Race Has No Role in Tolkien’s World

Recently, the new Tolkien series, “Rings of Power,” stirred up controversy by casting non-white actors. And the casting debate has awakened old claims that racism shapes Tolkien’s fiction. Those accusations rely on misunderstandings of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and the other tales of Middle Earth — and of history.

Middle Earth draws on a pre-racial world

J.R.R. Tolkien’s characters and descriptions use terms like “fair” and “light” for good people and “dark” and “black” for evil. That’s led to claims of racism. But race has nothing to do with Tolkien’s words and images.

Gudvangen Norse carving: face of Tolkien's ancient northwest
The face of the ancient northwest, Gudvangen, on the Nærøyfjord, Norway

Race is a relatively new concept. It dates back to the 1400s CE — though some interpretations suggest dates as late as the 1700s or as early as the 1000s. Prior societies had no concept of race. (My new book, Origin Stories, will explore the history of race.) And Tolkien based Middle Earth on ancient and early medieval northwestern Europe. Terms like “fair” for good and “black” for evil come from the early Anglo-Saxons and other distant peoples who had no concept of race — and essentially no knowledge of “other races.” Tolkien keeps faith with those people, particularly their words. He dedicated his career to their languages. Continue reading “Race Has No Role in Tolkien’s World”

Foreigners Understand Shakespeare Better than English-Speakers

It’s a sad reality, but English-speakers understand Shakespeare less than anyone else. That’s because foreigners regularly translate the bard’s plays — into German, Spanish, Mandarin, etc. — so they’re free to use language they understand. But English-language productions usually refuse to translate or even to edit Shakespeare. So audiences have to wrap their heads around 400-plus years of language change.

Semantic Drift

Shakespeare's Juliet, Romeo and Juliet
Juliet by Philip Hermogenes Calderon, 1888

Most Shakespearean confusion results from semantic drift: changes in the meaning of words. Juliet says, “Romeo, oh Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” To us, it seems Juliet asks, “where are you, Romeo?” (That would actually make some sense for the scene on the balcony.) But “wherefore” meant “why” in Shakespeare’s time. So Juliet asks (rhetorically), “why are you Romeo?” Why does her new boyfriend have a name that ties him to an enemy family? Continue reading “Foreigners Understand Shakespeare Better than English-Speakers”

“Thay”: Gender-Neutral Pronoun

Here’s a crazy idea that might work.

“They” has become the English language’s preferred third person singular pronoun, for gender-neutral use. But of course, we use the same pronoun for the third person plural. That creates confusion. Why not revise the pronoun’s spelling when it’s singular? Why not switch out the “e” for an “a”?

You’d need only a few words of explanation. “In this [article/book], I use ‘thay,’ ‘thair,’ and ‘tham’ as third person singular pronouns, equivalent to ‘they,’ ‘their,’ and ‘them.’ I use the latter three solely as third person plural pronouns. Continue reading ““Thay”: Gender-Neutral Pronoun”

This week in history: Louis Braille

Bronze bust of Louis Braille, created by Frédéric-Étienne Leroux (1887)

This week in 1809, Louis Braille was born in a small French town called Coupvray. He’s known for creating the braille reading and writing system for the visually impaired. Louis lost his eyesight at age 5. At age 10, he enrolled in one of the first schools for blind children. The school used the “Haüy system” for reading, named after its inventor, the school’s founder. Books were simply printed with raised letters the reader could feel. But the Haüy books were very heavy, and the students had a hard time reading them. Braille wanted something better. In 1821 he stumbled across a military communication system designed for silent night reading. It used raised dots and dashes on thick paper. This “night writing” was too complex, but it inspired Braille. By 1824, at just 15 years old, he had created his own, far better system. Continue reading “This week in history: Louis Braille”

This week in history: The Rosetta Stone

Photo courtesy of Hans Hillewaert via Wikimedia Commons.

On this day in 1822, Jean-Francois Champollion announced that he had deciphered the Rosetta Stone, 23 years after its discovery. The Rosetta Stone records a 196 BC decree from the reign of King Ptolemy V Epiphanes of Egypt, and it’s written in 3 different languages. That made it the key to translating ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, as well as the Egyptian demotic script. The bottom language was Ancient Greek, which was well-known in the 1800’s, and the demotic and hieroglyphic scripts were inscribed above. So Campollion used the ancient Greek version of the decree to translate the other two, giving historians the key to reading hieroglyphs and demotic script on temple walls, ancient manuscripts, and everywhere else. Much of what we know about the ancient Egyptians—including those from far before 196 BC—comes to us thanks to Campollion’s work.

Why Sounds Yoda so Archaic?

Says Yoda things like: “Powerful have you become; the dark side I sense in you.” Sounds it like speaks he an old dialect of English. Yet uses not Yoda “thou hast” or “erstwhile” or “thee” — or any other word or phrase found no longer in English. Old English does not speak Yoda, nor even Middle English. Speaks Yoda Modern English, except that one rule he breaks. Alters Yoda noun-verb order. That same one rule this post breaks too (more consistently than Yoda). Continue reading “Why Sounds Yoda so Archaic?”

Did Ancient Semites Father the Germanic Languages?

German, English, Swedish, and the other Germanic languages belong to the Indo-European family, but they’re odd members. They and Proto-Germanic, their common grandparent, have a lot of vocabulary and grammar utterly unlike other Indo-European languages. Rather, it resembles Semitic languages, like Hebrew and Arabic. That suggests a fascinating lost history, with civilized Middle Easterners setting up camp among the primitives of northern Europe’s great forests. Continue reading “Did Ancient Semites Father the Germanic Languages?”

Did Hobbits Live among Us Recently?

Homo floresiensis
Homo floresiensis (reconstructed)

The Indonesian island of Flores and its neighbors host two unusual languages, called Ke’o and Ngadha. They have extremely simple grammar — surprising for Austronesian languages, which generally have complex grammar. Languages often simplify when they share land with foreign-language speakers, and the two groups communicate through a “creole” or simplified dialect. (English simplified that way after the Vikings invaded.) But until recently, Flores history hasn’t offered an obvious candidate for the foreigners in question. In 2004, however, anthropologists discovered fossils on Flores from a species they named Homo floresiensis: a small relative of ours often called “hobbits.” (See my post on hobbits and other pre-humans.) Linguist John McWhorter has suggested these hobbits provide Flores’ missing linguistic link. Continue reading “Did Hobbits Live among Us Recently?”

The English Are Celtic (or Something)

It looks like the Celtic hero, King Arthur, couldn't keep his people from going English (assuming he even existed).
It looks like the Celtic hero, King Arthur, couldn’t keep his people from going English (assuming he even existed).

Traditional histories say that when the English migrated to Britain during the 400’s A.D., they almost completely replaced the native Celtic population. In other words, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes — the Germanic peoples who became the English — wiped out the Celts or herded them all into Wales and Cornwall. The result: England’s people are almost completely Germanic, and so is the English language.

But a recent linguistic analysis tells a different story. In Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue (Penguin 2008), linguist John McWhorter points out several English grammatical rules found in no other language — except in the Celtic family. For instance, English grammar requires the word “do” in sentences like “How do they slaughter their pigs?” and “He does not know Edgar.” But “do” adds nothing. Those English sentences would make as much sense without it: “How slaughter they their pigs?” and “He knows not Edgar.” No known modern language has this “do” grammatical requirement, except Welsh and Cornish: the Celtic tongues descended from Britain’s pre-Anglo language. Continue reading “The English Are Celtic (or Something)”

Speech May Have Begun with Clicks Instead of Words

A San of the Kalahari: a Khoi-San speaker
A San (f.k.a. “Bushman”) of the Kalahari

Southern Africa’s Khoi-San languages use clicks alongside more familiar consonants and verbs. Some have more than a hundred tongue-made ticks, clops, troks, and other sorts of clicks, giving them around 150 sounds. That’s more than any other language. (Compare the paltry 44 sounds available in English.) And that’s interesting. Languages collect sounds over time — if they don’t move around and run into lots of foreign-speakers who pressure them to simplify. So 150 sounds suggests an extremely old language. Plus, the Khoi-San languages have a very wide range of structures and grammars. That suggests they’ve had no common ancestor for a long time — that they go way back. Continue reading “Speech May Have Begun with Clicks Instead of Words”