Monthly Archives: January 2012

Applying the Logogen Model to the West-Gate of Moria

Let’s talk about The Lord of the Rings. Specifically, let’s talk about the scene in front of the West-Gate of Moria from The Fellowship of the Ring.

Maybe you’ve read the book, maybe you’ve seen the movie. Maybe you’ve done both. Either way, you may recall that Gandalf has to rack his brains a bit before figuring out what the West-Gate’s “open sesame” is. His only clue is the FĂ«anorian inscription at the top of the door, which reads:

“Ennyn Durin Anan Moria: pedo mellon a minno.”

which, in the mode of Beleriand, translates to:

“The Doors of Durin Lord of Moria: [speak/say] friend and enter.”

Note the hinge of the Gandalf’s problem: he interprets the script as saying “Speak friend and enter” (which, in English and Tolkien’s Common Tongue vernacular, should take two commas around “friend”). Since “speak” is a traditionally intransitive verb, it makes little sense for it to take the object “friend”, and so the word “friend” appears to be a direct address. Eventually, one of the hobbits (Merry in the book, Frodo in the movie) figures out that the Quenyan or Telerin word Gandalf interprets as “speak” may actually be a more general term for “speak/talk/say/utter/etc.”, and have both transitive and intransitive forms. Thus, the meaning of the “pedo mellon a minno” can be interpreted as “say ‘friend’ and enter”.

Let’s shift gears now to logogens. John Morton developed the logogen model of word recognition in 1969 to try and explain how human beings recognize words. Notably, his ideas are applied with regards to wordstringslikethisone, from which readers can extract words despite their truncation. For example, how do our networks of activation respond to thiswordstringhere as compared with djdjdthisonejdjdj or this: oikansjdwealk? The logogen model essentially proposes that words are tagged with various elements: their sound, orthographic appearance, constituent phonemes, etc. When these elements enter a neural network via the senses, they can produce activational effects that eventually allow a word to reach threshold and get recalled. Think of it as a game of charades; in order to get players to guess a particular word, you have to provide enough “tags” to narrow their search space until they figure the word out.

Going back to the West-Gate of Moria, we can see that contextual effects, such the lack of punctuation after pedo (“speak/say”), can serve as logogens to cue activation of a transitive form of speaking (“saying”) that would take mellon, or friend, as an object. Well reasoned, wee little hobbit folk! Of course, it may be a convention of Elvish languages not to use the same punctuation as the Common Tongue, but as Tolkien uses Elvish (anywhere I’ve seen it, anyways), his word order and punctuation are the same as in English. So the hobbits may have assumed correctly by luck or by intuition.