Wednesday, July 25, 2018

A Note on Fonway and Fonwegian

J.R.R. Tolkien’s lecture on inventing languages, “A Secret Vice,” was first published in 1983.  A critical edition, including newly published writings by Tolkien, appeared in 2016 as A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages, edited by Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins.

In some of the newly-published writings, Tolkien introduces in a curious manner the (imaginary) island of Fonway, and its language, Fonwegian. Here are the appropriate details, in an interpolation given just after a discussion of Nevbosh and Naffarin, two of Tolkien’s early efforts at inventing languages. 
Here I will interpose some material—which will save this paper from being too autobiographical. I recently became possessed by accident of some secret documents—a grammar and glossary and some sentences in the Fonwegian language spoken apparently in the island of Fonway. (pp. 20-21)

Editors Fimi and Higgins quite reasonably have presumed that Tolkien was the creator of Fonwegian, and his presentation of the language as a “found manuscript” is a literary device. Higgins has expanded on this in a conference paper, “Tolkien's A Secret Vice and ‘the language that is spoken in the Island of Fonway’” which is available in volume 3 issue 1 of the online Journal of Tolkien Research (direct URL here).

The lexicographer Edmund Weiner has (equally reasonably) questioned the idea of Tolkien as the creator of Fonwegian in two posts at his Philoloblog. The two posts include “Did Tolkien Invent Fonwegian?” (direct URL here) and “Fonwegian—A Rejoinder” (direct URL here).

Weiner is right to point out that Tolkien’s language introducing Fonwegian is quite curious, but he offers no solution to the problem. I suggest a possible one here.

In a 1977 speech to the Tolkien Society, Tolkien’s second son Michael recalled that, as children, he and his siblings had all been encouraged by their father to create and manage their own islands. Michael noted that his island (filled with railways, to his father’s dismay)  had a language based on Latin and Greek.  Could Fonway and Fonwegian be a creation made by one of Tolkien’s children, for an imaginary island, echoing in names the real world Norway and Norwegian?  When Tolkien first delivered “A Secret Vice” to the Johnson Society at Pembroke College, Oxford, on 29 November 1931, Tolkien’s four children were, respectively, 14 (John), 11 (Michael), 7 (Christopher) and 2 (Priscilla).  Michael’s description of his own island’s language seems to rule him out, but perhaps Fonwegian was a creation of his older brother John, or even his younger brother Christopher?  Such an instance might explain Tolkien’s comments of his having “recently become possessed by accident of some secret documents.”  We may never know the truth, but this scenario seems a possibility. 


  1. We may never know the truth, but it sure is fun to speculate! Thanks for the interesting thoughts. It seems as reasonable a possibility as any, and more so than most!

  2. Thank you. I also thought it must have been one of the Tolkien children, but I didn't know about the islands. How lovely!

  3. Very interesting, thank you!

    I have always found Fimi & Higgins' explanation to be uniquely unsatisfying.

    The device they describe, while perfectly fine for literary purposes, would be wholly unacceptable for a scholarly context (and, of course, completely unthinkable in a scientific context – and Tolkien's old-fashioned comparative philology is, in may ways, a scientific field).

    I think that A Secret Vice is at some point between the entirely literary and the entirely scholarly context, and much, then, depends on how one sees it, which of the two it approaches the more.

    Having spoken with Fimi and Higgins about this, I know that we differ in our assessment of this aspect of A Secret Vice, but in my view it is too close to the scholarly situation for me to be at all comfortable with the idea of Tolkien using this device, and I have not found their explanations (oral at Oxonmoot in '16) to be convincing.

    In my eyes, applying such a device would mean that Tolkien viewed the whole thing as mere entertainment, while the paper itself, to me, suggests that he actually took it rather more seriously than that.

    John Garth has proposed that the actual language-inventor of Fonwegian might have been C.S. Lewis deciding to try it out after hearing Tolkien espouse his ‘secret vice’, which I also find is an interesting proposal.

    I do think that it is quite likely that the inventor was someone very close to Tolkien – whether family or a close friend – but I find it quite unlikely that it should have been Tolkien himself.

    I am not myself trained in linguistics, and my guesses in that direction are quite likely to be wrong, but there is something about Fonwegian that seems to me, as a native speaker of a Scandinavian language, to have some echoes of the Scandinavian. This may be wholly erroneous, but I would, in any case, not be surprised to learn that the inventor of Fonwegian had at least some small knowledge of a Scandinavian language.