Since I started this column in 2019, I’ve been avoiding one famous—possibly even the most famous—example of using linguistics in SFF literature: the work of J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s not because I don’t like Lord of the Rings —quite the opposite, in fact. It’s just such an obvious topic, and one which people have devoted decades of scholarship to exploring. Hell, my Old English prof has published academic scholarship on the topic, in addition to teaching a Maymester class on the languages of Middle-earth. But I suppose it’s time to dedicate a column to the book that first made me think language was cool and to the man who wrote it.
Tolkien was born in 1892 in Bloemfontein, modern South Africa. His father died when he was 3, and his mother died when he was 12. He was given to the care of a priest and attended King Edward’s School, where he learned Latin and Old English, which was called Anglo-Saxon back then. When he went to Oxford, he ended up majoring in English literature, and his first job post-WW1 was researching the etymology of words of Germanic origin that started with W for the Oxford English Dictionary. This sounds both fascinating and utterly tedious, given the obvious lack of digitization at the time and thus the necessity to read and annotate print books to find and confirm sources.
Tolkien’s academic career began around the same time, and he worked on reference materials for Germanic languages (a vocabulary of Middle English and translations of various medieval poetry) before being named Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. Diana Wynne Jones attended his lectures and found them “ appalling ” because she thought that “Tolkien made quite a cynical effort to get rid of us so he could go home and finish writing The Lord of the Rings .” (Does the timeline match publication history? No, probably not, but this is what Wynne Jones remembered 50 years later.)