The Radio Times logo

Just how do you pronounce Tolkien anyway?

A key scene in the new Nicholas Hoult-starring biopic reminds us just how many of us are getting it wrong…

Published: Saturday, 11th May 2019 at 9:52 am

In an early scene during new JRR Tolkien biopic Tolkien, the future creator of Middle Earth has an awkward encounter at a new school. Introduced by the master as Mr Tol-KINE, the young John Ronald quickly corrects him, informing him that it’s actually pronounced “Tol-Keen”, earning him the ire of both his new teacher and some of his classmates.


While the scene is an important precursor to Tolkien’s growing friendships with the other boys sitting near him (one of those who takes a dislike to him becomes one of his greatest friends), it provoked a different reaction in me than director Dome Karukovski may have intended.

Had I, for all these years, been pronouncing Tolkien wrong as well – as Tol-Kin?

“Yeah, you have,” star Nicholas Hoult laughs when I put this to him a few days after I watch the film.

“I was saying it wrong as well. I was saying 'Tol-kin'. And then through learning about him for this I realised I’d been pronouncing it wrong.

“I would walk around just saying Tol-keen, Tol-keen, Tol-keen, just sort of getting it natural in my head. Because once you've said a word or a name or a place so many times, the correct pronunciation sounds alien in your mind and in your mouth when you say it.

“Yeah, but Tol-keen is correct,” he adds. “It's pretty important when you're playing Tolkien, to know how to say Tolkien.”

Historically, I’m not the only person to have had trouble with the pronunciation. During the Second World War, Tolkien was earmarked for a possible codebreaker job at the foreign office, and while he didn’t get the gig, a record of his training at the Government Code and Cypher School survived, and included the notation “keen” next to his name.

However, according to Tolkien scholar Anders Stenström: "In all likelihood, that is not a record of Tolkien's interest [in the job], but a note about how to pronounce the name.”

Now, with the huge fame that Tolkien’s works have brought him it’s hard to believe that anyone would need such a guideline – but if they do, clearly the new movie will be ready to educate them.


Tolkien is in cinemas now


Sponsored content