In a 1966 interview, J.R.R. Tolkien was discussing his thoughts about contemporary science fiction writers.

It is when dealing with the question of language, he feels, that science fiction writers do not always work satisfactorily. ...

“I think Language is often neglected by them, that is to say, language as an invention, and as the most important single ingredient in human culture in general, or in any particular culture. They treat it comparatively poorly in descriptions of strange cultures, and the problems of communications between alien beings in different worlds (with which they are often faced) are apt to be perfunctorily and unconvincingly treated.”

Remembering the number of “translator machines,” “communication helmets,” and telepathic races to be encountered in sf, I heartily agree with him.

“I think,” he went on, “that some are interested in and know something about mechanical (computer) analyses of language, but few know anything about its phonetics, history, or process of change.

When discussing invented languages, Tolkien says that some science fiction writers "are interested in and know something about mechanical (computer) analyses of language".

This would seem to be a reference to some of the early work in natural language processing in the 1950s and 1960s.

For some context, Tolkien is known to have read been reading some science fiction anthologies/magazines in the 1960s, (such as "Swords & Sorcery" in 1963 and "Orbit" in 1967).

Are there any science fiction short stories published in the early 1960s that demonstrate a knowledge of computer analyses of language by their author that Tolkien could have been referring to?

  • Jack Vance (The Languages of Pao) and Suzette Haden Elgin (Native Tongue) wrote sci-fi about languages. I don't know if they are relevant here because I don't understand the question.
    – user14111
    Commented Jan 27, 2023 at 7:27
  • @user14111 - Just trying to figure out what work Tolkien could have been referring to here.
    – ibid
    Commented Jan 27, 2023 at 8:57
  • This is one of those cases where rephrasing a question that reads like an open-ended list request would make the question answerable.
    – Spencer
    Commented Jan 27, 2023 at 15:45
  • 1
    Haden Elgin would be a counter-example to Tolkien's claim, but her first SF publications were not till 1980-ish so that's not on the table. "Languages of Pao" is early enough (1958) but does not have any computer/computational elements that I can recall.
    – Ethan
    Commented Jan 27, 2023 at 17:12
  • 1
    Just a random thought: Tolkien might have meant "mechanical" in a more poetic sense. For instance, treating grammar mathematically. Mathematical linguistics emerged in the late 1950s (eg aclanthology.org/www.mt-archive.info/Mohrmann-1963-Plath.pdf), and there are mathematically-flavoured conlangs, with en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lincos_language dating to the early 1960s. Stanislaw Lem was too late for your question, but he mentioned this last one in a 1968 book in Polish (linked at the WP page). Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 8:34

1 Answer 1


Samuel Delany's Babel 17 was published in 1966. It is a classic, if not the classic, of language-driven SF. Its perspective is more "what language could a computer speak", specifically "how does a programming language differ from a natural language", rather than "how would a computer analyze natural language", but nevertheless it must be on any short list of books Tolkien might have known of if he was following SF+language at all. And the date is right. He might have seen a recent book review even if he hadn't read it himself.

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