Perhaps this happened to Tolkien
Language. Made up, or existing, all the world is language.
Last night, I had a dream. And in this dream, a large number of events happened, however there is only one thing I remember clearly from it: half of it was in Russian. Now, I don’t speak Russian so I imagine my subconscious was merely yammering nonsense at itself, however the weird ‘dream knowledge’ that I had told me we were speaking Russian and I managed to follow the conversation.
Along a similar vein, I once had a dream in which I saw every little detail as it might appear on-screen. It was as follows:
We are in South America, probably Peru. A little girl, no more than eight, runs barefoot and filthy down a cobbled back alley, between two tall, equally dirty buildings. We don’t know where she’s going, but she does, so we follow her. We see into doorways along the way. In one room there is an old rabbit hutch that has been shelled out and used as a bed for a small child. Balanced on top of this is another – the hutches become like bunk-beds for the poor. Sawdust is strewn everywhere. The children here are also filthy. We hear a conversation between two children (Masi mu amari te? Kasu hijiuari mas). We don’t understand. This is because the language does not exist. My subconscious has created it for the purpose of this dream. We follow the girl further down the alley and we begin to hear jeering and shouting. She breaks out of the alley and there is a small ring of children between eight and fourteen years old. None of them have shoes. They all wear ripped and dirty shirts and shorts. In the centre of the group are two boys, probably aged twelve. One is on top of the other punching the other. More shouting in the invented language (Hua rihu kashiji umari ka) I don’t know how I still remember the words that were said – this dream occurred two years ago. The girl breaks through the crowd and shouts the name of the boy on the floor. His name I have forgotten, The crowd disperses, the winner of the fight spits at the boy and they walk away. There is sawdust in his hair and he is bleeding. He stands and walks with the girl – now revealed, with the same ‘dream knowledge’ as has revealed the other details, to be his sister – until they reach a grimy sewer grate. He leans against a large set of bars looking out to whatever lay beyond this town. The sewer’s interior is dark, slimy, cast in a blue light. The girl holds his hand and he says “Kashi uba. Larema yuka arebe”. One day. We’ll leave together. Again, I don’t know how I know the translation. I just do.
This dream came complete with a title and a cover. Dirty Boots. The cover shows a pair of mud-stained military boots, one lying on it’s side. When I woke up that morning I wrote for half an hour making sure I would remember these details. After two years this scene remains in my memory.
To branch off momentarily, I would like to mention Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘Kubla Khan’. For anybody who doesn’t know, this poem was written in Coleridge’s dream. Admittedly, he was probably high on opium when he fell asleep, but the fact is the words to the first two thirds of this poem were constructed entirely in his dream state. This idea fascinates me. To fall asleep, construct a piece of writing in your subconscious and wake up with it in tact. ‘Kubla Khan’ went on to be one of Coleridge’s most famous works. And all because he dreamt the words and woke up to write them down.
The language that I created in my dream, I can see, may share qualities with Spanish/Portuguese. So I can understand where my (not quite) fluent knowledge of Spanish had an effect on it. However it is still not any exact language I know. This is what leads me to believe I invented it. This got me thinking about Tolkien and his invention of the Elven tongue. Did he, too, create this language in a dream? Or did it perhaps stem from a dream and then he created the rest of the language around it?
According to my research, this is not the case. The Elven language Quenya was developed from a mixture of Finnish, Italian, Latin and Greek influences. However, though the majority of the language was created based on influences from these other languages, I can’t help but let a piece of me believe it started from a dream. Even if the idea of inventing a language was the only element of said dream.
Language is so fascinating. It is what makes China Mieville’s Embassytown so intriguing. The idea of language being just a set of letters strung together to create a ‘word’ which is really just a symbol for an idea. It’s an interesting concept that language – whether created like in my dream, created like Tolkien with previous language as a guide, or already existing in the world – serves only in the end to express meaning. An idea. Something that words are only a way of conveying. The spoken and written language is just a social invention created in order to pass the ideas and messages between people.
And the fact that dreams can be used to help this process along baffles me. What did my ‘Russian dream’ and my ‘Dirty Boots’ dream have in common? Neither language had any way of being real. But I understood both of them as clearly as if they had been in English.
Perhaps I shall take this idea and develop it further. Maybe I’ll use dreams as a part of my university research. Maybe I’ll take the elements of my made up language and use it to create the rest of it so that, if I ever turn Dirty Boots into a real novel, I would have a way of transferring the images and ideas from my subconscious, to the real world.