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p 240 of 493 of this PDF at http://85.17.122.176/bookreader.php/139008/The_Letters_of_J.R.R.Tolkien.pdf:

'Helms too they chose' is archaic. Some (wrongly) class it as an 'inversion', since normal order is 'They also chose helmets' or 'they chose helm ets too'. (Real mod. E. 'They also picked out some helmets and round shields'.) [1.] But this is not normal order, and if mod. E. has lost the trick of putting a word desired to emphasize (for pictorial, emotiona l or logical reasons) into prominent first place, without addition of a lot of [2.] little 'empty' words (as the Chinese say), so much the worse for it. And so much the better for [3.] it the sooner it learns the trick again. And some one must begin the teaching, by example.

1. Please elucidate Tolkien's intent? I thought that he'd prefer 'Helms too they chose'? But then he claims it is 'archaic' and the bolded? These would contradict his position, no?

2. What are little 'empty' words

3. What's the antecedent of it?

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  • I believe that those little 'empty' words mentioned are en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_particles. (To be clear, my personal belief is that they aren't empty.) Oct 26, 2014 at 9:05
  • Keep in mind that Tolkien was a scholar of Old English and wrote his fiction in deliberately 'archaic' styles. For him archaic is not a derogatory term but simply descriptive. Oct 26, 2014 at 12:19
  • Also, what would be an archaism if used when talking with the man-on-the-street could be regarded as merely a stylistic feature a poem. Literary genres can be more conservative. That said, a fine line that has to be walked here, because the overuse of archaic forms can doom a work to the curiosity shoppe.
    – TimR
    Oct 26, 2014 at 13:03

1 Answer 1

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In the letter the excerpt is from, Tolkien is defending the use of (deliberate) archaism as a valid/useful stylistic choice.

With this in mind, the passage becomes clearer. 'Helms too they chose' is an example of how he would like to see archaic phrasing used. It is non-standard (I.E. archaic), but it is concise, clear, and puts the word he wants to emphasise ('helms') into 'prominent first place'.

Standard English, on the other hand, can no longer do this without adding a lot of extra words that don't actually add anything new to the sentence - something like 'Helmets were another thing that they also chose'. Twice as many words used, yet the same amount of information conveyed - therefore the extra words are 'empty'.

In the final sentence 'it' means 'modern English'. (The sooner modern English relearns how to say 'helms also they chose', the better.)

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