Mythopoeic Language

As you almost certainly know, J.R.R. Tolkien was a philologist, and it was his need for a world to put his languages in that led him to create Middle-Earth. He put most of his effort into Quenya and Sindarin, the Elvish languages, but he also wrote some stuff about Khuzdul (the secret Dwarven language), Westron (the common tongue), Adunaic (the Numenorean language), Rohirric, etc.

In the books, as the appendices to Lord of the Rings make clear, some of these languages are used in the text and some are ‘translated’ into English. Specifically, Quenya, Sindarin, Adunaic and Khuzdul names are left as-is, and the dialogue is for the most part translated to English (only occasionally do we get a few lines of poetry and such in one of the Elvish languages); Westron dialogue is translated to English (obviously – otherwise the entire book would be in Westron), as are Westron names (Samwise Gamgee, for example, would actually have been called Banazîr Galbasi – imagine that every time you had read “Sam” in the book, it would have read “Ban”); Rohirric dialogue is English-ized, and Rohirric names are translated into Old English.

Now, in the Orbis Terrarum, we just use various European languages for the different races. The Lavinians use Latin, the Marauders a mix of Old Norse and German, the Sidhe Elves Gaelic, the High Elves French (sort of), etc. I’m wondering how we should present this. Are we saying that these are actually the languages they speak, or or we just translating the world into equivalent terms from our world (the Lavinians are similar culturally to the Romans, so translate their language as Latin – like Tolkien translated Rohirric as Old English)?

There’s advantages and disadvantages to both, I think. First, saying that we’re translating from some unknown language. Well, you can’t include poetry, or puns, or anything of that nature, in the English text. It wouldn’t make sense. And it seems kind of odd to think that there are all of these characters – Caius Regilius, Alfhelm Alfricsson, Vaniyera – are not actually named Caius, Alfhelm or Vaniyera. Their names would be completely unrelated. Perhaps it makes the world seem more realistic, but at the expense of not showing us as much of that realism – if the language is just reported as Latin, or English, or whatever, while it really is something else, just to make the reader feel more at home, how much else is being misreported? Are the Lavinians really like the Romans in how they dress, in their architecture, etc, or do we just present them with those attributes because it seems natural to us given their imperial nature and preferred martial tactics?

On the other hand, if we say that these are the languages that they actually speak, then the question arises – why are they speaking Earth languages? They live in a completely fantastical world – Orbivm is not even a distant past or future version of Earth, as Middle-Earth purportedly is. It seems to break the secondary reality built up; it forces the reader/player to resort to a “suspension of disbelief”, which, as Prof. Tolkien explains in “On Fairy-Stories”, is much inferior to the real thing – actual belief in the secondary world.

It’s not like a decision has to be made regarding this any time soon, or really ever, so I’m in no hurry to decide the issue. But it’s something to think about.

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