• Paul Anthony Jones

Glossopoeia

(n.) the creation of fictitious languages



The invention of new fictitious languages is known as glossopoeia. And, fittingly, that’s a word credited to one of literature’s greatest glossopoetic writers, JRR Tolkien.



The word glossopoeia, or glossopoesis or glossopoetry as it’s also known, comes from two Greek roots: glossa, meaning ‘tongue’ (and by extension, language), and poiein, meaning ‘to create’ or ‘form’ (which is the origin of onomatopoeia, as well as poet and poetry, and another Tolkienism, mythopoeia—the invention of new mythologies).


Where or when Tolkien actually used the word glossopoeia is difficult to ascertain, but popular history nevertheless attributes the word to him. With good reason too, as Tolkien invented more than a dozen fictional languages for his Lord of the Rings stories and countless other tales set in his world of Middle Earth.


Two of these examples of glossopoeia Tolkien gave entire histories and grammars to: Quenya and Sindarin, two of the Elvish languages in his ‘legendarium. An acclaimed philologist, etymologist and linguist as well as an author, Tolkien took inspiration from a number of languages in creating Quenya and Sindarin, including Finnish, Latin, and Welsh—of the latter of which he once wrote, “A flash of strange spelling and a hint of a language old and yet alive. It pierced my linguistic heart.”


Tolkien began work on creating Quenya and Sindarin in the 1910s, long before any of his literary works were published, and continued tinkering with them—and creating full histories and grammars of them—right up until his death in 1973.


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