December 13, 2003

This is not Middle Earth

I was a big fan of J.R.R. Tolkien when I was a kid. I've enjoyed reading the LOTR books out loud to my seven-year-old, and listening to him read them to me -- especially his Elvish and Orcish accents, which he rightly believes to be much better than my own.

Tolkien's invented languages are the framework on which he built his world. However, there is something about the way he designed the languages of Middle Earth that is both very natural and very wrong.

Tolkien was a philologist specializing in the history of the English language, and Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University. By the time he was twelve years old, in 1904, he was making up languages for fun. Later in life, he began to invent a world for those languages to fit into, and adventure stories about things that happened in that world.

Three books were crucial in developing Tolkien's linguistic imagination: Joseph Wright's Primer of the Gothic Language; C.N.E Eliot's Finnish Grammar; and John Morris-Jones' Welsh Grammar.

From his Gothic primer, Tolkien learned about reconstructing Indo-European linguistic history through the comparative method, as it had been developed by 19th-century scholars. His encounter with Finnish opened his mind to the exotic structures of a non-Indo-European language, which he described as "like discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before." As a boy, he had seen in Welsh place-names "a flash of strange spelling and a hint of a language old and yet alive", and when he won an English prize as an undergraduate at Oxford, he spent his prize money on a Welsh grammar.

Throughout his life, he imagined new languages and along with them, new systems of writing, new linguistic histories, new literatures, and a new world. All of these were inspired by his study of real-world languages, histories and literatures, where he had the credentials of a serious scholar.

In Tolkien's fantasy world, different languages generally belong to different races -- elves, dwarves, men, hobbits, orcs and others -- who are very different from one another in every other way as well. They look different, they live in different habitats, they do different kinds of work, they are interested in different things, they have different life-spans (elves in particular are immortal), they have different preferred weapons, they live in different kinds of houses and wear different sorts of clothes, they have different sex lives (dwarvish females have beards, are less than 1/3 as numerous as males, and never appear in public), and so on.

Thus Tolkien's races are radically different from one another in biology, language and culture; and across these races, biology, language and culture are well correlated. This was the predominant 19th-century view.

However, even 19th-century scholars in fact knew that biology and language correlate badly if at all. For example, the great American linguist William Dwight Whitney wrote in 1864 that

One of the first considerations which will be apt to strike the notice of any one who reviews our classification of human races according to the relationship of their languages, is its non-agreement with the current divisions based on physical characteristics.

Furthermore, scientific examination of human physical, linguistic and cultural variation generally does not produce well-defined and well-separated bundles of characteristics corresponding to the categories of "race" and "language", but rather complex geographical and social patterns of graded variation in statistical frequencies of traits.

So human reality does not divide us cleanly into dwarves, elves, men, hobbits and orcs, not biologically and not even linguistically. Furthermore, if we insist on the common folk categories of race and language, or do our best to make up new ones with better scientific grounding, we find that biological, linguistic and cultural traits often do not line up.

Nevertheless, people find it very hard to avoid thinking like Tolkien did. It's easy and natural to imagine that intelligent beings divide into well-defined biological subgroups, and that members of these groups tend to have different personalities, different strengths and weaknesses, different cuisines, different ways of talking, and so on. Tolkien's Middle-Earth is not the only imaginary world based on this idea: think about Star Trek, and Star Wars, or even the world of Pokemon.

Francisco Gil-White (of Penn's Psychology Department) has argued, based on his cross-cultural research, that

humans process ethnic groups (and a few other related social categories) as if they were “species” because their surface similarities to species make them inputs to the “living kinds” mental module that initially evolved to process species level categories.

This is not Tolkien's Middle Earth. But most people still think it is, at least sometimes. 19th-century anthropology resurfaced many times as 20th-century fantasy, and the 21st century is continuing the tradition. If Prof. Gil-White is right, this is because 19th-century anthropology simply recapitulates the folk-ontology of ethnicity.

[Note: This post is made from recycled materials, specifically on-line lecture notes from a course on Biology, Language and Culture that I (as Language) taught two years ago with Alan Mann (as Biology) and Greg Urban (in the role of Culture).]

[Update: Here is some some serial and reciprocal troll-baiting about the many alternative political interpretations of this aspect of Tolkien's work.]


Posted by Mark Liberman at December 13, 2003 07:54 AM