Éala Éarendel: A study in names

A meditation on words, slightly late, but suited for Eastertide. Any howling errors herein are wholly my own; though I reserve the right to be an intellectual coward, and blame them on my recent concussion.


There is no such thing as an expert on language. There are experts on individual languages, and experts on different aspects of language as a phenomenon; but the field of language as a whole is, and always has been, far too large for anyone to adequately survey in a human lifetime. Tolkien came as near it as almost anyone: he was intimately familiar with the whole 1,500-year history of English, plus Old Norse, Latin, and classical Greek, and had a firm working knowledge of German, French, Spanish, Welsh, Irish, Hebrew, and several other languages, including the latest reconstructions of Proto-Indo-European. Yet he wrote, with perfect sincerity, to Fr. Robert Murray: ‘I am in no ordinary sense a “linguist”’. He understood better than most professional linguists the internal workings of language, but he also had a sound knowledge of his own limitations.

It may be unfair to compare Tolkien with Noam Chomsky, who does unabashedly call himself a linguist, and is often regarded by his younger colleagues in the field as the linguist. Unfair, but for my present purpose, necessary. Chomsky does not show any signs of great familiarity with any language but English. He attempts to lay down ‘universal’ rules of grammar, but his universals, when closely examined, tend to be disturbingly parochial. [Read more…]

The rhetoric of Middle-earth

This essay is included in my collection, Writing Down the Dragon. It has previously appeared on LiveJournal.


Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story — the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths — which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country.

The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, no. 131 (to Milton Waldman)

The business of finding and resolving cruxes, of course, is not the only trick in the philologist’s bag, or the only one that Tolkien brought to his imaginative writing. A philologist, in the nature of things, must have a keen nose for style, for the sounds and usages of words. A genuine document is always rooted in the dialect of a particular time and place, modified by the author’s choice of words, rhythms, and turns of phrase. [Read more…]

Gwladys and the Ghraem’lan

This essai follows ‘Quakers in Spain’, and like it, is a revised and expanded version of a piece I wrote and put up on LiveJournal in May, 2006.


If prose style in fantasy is fraught with peril, naming is a plain old-fashioned minefield. Fantasy writers have a tendency to throw together names from any and all sources that strike their fancy, without thinking how such disparate words came to be in the same language together, or even in the same world. Writers who are very good at other aspects of their craft can still inexplicably fall down in this one area. I am sorry to make a bad example of my friend Jonathan Moeller, but when I first began to read his Demonsouled series, and the first two characters I met were called Mazael and Gerald, I was thrown out of the story long enough to cry aloud to the unheeding night: ‘Mazael is good; Mazael is right and proper. There ought to be a fantasy hero named Mazael, and now, thank God, there is one. But why on earth is he hanging out with someone whose name is a foreign monstrosity like Gerald?’ In Le Guin’s terms, Mazael is from Elfland and Gerald is from Poughkeepsie, and there needs to be some explanation of how they ever came to meet.

There are two bad ways of coming up with fantasy names; or rather, of the many bad ways that one could devise, two are much more popular than the rest. [Read more…]

On semicolons

Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.

—Kurt Vonnegut

Let’s take this bit by bit:

Here is a lesson in creative writing.

Asserted but not proved.

First rule: Do not use semicolons.

Nobody but Vonnegut ever heard of this ‘rule’, and most notable English authors of the last few centuries have used semicolons freely. I conclude therefore that it is not a rule, but merely an expression of Vonnegut’s wishful thinking. It is true that George Orwell wrote Coming Up For Air without using semicolons, as an experiment; but he went straight back to using semicolons in all his subsequent books. I should say that counted as evidence that it is not a rule.

They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.

On the contrary, they represent the same thing as the Greek hypostigme, which was invented over 2,000 years ago. In marking up texts for public reading, as an aide-memoire to the readers, they used to put dots in between words to indicate places where one should pause. There were three of these marks originally:

The stigme teleia or ‘final dot’ served the same function as our full stop, but it was even with the tops of the letters instead of the baseline. In reading aloud, it indicated a relatively long pause.

The stigme mese or ‘middle dot’ was halfway up the line, about where we would put a hyphen, and represented a place where you could pause long enough to take a breath; it corresponded roughly to our comma.

The hypostigme or ‘under-dot’ represented a middle-sized pause, longer than a stigme mese but shorter than a stigme teleia, to show that the reader should pause while the audience took in the meaning of the preceding clause, but that the sentence was not yet over.

Note that these marks were invented long before the question mark, colon, or exclamation mark, which presumably Vonnegut thinks are important enough to keep. If the Greeks found a need for all three, and modern punctuation includes all three, I think it’s safe to say that there really is a function for all three.

All they do is show you’ve been to college.

Pish-tosh. I began using semicolons when I was about ten, and never encountered anybody in college who said anything about them one way or the other.

G. K. C. on words

Why shouldn’t we quarrel about a word? What is the good of words if they aren’t important enough to quarrel over? Why do we choose one word more than another if there isn’t any difference between them? If you called a woman a chimpanzee instead of an angel, wouldn’t there be a quarrel about a word? If you’re not going to argue about words, what are you going to argue about?

—G. K. Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross

Jonathan Richardson on Milton

A reader of Milton must be always upon duty; he is surrounded with sense, it arises in every line, every word is to the purpose; there are no lazy intervals, all has been considered, and demands and merits observation. Even in the best writers you sometimes find words and sentences which hang on so loosely you may blow ’em off; Milton’s are all substance and weight; fewer would not have serv’d the turn, and more would have been superfluous.

—Jonathan Richardson

This is, to my mind, very nearly the highest praise of a writer’s style that anyone could make. The only other thing that might be added is if the writing also sounds well, and the sounds and rhythms comport with the meaning, so that the suggestive and poetical qualities of the language reinforce the plain meaning of the words. This quality also (I would add on my own account) Milton has in abundance.

Dr. Johnson, in choosing literary sources for his Dictionary, tried to include just those authors whose use of language was unimpeachable by the standards of the time, and recent enough still to be a fairly faithful representation of living speech. The better the writer, the more he could be excused for not being recent, and contrariwise. The oldest author that Johnson included in his list of authorities was Milton; and granting that remark of Richardson’s, and my own addendum to it, I think he was eminently right to include him.

Richard Mitchell on verbing

First they came for the verbs, and I said nothing, because verbing weirds language. Then they arrival for the nouns, and I speech nothing because I no verbs.

—Richard Mitchell, the Underground Grammarian

English as she is spoke

Academic, n. One who, lacking the gift of natural stupidity, has attained stupidity by degrees.

Liar’s lexicon

Manifesto, n. The act of walking down the street waving a baton in the expectation that a parade will spontaneously form up behind you.

History, language, and the Higher Blarney

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.


Those what cannot remedy the past can pretend to repeal it.

—Howland Owl

The second text is from Doyle and Sternecky’s revival of Pogo, which met a worse fate than it deserved. Howland attributed it to ‘Santa Ana’, but it was his own (or his authors’) genius that distorted the quotation into a sort of Freudian slip of the Zeitgeist worthy of P. G. Wodehouse. On the one hand you have the serious philosopher of history, weary and worldly-wise, bluntly restating the obvious law for the thousandth tedious time; on the other, the half-baked Postmodernist, illiterate but pretentious, vaguely remembering some better man’s scripture that he may be able to cite to his purpose.

I have been too long in the company of the second kind of people. I mean the kind who mistake wishful thinking for valid reasoning. If you point out the difference between these things they call you heartless, and if you prove them wrong about the facts they call you an intellectual bully. ‘Everyone is entitled to their own opinion,’ they smugly say; and if they are a little more learned, according to their dim and dubious lights, they add that you are merely making a transparent patriarchalist attempt to oppress alternative modalities of enlightenment by determining the parameters of discourse. [Read more…]