New journal article: J.R.R. Tolkien and early 20th-century radical linguistic experimentation

Last month I had a new journal article published in the Open Access Journal of Tolkien Research:

Fimi, D. (2018) ‘Language as Communication vs. Language as Art: J.R.R. Tolkien and Early 20th-Century Radical Linguistic Experimentation’, Journal of Tolkien Research, 5(1), pp. 1-28. Available at:

The article was an outgrowth of the research I did for A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages, co-edited with Andrew Higgins.

One the one hand, I have always wondered about one of Tolkien’s rather pointed remarks when referring to International Auxiliary Languages:

At present I think we should be likely to get an inhumane language without any cooks at all – their place being taken by nutrition experts and dehydrators. (Secret Vice, p. 5, italics added)

Who were these “nutrition experts and dehydrators”? My article offers a potential answer to this question, by tracing the history of language invention, and the idea of sound symbolism, and then placing Tolkien’s comment within the exact historical and intellectual moment of the delivery of “A Secret Vice”.

On the other hand, Tolkien’s manuscripts edited and presented in A Secret Vice revealed unexpected links with Modernist and avant-garde movements of the time, including James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. The article traces the remarkable parallels between Tolkien’s theorizing of imaginary languages and the radical linguistic ideas of Modernist and other avant-garde writers of the early 20th century (not only Joyce and Stein, but also the zaum and Dada poets). The article shows that, despite political and ideological differences, Tolkien and experimental writers engaged with current linguistic research and came to similar aesthetic and imaginative responses.

As an overarching argument, the article claims that at the heart of Tolkien’s exploration in “A Secret Vice” (and its accompanying papers) is the question of language as communication vs. language as art. It argues that Tolkien’s language invention navigates the (perceived) binary between a utilitarian aim for language invention (contemporary International Auxiliary Languages) vs. an aesthetic linguistic pursuit (contemporary Modernist and other avant-garde linguistic experimentation), by choosing a third (middle) way.

  • You can read the article here

Article on Invented Languages on the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) Online

I have had a new article published today on the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) Online, titled: “Inventing a Whole Language”. In this article I discuss imaginary languages, from early modern traveller’s tales and Victorian fantasy, to Tolkien, of course, as well as George Orwell and Anthony Burgess. This piece builds on the research I did with Andrew Higgins for our edition of A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages (HarperCollins, 2016) and argues for language invention as an enduring form of art.

You can read the entire article here.

Continue reading this article on the Times Literary Supplement Online:

Tolkien’s A Secret Vice: first reviews

As promised in yesterday’s blog post, I have tried to put together some extracts from the first reviews of A Secret Vice: Tolkien and Invented Languages, mainly so that I don’t forget the thrill of reading them and so that I keep on remembering that the book is now done, out there, and read by Tolkien scholars and enthusiasts all over the world. Since its publication, I have seen the book in the hands of friends and strangers and I have had the pleasure of signing copies, including at the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, Michigan, in May. The reviews below are from the press and online reviewing platforms. I am awaiting eagerly the first reviews in academic journals and periodicals.

Signing SV

With Andrew Higgins, signing copies of _A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages_ at Kalamazoo

New Statesman SV review
From Teach yourself Dwarvish: behind Tolkien’s invented languages, by John Garth, The New Statesman, 15 April 2016

[Tolkien’s] talk is a vigorous defence of the [language invention] “hobby” and, with the support of the background commentaries provided by Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins, it becomes clear that the invention of languages has been a surprisingly widespread activity. A Secret Vice is a thoroughly engaging introduction for the outsider. […] This edition includes not only the 1931 paper but also the various notes that Tolkien made in preparing it. It’s a mishmash, with something for the Elvish buff and something for those who enjoy unlikely cultural collisions. A good example of the latter is a note by Tolkien on the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” section of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

Read the entire review here.


SV in BlackwellsFrom A Model of Scholarship, by Arthur Morgan (a former student of Christopher Tolkien),, 16 April 2016

This is a fascinating and very well written account of the history and development of Tolkien’s invented languages. It has the virtues of the old scholars: clarity, sharp focus, detail, careful examination and analysis of the evidence, and an absence of the clogging jargon that has become a disfigurement of academic writing and often a substitute for thought and insight. […] The range of knowledge revealed here is extraordinary, yet it is lightly worn and is subordinated to underpinning the conclusions which the two authors reach. […] The text proper of ‘A Secret Vice’ is given in a form that is a model of its kind, a very clear text that preserves cancellations and changes found in the original typescripts and manuscripts held in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The editors have appended succinct and most helpful notes that explain or expand complexities in Tolkien’s argument. […] This is an unfailingly fascinating, thorough and comprehensive account of a largely technical subject that is central to an understanding of Tolkien and his work. It would be very surprising if it did not remain the standard text on this subject.

Read the entire review here.


From Tolkien As Professor, by John D. Cofield,, 20 May 2016

This book contains a lecture on invented languages [Tolkien] delivered to the Samuel Johnson Society of Pembroke College at Oxford University in 1931 as well as related material and essays, all ably edited and annotated by the notable scholars Dr. Dimitra Fimi and Dr. Andrew Higgins. […] After the introduction we have the essay itself, with Tolkien’s own crossings out and emendations, accompanied by Fimi and Higgins’ wonderfully detailed Notes. Next is Tolkien’s related essay on “Phonetic Symbolism,” which contains many of the same themes, though with some differences in emphasis and detail. This is also meticulously annotated by Fimi and Higgins. The third segment discusses manuscripts and notes pertaining to the essays which are held in the Bodleian, and a Coda details the ongoing interest in invented languages which Tolkien helped inspire. […] This is a marvelous work which adds much to Tolkien scholarship.

Read the entire review here.

SV in Forbidden PlanetFrom Review of A Secret Vice, by Thomas,, 21 May 2016

As a huge Tolkien fan and as a linguist I highly appreciate the efforts the editors made, in order to show us the creative process of the two essays that are annotated in this book. […] The editors Fimi and Higgins are to be commended for their highly interesting attempts at tracing the origins of certain phrases and terms. […] It is worth a philological and careful read by those who have an interest in Tolkienian languages, sound symbolism and those who wish to read an interesting book.

Read the entire review here.

From Review of A Secret Vice, by Bookworm Sean,, 27 May 2016

Let’s just face the facts people, Tolkien was a genius. He was the inventor of languages and mythology; he was the designer of races and cultures: he was the creator of worlds. He created modern fantasy. So here’s a book that gets right down to the nitty-gritty of Tolkien’s wonderful world; it explains the logic, and the success, behind his imagination: the language itself. Tolkien’s essay “A Secret Vice” is replicated in here. Certainly, the essay is available, along with many others, in editions that collect his writings. You may even be able to find it for free online. That’s great, but this edition goes into a great deal of detail. The scholarship of the editors is of the highest quality. The introduction, notes and explanatory sections are extensive and illuminating. In all honesty, I don’t think I would have appreciated the full importance of Tolkien’s arguments without the extensive efforts the editors have gone to. This really is good stuff.

Read the entire review here.

Last but not least, for a Storify story about how the book has fared in blogs and social media see here.