, March 6, 2004, 22:31

On Sat, 6 Mar 2004 00:56:43 -0000,
And Rosta <a.rosta@...> wrote:

> Jörg: > > Hallo! > > > > 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). > > All true. Engelangs virtually by definition have criterial > properties for whether they are or aren't successful,
Yes; each project has its design goals, and it is whether it fulfills its goals or not which determines whether an engelang is "well done" or not.
> so here > we can set them aside and think just of artlangs.
Indeed. And there are different styles of artlangs. The most popular "school" of artlanging is probably what I have referred to as the "naturalist" school in my previous post, which has its standards of what makes a good conlang (namely, that the language feels like a natlang, has a plausible history, etc.); however, this is far from the only way of artlanging. Other kinds of artlangs are conceivable and they actually exist, and trying to judge them by the criterion of "naturalness" misses the point. Thus, there is no universal gauge for artlangs. (There is also no clear-cut boundary between artlangs and engelangs. Is a fictional machine-translation interlingua someone designs to be used by characters in his science fiction novel an artlang or an engelang? Is Livagian an artlang or an engelang?)
> (I am studiously > ignoring auxlangs!)
The critique of auxlangs is a can of wyrms that is better left unopened here. There is a separate place for that.
> David and Tolkien are both artlangers.
Yes, and so am I.
> > > 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. > > I'm sure that your subjective judgement is founded on criteria > on which there could be intersubjective agreement. Where Tolkien > still stands out, even when judged only by his conlang products > divorced from the historical circumstances of their production, > is, I feel, in their profound meditation on Europeanness, and > in their philologicality.
Yes. It is very clear that Tolkien invested a vast amount of philological thought in his artlangs. They grew over decades during which he deeply explored even the most minute details of his languages. Few modern conlangs have been ripening over such long periods of time. Most of the conlang projects of list members are ephemeral in comparison. And his conlangs, his world and his stories are parts of a gesamtkunstwerk that has few rivals. Indeed, the languages are at the core of the work; Middle-earth was created because the languages needed a history. Most list members' artlangs have less detailed con-worlds attached to them.
> Lots of other conlangs are inspired > by this language or that, but there aren't many that amount to > a kind of disquisition into the soul of geographical-cultural- > linguistic-ethnic complex in the way that JRRT's work relates > to a Europe centred on Mercia.
Very true.
> I say "there aren't many", > because I am conscious of Tepa as a kind of paean to Uto- > Aztecan.
There is a fair number of highly ambitious conlang/conworld projects, but few reach the same degree of "wholeness" that Tolkien's work exhibits.
> I don't think you can divorce his conlanging from the circumstances > of its production, though. He was working at a time when -- at > least until the last decade of his life -- he would have presumed > (wrongly) that nobody would be interested in his languages and > (rightly) that many would condemn him for wasting his time on > such a frivolous and contemptible pastime instead of doing the > research a professor ought to be doing. That excuses the > incompleteness of the languages, especially the gross inadequacy > of their documentation. And we need to ask ourselves what sort > of state our conlangs would have reached if we had been labouring > in similar circumstances. Nowadays we know not only that we are > not going to be despised for our Vice, but also that there will > be a small but appreciative -- impatient, even -- audience for > our labours, and we also have the stimulus of quotidian > intercourse with people with similar interests (whereas JRRT had > to make do with the oafish C.S. Lewis). > > (The stimulus of quotidian intercourse I am referring to here > is of course the Conlang list. Presumably the enjoyment of > the stimulus of other sorts of quotidian intercourse is > available to us to varying degrees.)
Yes. In Tolkien's time, there was no Internet and no CONLANG mailing list, and conlanging was pretty much a "closet activity". To Tolkien, the only forum to discuss his conlangs were the weekly meetings of the Inklings, some of whom had some interest in Tolkien's conlanging, but none of whom expended even nearly an equal amount of attention to the Secret Vice as Tolkien did. Most of us wouldn't know of anyone else's conlanging activities without the Internet. My friends (I am speaking of friends in real life) know that I make up languages, but they show little interest in the matter, and none is a conlanger himself.
> > >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. > > Fair enough, though I doubt anybody would dream of evaluating > Elvish by those criteria. (Well, perhaps some lunatic auxlang > proselytizer might...)
Possible, but meaningless.
> > [...] > > > > 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), > > I don't know about that. By orthodox literary criteria, yes it's > true. But as a work of fiction it attains that level of excellence > at which is ceases to be reasonable to rank works by a hierarchy > of quality.
Literary criticism is an arcane art to me to which I have little access. I tend to judge literary works more subjectively, by the quality of my reading experience, which doesn't generally agree with the judgement of the pundits of literature.
> > 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. > > I agree about the unsacrosanctness of course. I wonder, though, > (and respectfully, of course) whether you are influenced by the > everything-seems-easy-once-it-has-been-done phenomenon, like the > way in which tens of thousands of people are now intimately > familiar with the theories of Newton and Einstein.
It is certainly true that these days, conlangers are in a better position because they have the examples of other conlangers at their disposal, and more than that, the CONLANG list and other fora where they can share their experience and ideas with other conlangers. Tolkien, in contrast, was a pioneer exploring mostly uncharted territory, and this makes his work only more respectable.
> There's also > the question of whether you are judging only the Elvish languages > themselves, or also the entire artistic life that, thanks be to > Christopher Tolkien and Humphrey Carpenter, we are privileged to > have a window onto.
While we have no such window onto the lives of most people here on the list, even if some have informative home pages or YUM profiles.
> Looking at the languages themselves, one sees > that they are the product of an exceptionally gifted philologist, > but I agree that other conlangs achieve equal artistic success in > other ways.
> Looking at the entire life, one can't but be convinced > that one is seeing the characteristic that is generally called > genius.
I agree.
> (None of this renewed praise for Tolkien should be read as > implicitly witholding praise from other conlangers, mind.)
I understand. Greetings, Jörg.


And Rosta <a.rosta@...>responses on Livagian (was: Re: Was Tolkien a good conlanger? (was: Re: Good Books)