Monday, June 4, 2007

Wulfs, waúrms, and *wargs — oh my!

Unpacking some boxes from storage a couple of weekends ago, I unearthed a long-forgotten gem: Brian Regan’s Dictionary of the Biblical Gothic Language. Out of print, unavailable from Amazon or BookFinder, I’m glad I never got rid of this. It originally belonged to my oldest friend, Gary Schmidt, but he passed it on to me some time in the middle 1980’s.

In his introduction, the author calls this “the first complete Gothic-English dictionary in eight decades” [1]; so I’m torn between being relieved that the complete lexicon of attested forms is short enough for convenient use (about 200 pages of fairly large type) and the sad realization that so many, many words of 4th Century Gothic are now lost forever.

To bring this around to Tolkien (more or less inevitable with me), it’s pretty well known that he developed a soft spot for Gothic after first discovering it in his mentor Joe Wright’s Primer of the Gothic Language. He wrote a pretty well-known poem in it (“Bagme Bloma” — Gothic for “Flower of the Trees”), included in the rare collection, Songs for the Philologists. He also incorporated elements of Gothic names into the ancestors of the Rohirrim as part of the backdrop for The Lord of the Rings. And Tolkien was known for deploying his extensive understanding of comparative Germanic phonology in an effort to extrapolate the forms of unattested Gothic words. (Such words are generally preceded with an asterisk, as in *wargs in the title of this post.) There’s even an extended piece of Gothic in one of Tolkien’s letters — a facsimile of an inscription he made in a book he owned in 1910 (the image at the upper right is a part of that inscription). [2] My friend Gary once adapted this same inscription on the flyleaf of a Dutch-English dictionary he gifted me back in the early 1980's; sadly, I'm not sure I have it any longer. Maybe one of these days, I'll get a letter inquiring about it, as Tolkien did in 1965.

Fellow admirers of Tolkien will probably recognize the Gothic words in the title of this post, too, even without any special training. For those who don’t, they are: “wolf, worm (i.e., dragon), outlaw (> warg)”. They’re actually in the nominative singular form, but to speakers of English they look more like plural forms this way, so I left them. For anyone wanting to take a stab at Gothic (but who might be too intimidated by Joe Wright), David Salo (known for his work on Tolkien’s invented languages, especially Sindarin) has put together a simple — and incomplete, it must be added — outline of Gothic grammar.

(Okay, I'm betting this post will have scared off the few readers I had! Anyone who’s still reading, drop me a comment! ;)

[1] Regan, Brian T. Dictionary of the Biblical Gothic Language. Phoenix: Wellspring, 1974, p. vii.
[2] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981, pp. 356-8.

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