Now, who in the world could even come close to claiming the same kind of success as Mr. Tolkien for Exhibit B? I’ve chosen J.K. Rowling, for obvious reasons: 1. Harry Potter is just as well known and loved as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, 2. Rowling works best for the point of this post and 3. Hello, she’s awesome!
Plus, most readers are familiar with the works of both authors, their styles and extensively detailed series, thus making it easier for me. So, what kind of writer are you? More importantly, what kind of reader are you? If you pick up a book and enjoy it, does your ability to then have a wedding ceremony completely conducted in Elvish or Klingon really hold sway over your love of the story, itself? Can you speak Autobot without a synthesizer? Anyone out there fluent in Na’vi?
I have always had an immense fascination with languages and cultures, something that I explore as a hobby, not actually study academically. I’m not fluent in any other language outside of Americanized English, nor am I a master of linguistic roots; those dead foundations that set the various dialects upon their paths of evolution. Etymologies can be confusing, especially when you get into what I like to call the Hybrid situation, where like a Botanist, someone spliced pieces of a word from two or three different languages and then grafted them into one brand new word for an entirely different language than any they’d originated from. Makes my head spin just thinking about it. Though I do like that I can now grow Jasmine in the cold climates of the Pacific Northwest…
The magic of glossopoeia is that it allows the readers to burrow even deeper into the tale being spun into life around them. One explanation of artistic language is that it gives a story plausibility. Here’s a fact: Tolkien was a Philologist who’d been raised under the influence of multiple languages from birth. Most of us aren’t provided that kind of opportunity, and does it really matter?
To what extreme do readers need an author to go in order to achieve epicdom? (See, I just made that sh*t up right there.) Can an author simply create a word, without giving it a history, an evolution or even a source? When I’m writing, names and words just come to my mind. It starts as a sound in my head, and I will write it and rewrite it until it matches the way something inside of my psyche insists it should be. Maybe that makes me strange, but that’s exactly what happens.
My case against the necessity for total, fleshed-out, Tolkien-style glossopoeia is the success of J.K. Rowling. I dare anyone to say that her series wasn’t epic, even if created for a slightly younger generation than the legends of Middle-Earth. Muggle, for instance, is now a household word that everyone understands, yet Rowling never gave it a history or even an etymology, only a definition. It’s simply a term used by the wizarding community. That’s it, moving on – Yes, critics, we know it was a term used prior to the Harry Potter series, but Rowling made it famous – argue that.
So… in theory, one could write a highly popular novel/series, that incorporates world-building elements, giving places and characters names, perhaps even a bit of native dialogue, by…simply making it up on a whim, because it sounds good. Because it’s what the voices inside of your head are telling you to call it. No need for a reason why it’s called that, or even how it came to be at all. Does it make your story any less plausible? Ah… well, now that would be entirely up to the reader and of course, your skills at world-building.
In writing Fantasy, creating ‘new’ is kind of the idea. Whether it’s a new world, a new kind of villain, hero or weapon, or even just a new take on an old myth; these stories are usually born in the author’s brain with names, words and terminologies we’ve never heard anywhere else. They should enhance the book or series as a whole; which both Tolkien and Rowling accomplished, despite their differences.
One thing to keep in mind, though, is that even Tolkien was conscientious of how much his readers might tolerate and/or appreciate reading tongue-twisting, unpronounceable, possibly indecipherable words in his works – though he claimed to have written the sagas for the languages, themselves, and not vice versa. I, for one, wouldn’t want my readers throwing my books across the room, because I went overboard with the glossopoeia, nor would I want it to detract from the story, itself.