Of Elves And Men

The Lord of the Rings and other works of high fantasy have been translated into many languages, and for all I know this may include those written in the quite numerous alphabets that do not possess capital letters. What then happens to the technique whereby English marks linguistic register – and triggers memes – by the careful use of capitals? In Tolkien there is a big difference between men and Men, between the west and the West; can this be captured in Indian scripts, which have only one case?

Presumably these are also obliged to refer to all kinds of deities in the only case they have, whereas Europeans use capitals for their own God and uncials for the gods of the heathen. (Can this be why the Indians are so syncretistic?) On the other hand, Japanese can do this with register, deploying separate vocabularies for intimacy or for sublimity.

It is not as common in print, but on the Net, anyone who talks about “god” is nailing his colours to the mast as an unbeliever. So too with the language of authority that is so tightly bound up with God; might we suspect that capitals not only convey but actually impose a positive emotional colour, so that we are more deferential to Lords and Kings than we would be to mere lords and kings? (Objection: what then of the Germans, who capitalise anything that stands still long enough, what effect does this have on them?) We might wonder whether “la belle france” or “deutschland” would inspire quite as much devotion and enthusiasm; for when pronounced, we can often hear the capitals. On the other hand, most European languages fail to capitalise the names of ethnicities, so that they strike their breasts and declare their own nationalities in lower-case, without this apparently making them any less tribally proud than the Anglo-Saxons, who do it in capitals.

There may nevertheless be a deflating effect of artificial decapitalisation within a given language, so that rodomontade about “the american way” or “un-american activities” might fall perceptibly flatter. At any rate, the rhetorical impact of capitals would repay study and experimentation in the psych laboratory.

As with capitalisation, English is particularly good at achieving special effects with periphrasis. To most of us, Blake’s name for God, “The Ancient of Days”, has a beautiful sound and rhythm. In some other languages, however, there is no alternative, romantic way to say “old”, and if you were to translate “Ancient of Days” into one of these languages and then back out again, you might end up with “The Old One”, which is not so much Blake as H.P. Lovecraft. But how to explain the difference to a non-native speaker?

Posted on July 9, 2011 at 11:31 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: CULTURAL ODDS AND ENDS, Some Notes On Language

Leave a Reply