Fantasy, the English language and Tolkien

Charlotte Guest
A woman holding a book to her face, reading in a bookstore with shelves of books behind her
Reading time: 6 minutes

A large number of well-known writers have often created or coined words that are used in everyday English. When you think of authors, prominent figures like Shakespeare may come to mind. He enriched the English language with words like "amazement," "bedazzled," and "fashionable." Charles Dickens introduced "boredom," showcasing his talent for capturing profound human emotions and societal issues in a single word. Lewis Carroll added whimsical words to our lexicon, including "chortle," a delightful mix of 'chuckle' and 'snort.'

But Tolkien is another one of those authors who has added to the English language's colorful dictionary. Tolkien did not just create worlds; he also enriched our language, adding a lexicon that elicits the smell of mead in crowded halls and the sight of smoky mountains veiled in mystery. Language enthusiasts and fantasy fans alike join us on this philological adventure as we uncover the words that J.R.R. Tolkien, the mastermind behind Middle-earth, either coined or brought into the limelight.

Words Tolkien invented or popularized
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So what English words did he invent/popularize?

Hobbit - A humble beginning

The word 'Hobbit' has become so synonymous with Tolkien's loveable, halfling creatures that it's easy to forget that prior to the publication of his book 'The Hobbit' in 1937, this word was non-existent. While there has been some discussion over whether Tolkien may have unconsciously borrowed from other sources, he is widely credited with coining the term. These small, unassuming beings have secured their place in our world, much like they have in their home of the Shire.

Orc - An ancient word revived

Orcs, the vile creatures that often symbolize the corrupt and evil forces in Tolkien's works, have become a staple word in the lexicon of fantasy literature.

Although the term 'Orc' existed in English before, Tolkien's use and interpretation popularized it to signify a brutish monster. Its actual origin can be traced back to Old English and Latin, where it had a variety of meanings, including 'demon' and 'hell'.

Ent - Guardians of the forest

The term 'Ent,' used to describe the ancient tree-herders in 'The Lord of the Rings', is another linguistic gift from Tolkien. Drawing inspiration from the Old English word eoten, meaning 'giant', Tolkien reimagined these beings as the sentient guardians of the forest, embodying the spirit and wisdom of trees. With their slow, deliberate manner and deep connection to the natural, Ents have come to represent environmental stewardship and the age-old battle against deforestation and environmental damage in popular culture.

Mithril - A precious creation

The fabled metal 'mithril', said to be stronger than steel yet lighter than a feather, is a testament to Tolkien's attention to detail in his world-building.

He could have easily opted for a metal that actually exists, but instead, he manufactured an entirely new material, replete with its unique properties and lore. Mithril has since transcended the borders of Middle-earth, being adopted by various fantasy franchises as a precious and magical metal.

Eucatastrophe - A linguistic turn

Those unexpected turns toward a positive resolution of stories in literature have a name thanks to Tolkien, the term 'eucatastrophe'. In his essay 'On Fairy-Stories', Tolkien discusses eucatastrophe as the sudden joyous turn in a story that pierces you with a joy that brings tears. This concept has been embraced by literary critics and readers alike to describe that moment of salvation when all hope seems lost.

Palantír - Far-seeing stones

The 'palantír' (pronounced pæˈlænˌtɪər) or the seeing stones in Tolkien's novels allowed characters to communicate across vast distances, a fantastical predecessor to the technologies of today.

This invented term comes from an adapted form of Elvish, a language Tolkien crafted with its own set of linguistic rules. The concept of a 'palantír' has often been metaphorically used to describe any medium that allows one to perceive events at a distance.

Dwarves – Storied origins  

Tolkien was also responsible for the pluralization of the existing word "dwarf" into "dwarves.". Prior to Tolkien's influence," dwarf" was the standard plural form used in English. With his groundbreaking work in 'The Hobbit' and 'The Lord of the Rings', Tolkien opted for "dwarves" to better fit the old English and mythological aesthetic he was aiming for. Tolkien's deliberate deviation from the norm has since been widely adopted, influencing not only subsequent fantasy literature but also the way we engage with these mythical beings in popular culture.

His invented languages and inspiration

In his quest to build a comprehensive mythology, J.R.R. Tolkien invented, coined, or revived many English words specifically for his Middle-earth saga. His skill as a philologist not only allowed him to create new words but also to revive old ones that had fallen out of use, blending them seamlessly into the narratives of his epic tales.

Tolkien extended beyond merely coining new words; he ventured into the realm of constructing entire languages, an effort that set Middle-earth apart as an exemplar of literary and linguistic depth. Among the most notable of these languages are Quenya and Sindarin, both of which are elvish tongues, each with its own detailed grammar, syntax, and rich vocabulary.

Quenya, inspired by Finnish and Latin, is often considered the high-elven language, used in lore and formal occasions, whereas Sindarin, influenced by Welsh, serves as the common language among the elves of Middle-earth.

Additionally, Tolkien developed other languages, including the guttural Black Speech of Mordor, the dwarvish Khuzdul, and the various Mannish tongues, thereby enriching the authenticity and immersive experience of his fantasy universe. Tolkien's inspiration for writing his unique lexicon was as vast and varied as the universes he created. A linguist at heart and by profession, he drew heavily from ancient and medieval sources, including Old English, Old Norse, and other Germanic languages, as well as from Latin, Greek, and Welsh.

A lasting linguistic legacy

Tolkien's impact reminds us that language is a living, breathing entity. It is shaped by the realms we construct in our thoughts and shared tales. In this light, Tolkien's inventiveness with language inspires us to look at words as not just mere tools for communication but as magic incantations capable of transforming the mundane into the extraordinary.

Whether you're a lifelong fan of Middle-earth or a language enthusiast intrigued by the origins of words, his contributions remain legendary; some even now sit in the English dictionary. He shows us that with a bit of creativity and a love for language, we too can leave our mark on the lexicon for generations to come. Now, in the spirit of Tolkien, may your words always be as rich as a dragon's hoard and as heartfelt as a hobbit's supper.

If you're feeling inspired to read, make sure to check out our readers; we have a wide range of English readers to suit everyone. Or if you're looking for some novel inspiration, make sure to check out our blog post: Novels to help improve your English.

Or, if you want to expand your English vocabulary even more to match that of even the greatest writers, make sure to download the language learning app Mondly by Pearson.

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