The invention of flautism (flapping of the tongue) may seem an unlikely, but perhaps necessary, source of the origin of the words as spoken today. In his biography of George Bernard Shaw, John Keats tells the story of how, in 1842, he was hired to recite a lecture to a crowd of school children. The young children, Keats knew, had difficulty concentrating on their lectures and hence were struggling quite badly after the conclusion. So he decided to show them a different way of expressing their thoughts. He showed them the flaps of his tongue. The children were amazed. Keats’ explanation was that his flapping of the tongue was intended to make their thoughts more comprehensible; he wasn’t telling them something he already knew, but rather the way in which it was written in “human languages”. The more a person understood, the easier it became to communicate.
This was a striking illustration of Keats’ insight. But the inventor of the phoneme, and the creator of the ‘new English’, had much more to say about this idea. When he published his first book in 1855, the great philologist J.R.R. Tolkien, a British-Irish novelist, took great liberties with the book’s text, and this caused a stir in England. Keats was not happy about it, he recalls in his diary. (I am quoting from Keats’ diary: “I am in despair. I have taken the liberty of making an exception to the whole text, for a certain time out of the book, after I am sure Tolkien will not want to do so. But a copy of the text will be sent to him on the condition that he will not put any nonsense into it, and I shall be obliged to get out all the errors.”)
Keats, it seems, couldn’t stand seeing the truth of the world twisted around his own ideas. In his diary he writes of “the terrible, painful and humiliating” event known as “Tolkien’s Little Fairytales”. As he recalls, “The Little Folks had become so famous that they went into the mouths of a great many men, and the little people were obliged to give a little hint of the truth, which they always could do” – this is not entirely a lie.
He is referring to the fact that the little people were called ‘loveless ones’. In his own words, “The fairy stories were always ‘little’ and the loveliest. At most
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