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I once read that JRR Tolkien, a linguist by profession and of The Lord of the Rings fame, wrote his masterpiece using elements of archaic English to emulate the Bible.

Following a question on writers.SE, and comments below, this statement is not as clear as I took it. As non-native speaker, I stumbled upon a few words the first time that I read the book (in original version).

It is clear that he did use a few words that, IMHO, were deemed archaic already by the time the novel was published in 1954. Most notably amongst them are the use of thou and thee. He also used less common or less modern words (or meanings), as can be seen in this list. It is even the subject of a book. As an illustration

“Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!"

A cold voice answered: 'Come not between the Nazgûl and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shrivelled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye."

A sword rang as it was drawn. "Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may."

"Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!"

Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. "But no living man am I!”

-- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (source)

Tolkien is known to have written a story to give life to made-up languages. And I have the feeling he used (somewhat) old(er) English for the speech of the Elves with Men, equally for educational purpose.

I understand that one needs to define some terms, in particular "archaic". I would say that archaic words and/or expressions are words and/or expressions that would be out of place (due to it being too old) in a conversation of the time, and which would be noticed by the participants of the conversation as such. Or hasn't been used commonly for 50-100 years.

Now, from the elements above, did Tolkien use archaic elements of language when writing the Lord of the Ring? Or do these words strike me as old because I am non-native and/or they are not so much in use today, but were faily common back then (when he wrote it) at least in University circles where he was.

PS. I did hesitate to ask this question in Writers.SE, SciFi.SE, ELL.SE or here. But ultimately as it is about English language as such I thought it was better here. But please to tell me if I should ask it somewhere more appropriate?

PPS. I hope I managed to limit the "opinion-based" part of the question.

closed as off-topic by Edwin Ashworth, David, Skooba, kiamlaluno, FumbleFingers Sep 11 '17 at 17:52

  • This question does not appear to be about English language and usage within the scope defined in the help center.
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    One assumes the use of English did not strike the participants in the conversations in the book as archaic, but I'm quite sure it would strike the reader as such. I'm a bit confused why you first define "archaic" as related to the participants in the conversation, to refer later to yourself, the reader. – oerkelens Jul 3 '15 at 13:06
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    The vocabulary is ellaborated and contains less used words. I think they were more common a few centuries ago. This is probably the kind of ''archaic English'' you're talking about. It's still modern English. – Archa Jul 3 '15 at 13:17
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    The question as stated is certainly false. Tolkien wrote in modern English, using many archaic formulas to represent various dialects and languages. Just like the authors of Shakespeare's works and the King James Bible did. – John Lawler Jul 3 '15 at 13:19
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    I suspect OP is mixing up archaic and anachronistic. As @John says, Tolkien wrote in modern English (that being the language of his target readership). He used a lot of archaic and dialectal formulas for effect, but they'd need to be at least understood by ordinary native speakers today without too much difficulty (or we'd never be able to read and enjoy TLOTR). In short, I'm sure "current comprehensibility" was more important to Tolkien than "historical accuracy", even though he doubtless strived to accommodate both. – FumbleFingers Jul 3 '15 at 15:29
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it does not appear to be about English language and usage within the scope defined in the help center. Writers would be more appropriate; the question 'Did Tolkien do this to ...?' is about historical fact. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 4 '17 at 16:29
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The basic answer to your question of whether he used archaic language to emulate the Bible is no, of course not. There is one specific exception, however, which I explain further on.

The Lord of the Rings is composed entirely in Modern English using all manner of style and register. This is deliberate. (I will exempt Éomer’s “Westu Théoden hál!” taken directly from Beowulf’s “Wæs þú, Hróðgár, hál”, as that actually is Old English. Nothing else is.)

Tolkien himself specifically explains exactly why he resorts to the second-person singular in certain situations. Please read Appendix F, section II, “On Translation” for this and a great deal more about what he was doing, and why, when he attributed different styles of speech to different characters at different times. The Witch-king’s use of the second person was intended to be belittling.

In Tolkien’s letter to Milton Waldman, while attempting to present a summary of the book’s plot and character, Tolkien states that:

. . . even in style it is to include the colloquialism and vulgarity of the Hobbits, poetry and the highest style of prose.

So his mixing of low and high, and even of poetry and prose, was done with full awareness and intent. Indeed, in the same Waldman letter he also wrote:

Hardly a word in its 600,000 or more has been unconsidered. And the placing, size, style, and contribution to the whole of all the features, incidents, and chapters has been laboriously pondered

Perhaps the best explanation for why Tolkien ever used archaic phrasing can be found in his Letter #171, wherein he takes up the accusation of gratuitous “tushery” (archaism). He addresses the point of why one would use archaic language to represent what was (purported to be) spoken by an archaic people in this way.

Dear Hugh,

....Don’t be disturbed! I have not noticed any impertinence (or sycophancy) in your letters; and anyone so appreciative and so perceptive is entitled to criticism. Anyway I do not naturally breathe an air of undiluted incense! It was not what you said (last letter but one, not the one that I answered) or your right to say it, that might have called for a reply, if I had the time for it; but the pain that I always feel when anyone – in an age in which almost all auctorial manhandling of English is permitted (especially if disruptive) in the name of art or ‘personal expression’ – immediately dismisses out of court deliberate ‘archaism’. The proper use of ‘tushery’ is to apply it to the kind of bogus ‘medieval’ stuff which attempts (without knowledge) to give a supposed temporal colour with expletives, such as tush, pish, zounds, marry, and the like. But a real archaic English is far more terse than modern; also many of things said could not be said in our slack and often frivolous idiom. Of course, not being specially well read in modern English, and far more familiar with works in the ancient and ‘middle’ idioms, my own ear is to some extent affected; so that though I could easily recollect how a modern would put this or that, what comes easiest to mind or pen is not quite that. But take an example from the chapter that you specially singled out (and called terrible): Book iii, ‘The King of the Golden Hall’. ‘Nay, Gandalf!’ said the King. ‘You do not know your own skill in healing. It shall not be so. I myself will go to war, to fall in the front of battle, if it must be. Thus shall I sleep better.’

This is a fair example – moderated or watered archaism. Using only words that still are used or known to the educated, the King would really have said ‘Nay, thou (n’)wost not thine own skill in healing. It shall not be so. I myself will go to war, to fall...’ etc. I know well enough what a modern would say. ‘Not at all, my dear G. You don’t know your own skill as a doctor. Things aren’t going to be like that. I shall go to the war in person, even if I have to be one of the first casualties’ – and then what? Theoden would certainly think, and probably say ‘thus shall I sleep better’! But people who think like that just do not talk a modern idiom. You can have ‘I shall lie easier in my grave’, or ‘I should sleep sounder in my grave like that rather than if I stayed at home’ – if you like. But there would be an insincerity of thought, a disunion of word and meaning. For a King who spoke in a modern style would not really think in such terms at all, and any reference to sleeping quietly in the grave would be a deliberate archaism of expression on his part (however worded) far more bogus than the actual ‘archaic’ English that I have used. Like some non-Christian making a reference to some Christian belief which did not in fact move him at all.

Or p.127, as an example of ‘archaism’ that cannot be defended as ‘dramatic’, since it is not in dialogue, but the author’s description of the arming of the guests – which seemed specially to upset you. But such ‘heroic’ scenes do not occur in a modern setting to which a modern idiom belongs. Why deliberately ignore, refuse to use the wealth of English which leaves us a choice of styles – without any possibility of unintelligibility. I can see no more reason for not using the much terser and more vivid ancient style than for changing the obsolete weapons, helms, shields and hauberks into modern uniforms.

‘Helms too they chose’ is archaic. Some (wrongly) class it as ‘inversion’, since normal order is ‘They also chose helmets’ or ‘they chose helmets too’. (Real mod. E. ‘They also picked out some helmets and round shields.) But this is not normal order, and if mod. E. has lost the trick of putting a word desired to emphasize (for pictorial, emotional or logical reasons) into prominent first place, without addition of a lot of little ’empty’ words (as the Chinese say), so much the worse for it. And so much the better for it the sooner it learns the trick again. And some one must begin the teaching, by example.

I am sorry to find you so affected by the extraordinary 20th C. delusion that its usages per se and simply as ‘contemporary’ – irrespective of whether they are terser, more vivid (or even nobler!) – have some peculiar validity, above those of other times, so that not to use them (even when quite unsuitable in tone) is a solecism, a gaffe, a thing at which one’s friends shudder or feel hot under the collar. Shake yourself out of this parochialism of time! Also (not to be too donnish) learn to discriminate between the bogus and genuine antique – as you would if you hoped not to be cheated by a dealer!

He does not actually write archaic language, or not fully archaic, for he would have lost the reader. What he does do at times is watered or moderated archaism, and he does this for a distinct reason given above.

Every linguistic effect he used has a specific purpose that makes good sense in that context. Tolkien was a master of this, and if you think it all archaic, you haven’t been reading closely enough. Look at the rustic speech of the hobbits or the coarse speech of the orcs and trolls: all styles and registers are represented in the book, from the low to the very highest.

I would say that most uses of archaic language in fantasy literature written today are fake. That’s because there is so much of it, and Sturgeon’s Law applies. They are the very embodiment of what Tolkien complained of in his letter to Hugh Brogan. He himself doesn’t do that — because he actually knew what he was writing. Most people do not, and so their would-be antique language comes off sounding bogus, not authentic.

About that exception.

The one, and I believe only, place where Tolkien deliberately echoed the KJV is in the chapter “The Stewart and the King” from Book VI. The eagle’s song found there is quite obviously cast in the stylized language of the Psalms. I believe Tolkien felt that nothing short of Biblical language could suitably convey the “sudden joy as poignant as grief” of the unexpected eucatastrophe after all but the wannest of hopes had been forgotten.

You really should read Tom Shippey’s The Road to Middle-Earth: How J. R. R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology, preferably the 2003 edition. Shippey discusses Tolkien’s use of language at length. He also shows that all modes of Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism are present based on the characters involved, all the way from the mythic to the ironic.

  • “Tolkien was a master of this, and if you think it all archaic, you haven’t been reading closely enough” — Even so, it cannot be denied that even in descriptive paragraphs and other non-speech parts of the works, Tolkien’s writing style is deliberately and more or less constantly archaising, and he uses both syntax and vocabulary that were outdated even a century ago when he began to write the stories. I would say that his deliberate use of register and etymology in quoted speech is a layer on top of his consistent use of archaising language in general. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 3 '15 at 14:40
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    @JanusBahsJacquet I accept your general point and appreciate your nuance of layering used for quoted speech. But do you honestly believe some hypothetical 1814 reader would find “both syntax and vocabulary outdated”? That seems strongly worded. I question whether Tolkien’s 20th-century-isms would have even been accessible to that reader of lo these two centuries now past. The rare exception used for effect as “foreign” words are never syntax, only nouns like mathom and dimmerlaik. Those cannot be what you mean, though, so I wonder where you are coming from. Some examples, please? – tchrist Jul 3 '15 at 14:58
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    I’d say an 1814 reader would probably find his writing style non-archaising; but a 1914 reader would, I would venture, find it old-fashioned in general, and a 1955 reader even more so. His frequent use of words like thence and wrought (in the sense of ‘worked’), for (eschewing almost entirely because), inversion (where no inversion would be used now), present subjunctive, old-fashioned topographic terms, etc.—all those reflect the standards of English at least a century or so before he wrote the books. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 3 '15 at 15:07
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    (Note: I didn’t mean “at a time that, when he started writing the stories, was already nearly a century ago”, but “nearly a century ago now, at the time when he started writing the stories”. I was referring only to 1914, not 1814. Also note that I don’t think Tolkien is more archaising than many other fantasy stories or fairytale-like tales—but comparing his writing style to your average 1914 version of Harry Potter, whatever that may have been, it should be clear that Tolkien’s is the more archaising.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 3 '15 at 15:07
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    I really appreciate your edit, which, as far as I can judge, really improve your answer. – clem steredenn Jul 3 '15 at 16:15
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Two remarks, too long for a comment, without aspiring to doing full justice to the topic:

A) The whole linguistic setting of LoTR is supposed to be transposed from a fictional language called Westron (Common Speech) and its habitat, into English and its habitat. One may notice stratification on more than one level perhaps, including hefty diachronism. This is a literary device that Tolkien must have loved using, and it seems to work very well.

B) The whole narrative is presented to us through hobbits' eyes. It is implicit throughout that they are "dragged" into grander things with a rich history: in fact, some of the characters refer to ''legends come alive'' in the book. Again the language mirrors that.

So, yes, there are archaisms. Come not between the Nazgûl and his prey! is one: this is not how we usually form the imperative. They are used within measure, and for a clear purpose intrinsic to the book.

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The linguistic setting is, as already pointed out, in the fictitious language of Westron(Common Speech). Now a point to be noted is, the Witch-King of Angmar, in the quoted text, and many other recurring characters are from an 'older' time in the Middle Earth Universe. The use of archaic english goes to show how the older form of Westron would have sounded to someone in the current age of events in LOTR(Third Age if I'm not mistaken). The archaic speech forms show the vast disparities between evolved and evolving dialects mainly due to the presence of anachronistic elements made possible by the inclusion of 'magical' elements. So the answer to your question would be partly yes when it comes to dialogue(such as that of the Witch-King's) and no when it comes to the actual narrative(transposed from Common Speech of the current age in which the events of the book occur).

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Some of the language of the narration and much of the dialog (that which you give as an example) would undoubtedly have been seen as archaic in the 1930s, 40s and 50s as it does today.

The tradition of writing such works in such language had long been established in Medievalism and Romanticism of the 18th and 19th centuries. These will have been huge influences on Tolkien. They themselves were influenced by the language of the King James Bible so Tolkien will have been influenced by it at least indirectly and probably more than a little directly too. Of course, he brought his own particular style to it and, as others have mentioned, mixed it with other styles, some essentially of his own creation (e.g. elvish).

For comparison, a quite random piece of dialog from King Arthur - Tales of the Round Table, Andrew Lang, 1902:

'Take thou no heed of my name,' answered the Knight, 'for it is not for thee to know, nor for any earthly man.'

It was the standard and expected technique for writing for a medieval setting long before The Hobbit. Tolkien will have been well aware that his audience would expect it and that a story without such narration and dialog would lose at least some of its verisimilitude.

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I have to disagree that Tolkien's language, overall, is in any sense 'archaic'. It is perfectly accessible to any educated English speaker, if not to those who apparently believe in reducing the language to its least common denominator. The only word in that passage which I did not fully understand when I first read the book, at about the age of 15, is 'dwimmerlaik', and the sense of it is perfectly obvious from context.

Now of course (as he explains in Appendix F of LOTR), he varies the speech of his characters according to their nature and situation. Thus the Nazgûl, a being who has existed for some thousands of years, and who presumably does not have much interaction with ordinary people, of course speaks in an antiquated style. Eowyn, like the rest of the Rohirrim, speaks a native tongue that is descended from a language other than the Common Speech, so when speaking her second language she naturally uses words and speech patterns from her birth tongue. (Especially if you consider that she's likely under a bit of stress at the moment :-)) Tolkien chose to translate Rohan's language into Old English, hence dwimmerlaik, and dwimmer-crafty, Dwimmer-mere &c.

  • What is your understanding of the meaning "archaic"? The Oxford English Dictionary provides the following definitions: "Marked by the characteristics of an earlier period; old-fashioned, primitive, antiquated" and "esp. of language: Belonging to an earlier period, no longer in common use, though still retained either by individuals, or generally, for special purposes, poetical, liturgical, etc. Thus the pronunciation obleege is archaic in the first case; the pronoun thou in the second." I think much of Tolkien's language can fairly be called archaic. – herisson Sep 7 '17 at 13:13
  • ...In fact, now that I look back at this page, I see that Tolkien uses the precise word in the letter quoted above in tchrist's answer. I think the second paragraph and the description of your own experience is useful, but the first two sentences of this answer seem defensive and incorrect to me. "Archaic" is not necessarily a pejorative label! Calling Tolkien's style "archaic" doesn't imply that it ought to be changed to suit the "least common denominator". – herisson Sep 7 '17 at 13:18
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    @sumelic: To put it as simply as possible, Chaucer is archaic, Shakespeare is not except for a few terms that have fallen out of use, often - like "putter out of five for one" - because what they refer to doesn't really exist any more/ – jamesqf Sep 8 '17 at 15:09
  • Do you have a citation for your definition of "archaic"? The OED gives "thou" as an example of an archaic word, but it's certainly not unaccessible to a typical English speaker. bilbo_pingouin also defines "archaic" in the question as referring to "words and/or expressions that would be out of place (due to it being too old) in a conversation of the time, and which would be noticed by the participants of the conversation as such. Or hasn't been used commonly for 50-100 years"--nothing about them being particularly hard to understand – herisson Sep 8 '17 at 15:12
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    @sumelic: I don't know what you'd expect to get from a citation. These things are a matter of opinion and one's own perspective: to someone immersed in contemporary culture, the buzzwords of their older siblings are doubtless "so fifteen minutes ago", and the speech of their parents' generation antique, if not positively archaic. But I would expect an educated person to have a larger perspective. – jamesqf Sep 9 '17 at 3:55

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