If the name fits: names in J.R R. Tolkien's fiction (11.06.13 by Christopher L. Robinson) - Comments

What makes a name ‘fitting’? Or, in closely related formulations, what makes a name ‘sound right’ or ‘ring true’? From the Cratylus to present-day studies in literary onomastics, the usual answer is that a name is fitting, right, or true for the person, place, or thing that bears it. The names in J. R. R. Tolkien’s fiction are fitting in this sense, reflecting by way of their source words, sound symbolism, or etymology some characteristic of their designees. At the same time, however, Tolkien insists that a name fit not only its designee, but also the phonological and morphological style of the nomenclature to which it belongs, as well as the linguistic scheme of his invented world. These elements of style are determined at the level of the nomenclature as a whole, independently from concerns with the motivation of individual names. The personal and place names of Middle-earth are thus fitting in more than the usual sense. The personal and place names of Middle-earth are thus fitting in more than the usual sense.


Celebrated fantasy writer and scholar J. R. R. Tolkien is best known for his literary works, The HobbitThe Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. New research in Names: A Journal of Onomastics examines what makes the personal and place names of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth so fitting.

In addition to his literary work, Tolkien was a research associate for the Oxford English Dictionaryand was Professor of English at Oxford University for nearly 35 years. He had an affinity with words and language, in particular Old and Middle English. As a linguist interested in linguistic aesthetics, Tolkien eventually created fourteen languages for Middle-Earth.

The nomenclature within Tolkien’s novels is very carefully done, taking into consideration attributes such as etymology, symbolism, and onomatopoeia. In some instances the author has drawn from Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse, but most of his creations emerged from his own invented languages Quenya and Sindarin, the two main tongues spoken by elves.

Aragorn, the name of the king who returns to claim the throne of Gondor, signifies “Lord of the Tree” in elven speech. His name thus alludes to the White Tree in the Court of the Fountain at Minas Tirith, which serves as the royal emblem of Gondor. 

The example of Aragorn illustrates how each name used within Middle-Earth is befitting of the individual it designates. Each name is also fit to the particular linguistic style, culture, and moral character that Tolkien has assigned to the different peoples of his imaginary world.

Names in Sindarin and Quenya, for example, reflect the dignity and grace of the elves. Tolkien has modelled their sounds upon languages he found aesthetically pleasing, such as Greek, Finnish, and Welsh.  A good example is the name of Aragorn’s elven bride, Arwen Undomiel. Signifying ‘Daughter of Twilight’ or ‘Evenstar,’ the name is both euphonious in sound and poetic in meaning.

At the opposite extreme are names in the Black Speech of Mordor, such as that of the terrible ring wraiths, the Nazghûl. Tolkien here employs sound combinations that run counter to the typical patterns of both English and Latin tongues, with the intention that the name strike his readers as sounding awkward and unpleasant.

According to author Christopher L. Robinson, a professor of English at HEC-Paris, “onomastics, or the study of names, dates back to Plato. Comparing the work of the namemaker to that of a blacksmith or weaver, he treats names as functional objects created for the purpose of designating people, places or things in a fitting manner. Today we continue to speak of a ‘namesmith’ or of ‘coining’ a new word. Tolkien has enriched this metaphor by reminding us that a name should not only serve a useful purpose such as designating a character, it should also appeal to the senses.

Download the full article

The article is available via ingentaconnect and is free to download until 03 September 2013 at:
http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/maney/nam/2013/00000061/00000002/art00002

Notes on contributor

Christopher L. Robinson teaches and directs English studies at HEC-Paris. His research focuses on how writers experiment with and experience language. Onomastic invention in fantasy literature is particularly conducive to this kind of experimentation, as it combines wordplay with experiences related to gender, childhood, affect and the body. His studies of names in the fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin, Lord Dunsany, and H. P. Lovecraft have appeared in the journals Extrapolation, Children’s Literature, and Names.

According to author Christopher L. Robinson, a professor of English at HEC-Paris, “onomastics, or the study of names, dates back to Plato. Comparing the work of the namemaker to that of a blacksmith or weaver, he treats names as functional objects created for the purpose of designating people, places or things in a fitting manner. Today we continue to speak of a ‘namesmith’ or of ‘coining’ a new word. Tolkien has enriched this metaphor by reminding us that a name should not only serve a useful purpose such as designating a character, it should also appeal to the senses.

Notes on the source of this article

This article was originally published in  Names: A Journal of Onomastics, Volume 61, Number 2, June 2013 , pp. 65-74(10) under the title: What Makes the Names of Middle-earth So Fitting? Elements of Style in the Namecraft of J. R. R. Tolkien.

We are very grateful that we were allowed to reproduce it here and so we wish to express our deepest gratitude.

Names, the journal of the American Name Society, is one of the world's leading journals in the study of onomastics. Since the first issue in 1952, this quarterly journal has published hundreds of articles, reviews, and notes, seeking to find out what really is in a name, and to investigate cultural insights, settlement history, and linguistic characteristics revealed in names.

For more information about the journal visit www.maneypublishing.com/journals/nam


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