Using Elvish Languages in Fantasy Fiction

Elves as portrayed in the 1977 Rankin-Bass ver...
Elves as portrayed in the 1977 Rankin-Bass version of The Hobbit. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So if you want to include Elves in a work of Fantasy fiction that should be pretty simple right? I mean everyone knows how Elves speak – what kind of names they have etc – Elrond, Legolas, Galadriel – they all sound suitably, well, Elvish.

That’s the position I was in recently when contemplating writing a fantasy work including Elves, Dwarfs etc – the standard fantasy tropes – but with a twist of course. So wanting to be fairly thorough about my world building I decided I would need a naming system for people and places – a constructed language effectively. And therefore following on from that I naturally thought I should take a look at Quenya – the main Elvish language created by Tolkien – surely I could just use that as a basis and make up some cool and realistic sounding Elvish names.

But having read part of an online Quenya course (which is very good by the way and fascinating in itself), I realised that it wasn’t so simple. The author of the course includes a lengthy section on copyright, the main aim of which is to defend the right of people to publish courses such as his and also their own works in Quenya – not for profit even seems to be a bit controversial. The author of the course made the point that any commercial fictional work that used Quenya to create a naming system and language would effectively be in breach of Tolkien’s copyright.

That stopped me in my tracks – I hadn’t even considered that. So I looked into it a bit more – did other fantasy works with Elves really have their own unique languages. The main works are actually games – D&D and Warhammer – they both have their own languages – Elven and Eltharin respectively – although I suspect both are fairly superficial in nature. I looked a bit further and found that fictional works also had their own languages – for instance the Elvish language of Gael Baudino‘s Strands series is based on the Romance languages, and the Elvish languages of Andrzej Sapkowski‘s The Witcher saga, are apparently based on Welsh, Irish, French and English.

So it seems other authors and creators of Elvish cultures have also endeavoured to steer clear of using Quenya – a shame in a way as Tolkien created such a rich language – no one could do something more comprehensive I suspect for a race that doesn’t exist, but also you could also say it would be great to write fiction in Tolkien’s world, which also would be derivative and remain in the sphere of fan fiction.

So where does that leave my Elvish setting? Looking at creating a new language I suppose – and probably digging out a Conglang book such as the Language Construction Kit. However, I’m still planning on learning more about Quenya for the inspiration and also to make anything I create myself a bit richer.

2 thoughts on “Using Elvish Languages in Fantasy Fiction”

  1. Great info, Mark!
    I kind of figured the Elvin language created by Tolkien would be copyrighted. The one thing not mentioned here is that he was a linguist. His study of the languages throughout history helped him to be able to make it, so I suspect anyone else trying to do the same would be hard-pressed to come up with a plausible representation for their own works. He made up their alphabet, the drawing of each letter, and how to string them together in words and phrases that could be translated into our language.
    The Star Trek world has done this as well, when Marc Okrand developed the Klingon language ( )
    Personally, I have enough problems coming up with the right English words to describe the goings on.
    In my WIP “The Barbarian,”( ) though there aren’t fantastical beasts, the Sorcerers speak an ancient language to cast their spells. I’m so lazy, though, I just write that the words “sound like gibberish.” I don’t know enough about my own language of American English, nor any others, to be able to do a plausible representation of a made up language.
    I do wish you the best if/when you continue this endeavor.
    — John

    1. Thanks John – I did try it a while ago with a previous fantasy world I was working – everything either came out sounding either like Turkish or Welsh – but kind of seemed plausible. I wasn’t 100% satisfied with it though so have considered taking a more systematic approach in the future – perhaps along the lines of the Language Construction Kit – see The map of part of the world I previously created contains some of the language I created. I’ll try to post something about that in the future on this blog if people are interested and link to it on Facebook.

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