While publishing The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien received criticism over his use of “archaic” language. “Tushery” his critics called it: poor writing marked by archaic diction.

In one of his letters1, Tolkien responds to this charge. He cites one passage from The Two Towers as an example of what critics were complaining of:

‘Nay, Gandalf!’ said the King. ‘You do not know your own skill in healing. It shall not be so. I myself will go to war, to fall in the front of the battle, if it must be. Thus shall I sleep better.’

Defending his choice of diction, Tolkien writes:

I know well enough what a modern would say. ‘Not at all, my dear G[andalf]. You don’t know your own skill as a doctor. Things aren’t going to be like that. I shall go to the war in person, even if I have to be one of the first casualties’ – and then what? [King] Theoden would certainly think, and probably say ‘thus shall I sleep better’! But people who think like that just do not talk a modern idiom.

This last line caught my attention. According to Tolkien, the way people think is deeply connected with the idiom they use.

He continues.

You can have ‘I shall lie easier in my grave’, or ‘I should sleep sounder in my grave like that rather than if I stayed at home’ – if you like. But there would be an insincerity of thought, a disunion of word and meaning. For a King who spoke in a modern style would not really think in such terms at all, and any reference to sleeping quietly in the grave would be a deliberate archaism of expression on his part (however worded) far more bogus than the actual ‘archaic’ English that I have used.

In the given example, Tolkien chooses the language of the king because it reflects the way the king thinks. It may not sound modern, but it’s a true reflection of the king’s view of life, death, and honor. And for Tolkien, it would be difficult (if not impossible) to convey the same thing in the “slack and often frivolous idiom” of today.

So now I’m curious. If our language reflects the way we think, what exactly does the idiom of today say about us – both as individuals, as well as our society? How does our use of language reflect our view of the world, and in what ways has that changed over time?

  1. Letter 171, addressed to Hugh Brogan. Tolkien drafted the letter but never sent it, opting to wait to discuss the topic in person the next time they met. ↩︎