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Lord of the languages: Prof teaches with Elvish, Orkish

By
Friday, November 30, 2007

You won’t find a course in Elvish or Orkish listed in the Banner course catalog, but “Lord of the Rings” fans seeking an expert in J. R. R. Tolkien’s invented languages need look no further than Geoffrey Russom, professor of English and medieval studies. Author Tolkien created Elvish and Orkish, which are modified versions ofolder real languages, for his classic fantasy trilogy.

“It’s a nice puzzle if you’re interested in the subjects that interested Tolkien, like Dark Ages languages and narratives,” Russom said. He said he became interested in Elvish and Orkish when “Lord of the Rings” was first published, and he later used his linguistic training from SUNY Stonybrook, where he earned a Ph.D., to decipher the languages.

“Tolkien’s plan with this was to reach a huge number of kids and undergraduates and get them interested in his subject,” Russom said. “The whole thing is propaganda for the study of ancient literature.” He said many students have shown an interest in Tolkien’s languages, noting that a lecture he gave at King House on Elvish drew over 100 people – making it one of his most popular lectures at Brown, even though it wasn’t part of a class. “Brown students pretend not to be nerds, but they really are,” Russom joked.

Russom said he incorporates Elvish and Orkish into his linguistics class, ENGL 1210: “The History of the English Language.”

“The sounds that Tolkien uses to make Orkish sound evil and Elvish sound beautiful is an interesting exercise for students, directly related to what they are learning,” Russom said.

Sarah Denslow ’08, who has taken three classes with Russom, said he often uses the fictional languages to explain certain linguistic concepts.

“One time he actually recited a whole bunch of Orkish and Elvish to demonstrate a point about high vowels and low vowels,” she said. “He always uses examples from ‘Lord of the Rings’ when they’re related to points about old English literature – which is almost always.”

Lindy Brady ’08 said members of her class found Russom’s knowledge of Elvish impressive. “Just that it’s a made-up language and he speaks it fluently is incredible,” she said.

Russom said Elvish and Orkish compound and disguise words drawn from Germanic languages such as Old English and Old Norse, and Celtic languages such as Old Irish, Old Welsh and Breton. The name for Gandalf, a wizard in “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings,” comes from the Old Norse “gand,” meaning magic wand, and “alf,” or elf.

“What Tolkien does is that he loves all these ancient stories and poems in Northwest European languages, and he takes words and story plots from them and integrates them into his own stories and his own languages that he makes up,” Russom said. As an example, he cited the kings of the Rohirrim – a fictional people – who have names that are Old English words for kings.

Russom said he uses Elvish and Orkish both inside and outside the classroom. “All this mental exercise is useful,” Russom said. “I’m sure I can think better because I do this recreationally.”

Russom has published several articles on Tolkien, and one of his essays, “Tolkien’s Versecraft in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings” was published in a collection of essays on Tolkien’s work. Russom has also compiled a dictionary of the Elvish language.

Russom’s love of Tolkien’s writing begs the question: What does he think of the recent movie adaptations of the “Lord of the Rings?” Though he thought the movies were “a little too heavy on the battle scenes,” Russom said he liked the films.

“I thought it was a good way to take important parts of the plot and make a movie out of them that was quite true to the original,” he said.

Russom said the popularity of Tolkien’s work allows him to reach a wide audience. “I can use books like that to get to a very large audience with technical stuff like poetic meter,” he said.

Students said they find Russom a knowledgeable teacher whose enthusiasm is infectious.

“I love him – he’s my thesis adviser and he’s wonderful,” Denslow said.

“I thought that he was so informed and engaged in his subject matter that you couldn’t help but get sucked in,” said Julia Horwitz ’08, who took a class with Russom her sophomore year.

Horowitz and Denslow, her roommate at the time, applied information about Elvish from Russom to their Old English studies. “It helped a lot,” Horwitz said. “It also fed our inner nerds.”

“It’s fascinating to hear (Russom) speak, because he has an encyclopedic knowledge of every conceivable antecedent to Old English literature,” Brady said.

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