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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room:
"Man's brow must sweat over the everlasting spade, and over the everlasting grammar too."

N.E. Brigand

May 9 2010, 2:34am

Post #1 of 11 (614 views)
"Man's brow must sweat over the everlasting spade, and over the everlasting grammar too." Can't Post

Just sharing an interesting paragraph from "Philology: General Works" the long (34 pp.) survey essay that Tolkien wrote for The Year's Work in English Studies 1925 (published in 1927). In this passage he reviews Modern English by J. Hubert Jagger:

In this book we have plain reference to a notion that it seems impossible any longer to pass over with a shrug--it was glimpsed even by Mr. Pearsall Smith--the notion of English as the coming world language. Wherever it occurs we think it is time somebody said that as prophecy it is as valuable and certain as a weather-forecast, and as an ambition the most idiotic and suicidal that a language could entertain. Literature shrivels in a universal language, and an uprooted language rots before it dies. And it should be possible to lift the eyes above the cant of the 'language of Shakespeare', or to tear them from the visions of the Parliament of Man, sufficiently to realize the magnitude of the loss to humanity that the world-dominance of any one language now spoken would entail: no language has ever possessed but a small fraction of the varied excellences of human speech, and each language presents a different vision of life. In the past the dominance of a language has been due to the often sheerly accidental, and even undeserved, material success of its speakers, rather than to its own merits as a medium. This was certainly the case with Latin, and expansion was bad for it. Few prefer the koivn to Attic. However imminent such a calamity to English may be imagined, it should be alluded to not with self-complaissance, but in alarm and as a summons to resistance. The curse of Babel is no less fundamental than that of Eden. Man's brow must sweat over the everlasting spade, and over the everlasting grammar too. Without their pain their shall be neither food nor poetry. If we say nothing about 'American English' here, it is only reserved for the end. [pp. 59-60]

Tolkien's last comment is reference to his remarks on The English Language in America by G.P. Krapp, with which he closes the survey.

(I found the essay some time ago at a now-defunct internet source, and hadn't done more than skim it before today. Correction welcome from anyone who has access to an actual copy of the volume! Also, I can't get the Greek letters to appear properly.)

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Superuser / Moderator

May 9 2010, 2:44am

Post #2 of 11 (346 views)
Flavours of English. [In reply to] Can't Post

I would think the varying influences on English in each country would help keep it from being 'uprooted' and dying. Whether those influences are cultural or from other languages in that land, each version keeps English dynamic and gradually changing.

Although I'd say the changes in grammar happen far more quickly than changes in language, with the internet allowing more freedom to use less grammar without correction.

Celebrimbor: "Pretty rings..."
Dwarves: "Pretty rings..."
Men: "Pretty rings..."
Sauron: "Mine's better."

"Ah, how ironic, the addictive qualities of Sauron’s master weapon led to its own destruction. Which just goes to show, kids - if you want two small and noble souls to succeed on a mission of dire importance... send an evil-minded b*****d with them too." - Gandalf's Diaries, final par, by Ufthak.

Ataahua's stories

Ethel Duath

May 9 2010, 3:23am

Post #3 of 11 (458 views)
"the loss to humanity that the world-dominance of any one language now spoken would entail:" [In reply to] Can't Post

and "no language has ever possessed but a small fraction of the varied excellencies of human speech, and each language presents a different vision of life." This makes me think of all the languages that are being lost worldwide, and the meanings and "vision of life" that is disappearing as a result. Was Tolkien referring to this as a partial result of English "taking over"? If so, I agree with him there, in a way, but English dominance is not always the reason. It's probably just as often been colonial dominance in the past, and '''nowadays" a problem of groups either being assimilated into a neighboring or more dominant culture, or of tribes dying out/losing numbers as the younger people move to "the city" and/or forsake the older traditions. I'm not sure it's damage to English that is really the problem, although I can see why he might have thought so.

But whatever the cause, I do agree with Tolkien that it's really an immeasurable loss in terms of the non-English languages disappearing.


May 9 2010, 6:29am

Post #4 of 11 (576 views)
Teeny, tiny correction [In reply to] Can't Post

"Without their pain their shall be neither food nor poetry." Surely the second "their" should be "there".

Really more of a typo than a correction.

But I think Tolkien was being very foresighted. At the time he wrote that, folks around the world were stamping out "inferior" languages and cultural practices left and right. This is the era in which Esperanto, for example, was in its ascendancy, and children of indigenous peoples in many countries were being sent away to learn the dominant culture. Thank you for reminding us of another dimension of his brilliance.

Elizabeth is the TORnsib formerly known as 'erather'


May 9 2010, 10:31am

Post #5 of 11 (336 views)
I sometimes regret [In reply to] Can't Post

growing up in a time and place where there was little incentive to learn multiple languages. Those who grow up in lands where they almost have to learn multiple languages operate under handicaps, but if they overcome those handicaps they have advantages. Shakespeare himself lived in a time and place where most educated people knew Clerical Latin and Norman French as well as Anglo-Saxon English, and as a result vast numbers of modern English words have Latin and French origins.

I'm not sure there is anything we can do about the world's move toward common languages. There may come a time where Mandarin Chinese is the dominant language instead of English, but I don't ever foresee a time when languages again multiply, unless some horrendous calamity destroys all modern communications. Nor can I fully appreciate Tolkien's sadness about the loss, since I am not myself multilingual. But I can see that even in his own time Tolkien mourned for the dead languages he studied, and wept at the thought that in the future, more and more languages will die.


May 9 2010, 11:05pm

Post #6 of 11 (369 views)
Logan Pearsall Smith M.A. [In reply to] Can't Post

Author of "Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wootton," etc.

I think this must be the fellow that Tolkien is referring to. If you or others find this tedious, as it is common knowledge, then I apologise. I own a book by him: "The English Language". It was first published in 1912. My edition is the fifteenth impression printed in 1934 and is signed by my mother as a student at Reading University. It seems to me clear that it was a recommended text for her undergraduate studies. I have read it and it is fascinating, at least to me, not just as a historical document but because it still has some interesting things to say, I think.

I can't resist offering my, admittedly off topic, favourite quote on the "Genius of Language" which he has already explained is the ability of the English Language to evolve to deal with the changing environment in which it finds itself. I find myself seeing LPS taking a positive (descriptive) stance in contrast to Tolkien's normative (prescriptive) stance.

"Grammarians can help this corporate will by registering its decrees and extending its analogies; but they fight against it in vain. They were not able to banish the imperfect passive "the house is being built" which some of them declared was an outrage on the language; the phrase "different to" has been used by most good authors in spite of their protests; and if the Genius of the Language finds the split infinitive useful to express certain shades of thought, we can safely guess that all opposition to it will be futile. Better guides are to be found in our great writers, in whom this sense of language is highly developed; and it is in them, if in any one, that this power finds its most efficient ministers. But even they can only select popular forms, or at the most suggest new ones; but the adoption or rejection of these depends on the enactment of the popular will, whose decrees, carried in no legislature, and subject to no veto, are final and without appeal."

Hmm. When I led the discussion on "The Noldor in Beleriand" recently I noted the strange construction "While Gondolin was building" but did not recall LPS and his "imperfect passive". I certainly was expecting "being built" rather than "building".

I also think that some of our younger contributors should take heart when their elders find fault with their use of language.

I hope at least some of that makes sense.



May 10 2010, 4:41pm

Post #7 of 11 (307 views)
Not so sure of the contemporary loss [In reply to] Can't Post

It seems to me that languages usually only disappear after the civilization/culture has been wiped out, and even then not always. I speak French and a West African lingua franca, Bambara, and my job has me travel all over Canada and Europe. My observations:

1. The Catholic Church kept Latin alive for 1500 years after Rome's fall. The Coptic Church kept Egyptian alive in an Arabic society. Some church/sect has kept Aramaic alive even though you don't meet many Aramaics these days.

2. Living and traveling in Africa, the tribal languages were alive and well including among educated people who spoke English or French at work, in school, etc. The advantage of having a colonial language as the national language is that no ethnic group's language takes over, but the tribal languages endure.

3. Traveling in Europe, it's remarkable that many neighboring countries can't speak to each without using English: I attend an east European conference where Russians, Poles, Turks, Hungarians, etc can only speak to each other in that lingua franca, but there's no threat of losing their home language. And really, if people can speak to each other all over the world, I think we stand a better chance of peace.

4. Even in the UK, the English conquered Wales centuries ago, and it's a tiny area where they all speak English, but Welsh endures.

5. As for foreigners adopting a language and that changing the original language, I'm not so sure. Not many Americanisms have changed British English. The French I heard in French-speaking West Africa had many variations from Parisian French, but it doesn't alter the latter. Nor do I think that "Literature shrivels in a universal language." Anyone else read Chinua Achebe or Chitra Divakaruni who made fresh contributions to English literature from unique perspectives?

Actually, I think the biggest challenge to preserving literature is the Internet + mobile phones, where "lol" and "omg" become the only way people seem to express themselves. That plus the fact that people don't read much anymore except in little nuggets of watered down English. But as scholars kept Latin going long after the masses had abandoned it, I would guess that scholars would keep literary English alive when everyone else is texting "omg wtf lol" and has nothing more elegant to say.


May 10 2010, 4:47pm

Post #8 of 11 (330 views)
Isaac Bashevis Singer on Yiddish [In reply to] Can't Post


"That's not right! That's not even wrong!"
-Wolfgang Pauli


May 10 2010, 6:14pm

Post #9 of 11 (399 views)
One correction [In reply to] Can't Post

For world language, world-language. Also, since the Greek won't display properly, I just thought I'd tell people that it's kappa, omicron, iota, nu, eta (with tonos). Transliteration into the Latin alphabet would be koiné.

Jason Fisher
Lingwë - Musings of a Fish

The Lord of the Rings discussion 2007-2008 – The Two Towers – III.4 “Treebeard” – Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
“On Fairy-stories” discussion 2008 – “Origins” – Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5


May 15 2010, 5:54am

Post #10 of 11 (1402 views)
"Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation."// [In reply to] Can't Post


"Be good, be careful, have fun, don't get arrested!"
---Marcia Michelle Alexander Hamilton, 7 Nov 1955 - 19 Nov 2009



May 21 2010, 7:50am

Post #11 of 11 (411 views)
Visions of life [In reply to] Can't Post

"...each language presents a different vision of life..."

This sounds as if Tolkien believes in "linguistic determinism", the idea that language is the matrix in which all our ideas are formed, so that what we perceive is directly related to the particular language that we speak. I would think that this would also tie in with Owen Barfield's ideas about early men thinking in "metaphors" and therefore not perceiving any difference between the metaphor (the gods hammering, for example) and the natural event (thunder, in this example).

Even taken less literally than this, Tolkien's idea about "different visions of life" is an interesting one. As a linguist, he would have been very aware how different the worldviews can be between speakers of different languages, especially historically. Even in the modern, Western world, as a translator I can't help noticing how things seem slightly different depending on what language they're expressed in. I don't really share Tolkien's pessimism here though. I've seen even here in Singapore, where English is one of the official languages, how English has taken on a style and expression of its own, reflecting the local character. As long as people are different, then I think languages will reflect that. If we all end up as one homogeneous group, then indeed we will have lost something irreplaceable. But I hope that human nature is too complex for that.

They went in, and Sam shut the door.
But even as he did so, he heard suddenly,
deep and unstilled,
the sigh and murmur of the Sea upon the shores of Middle-earth.
From the unpublished Epilogue to the Lord of the Rings


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