A Secret Vice

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A Secret Vice is the title of a lecture written by J. R. R. Tolkien in 1931, given at a conference. 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. Tolkien contrasts international auxiliary languages with artistic languages constructed for aesthetic pleasure. Tolkien also discusses phonaesthetics, citing Greek, Finnish, and Welsh as examples of "languages which have a very characteristic and in their different ways beautiful word-form".

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.

One of the most frequently quoted passages [1] from the essay comes in a context where Tolkien relates how he randomly met a fellow language inventor in the army:

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.

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