Sound Symbolism

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

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.


Researching Tolkien’s ‘Secret Vice’

wordle 2

A ‘word cloud’ for _A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages_

During the last few months I have been buried in my cave… er… office to finish the OTHER book, and I have gone through a pretty traumatic family emergency (all OK now!). Adding to this mix the mad marking load that most academics have to face every May-June means that I haven’t really had a chance yet to take stock of reactions to the new Tolkien book I co-edited with Dr Andrew Higgins: A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages. I am, therefore, taking this opportunity to reflect on the book, the research process, as well as the book’s reception out there. Today, I will sketch some of the ‘highlights’ of researching the book and I will answer a persistent question. Tomorrow, I am hoping to create a record (mainly for myself) of how the book has fared so far in reviews, social media, etc.

A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages is the first ever critical edition of Tolkien’s essay on invented languages (‘A Secret Vice’, first published in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays), to which Andrew and I have restored some parts that were omitted from the original edition. The book also publishes for the first time a new short essay by Tolkien on ‘Phonetic Symbolism’, as well as Tolkien’s notes and drafts for both essays, which contain some surprising mentions of contemporary Modernists (among a lot of other material of note).


For me, one of the highlights of the research I undertook with Dr Higgins was the discovery of where and when exactly Tolkien delivered the talk. In the original edition of ‘A Secret Vice’ Christopher Tolkien noted that the manuscript of ‘A Secret Vice’ appeared ‘without date or indication of the occasion of its delivery’ (Monsters and the Critics, p. 3), and he dated the essay to 1931 based on its reference to the July 1930 Esperanto Congress in Oxford as taking place ‘a year or more ago’. The impressive Tolkien Chronology by Scull and Hammond (2006) did not manage to uncover any further information either, so we had nearly given up hope, especially after a prolonged period of research in various Oxford clubs and societies. However, good old fashioned sleuth-work eventually uncovered that Tolkien delivered this paper for the Johnson Society, Pembroke College, on 29th November 1931. It was a real joy to find out that a lengthy report from that evening survived in the Johnson Society minutes (now reproduced in the book) and to discover more about Tolkien’s relationship with the society. To add even a small detail to Tolkien’s biographical information is no small feat, and I won’t forget the moment of discovery!

What is more, both Andrew and I had the opportunity to present to the world our particular Tolkien finds (our “babies”) about which we were excited for a long time. For me, this was the brief essay on ‘Phonetic Symbolism’. I had discovered this little gem while doing my PhD research back in 2003, and I had worked on transcribing it for years after that (Tolkien’s handwriting, characteristically, starts very elegantly and gradually disintegrates into rushed jottings). I had referred to this essay in my book, Tolkien, Race and Cultural History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, pp. 88-9), but a request to reproduce it as an appendix was not granted to me back then (and I can definitely appreciate why – the essay stands in a much better place now, among Tolkien’s other related works). This essay is, for me, an important stage in the development of Tolkien’s linguistic ideas, and is quite bold in shaking the waters of contemporary scholarship, especially on philology and the causes of sound shift.

Andrew had discovered his particular Tolkien “find” while doing his own PhD (which I supervised) in 2012: a few pages from ‘A Secret Vice’, omitted from the original edition, which outline a sketch for a hitherto unknown invented language by Tolkien, Fonwegian. Andrew’s PhD centred on Tolkien’s linguistic invention as a lens through which his early mythology can be re-evaluated and illuminated afresh, so the discovery of Fonwegian was an important moment for him (and for Tolkien scholarship). He talked about it at the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo in May, and his paper is now available to read via the Journal of Tolkien Research here.

One question that I have been asked a lot since the book was announced, is how much “new” Tolkien it contains. Well, I’ve had a go at quantifying this, and I have a visual representation and a number for you! First, with some trepidation, I am presenting below my hand-drawn diagram of the contents of MS Tolkien 24 as it sits in the Bodleian. I drew this for me and Andrew back in February 2015, when we were still grappling with a major editorial decision: how to present the material in MS Tolkien 24 in the new book*. As you will see, each square in the diagram represents a page (or rather a side of a page – F: stands for ‘folio’, r: recto, v: verso). The order here is exactly as in the folder in the Bodleian, so the folder begins with the ‘Essay on Phonetic Symbolism’ (here coloured pink – my brain works better with colour-coding), then ‘A Secret Vice’ itself (here coloured yellow), interspersed with pages that were not included in the original edition in The Monsters and the Critics (here coloured in green), followed by miscellaneous notes and drafts (also coloured in green).  Most of the white pages are either blank or contain random notes, not related to the two essays presented in our volume. So the new material by Tolkien is (roughly) represented by the squares coloured pink and green in the diagram**. I also attempted a word-count of the “new” Tolkien in the book and can confirm that our ‘extended’ edition of ‘A Secret Vice’ comprises approximately 4,500 words of new material by J.R.R. Tolkien. I am quite happy with that!

MS Tolkien 24

Some first thoughts on how Andrew and I worked together on this volume were recorded in an interview we gave for the French Tolkien Society Tolkiendil, accessible here in English, and here in French. It really was an amazing experience – at some point we need to co-author an article on research collaboration when living in different cities. I tried to keep a ‘research journal’ while working on the book (which wasn’t as regular as it should have been), and I am sharing below part of the entry for Wednesday 8th April 2015:

I’m working in my office (glorious sunshine outside) while Andrew is in Oxford looking up stuff. I got a number of Facebook messages from him this morning – he was consulting the Esperanto Club papers at Exeter College. Guess who cropped up again? Our infamous Mr. McCallum! R.B. McCallum of Pembroke College himself, who – it turns out – was also the Senior Treasurer of the Esperanto Club, his name featuring prominently in a leaflet that is calling the first meeting of the O.U. Esperanto Club on Tuesday 24th August. I’ve looked it up: the 24th of August was definitely a Tuesday in 1931, so all is falling into place!…

In the midst of all of this I got an e-mail notification that my latest ILL has arrived (A Grammar of Iconism, by Anderson) – I called Cyncoed library and it’s already there so I need to pick it up pronto!

And as I am writing this I am on a live chat with the Bodleian (via SOLO) trying to ascertain whether the complete set of transition held in the Bodleian was acquired at the time of publication or later (Stein and Joyce appear many times in many of the issues).

I am still somewhat stunned that this project has been completed, that the book is out, and that there are people out there reading it right now! As promised above, tomorrow I will try to capture some of the reactions and reviews of readers so far.



*Although we toyed with the idea of presenting the ‘Essay on Phonetic Symbolism’ first, in order to reproduce the order of the folder, following feedback from Christopher Tolkien we gave prominence to ‘A Secret Vice’, which – as the main essay – deservedly appeared first, followed by the ‘Essay on Phonetic Symbolism’ and then the rest of the manuscripts and drafts.

**This isn’t an exact representation, but a rough visual one. Those of you who know the text well will notice that Folios 50r, 51r and 52r were included in the original edition of ‘A Secret Vice’, but also that we ended up including in this volume (for good reasons, I think), folios 44 and 45v which are not coloured in this diagram.



Fimi, Dimitra (2008) Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Higgins, Andrew (2015) The Genesis of Tolkien’s Mythology. Unpublished PhD Thesis: Cardiff Metropolitan University.

Higgins, Andrew (2016) ‘Tolkien’s A Secret Vice and “the language that is spoken in the Island of Fonway”‘, Conference Paper, Journal of Tolkien Research, 3:1. Available at:

Scull, Christina & Hammond, Wayne (2006) The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Volume 1: Chronology. London: HarperCollins.

Tolkien, J.R.R. (1982) The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, edited by Christopher Tolkien. London: Allen & Unwin.

Tolkien, J.R.R. (2016) A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages, edited by Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins. London: HarperCollins.