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.