This week, "The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies" aims at taking viewers on a powerful journey in the final installment of the three-part film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. With a production budget for the trilogy of over $750 million, film creators are guaranteed to bring Tolkien's magnificent vision for Middle-Earth to life. For Tolkien superfans, this means brushing up on your "Elvish"!
Celebrated with a cult-following across the globe, Elvish, a constructed language or "conlang," is more than a code, like Pig Latin, and more than fabricated Nadsat slang spoken by the thugs in A Clockwork Orange. As one of the most well-known of the fantasy languages invented for science fiction film, television and book, and developed by J.R.R. Tolkien himself, Elvish is comprised of several thousand words and compelling sentence structure convictions.
Constructed languages like Elvish are real languages, made-up of thousands of words created by fantasy writers, linguists and fans, with real language rules. While an extensive vocabulary is advantageous to a constructed language, there is a key differentiator we can see between just a lot of words and real language: Grammar.
Grammar is what makes conlangs like Elvish, Dothraki in "Game of Thrones," Na'vi in "Avatar," and Klingon in "Star Trek," learnable by every day superfans. To many, one of the most captivating things about Game of Thrones is the language created for the Dothraki people. In the first season of the cult television show, viewers watched along as Daenerys Targaryen struggled to learn the language spoken by the people she was to assimilate with.
Superfans of "The Hobbit," "The Lord of the Rings," "Game of Thrones," "Avatar," and "Star Trek" have dedicated websites and created resources, dictionaries, apps and translators, to teach enthusiasts these languages. They have also created online communities where fans can discuss conlang, create new words based off of the already existing lexicon, and continue to study Dothraki, Na'vi, Klingon and Elvish.
So what does it take to be a master of Elvish conlang?
People can memorize 5,000 words of Russian, and still be unable to construct or understand a language. This is why people have to know how to put words together, otherwise a child merely learning a language will be better equipped to have a conversation that makes sense to others. Real language has patterns and principles that speakers learn to guide them in constructing sentences. That is, real language has grammar.
In learning Elvish, there are a couple of grammar components to keep in mind that can be understood in relation to the English language. For instance, in order to make a verb past tense in English, you have to add an -ed, making wash, washed. Similarly in Elvish, in order to change the word for wash, which is allu, to the past tense then you have to add an -ne to the word. So washed is then translated to allu-ne in past tense.
Nouns in Elvish are different in the way that the noun changes depending on how it's used in a sentence, just like in Latin or Russian. For instance, the word head in Elvish is CAS. However, if you duck your head, then the word changes to CARA. If you butt something then you do it with your CARINEN. When referencing something in your head, then it changes to CASSE. Tolkien's immense attention to detail in creating the fantasy world illustrated in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, complete with multiple functioning invented languages, has captivated readers and movie viewers for decades.
Elvish is only one of the many magical languages developed by J.R.R. Tolkien. The feat of creating language for fantasy has proven to add to viewers and readers experiences. By transplanting their imagination to a new world, fans are able to learn the new language and engage with each other, much like their favorite characters.
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