or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Little Details

Over on the A.V. Club there's a little news article about some British actor named Rob Kazinsky leaving the set of "The Hobbit", and since it would be very hard for me to care less about the movie, I wouldn't have ever bothered clicking the link if the thumbnail headshot they posted didn't suggest that the actor in question was exceedingly attractive indeed, as a little further research proved to be the case.

Unshaven redheads? Yes please!

And, the A.V. Club commenters being what they are, someone raised the issue of "dwarfs" versus "dwarves" (since this is Tolkien we are talking about), and someone eventually wrote a long and involved reply that I am quoting here in full because I was so intoxicated by it.

Here's the thing. There are basically two classes of English nouns ending in f. You have ones like leaf and roof and wolf, which are older in English and derive from Anglo-Saxon and tend to morph the f into a v when pluralized. Then you have ones like proof and brief and chief, which derive from Romance languages usually keep their f in the plural form.

Of course, people don't generally remember where words come from, so over time these classes got mixed up. Belief is Anglo-Saxon, but it only changes to believes when it's a verb: nobody ever talks about their personal believes. Because dwarf and elf aren't as common in every day speech as leaf and roof, the older forms plural forms were forgotten, and dwarves and elves became dwarfs and elfs.

Tolkien thought this was bullshit, for a number of reasons. First, he hated to see words mangled by the passage of time just because people forgot how they were supposed to be pronounced or deemed the old-fashioned way "archaic." As far as he was concerned, elf and dwarf were as old and Germanic as leaf and roof, and deserved their v's to show it. Furthermore, in writing the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings he made a deliberate effort to avoid words of Latin origin, and his eyes "dwarfs" was a Latinized bastardization of a thoroughly Anglo word. Obviously, it's impossible to write prose of any length in modern English without using ANY words from Latin, but his sense of style and the setting of the story made him heavily biased against them. Given the choice between a word from Old English and an import via French, he almost invariably went with the former.

Actually, Tolkien showed considerable nerd-restraint in using "dwarves." Dwarf in Old English was dweorh, which was pronounced with a guttural sound at the end: it changed to f in Middle English in the same process that altered the sound of words like enough. The "proper" plural was dwarrows, but Tolkien decided that it would be too jarring for any reader not thoroughly versed in the philological history of the word. If anything, he was enraged at the way his publishers disregarded what he must have felt was an artful compromise.

Well then!


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