A Secret Vice

A Secret Vice is the title of a talk written by J. R. R. Tolkien in 1931, given to a literary society entitled 'A Hobby for the Home', in which he first publicly revealed his interest in invented languages. Some twenty years later, Tolkien revised the manuscript for a second presentation. It deals with constructed languages in general and the relation of a mythology to its language. He contrasts international auxiliary languages with artistic languages constructed for aesthetic pleasure. Tolkien further discusses phonaesthetics, citing Greek, Finnish and Welsh as examples of "languages which have a very characteristic and in their different ways beautiful word-form".

A Secret Vice
Secret vice.jpg
EditorsDimitra Fimi
Andrew Higgins
AuthorJ.R.R. Tolkien
CountryUnited Kingdom
Published7 April 2016
Media typeHardback, e-book
Preceded byThe Story of Kullervo 
Followed byThe Lay of Aotrou and Itroun 


Tolkien's opinion of the relation of mythology and language is reflected in examples cited in Quenya and Noldorin, the predecessors of Quenya and Sindarin. The essay contains three Quenya poems, Oilima Markirya ("The Last Ark"), Nieninque, and Earendel as well as an eight-line passage in Noldorin.[1]

A notable passage[2] from the essay comes in a context in which Tolkien relates how he randomly met a fellow language inventor in the army:[3]

The man next to me said suddenly in a dreamy voice: 'Yes, I think I shall express the accusative case by a prefix!' A memorable remark!

...Just consider the splendour of the words! 'I shall express the accusative case.' Magnificent! Not 'it is expressed', nor even the more shambling 'it is sometimes expressed', nor the grim 'you must learn how it is expressed'. What a pondering of alternatives within one's choice before the final decision in favour of the daring and unusual prefix, so personal, so attractive; the final solution of some element in a design that had hitherto proved refractory. Here were no base considerations of the 'practical', the easiest for the 'modern mind', or for the million – only a question of taste, a satisfaction of a personal pleasure, a private sense of fitness.[3]

Andrew Higgins writes that the "secret vice" was echoed in his text "Dangweth Pengolod" ("The Answer of Pengolod"), which showed Elves "practi[sing] and enjoy[ing] the same aesthetic pleasure in language invention that Tolkien did".[4]

Publication historyEdit

A Secret Vice was first published in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (1983), together with six other essays by Tolkien, edited by his son Christopher.[5]

A new, extended critical edition was published by HarperCollins in 2016, edited by Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins.[6] The new edition contains previously omitted passages from the original essay, Tolkien's drafts and notes, and a hitherto unpublished work on sound and language by Tolkien, "Essay on Phonetic Symbolism".[7][8]


Of the edited bookEdit

The book review in VII notes that in the essay Tolkien describes constructing a language as "an art, not merely a utilitarian endeavor", and that the product is "tied both to the creator's personal preferences and to a mythology". It comments that the essay sheds light on what Tolkien thought about "creating stories in fantastic worlds".[9]

Of Tolkien's essayEdit

The Norwegian linguist and Tolkien scholar Helge Fauskanger writes that "In 1931, Tolkien wrote an essay about the somewhat peculiar hobby of devising private languages. He called it 'A Secret Vice'. But in Tolkien's case, the 'vice' can hardly be called secret anymore."[10] Fauskanger comments that Tolkien spent his whole life "toying with enormous linguistic constructions, entire languages that have never existed outside his own notes? For one thing must be perfectly clear: He made very much more of these languages than he could ever hope to include in his stories."[10] He notes, for example, that Tolkien created at least 12,000 words in his constructed languages. Fauskanger sees as significant Tolkien's statement in "A Secret Vice" that "The making of language and mythology are related functions", and that "Your language construction will breed a mythology."[10]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Smith 2006, pp. 600–601.
  2. ^ Garth, John (2006). "Si Qente Feanor & Other Elvish Writings, and: Parma Eldalamberon XV". Tolkien Studies. 3 (1): 157–160. doi:10.1353/tks.2006.0019. S2CID 170727238.
  3. ^ a b Tolkien 1983, p. 199.
  4. ^ Higgins, Andrew (2018). "Elvish Practitioners of the 'Secret Vice'". Journal of Tolkien Research. 5 (1). Article 1.
  5. ^ Tolkien 1983.
  6. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R.; Fimi, Dimitra; Higgins, A. (2018). A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages. HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-00-813141-8. OCLC 975114488.
  7. ^ "A Secret Vice by J. R. R. Tolkien, Edited by Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins – Hardcover". HarperCollins. Retrieved 27 February 2018.
  8. ^ Fimi, Dimitra. "Researching Tolkien's 'Secret Vice'". dimitrafimi.com. Retrieved 27 February 2018.
  9. ^ "Book Notes: J.R.R. Tolkien, A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages. Ed. Dimitra Fimi and". VII: Journal of the Marion E. Wade Center. 33: e142. 2016. JSTOR 48600502.
  10. ^ a b c Fauskanger, Helge (2008). "Tolkien's Not-So-Secret Vice". Ardalambion. Archived from the original on 25 October 2008. Retrieved 16 December 2022.


External linksEdit