Tolkien’s Mad Frenchmen: Idiosophical Analysis

Joe over at has been having some fun with the Oxford English Dictionary’s online text visualisation tool:

Basically, one can input text into the tool, and it will tell you the percentage of words of Germanic or French origin.

Joe has been trying out an interesting hypothesis – that the higher the percentage of French words in the speech of a Tolkien character, the more likely they are to have a few mental problems.

First, off Denethor:

Sane Denethor uses three French-derived terms in 140 words of standard speech. Mad Denethor uses thirty-seven in 370 words. Definitely telling!

I then asked Joe whether this also holds true for everyone’s favourite First Age Tolkienian mental case… Fëanor.

Though there are some methodological difficulties, Joe has looked this up:

It turns out that Fëanor’s extended rants are twenty-seven French words out of 299 (9%) – encompassing most of the meat of his speeches. On the other hand, as Joe has discovered, The Silmarillion does seem to skew a bit more French than The Lord of the Rings – Of Beleriand and Its Realms manages 7%, though the (sane and admirable) Beren only manages 5% in his meeting with Thingol.

(There also seems to be a correlation between talking about caves and Frenchified language. Legolas in The Lord of the Rings tops out at a staggering 11% when talking about the Glittering Caves).

I also tried out the tool myself, with The Children of Húrin. Splicing together everything Túrin says during his final madness (from his “Yes, I am Túrin son of Húrin,” during the confrontation with Brandir, to his final suicide via Gurthang) totals 370 words, excluding names and places. According to the tool, that yields 180 individual words (excluding repeats), of which thirteen are Latin/Romance in origin.

7%… making Túrin’s final madness just as French as the driest chapter in the entire Silmarillion. Clearly the First Age was just more Frenchified than the Third.

Addendum: I re-ran the Túrin Test (ha!). Turned out I had missed a section. Mad Túrin uses 395 words, including repetitions. 18 of those words are French (+1 Latin derived). So including repetitions, he is only 4.8% French/Latin. Clearly he likes to repeat the Germanic words. The most repeated French word? Dragon.

Addendum II: Joe does Gollum:

4 thoughts on “Tolkien’s Mad Frenchmen: Idiosophical Analysis

  1. The metrics I quoted included repeated words (the first CSV download option) in the calculated percentages. It seemed like it would be important to account for repetitions, since Tolkien uses them so often in his old-english-revival passages. (“Arise, arise now, riders of Theoden!”) Does that raise or lower Turin’s percentage?


  2. Fascinating! I tried the OED text visualizer

    on Swift’s introduction to ‘A Tale of a Tub’ (c.1698), which one might expect to be quite Latinate:

    WHOEVER has an ambition to be heard in a crowd, must press, and squeeze, and thrust, and climb, with indefatigable pains, till he has exalted himself to a certain degree of altitude above them. Now, in all assemblies, though you wedge them ever so close, we may observe this peculiar property, that over their heads there is room enough, but how to reach it is the difficult point; it being as hard to get quit of number, as of hell

    The visualizer came back with Germanic (27) English (19) Romance (7) Latin (4) Latin,Romance (3) Romance,English (1) other (1)

    You have to press “show lemma labels” to get the data points labelled with the actual words

    The vertical scale is the frequency in modern English (it says in the very small print)


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