What Quenya Taught Me

17 Oct

Janis’ post this month had me thinking about language.  I learned a lot more about English in Spanish class than I did in English class.  Multiple kinds of past tenses?  Two distinct “to be” verbs?  I saw for the first time things that English had or didn’t have in comparison to another language.  This rocked my thirteen-year-old brain.

I read Tolkien not long thereafter.  It seemed only natural to start learning Quenya — one of the languages of the Elves.  Tolkien laid out the language like a linguist, and because of that, I learned about how we examine languages.  Come my first semester in college, I was pleasantly surprised that my introductory linguistics class was a breeze, thanks to Professor Tolkien.  Here’s a few things I learned.

Phonetics: This is the study of the various sounds that make up language.  Sounds can be categorized by where and how we make them — Quenya organizes its alphabet based on this.

For example, P and B are both bilabial stops (produced with two lips, with a stop of air).  There’s one important distinction between the two — the first is voiced; the second unvoiced.  If you put you hand on your throat and say “p-p-pan” and “b-b-ban”, you should feel your vocal chords vibrate on “b”, but not “p”.  That’s what makes these sounds unique.

Phonology: This is the study of meaningful sound difference in a language.  For example, in Russian, aspiration can change the meaning of a word, just like voicing changes the meaning in the pan/ban example.  But aspiration isn’t a meaningful different in English.  Aspirating a sound that isn’t usually aspirated will only make you sound a bit emphatic.

To feel the difference between an aspirated P and an unaspirated P, put your hand in front of your mouth.  Say “pan” again.  Feel the puff of air?  Now say “spam.”  No puff of air, no aspiration.

Morphology: This is the study of the smallest, meaningful units language.  “Pan” is a morpheme (something to cook in), but so is “-s” (plural).  Put them together, and you get “pans” — multiple somethings to cook in.

Syntax: This is essentially word order.  English has a very rigid syntax, because we use word-order to determine subject/object.  “The boy made pancakes” is a very different sentence than “Pancakes made the boy.”  Even when the subject/object is made clear by what cases English still has (“I raced him”), English has strict rules (no “Him I raced,” unless you’re Yoda).  English used to have a lot more cases and, consequently, a lot more syntax flexibility.

There is, of course, a lot more that linguists study, but phonetics, phonology, morphology, and syntax all help linguists delve into other topics — like first language acquisition.


Posted by on October 17, 2012 in Grammar, reading


4 responses to “What Quenya Taught Me

  1. Janis McCurry

    October 17, 2012 at 7:02 AM

    MK, I took entry-level linguistics in college as part of my major and loved it. Dr. Leahy taught the class and learning how languages developed was wonderful. Thanks for the primer on linguistics. It’s also good to know if you want to create worlds with unique languages. Joss Whedon does that with great effect.

  2. Stephanie Berget

    October 17, 2012 at 9:45 AM

    Thanks for an informative post on language. I find it very interesting that you learned so much from Spanish and Quenya.

  3. Judith Keim

    October 17, 2012 at 3:59 PM

    Very interesting post!! I love language and imagining how primitive man first man consistent sounds to mean certain things. Thanks!!

  4. MK Hutchins (@mkhutchins)

    October 18, 2012 at 3:46 PM

    Thanks for the comments, everyone! Language is something that fascinates me…I hoped this would be of interest to other writers, too. 🙂


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