Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A new blog — Teaching Tolkien

From time to time, I have something to share about Tolkien in the classroom (this, for example, and this, and even this). Thus far, most of these posts have dealt with Tolkien in the college classroom. But what about secondary school or even primary school? Today, I wanted to share news of a new blog, Teaching Tolkien, which takes up that very issue. This is something I know you are all going to want to keep an eye on!

In the words of the blog’s founder, Holly Rodgers:
Teachingtolkien.com is designed to be a resource for educators who are looking for methods for sharing the works of J.R.R. Tolkien with their students. The lessons described on this site were used with elementary students in grades 5 and 6, who are ELL (English Language Learners). These students are classified as limited English-proficient under the requirements of NCLB (No Child Left Behind).
That’s right: Ms. Rodgers’s students are not only fifth and sixth graders, they’re students whose first language is not English. Not only are their cradle tongues not English, they aren’t even European. Her class of thirteen speaks an assortment of Asian languages, including Somali, Urdu, Punjabi, Arabic, Farsi, and Korean. This class, therefore, is not only a great test of the minimum reading age for Tolkien’s novels, but it should offer interesting insights into cultural reception of his themes and motifs as well. The results so far are very promising. After reading The Hobbit, Ms. Rodgers’s students clamored for The Lord of the Rings, on which they have now embarked.

Do give the blog a look, offer an encouraging comment, and wish Ms. Rodgers and her intrepid band of international literary explorers well. I was about the same age as these students when I first read Tolkien myself, as I suspect many of you were too. It’s wonderful to see teachers keeping that tradition alive.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Recent publications

Hello, friends. I come to you today with a few publication announcements. Two of my older works — one of them much older — have recently been published, and another one is in translation for forthcoming publication. Here are the details.

My essay, “Some Contributions to Middle-earth Lexicography: Hapax Legomena in The Lord of the Rings”, appears in the new issue of The Year’s Work in Medievalism. The year in question is 2011, but the issue has been delayed until now. In fact, I haven’t seen it yet, but I expect my copy to arrive any day now. The issue, edited by E.L. Risden of St. Norbert College, includes several other very interesting-sounding papers. You can see the full table of contents here. This essay was originally written for the Scholars Forum on The Lord of the Rings Plaza (read it here), at the request of David Gransby (aka halfir), who, sadly, passed away last summer. He was a good friend — although we never met in person, since he lived in Thailand — and I would like to dedicate the publication of this essay to his memory.

About a year ago, I shared news that one of my essays had been translated into French for a special number of L’Arc et le Heaume, the journal of the French Tolkien Society, Tolkiendil. I’m very happy to report that the essays originally written in English and translated for the special anniversary issue are now available (in English) on the Tolkiendil website. Follow this link to read essays by Ted Nasmith, John D. Rateliff, Tom Shippey, Thomas Honegger, and of course, yours truly. Coincidentally, all the scholars named here were also contributors to my book!

And last but not least, more news from Tolkiendil. As some of you may know, the Society published a collection of essays last year called Tolkien, le façonnement d’un monde, Vol. 1: Botanique et Astonomie, edited by Didier Willis. Learn more about it here. Didier is now at work on a second volume, hopefully to be published this year. In addition to including a French translation of Kristine Larsen’s essay, “Sea Birds and Morning Stars: Ceyx, Alcyone, and the Many Metamorphoses of Eärendil and Elwing”, which was published in my book, Tolkien and the Study of His Sources (McFarland, 2011), the collection will include a translation of my own essay, “‘Circles of the World’: Speculations on the Heimskringla, the Latin Vulgate Bible, and the Hereford Mappa Mundi”, originally published in Middle-earth and beyond: Essays on the World of J.R.R. Tolkien (ed. Kathleen Dubs and Janka Kascakova; Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011).

This will make two of my essays translated into French. I’ve also had requests for permission to translate others into Dutch and Bulgarian, and there is an unauthorized translation of one of my essays in Brazilian Portuguese online.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Did Tolkien coin the plural “dwarves”?

John Rateliff recently wrote about Roger Zelazny’s conspicuous use of the incorrect plural, dwarves, suggesting that he borrowed this form directly from Tolkien. “‘Elves’”, he says, “[Zelazny] might have gotten from old tradition (or from Dunsany, who influenced everyone who came after), but ‘Dwarves’ is Tolkien’s own invention.” This got me thinking it was time to share some thoughts on this particular plural. (And this, by the way, is not the first time I’ve written about strange plurals.)

First of all, I think we have to consider the possibility that Zelazny did not borrow this from Tolkien at all, but rather formed the incorrect plural on his own, on the same model as calf / calves, wolf / wolves, hoof / hooves, elf / elves, etc. These plural forms are all correct, so it is a natural “mistake” to model the plural of dwarf on the same rule. Some plurals of this type (calves, knives, thieves, lives, wolves) are stubbornly holding onto their original plural forms, but in many cases the correct plurals are being ousted by “normalized” forms, as in hoofs, roofs, turfs.

How did we end up with these seemingly irregular plural forms? The answer is, they aren’t irregular at all; we’ve simply modified their spelling to match their pronunciation. Let’s take a quick look at one example, wolf. The Old English antecedent is wulf, a strong a-stem noun whose nominative plural is written wulfas, but pronounced /wulvɑs/. The letter v was foreign to the Old English alphabet, but it became more and more common after the Norman Conquest, and during the Middle English period, the plural was being spelled both wulfes and wulves, the former gradually giving way to the latter. So, for instance, around the middle of the twelfth century, we see “nu ich eow sende swa swa lamb betwux wulfes” (Luke x.3), but a century later, give or take, we find “suich wulves hit hadde tobrode” (l. 1008, The Owl and the Nightingale, a poem of which Tolkien made a special study of the vocabulary as an undergraduate). And by the fourteenth century, the word was beginning to look almost modern: “Þe wolves dra3eþ uorþ þe children þet byeþ uorkest and wereþ his uram oþre bestes” (“Ayenbite of Inwyt”, MS Arundel 57).

So, as you can see, the plural wolves, spelled with a v is not really so strange. It would be no different, really, if we were to spell the plurals of cat and dog, cats and dogz; after all, the final sound is different. The reason this orthographic change could occur so easily in the wolves class of plurals is that English spelling had not yet ossified, nor would it begin to until after the arrival of the printing press and moveable type.

So, bringing this back to Tolkien, is it possible he merely extrapolated or mistaken a likely plural, as any one of us might have done? Well, it’s certainly less likely, if only because of Tolkien’s philological training. That is to say, he would have known better. He used the form dwarves from the beginning of his mythography, as far back as The Book of Lost Tales (circa 1916–1920). He commented on the use of dwarves in his letters (and elsewhere), noting that the proper plural form ought to have been dwarrows, something he might have learned around 1919–1920 during his work on the Oxford English Dictionary. In the first edition of the OED (then called the NED), this note is offered (edited slightly for ease of reading): “The plural dweorgas became dwerwhes, dwerwes, dwerows, dwarrows […]. Parallel forms appear in barrow, burrow, berry [etc.] from OE beorg ‘hill’, and borough, burrow, bury [etc.] from bur3 ‘town’.” So, even dwarrows is not without precedent, however odd it may look to us today. But if the Old English word was dweorg, how do we explain the final f sound? Again, not so strange. Just consider: how do we pronounce the gh in enough? And British zythophiles still spell it draught, but here in America we now write draft. There’s no mystery about it. It’s a perfectly mundane phonological process.

As pertains to the question with which I framed this post, all I’ve suggested so far is that Zelazny might not have borrowed the spelling dwarves from Tolkien, arriving at it through a natural mistake; and moreover, Tolkien himself might have “invented” it in the same way. But now, consider that Tolkien might have seen this spelling somewhere and been the one to borrow it himself.

Others, it transpires, have used dwarves before, and it’s possible Tolkien knew it. In 1916, right around the time Tolkien would have been starting work on The Book of Lost Tales, the American-Scandinavian Foundation (with Oxford University Press) published a new translation of the Prose Edda. The translator, Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur, uses the plural dwarves consistently throughout, as here: “The dwarves had first received shape and life in the flesh of Ymir, and were then maggots; but by decree of the gods had become conscious with the intelligence of men, and had human shape” (p. 26). This story of the origins of the Norse dwarves obviously sheds some light on Tolkien’s own story in the Quenta Silmarillion, written not so many years after Brodeur’s work first appeared. I don’t know whether Tolkien saw this particular translation, but it was right in his wheelhouse, so I don’t doubt the likelihood. And it arrived on bookshelves right around the time Tolkien first began using the incorrect plural dwarves, an interesting coincidence if nothing else.

Another possible influence appeared much earlier. In 1866, George Webbe Dasent published The Story of Gisli the Outlaw, a translation of the 13th-century Norse Gísla saga Súrssonar. Dwarves — yes, I use Tolkien’s spelling too! — do not play any central role in the saga, but Dasent had cause to mention them once in his book, right at the outset of the saga, in reference to “Graysteel”, a sword that “will bite whatever its blow falls on, be it iron or aught else; nor can its edge be deadened by spells, for it was forged by the Dwarves” (p. 4). As most of you will recall, Tolkien knew Dasent’s work and quoted his famous “bones of the ox” metaphor in the essay “On Fairy-stories”. There seems a reasonable chance Tolkien saw this use of the incorrect plural form, although I admit we don’t know whether a single usage would have been conspicuous enough to catch Tolkien’s eye.

There are other antecedent uses of dwarves too. For example, in F. York Powell’s Old Stories of British History (Longmans, Green, & Co., 1885), a book based loosely on British and Scandinavian mythology and folklore. Google books has scanned a copy from the Bodleian Library, which provides the illustration at the top of this post. I have no basis to assume Tolkien was familiar with this work, but he might have been. For another historical example, though one I doubt Tolkien knew, unless from the OED, see Gilliver et al., The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary, pp. 104–8.

The upshot is, we don’t know whether Tolkien coined this word or borrowed it. There was a long previous history of its use, and I’ve given two examples Tolkien could very well have known. There are likely others. Even if Tolkien didn’t borrow the spelling deliberately, he might have done so accidentally. Or he may have chosen it for other reasons, quite independent of anybody else. We don’t really know, but — a bit like seeing hobbit in the Denham Tracts — it catches the eye to see the spelling for which Tolkien is often given credit in the earlier Scandinaviana.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Learning Engrish

For language learners, Twitter seems like a good medium for sharing words and idioms, almost flash-card like (any of you youngsters remember those?). I stumbled across a Twitter feed by “Nakayama” whose goal is, in his own words, 出ない順 試験に出ない英単語」が発売されました — that is, to assist Japanese speakers in learning uncommon English words that never come up in standardized EFL testing. He even has a book for sale.

This is a laudable goal, and I think it’s a great idea using a Twitter feed to share these. Nakayama posts the word, and then uses it in a sentence. And this, my friends, is where the magic happens. The “Engrish” magic. Nakayama’s sentences are brilliantly oddball nonsequiturs, usually grammatically correct (or close enough), but so funny, strange, and surreal. His choice in vocabulary is often strangely sexual or fetishistic too, which may give some insight into Japanese culture (or else what they thing of American culture). Anyway, have a look and see if you aren’t hooked.

A few examples —
  • Bad breath: The manager’s bad breath can cloud your judgement.
  • Barbed wire: “What a nice barbed wire!” “Thank you. I knitted it myself.”
  • Cockroach: The cockroach looks mature but it is only three months old.
  • Fart: This new technology makes it possible to keep a backup copy of your fart.
  • Parsley: All the parsley you can eat for 3,000 yen.
  • Porno magazine: The porno magazine is full of distortion of historical facts.
  • Reindeer: “Hehehe, Santa Claus. You are sadly mistaken if you think reindeer are weak.”
  • Sexual pervert: Bob is a sexual pervert, but he never breaks his promise.
  • Urinate: Please urinate anywhere you like.
And a few that are just inexplicable —
  • Naked bridge pose: To mark the start of the ceremony, the chairperson struck a naked bridge pose.
  • Super Zeus: No one really knows why the senior staff became known as Super Zeus.
  • Mirror of Ra: Bob tried to look up a Stefanie’s skirt with the Mirror of Ra and caused a big fuss.
Interestingly enough, there’s an argument to be made that the very strangeness of the sentences can serve as a memory aid in learning these uncommon words. There is clear evidence that one of the most efficient mechanisms for learning is novelty. This is certainly that, wouldn’t you say?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Vinyar Tengwar #50

For all those who are interested in Tolkien’s invented languages, very welcome news from Carl F. Hostetter. The fiftieth issue of the linguistic journal of the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship, Vinyar Tengwar, is on the horizon at last! Here’s the announcement Carl posted to the Lambengolmor email list this morning:
Thanks to a long year-end break and the easing up of professional obligations, I am pleased to announce that the long-awaited 50th issue of Vinyar Tengwar is nearing completion. VT 50 contains my presentation and analysis of the “Túrin Wrapper”, featuring a set of three untranslated Sindarin texts from the (probably early) 1950s pertaining to the “Túrinssaga”.

I hope to have the issue completed, printed, and mailed off by March 1.

Please note that henceforth issues of Vinyar Tengwar will be available only through the online, print-on-demand publisher Lulu.com, which currently also publishes the various volumes of “The Collected Vinyar Tengwar” [link]. Once VT 50 has been mailed, I will be adding it to, and thus completing, volume 5 of “The Collected Vinyar Tengwar”.

Current subscribers to VT please note: if you have moved in the years since VT 49 was published, please email me […] as soon as possible with you current mailing address. And thank you very much for your long patience!