It's with a great pleasure that I publish here an interview given by David Salo to Ambar Eldaron at the occasion of the issue of his book 'A Gateway to Sindarin'.
As everybody knows, it's a Grammar of an Elvish Language from J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (more details here), published by The University of Utah Press
For those who don't know who he is, David Salo is a specialist in Tolkien's Elvish tongues. He's living in Madison, Wisconsin (USA).
He was contacted by Peter Jackson's crew for beeing consultant for all that concerned Quenya and specially spoken or written Sindarin in the movies.
Yes, it's Christmas before Christmas.. and here I wish to thank David Salo for his great kindness and his availability.
December 11, 2004
Q: You said in the message introducing your new book of Sindarin Grammar, 'A Gateway to Sindarin', that you began to be interested in Elvish languages very early in your life. Tolkien's Elvish grammar is not very easy. Many people have difficulties learning it. In the beginning, did you find a lot of young friends who shared your interest in Elvish tongues? Or in the beginning were you quite lonely?
A: Early on I knew a few people who were interested in the topic, but not many, and I eventually lost touch with them; from about 1980 to 1995 I had no contact with anybody who was interested in Elvish at all.
Q: Your favorite Elvish tongue seems to be Sindarin. Why this tongue more than the others?
A: I suppose that since I've worked on Sindarin so much it must seem like my favorite! The truth is a little different: I began working on a grammar of Sindarin because it seemed like nobody knew very much about it and they were making mistakes I thought I could correct. I actually like all of Tolkien's languages, even Orkish! I think Adûnaic had the potential to be the most interesting in structure, Sindarin is the most interesting in phonology, and I would probably concur with the judgment of most fans that Quenya is the most beautiful. Sindarin is very beautiful too, but in a different way; if I can put it in poetic terms, Quenya is like a clear, cold, and transparent mountain stream, while Sindarin is like a line of distant mountains seen through mist. Quenya's beauty is an intrinsic part of its structure and shows very clearly through its natural form, while the beauty of Sindarin comes from the way it cloaks its natural form and hides it from view.
Q: Quenya has more words than Sindarin, so we can suppose that it will be more easier to speak Quenya than Sindarin. But Sindarin is more attractive for the audience. Why? Only because of the movie? or because it's a greater challenge to learn?
A: This is something altogether new; back in 1995, very few people were interested in Sindarin. I guess that it has something to do with the use of Sindarin in the movies, but it may also be related to the fact that in the last few years a good deal more information about Sindarin has become available: there are Sindarin lessons and Sindarin vocabularies available on the web, and even people teaching Sindarin classes!
Q: As you know, speaking about Elvish tongues, two 'schools' are fighting one another. The 'purists' who think we must not touch what Tolkien had established, and the others who want to make these tongues live, and, following the grammatical rules, try to develop these languages. What is your opinion about this?
A: My opinion is that there shouldn't be any fighting. I think there is validity in both opinions, and I find myself between two stools in considering the question. I am mostly interested in discovering what Tolkien intended; however, I am well aware that for the purposes of communication, 1800 words is not enough and you cannot adequately use a language that has no certainly known 2nd person verbal forms! Therefore I quite see the point of "developing" them; but of course such development can only be tentative and always in need of revision.
Q: When you were asked to be the Elvish tongues' consultant for the famous films, were you surprised?
A: Absolutely flabbergasted.
Q: When you went to New Zealand, what did you think about all that? What was your first feeling when you arrived there?
A: It's a common misconception that you had to have been on site to work on the film. I managed to do all my work over the internet, sitting at my computer in Madison, Wisconsin. I never met Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, Liv Tyler, or Miranda Otto, much to my regret. If there's a contagious Hollywood glamor (or even Wellington glamour), I haven't got it and I can't pass it on.
Q: Did you guess that it would be such a big success worldwide when you had the first contacts?
A: I guessed that it would either be an amazing hit or a total flop. I had no idea which. I am glad that it was the better option.
Q: How much time did you spend on the movie?
A: Not as much time as you'd think. I don't know much time I spent in total, but certainly no more than a few hours a week, with very few exceptions.
Q: Did you teach the dialogues directly to the actors?
A: No, that job fell to Andrew Jack, Roisín Carty, and other members of the language coaching staff.
Q: I think that you worked with the scenery, and the accessories too (like words on the swords). Can you relate us what contacts you had with the designers? and how the work was organized?
A: I had a little contact early on with Dan Falconer, John Howe, and other people active in WETA workshop. They asked me for particular inscriptions, and I sent them pictures and explanations by fax. In one or two cases I made design suggestions, but I am not a designer and I expect that my input was valued at its true worth!
Q: What is (or are) your best memories during this great adventure?
A: Well, getting offered the chance to work on the movies was very exciting. And seeing The Fellowship of the Ring for the second time (the first time I was too overwhelmed to fully appreciate it). And then seeing the Return of the King get all those Oscars... but perhaps the best part has been getting out to talk to so many wonderful people who are just interested in the languages and want to learn more about them, talking to people at libraries and conventions and so on. I found that the most enjoyable part of the whole thing.
Q: ...and what were your worst memories?
A: I don't think there really was any downside.
Q: As a great fan of the book, do you think the films make a right place to the Elvish tongues?
A: I think that the movies were a completely appropriate place for people to encounter the sound and feel of Tolkien's languages. I hope that those people who like it will move on to the books and try to learn more about them, and about languages and linguistics (and life) in general.
Q: Is the work on the movie the most spectacular thing that happened in your life?
A: No, that would be falling in love with and marrying my wife Dorothea.
Q: I cannot believe that, having just published your book on the Sindarin Grammar 'A Gateway to Sindarin', you are going to stay peacefully without another project. Can you tell us something about your future plans?
A: My immediate plan is to finish work on my Ph.D. dissertation. I expect that to occupy me for a couple of years. I intend to stay involved in Tolkien language studies, but I'm not sure that there's any very big project I want to undertake right away. I do think that a complete reconstruction of Common Eldarin, more than appears in A Gateway to Sindarin, would be desirable.
Q: Do you intend to publish your book in other languages ? (hmm... in French for example)
A: I'd be happy to see many translations of A Gateway to Sindarin, but the ultimate decision on that lies with University of Utah Press, and anyone who wants to translate the book should contact them first, not me.