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Hi guys! I am adding a new person to the team, and he’ll be writing short articles about the development of ancient root-words in Tolkien’s languages. His name is Paul Strack, the creator of the massive undertaking that is the Elvish Data Model, or Eldamo for short. We’ve known each other for a few years now, but we finally got to meet at Omentielva Otsea, the international Tolkien language conference. We did this interview over Skype.
Let’s start at the beginning. What is your scholarly background? Any linguistics training?
In school I studied mathematics. When I went to college I had three options that I wanted to explore. My three great loves were mathematics, linguistics, and history in that order. But, my very first linguistics class that I took as an undergrad absolutely annihilated me. I was just could not get it at all. So even though I studied languages on the side, I never studied linguistics as a career. I don’t have any formal linguistics training. All of the linguistics studies that I’ve done have been as a hobbyist, mostly driven by my interest in Tolkien’s languages.
And speaking of Tolkien, what’s your favorite part or story in Tolkien’s mythos?
I like pretty much everything, so picking one favorite item is a little difficult. I think my favorite moment in his stories is the climax of The Lord of the Rings, when Frodo and Gollum are wrestling on the edge of Mount Doom, and the pit below, and just the way that particular moment plays out. It’s got so many different ramifications and implications to it. The way that it’s ultimately Gollum and his corrupted personality that is the salvation of the free peoples of Middle-earth. You can see so many layers playing in. I think it’s a good representation of Tolkien’s multitude of ideas about his story. The fact that this corrupted character is somehow fated and destined to ultimately destroy Sauron in the ultimate culmination of Gollum’s story.
The subtle hand of the divine is probably present there as well, though Tolkien’s not as explicit about it. The fact that Gandalf foreshadowed it as Gollum’s ultimate fate way back in the Fellowship of the Ring, I think speaks to his original plan – I strongly suspect that when Tolkien originally wrote those chapters he hadn’t really considered that that would be how things played out. My understanding of the way he wrote the stories is that he didn’t arrive to that ultimate conclusion until fairly late, and then he went back and edited the earlier chapters of the story to make it work a little better. I really like the way it plays out, but also Frodo’s role in that scene, that it’s somebody that is so small and inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.
So much modern fantasy literature is built around Campbell’s Hero’s Journey that we always have the Chosen One who is destined to do great things and is accomplishing marvelous stuff just because he’s so great and fated. Whereas in Tolkien’s story, it’s just this little schlub from the Shire who’s basically not anybody, that is responsible for bringing the Ring to Mordor. Although he isn’t actually able to destroy it himself, he is the vessel that carries the Ring into Mordor.
All that stuff playing in together … I remember when I first read that passage I was just blown away with how Tolkien had crafted that particular element of his story. I would highlight that as my favorite moment in his stories, though there are a lot of really good ones.
Yeah, there are. From reading The Lord of the Rings, to the languages, how exactly did you get interested in Tolkien’s languages?
Well, I got into his languages from the books, and I’ve been a pretty ardent Role Player most of my life: table-top Role-Playing games mostly. So, aside from his books, my primary interest in his languages was in the context of roleplaying, and when I was much younger, I drew on the material of The Silmarillion and the little bit of stuff that was in the back of The Lord of the Rings in the Appendixes and used that to supplement my roleplaying. At the time there just wasn’t really a lot out there.
So, sometime in the late 80’s or early 90’s I just lost interest in it for quite a long time until Peter Jackson’s movies came out. I enjoyed those a great deal, but I was interested in their use of the Elven languages in those movies, so I thought to myself, “Well hey, maybe I should go back and take a look at this Elvish stuff and see if there’s more to it than I remember.” Then I discovered that there’d been this whole raft of additional material that had been published in the two decades since I’d last looked at things. All of a sudden, I realized that there’s so much that I didn’t know about this stuff.
I began to do some initial investigations and landed, as a lot of people do, on Helge Fauskanger’s website, the Ardalambion site. I was mostly interested in Quenya at the time, so I dug into that. I pretty quickly determined, looking at the wordlists on Helge’s site that the Quenya wordlists that he’d provided were more than a bit of a mess. I recognized that they mixed together different elements of his languages from different periods of his life without really … well, I mean, Helge does point out what’s early words and what’s late words, but he doesn’t make much of an effort to distinguish which words would be preferable to use in actual writing. So, I decided to make an effort to organize that stuff at least for myself, and that was the naissance of how Eldamo was born, a long time ago.
So, what aspect or part of Tolkien’s languages do you find the most fascinating?
Well, I stumbled into things naively, to be honest. I suspect that’s true of a lot of people. They have this idea that Tolkien’s languages are just cute, and they want to play around with them, but they don’t understand the actual depths of the material. The thing that attracts me to the languages now, after I’ve been studying them for so long is just how rich they are, how much there is to them. The fact that you can dig into the languages and their history, both within the imaginary world and the real world, and the complex interactions between both how Tolkien imagined how the languages evolved and his own changing ideas about the way the languages should be, it’s just the massive, incredibly complicated puzzle you can just dig into more or less endlessly.
Even though I’ve been studying this now pretty thoroughly for a decade I still feel like there’s new stuff I’m learning all the time. And, compared to a lot of other imaginary languages where you sit down, and you learn the grammar, and you learn the vocabulary, and you’re more or less done; there’s so much to study about Tolkien’s languages. I’ve learned so much not only about his own languages but linguistics in general and languages in the real world, it’s been a pretty amazing educational experience.
As I was hinting at earlier, my original idea behind Eldamo was going to be very simple. I took Helge’s Quenya word list, and I was just going to sort through it and figure out which words I would and would not use. I just copied his wordlist into a spreadsheet and was going through and picking through the words, and well So I started digging into the source material, and as I dug into the source material I realized, well, I can’t really understand the Quenya words without also looking at the primitive roots from which they were derived and the evolution of those words in the fictional history.
I started adding the primitives and the Common Eldarin roots to the stuff, and I realized that a simple spreadsheet was not going to be enough, I needed a more complex data model to structure things. I’m a programmer by trade, so that kind of data modeling is pretty natural to me. After examining the Quenya words a little more thoroughly I realized that, “Well, I can’t really understand the Quenya words without looking at the Sindarin words, and if I’m going to do the Sindarin words, I might as well throw everything in there.” And at that point I pretty much started going through all of the source material and incorporating everything that I could into this large, complex, ever-evolving data model.
I drastically underestimated – when I first started this I figured, “Ah, well, maybe this’ll take me three or four months to go through everything, and I’ll have something I can work with and be satisfied with.” And here it is, a decade later, and I’m still not even close to where I would consider it to be in a finished state.
It started off to be just my attempt to organize Quenya vocabulary and it’s grown into my attempt to model the structure of all the languages, not just Quenya, and to understand both Tolkien’s linguistic evolution within his world, within his fictional world, and within the real world, and now, very recently, I’ve started to use the model as a way of figuring out how Neo-Quenya and Neo-Sindarin should work, or at least the way they do work and the way they could work as a more general community language.
That brings me to my next question. What are your future plans for Eldamo?
It’s something that I don’t think I’m ever going to finish working on. There’s just too much to do. About seven or eight months ago I finished what I consider to be Alpha Phase of the project, which is, I finally finished entering most of the words that have been published so far from Tolkien’s corpus. Now that I’ve done that, I don’t know if you remember, but at the end of last year and beginning of this year, on a lot of the community forums there was a bit of a fervor on trying to come up with new words – this happens periodically. There seemed to be a recent resurgence in interest in crafting Neo-logisms for both Quenya and Sindarin. It is something that I think is fairly important in terms of the language itself and its general use in the community, so I thought I’d tackle the same sort of question.
But one of the things that I’ve always wanted to do with the languages is: I don’t think that it’s enough to coin new words for the languages and use those as a way of completing the language. I think we also need to sit down and examine the words that Tolkien invented and figure out what subset of those words we can use in our own writing because you clearly can’t use them all. The languages are full of all kinds of contradictory material, since he worked on them so much and had so many different ideas over his lifetime.
How I’ve been spending the last six or seven months has been basically going through all of the primitive roots of his languages in all the various time periods of his life and trying to put them into something that resembles more or less an internally consistent set of definitions. I’m pretty close to finishing my first pass at this material.
What I’m doing at the moment, now that I’ve got a baseline of what I’d consider to be my approach to crafting neologisms, what I’m working on right now is taking neologisms from other authors, various sites that are out there, most of which are linked to for example on your site, and incorporating those into the data model as well. So, the data model can be used not only for studying Tolkien’s languages but also as a basis for examining what Neo-Sindarin and Neo-Quenya might be like. I kinda want the data model to be able to serve multiple purposes, so until recently mostly what people have been using it for is research into Tolkien’s languages, but I also think that Neo-Quenya and Neo-Sindarin are in and of themselves things that are of interest and worth studying on their own, so I think I’d like the model to incorporate that.
I’m close to wrapping up my first pass on that, and probably what I’m going to do after I do that is a semantic mapping of the words that are in the model so we can examine words that are similar meaning to each other and we can compare and contrast them.
And then the next thing I’m planning on spending probably the early part of next year I was going to set neologisms aside for a while and take a deep dive onto examining the phonetic aspects of the developments of Tolkien’s languages. I did a first pass at Noldorin and Sindarin about three or four years ago, and what’s in there now is kinda a mess and I haven’t really had a really thorough pass looking at Quenya phonetics. That’s something I really want to flesh out before I really firm up the neologism stuff.
And after that, there is modeling the grammar, and fleshing out the dictionary. My long, long term goal is if you look at some of the languages like Ilkorin and Adûnaic, I’ve gone through and I’ve written up full dictionary entries for every single word, with the discussion of their etymology and their conceptual development and so forth. And so, ultimately, what I would really like to do is that I’d like to do that for the entire corpus, for all 25 thousand odd words that are in there from Tolkien himself. Which is, of course, a major, massive undertaking, and I expect that to take, oh, probably at least another decade before I finish that much. And after that? Who knows.
This is a hobby for me, so you know, I go where my interests take me, from one week to the next.
Wow, that is really impressive, and it’s going to be incredibly beneficial to the Tolkien language Community. So, speaking of the Tolkien language community, what are your hopes for things you want to see or develop in the Tolkien language community?
One of the things I’ve always felt and part of the reason that I’ve been focusing on the Neo-Eldarin languages recently is that I really think that the Neo-languages and their use as actual languages is very important to the health of the overall community. One of the challenges with Tolkien linguistics as an academic study is that it has a very, very high barrier to entry. There’s just a lot that you’ve got to know and learn in order to really be able to tackle the languages from a scholarly perspective, and it makes it extremely difficult for people to engage with the languages in that way, because you basically have to study for at least three or four or five years before you can even begin to puzzle through the languages at that level.
Because it’s so difficult to engage with the language at a scholarly level, I really feel that in order for the community to remain healthy, it is important that we have an easy entry point for people that have a casual interest in the languages. That’s one of the reasons I like your book so much because I find that it’s an extremely approachable way, a very easy way for people that have no real linguistics background to start learning Sindarin, and I’ve seen similar efforts recently in the Quenya space as well.
But, I think that’s really important because we tell people that come in as beginners, “Hey, it’s nice that you’re interested in these languages but until you’ve spent the last couple years really dissecting the etymologies and you’ve learned all this linguistic material, we’re not really going to listen to anything you have to say.” That’s just not a very satisfactory experience for people who are beginners, first encountering the language. That’s why I think it’s important to have a nice, robust, healthy community around actually using the languages as languages, which is a challenge because so much of the material is contradictory.
What I would really like to see happen in the next few years is if maybe we could actually reach some kind of consensus on common vocabulary and common grammar for the languages so people can actually use them for communication. There’s been a lot of work in this area in terms of grammar. I think your examination of Sindarin grammar in your book is actually good and there’s been some recent work on Quenya grammar as well that I think the latest, most recent publications like Parma Eldalamberon 21 and 22 have really fleshed out what Quenya grammar looks like. But, one area that has always been more than a bit of a problem is vocabulary.
I mean, hey, grammar is nice, but you can’t really say anything without vocabulary. And, vocabulary is a challenge because Tolkien’s interest in vocabulary was just so skewed and so surrounded by, informed by his stories that you have tons and tons of words for things like brightness. There’s gotta be at least half a dozen primitive roots that have something to do with light and brightness and various colors. Then there are other areas where there is just no vocabulary at all. Some concepts we have almost no words and then other concepts where we have simply way too many words, not all of which are internally consistent. So, coming up with a way for establishing a common, shared vocabulary that we can use for communication is something I’d really like to see happen in the community.
I hope that maybe with the Amazon television series coming out that we’ll see a resurgence in interest in the languages the same way we did with Peter Jackson’s movies. I’m hoping that if we can reach some kind of general consensus on what the languages should be in terms of the Neo-Eldarin languages that when we get a wave of people interested in the languages coming out of the Amazon series I hope that we will have a solid foundation for people to actually work with, and they can actually engage with the languages as something they can actually use. It might be a bit of a pipe dream that we can reach that kind of consensus, but it’s still something that I think is worth attempting.
Yeah, I definitely agree, though there’s this old joke that goes, “If you’ve got fifteen different approaches, and you decide ‘I’m gonna make the definitive approach,’ then you’ve got sixteen different approaches.”
Yes, yes. Now that’s something that I recognize, achieving anything like consensus in this community is pretty nearly impossible but I still think it’s worth making the attempt, at least outlining the alternatives and giving people a clear set of options. In terms of establishing a common vocabulary and working things out, we have to accept that pretty much from the get-go there’s never going to be a definitive version of the language.
I don’t think that’s necessarily bad. Real world languages don’t have definitive versions, not really. Languages are always changing and always evolving, so the idea that we could ever have a definitive, finished, complete Elvish language that would never evolve is just something I think that’s not ever going to be true. And, there’s no reason it needs to be true. It just needs to be close to coherent enough that we can actually communicate with each other. And, there’s definitely room for all kinds of dialectical differences and different styles of the languages, just so long as they are close enough that people are able to understand each other.
Alright, so thank you for taking the time to talk to me! This is a new leap for Realelvish.net, and thank for being the person that’s leaping with me.
Yeah, I’m looking forward to adding stuff to the site.
Alright, chat later!