Sunday, September 05, 2004

Reflections on Old Entish

I was just watching Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers the other day, quite by accident since I didn't know it was going to be shown on Singapore TV. One thing struck me as a bit odd: Old Entish, which raised two questions in my mind.

Firstly, if there's an Old Entish, that more or less seems to imply the existence of a New Entish. And if there's a New Entish, why are the Ents still using the old one? One reason I thought of was that Old Entish is something like Latin - no one speaks it as a first language any more, but it's the language to use when you're discussing diplomatic affairs and such-like. And I guess deciding whether or not to go to war against Saruman is a diplomatic affair. A second reason might be that the Ents from a very large geographic area were gathered for the Ent-moot (though this reason seems a little suspect since (1) the Ents converged very quickly, and (2) the Ents were supposed to be only found in Fangorn forest, which doesn't seem to cover a very wide geographic distance - not for the Ents, anyway), and so there may have been different dialects spoken among the Ents, and the only language that would be mutually intelligible to them all was Old Entish. Alternatively, it was more or less agreed-upon that in such situations, Old Entish would be the language adopted. I suppose this is more or less akin to the diglossic situation of Arabic - though no one would call "Modern Standard Arabic" anything like "Old Arabic". Probably the first reason is more reasonable.

A second question that Old Entish raised was as follows: are there significant differences in human languages in terms of the amount of time used to say something? OK, so there're languages like Hawaiian that have a small phonemic inventory and therefore have words many syllables long - but is there a corresponding reduction in the length of a syllable, since with a smaller set of possible syllables to choose from, careful enunciation of every syllable is not required?

Let me put it another way. Assume that we have a certain sentence translated into languages A and B. The sentences mean exactly the same thing in languages A and B - let's not bother for the moment about cultural differences in the way languages express different concepts - nothing like schadenfreude, no metaphors, not even any compound tense and aspect or whatever, just simple sentences like, oh, I don't know, "John kicked the dog". Presumably, these sentences convey the same amount of information. Taking this amount of information (how is it to be quantified?) and dividing it by the amount of time needed to communicate these sentences, and averaging this over a whole bunch of random sentences gives you the efficiency of the language. You'll also need to figure out what the average syllables/second rate is for the language, I suppose. Ultimately, my question boils down to this: is any one language significantly more efficient than another in communicating concepts? It seems to me that Old Entish is a singularly inefficient method of communication.

Stop press! : a couple of articles I've just found relating to the discussion above:

Peter Roach. 1998. "Some languages are spoken more quickly than others". In L. Bauer and P. Trudgill (eds.) Language Myths. London: Penguin. pp 150 - 8.

Plus, a surprisingly detailed "definition" of Ents, including a discursus on Old and "New" Entish, from wordIQ. Turns out "New" Entish is mixed language, with Quenya vocabulary (and presumably, morphology and phonology) but with Old Entish grammar, so it took just about as long to say anything as in Old Entish.


Anonymous Warren G said...


4:57 PM  

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