J. R. R. Tolkien on Esperanto



I take an interest, as a philologist, and as every philologist should, in the international-language movement, as an important and interesting linguistic phenomenon, and am sympathetic to the claims of Esperanto in particular. I am not a practical Esperantist, as it seems to me on reflection an adviser should at least in some measure be. I can neither write nor speak the language. I know it, as a philologist would say, in that 25 years ago (1) I learned and have not forgotten its grammar and structure, and at one time read a fair amount written in it, and since I am trained to that sort of thing, I feel competent to have an opinion concerning the defects and excellencies. That being so, I feel that I could make no useful contribution, except as a philologist and critic. But it is precisely my view of the international language situation, that such services, however good in theory, are in practice not wanted; in fact, that a time has come when the philological theorist is a hindrance and a nuisance. This is indeed the strongest of my motives for supporting Esperanto. (2)

Esperanto seems to me beyond doubt, taken all round, superior to all present competitors, but its chief claim to support seems to me to rest on the fact that it has already the premier place, has won the widest measure of practical acceptance, and developed the most advanced organisation. It is in fact in the position of an orthodox church facing not only unbelievers but schismatics and heretics -- a situation that was foretold by the philologist. But granted a certain necessary degree of simplicity, internationality, and (I would add) individuality and euphony -- which Esperanto certainly reaches and passes -- it seems to me obvious that much the most important problem to be solved by a would-be international language is universal propagation. An inferior instrument that has a chance of achieving this is worth a hundred theoretically more perfect. There is no finality in linguistic invention and taste. Nicety of invention in detail is of comparatively little importance, beyond the necessary minimum; and theorists and inventors (whose band I would delight to join) are simply retarders of the movement, if they are willing to sacrifice unanimity to "improvement".

Actually, it seems to me, too, that technical improvement of the machinery, either aiming at greater simplicity and perspicuity of structure, or at greater internationality, or what not, tends (to judge by recent examples) to destroy the "humane" or aesthetic aspect of the invented idiom. This apparently unpractical aspect appears to be largely overlooked by theorists; though I imagine it is not really unpractical, and will have ultimately great influence on the prime matter of universal acceptance. N** (3), for instance, is ingenious, and easier than Esperanto, but hideous -- "factory product" is written all over it, or rather, "made of spare parts" -- and it has no gleam of the individuality, coherence and beauty, which appear in the great natural idioms, and which do appear to a considerable degree (probably as high a degree as is possible in an artificial idiom) in Esperanto -- a proof of the genius of the original author...

My advice to all who have the time or inclination to concern themselves with the international language movement would be: "Back Esperanto loyally."

--The British Esperantist, 1932

Editor's notes:

(1) This would have made Tolkien 16 years old at the time he studied Esperanto; see also below. It may be wondered just how much his study of Esperanto influenced his interest in constructed languages, which later led directly to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
(2) Tolkien may be being a bit disingenuous here. There is evidence -- specifically, a notebook, in Esperanto, written at age 17 by Tolkien -- in the Bodleian Library to indicate that his knowledge of, and interest in, Esperanto was, at least during part of his life, considerably greater than he acknowledges in this article. See also his comments in his later essay "A Secret Vice".
(3) "N**" is not further identified, but given the time of writing we may, with some confidence, assume that Tolkien was referring to Otto Jespersen's recently-promulgated Novial.

This article has appeared in several places in recent years, including on the net and in the pages of esperanto usa. This posting is copied from pp 11-12 of Tolkien, J.R.R.: La Kunularo de l' Ringo. Translated by William Auld. Ekaterinburg: Sezonoj, 1995.