I am jumping through the last leg of hoops in terms of completing my teaching certification, one hoop of which requires me to take two basic linguistic courses. Admittedly, it is probably the most pleasurable hoop to jump through, since it is an area I have wanted to study for some time anyway.
While reading The Stories of English by David Crystal last night for the History of English class I’m taking, I encountered a section on the idea of “language purity,” particularly as it relates to English:
Thre is a curious myth widespread in the world: many people believe that their language can somehow be ‘pure’–comprising a set of sounds, words, and structures that can all be traced back continuously to a single point of origin–and that anything which interferes with this imagined purity (especially words borrowed from other languages) is a corrupting influence, altering the language’s ‘true character.’ In the case of English, it is the Germanic origins of the language, in their Anglo-Saxon form, which are supposed to manifest this character. …
There are certainly important stylistic differences between Germanic and Romance words … but support for any notion of a ‘return to purity’ is misplaced. No language has ever been found which displays lexical purity: there is always a mixture, arising from the contact of its speakers with other communities at different periods in its history. In the case of English, there is a special irony, for its vocabulary has never been purely Anglo-Saxon–not even in the Anglo-Saxon period. (p. 57)
I have encountered the notion of linguistic purity on numerous occasions in the Tolkien fandom. I want to start out by saying that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people who want to attempt to draw predominantly from a certain linguistic tradition in their writing, if that is what satisfies them and they feel best expresses what they want their stories to say. Apparently, according to Crystal, they’re in good company with the likes of Edmund Spenser, Charles Dickens, and George Orwell. What I’ve always objected to is the rather snobbish insistence that adopting such a style is somehow the superior choice or, worse yet, requisite for a truly respectful treatment of Tolkien’s works.
One of the very first comments I received on AMC noted my use of U.S. English and the reviewer’s distaste with that. I treated it in a rather jokey manner–as the new girl in town, I didn’t know what to expect from reviewers and didn’t want to piss anyone off–but the comment never sat right with me. My initial reaction was to think, “Duh. I write in U.S. English because I was born, raised, and learned to write in the U.S.” I brushed it off, but the remark stuck with me, obviously enough that I remember it more than five years and many hundreds of comments later.
Some years later, on a mailing list for a Tolkien fanfic group, the discussion turned to grammatical and spelling conventions used in fandom, and the following remark was made concerning the use of “American” spellings and grammar:
I am put off reading fanfics based on Tolkien’s work with American spellings, and in particular, American speech patterns.
. . .
I’m not suggesting that everyone has to learn British spellings overnight, but it baffles me when I see people go to the trouble of doing long and complicated Quenyan [sic] or Sindarin translations but can’t be bothered to stay true to Tolkien’s style of spelling and speech patterns.
. . .
I’m sorry for suggesting then that [a] site about fanfiction written based on works by a British Professor who worked for the Oxford English Dictionary might want to use British spellings.
This conversation became quite heated (not that I played any part in that *ahem*) and lots of interesting revelations came out of the woodwork. Several U.S. writers acknowledged that they had tried to train themselves to write using British spelling and grammatical conventions, with mixed success. Others noted that they didn’t read stories that used U.S. spelling and grammar conventions. I later learned that this was apparently a big issue in some corners of fandom, with authors not only avoiding U.S. conventions but attempting to avoid vocabulary with etymologies that did not hail back to Anglo-Saxon, especially French-derived words. I found myself surprisingly angry over the whole thing. The idea that the language with which I had been raised and in which I had written all of my life was not adequate for writing fan fiction was deeply offensive, as was the notion that it was somehow inferior to another set of spelling/grammar conventions. I noted that the language in which an author writes is tied deeply to her identity and that it is troubling, to say the least, to expect people to suppress their identities in service of imitating another writer, no matter how much one might admire him.
Dipping my toe into linguistics has been satisfying in the sense that it has validated my feelings in many ways. For one, yes, language is essential to identity. As a writer, my language is central to who I am, perhaps even beyond the attachment I’d feel toward it if I wasn’t a writer. For another, the notion of one language being “better” or “purer” than another is a load of hogwash.
From a canonical perspective, I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t another example of what I perceive to be a pretty deep divide concerning the motive for writing Tolkien-based stories and the approach taken during the construction of those stories. There seem to be two schools of thought here. One says that stories should be imitative and try to put the reader back into the world exactly as Tolkien constructed it, right down to a perceived “Tolkienesque” style. The other approach says that Tolkien-based stories should be transformative, fill in the blanks, and question or critique Tolkien’s ideas through fiction. I’m not saying that one approach is more valid than the other.
From my perspective, falling squarely into the transformative camp, nothing is more counterintuitive than suppressing my own style as an author in order to imitate a style of writing used by another author. For one, it seems to me an exercise in futility; I best create evocative text in my own language, not a language belonging to someone else, to which I have no emotional attachment and in which I do not perceive the world. For another, it is a distraction to my purpose, which isn’t trying to sound like Tolkien or re-create the experience of reading his books with my stories but expressing ideas related to his writing–again, a task best accomplished, for me, in my native language. As an author, I am not an invisible presence behind the scenes in my stories, trying to create the illusion that I’m JRRT and not Dawn Felagund. No, my stories concern who I am and my beliefs and experiences as much as they concern the world JRRT crafted. That requires the use of my own style, my own language.