August 28, 2002 Suite101 article
- I decided to go WAY out on a limb this time around. Unfortunately, I
ran out of time due to a project at work, so this essay is a little
rougher than I would have preferred it to.
TIP-TOE THROUGH THE TOPONYMY
A current rage on the Internet seems to be for everyone to find out
what their "hobbit name" is. I guess that's like a Love-o-meter,
where you type in two people's names and see if they are compatible.
Forget staring into each other's eyes, long walks on the beach, and
chasing dogs through the local park. Love (and Hobbitdom) lies just
a click away from your fingertips.
One of the reasons why Tolkien's character names stand out is that
they aren't simply a collection of medieval-sounding names, such as
many fantasy authors populate their worlds with. Tolkien's names
don't just mean something in some particular language. They mean
something in a particular context, a context he provided, and which
sometimes existed as part of a greater framework.
In Letter 205, Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher, "I like history,
and am moved by it, but its finest moments for me are those in which
it throws light on words and names!" Further on, he confessed a bit
of frustration by writing, "Nobody believes me when I say that my
long book is an attempt to create a world in which a form of language
agreeable to my personal aesthetic might seem real." Tolkien spoke
of Elvish, but let us speak of Hobbitish.
Tolkien had very little to say about actual Hobbitish. As invented
languages go, he seems to have spent relatively little time on that
one. After all, he devoted much time to representing Hobbitish with
a colloquial English dialect largely of his own imagining. People
from certain regions of England recognize the dialect. A few can
even tell you which area certain expressions come from. But there is
a larger picture that is too seldom considered.
The English language in The Lord of the Rings is carefully
orchestrated. "I paid great attention," he wrote to Terence Tiller
in 1956, "to such linguistic differentiation as was possible: in
diction, idiom, and so on...." In fact, the differentiation is
easily picked out.
The Hobbits, for example, often say "goblin" when other characters
say "Orc". And one can hardly imagine Samwise Gamgee whipping out a
potato and crying, "Hamfast of Greenwich! I am Samwise, son of
Hamfast Gamgee and am called Sam, Stout Hobbit, Gardener, the Heir of
Holman Greenhand of Hobbiton. Here is tonight's supper and
tomorrow's trail bread! Will you eat with me or starve? Choose
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