Archives For Elves

Like many of you, I love words. Like C.S. Lewis, I recognize the value of understanding each word’s etymology—its origin and history.

That’s why I was hooked right from the beginning by a short essay on “Language and the Bible” that I read in a magazine to which I subscribe. Dr. Mark Ward’s column goes by the heading Word Nerd. (Yes, I recognize the title is dweebish, but bear with me, his insights are worthwhile).

Word histories are for precocious nine-year-old homeschoolers who enjoy presenting irrelevant factoids to bemused adults. But word histories are history, and they come with all the drama that human life does.

You don’t have to be a geek to have fun with etymologies. Right here at Mere Inkling we enjoyed exploring Viking words that found their way into English. We also discussed the importance of using the etymological meanings of one’s name when determining how that name is properly rendered in the Elvish tongues of Middle Earth.

Etymology is serious business to those of us who study history and, especially, theology. The article I just cited is available online in a delightful video presentation. I’ll link to it below, for those interested in language as it relates to the Bible. Yet, even for those without these theological or historical interests, learning the life story of words can be fascinating, and even inspiring.

Listen to C.S. Lewis’ thoughts on the importance of philology, the broader study of languages which incorporates etymology.

I am sometimes told that there are people who want a study of literature wholly free from philology; that is, from the love and knowledge of words. Perhaps no such people exist. If they do, they are either crying for the moon or else resolving on a lifetime of persistent and carefully guarded delusion.

If we read an old poem with insufficient regard for change in the overtones, and even the dictionary meanings, of words since its date—if, in fact, we are content with whatever effect the words accidentally produce in our modern minds—then of course we do not read the poem the old writer intended.

What we get may still be, in our opinion, a poem; but it will be our poem, not his. If we call this tout court “reading” the old poet, we are deceiving ourselves. If we reject as “mere philology” every attempt to restore for us his real poem, we are safeguarding the deceit.

Of course any man is entitled to say he prefers the poems he makes for himself out of his mistranslations to the poems the writers intended. I have no quarrel with him. He need have none with me. Each to his taste. (Studies in Words)

Exciting News for Word Lovers

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) provides an unrivaled treasure-trove of information about the world’s most influential language. And—it is currently being expanded. The second edition, published in 1989, consists of twenty volumes (21,728 pages). The new edition will, of course, eclipse that.

Best of all, will be the OED’s deeper exploration of each word’s etymology. As they say in the already-released Preface to the Third Edition of the OED:

The revision of the Oxford English Dictionary’s etymological component is a substantial undertaking. In the First Edition many entries whose origin was taken to be self-evident (typically native English formations) were not provided with etymologies.

In the revised material each entry has a formal etymology. . . . the most significant changes relate to the analytical content of the revised etymologies, which for the most part update text which appeared in the First Edition of the Dictionary, and therefore represented the state of scholarly knowledge approximately one hundred years ago.

Your reward for reading this far: At the beginning of this post, I quoted from the Bible Study Magazine article that inspired it. This is a link to the article itself . . . but I strongly recommend you follow this link to the video version by the author, which I mentioned earlier.

A Bonus Surprise from C.S. Lewis

I suspect most fans of C.S. Lewis would imagine him to be very fastidious, even punctilious, about spelling. The following letter will prove otherwise.

Lewis recognized the purpose of language is to communicate, and although there are valid reasons to investigate their etymologies, such pursuits need not muddy the conversation, so to speak. This letter was published on New Year’s Day in 1960 in the London Times Educational Supplement. It was written in response to a contemporary debate about “spelling reform.”

Nearly everything I have ever read about spelling reform assumes from the outset that it is necessary for us all to spell alike. Why? We got on for centuries without an agreed common orthography.

Most men of my age [i.e. officers serving during WWI] remember censoring the letters of soldiers and know that even the wildest idiosyncrasies of spelling hardly ever made them unintelligible.

Printing houses will always have, as they have now, their own rules, whether authors like them or not. Scholars, who know the ancestry of the words they use, will generally spell them accordingly.

A few hard words will still have to be learned by everyone. But for the rest, who would be a penny the worse if though and tho, existence and existance, sieze, seize and seeze were all equally tolerated?

If our spelling were either genuinely phonetic or genuinely etymological, or if any reform that made it either the one or the other were worth the trouble, it would be another matter.

As things are, surely Liberty is the simple and inexpensive ‘Reform’ we need? This would save children and teachers thousands of hours’ work. It would also force those to whom applications for jobs are made to exercise their critical faculties on the logic and vocabulary of the candidate instead of tossing his letter aside with the words “can’t even spell.”

So, console yourself today with the knowledge that C.S. Lewis would not judge you for accidentally writing “sieze,” or using personal shorthand like “tho” or “thru.” Lewis respected the value of etymology, but he also understood quite well its proper place.

Iceland’s Real Elves

January 21, 2014 — 22 Comments

warrior elvesI’ve always wanted to visit Iceland.

Not simply because it’s the most sparsely populated country in Europe . . . even though I’m not big on crowds.

Not simply because of its spectacular glaciers and volcanic activity . . . even though these natural wonders inspire genuine awe.

Not simply because it is home to the world’s most ancient parliamentary democracy . . . even though I believe representative democracy is the best sort of government available.

Not simply because they colonized Greenland, from which the Norse were the first Europeans to discover the Americas . . . even though Leif Erikson deserves the accolades rendered to others.

Not simply because 40,000 of my fellow citizens are of Icelandic descent . . . even though I’m pleased they have contributed to our national “melting pot.”

Not simply because Iceland’s tenth largest city is called Fjarðabyggð . . . even though that vivid name is sure to capture the imagination of any writer.

Not simply because the Icelandic alphabet actually includes a runic letter (Þ, þ) named thorn . . . even though this too makes the nation of Iceland unique.

And, not simply because J.R.R. Tolkien and his friend C.S. Lewis established a group called Kolbitar which was devoted to reading Icelandic and Norse sagas. The word itself means “coal biter” and refers to those in a harsh environment drawing so close to the fire’s warmth they can almost bite the coals.

When the Lord of the Rings (as a work in progress) was being in read at meetings of the Inklings, one of the groups members at some point blurted out, “Oh no, not another –– elf!” [I only mention this here because that impetuous comment is often incorrectly attributed to Lewis—a genuine fan of Tolkien’s masterpiece. It was actually voiced by Hugo Dyson, another WWI veteran who taught English at Merton College.]

In the past, all of these reasons have contributed to my curiosity about the Land of Ice, but now I have added one more reason to someday visit.

It turns out that some Icelanders believe that elves, called by them Huldufólk (hidden folk), are real!

The elves have a large enough human constituency, that they are able to block highway construction due to the impact on the local Huldufólk!

Technically, the preservation of the elvish solitude is only the secondary concern in the lawsuits, the first being protection of one of Iceland’s numerous lava fields. Iceland’s Supreme Court has vacillated on the case, which can only raise the ire of any elves that may reside there.

elf houseIf the proponents of the reality of the Huldufólk are right, there remains one shortcoming to the Icelandic elves. Apparently, if the elf homes that dot the countryside are any indication, the northern island breed are a diminutive race. As in tiny, what Americans would think of more as a gnome or perhaps even a fairy.

My problem is that I’ve been spoiled by J.R.R. Tolkien’s version of the elvish races. I see them a tall, noble, and wise. The kind of folk you’d want for a friend, if you could get past the aloofness that is apparently characteristic of beings who live centuries rather than decades.

I fear that these Icelandic elves are (pardon me, any Huldufólk who may be reading this) a rather inferior lot. More like leprechauns than warriors. If you live in Iceland and can correct my errors about the hidden folk there, please contact me. Even better if you happen to know some elves personally.

Most readers of Mere Inkling are either fans of C.S. Lewis and his fellow Inklings, or writers interested in similar topics such as adventure, virtue, imagination, and spirituality. In light of that, and the fact that the finale of the trilogy won Oscar for Best Film, I assume the vast majority have seen “The Lord of the Rings.”

When you watched the films, with whom did you most identify? Ladies had options from warriors, to counselors, to royalty. Likewise for the men. Then there were the different races of Middle Earth . . . did you cast yourself as human, elf or dwarf? Or perhaps, as a modest, earthy hobbit? (I hope there weren’t too many who identified with the orcs, and if you did, I’d suggest an appointment with your local therapist.)

If the notion of living a long, peaceful life, studying the arts and enjoying God’s creation inspires you, then it may be you possess a kinship with the Elvish soul. And if you do (or even if you’re merely curious) there is a wonderful website where you can learn not only how to speak your name in the Elf tongue, but also to write it in the Elf script.

J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis’ treasured friend, was at heart a philologist. Few people have ever lived who shared the intensity of his love for language. Not everyone knows though, that the matchless realm of Middle Earth with its timeless sagas grew neither from a vision for the heroic story nor out of the visualization of any of its vibrant inhabitants. No, the seeds of the most renowned fantasy realm ever envisioned, were planted and watered by Tolkien’s love of language.

It was primarily linguistic in inspiration and was begun in order to provide the necessary background of ‘history’ for Elvish tongues. (J.R.R. Tolkien, Forward to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings).

Tolkien’s passion for the languages of Middle Earth is legend. Today, other linguists continue to study, document and teach the sophisticated system. Tolkien’s creation was so complex that it resulted in the creation (and evolution) of several languages—distinguished by both history and geography. In the same way, Tolkien was not content to settle for a single version of text with which to pen these musical dialects. He created no fewer than three styles, with Tengwar being most familiar. (You can download these and related fonts here.)

So, how exactly do you discover your Elvish name?

There have long been “random generators” for Middle Earth-sounding names. The generator at one site renders my Elvish name as Eöl Séregon, which does sound fairly distinguished. (Who knows whether or not it means anything?) These programs may satisfy the curiosity of the passing surfer seeking random oddities. However, for those who respect the love Tolkien invested in his linguistic progeny, this will never suffice.

Fortunately, there is an amazing website, overseen by a bona fide lover of languages. Moreover, his site is devoted to maintaining the integrity of Tolkien’s Elvish tongues. (And many of us who are writers are similarly enamored with language itself, making this a worthwhile domain to visit.)

The host of Quenya101 embraced the tongue so completely that in college he even took lecture notes in the language! Today he teaches Quenya through his website and other means. Although there’s a long waiting list (that can be circumvented, I believe, by donating to the site) he will actually translate names into Quenya. Note that I said “translate.” This is no mere transposing of letters.

He does not waste his time with transliterations. He actually applies the etymology of your given name to rendering the very same meaning in the Elvish language. For good measure, he provides a Tengwar rendition of your Elvish name. (It may be that he has already translated your name and has it posted at the site.)

Here’s how it works, as illustrated by my own name. Fortunately, my father’s name has also been translated, so I am seeking the Quenya for “Robert (son of) Charles.”

Robert

From: Germanic name Hrodebert.

Meaning: Bright fame, derived from the Germanic elements

     hrod ”fame” and beraht “bright”.

Quenya: Calialcaro

     (calima+alcar+[o] = bright+splendour, glory+[masculine names suffix])

Charles

From: Germanic name Karl, which was derived from the same Germanic word. However, an alternative theory states that it is derived from the common Germanic element hari

Meaning: Karl means “man” & hari means “army, warrior”

Quenya: Nér (nér = man) or Ohtatyaro (ohtatyaro = warrior)

So, henceforth you may address me as Calialcaro Ohtatyaro!

It is encouraging to see people keeping alive the vision and wonder of Middle Earth. The same is true for Narnia, of course, though you cannot really compare the purpose. These magical realms were both created by geniuses. It is a divine coincidence that these men, with major differences in their temperaments and imaginations, were lifelong friends.

Discovering your unique Elvish name can establish a dramatic connection with an imaginary, but at the same time gloriously real, realm.