January 15, 2021, by UoN School of English
How did it all start for you?
Mae govannen, mellon nín!*
Without contest, one of the most exciting discoveries in my journey as a language enthusiast was the world created by J.R.R. Tolkien, brought to life in no small part by the native tongues of each of the characters. A philologist, Tolkien delighted in crafting these in great detail, and there are plenty of resources online for anyone with an interest in finding out more about his linguistic work.
This is exactly how I came across a video on constructed languages (conlangs) on YouTube last year. Unexpectedly, but very happily, this video sparked so much excitement in me that I decided to finally take my passion for language seriously and plan a return to studies, many years after completing my first degree. I am now pursuing an MA in Applied English with a focus on Linguistics.
The complex links between culture, identity and self-expression exposed by Tolkien’s stories are a familiar theme for me. The child of a French mother and a Cypriot father, I grew up attending international schools in a country heavily influenced by decades of British colonial rule. I emerged from childhood with French, English and two dialects of Greek firmly rooted in my mind, and an enduring interest in what makes a language a native tongue.
If you consider the question of how to tell the difference between native and non-native speakers of a language, chances are high that one of the first things to come up will be accent. While accent is no indication of proficiency in any given language, it is one of the most salient parts of language use and one of the key things we notice when listening to someone speak. Film directors know this, and tap into the expertise of dialect coaches to help their actors embody characters from all kinds of linguistic backgrounds, real or fictional.
This is where the fateful video that encouraged me begin this journey comes in. If you love languages and fantasy literature, you will love it. Dialect coach Erik Singer analyses six conlangs, offering insights on real-world language inspiration, vocabulary, syntax, and of course phonetics and accents. Who knew Parseltongue used pharyngeal fricatives to evoke a snake’s constricting action, or that Ewokese was based on random words from the Mongolic language Kalmyk?
In line with my interests in multilingualism and phonetics, I am currently finishing work on Second Language Acquisition and plan to move on to Old Norse, Runic Inscriptions and Place Names And Language Change next. Until then, I will leave you with slightly adapted wise words from our friend Tolkien: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, [starting a Master’s degree]. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
*”Well met, my friend!” in the Elvish language Sindarin.