Tolkien Gateway

Letter 209

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 209
RecipientRobert Murray, S.J.
Date4 May 1958
Subject(s)Philological discussion (non-Middle-earth subjects)

Letter 209 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

[edit] Summary

Murray had asked Tolkien for his views on the original meaning of and relationships between various words for "holy" in Indo-European languages. Tolkien began by stating that the problems concerning "original" meanings were fascinating: alluring but not necessarily a wholesome attraction. Other than for historical purposes, what is gained by such investigations?

An historical enquiry must deal simultaneously with two variables in independent motion. A word-form may pass through a cycle of change, becoming phonetically unrecognizable with no change of meaning. Or the meaning of a word may suddenly change without any change in phonetics. Before AD 1400 "yelp" meant "to speak proudly". Suddenly it changed into the noise of foxes or dogs. We do not know the "original" meaning of any word, still less the meaning of its root.

Tackling holy, an old-fashioned philologist (such as Tolkien said he was) would look first at the history of the form. Laboriously elaborated rules, valid within limits, will say what it is probably formally related to. However, you cannot wholly escape the quicksand of semantics. Before relating holy and other words one would want both a phonologically possible kinship and some possible kinship in sense. There will be the uneasy awareness of "homophones", phonetically indistinguishable elements with distinct senses and that semantic change is sometimes violent with no evidence left behind. There is also the possibility of invented or borrowed words with no common antiquity.