|Languages||Khuzdul, Sindarin, Quenya, Westron, English|
|Creator||J. R. R. Tolkien|
The Cirth (Sindarin pronunciation: [ˈkirθ], meaning "runes"; sing. certh [ˈkɛrθ]) is a semi‑artificial script, based on real‑life runic alphabets, invented by J. R. R. Tolkien for the constructed languages he devised and used in his works. Cirth is written with a capital letter when referring to the writing system; the runes themselves can be called cirth.
In the fictional history of Middle-earth, the original Certhas was created by the Sindar (or Grey Elves) for their language, Sindarin. Its extension and elaboration was known as the Angerthas Daeron, as it was attributed to the Sinda Daeron, although it was most probably expanded by the Noldor in order to represent the sounds of other languages like Quenya and Telerin.
Although, in the fiction, the Cirth was later largely replaced by the Tengwar, it was adopted by Dwarves to write down both their Khuzdul language (Angerthas Moria) and the languages of Men (Angerthas Erebor). The Cirth was also adapted, in its oldest and simplest form, by various races including Men and even Orcs.
Concept and creation
Many letters have shapes also found in the historical runic alphabets, but their sound values are only similar in a few of the vowels. Rather, the system of assignment of sound values is much more systematic in the Cirth than in the historical runes (e.g., voiced variants of a voiceless sound are expressed by an additional stroke). A similar system has been proposed for a few historical runes but is in any case much more obscure.
The division between the older Cirth of Daeron and their adaptation by Dwarves and Men has been interpreted as a parallel drawn by Tolkien to the development of the Fuþorc to the Younger Fuþark. The original Elvish Cirth "as supposed products of a superior culture" are focused on logical arrangement and a close connection between form and value whereas the adaptations by mortal races introduced irregularities. Similar to the Germanic tribes who had no written literature and used only simple runes before their conversion to Christianity, the Sindarin Elves of Beleriand with their Cirth were introduced to the more elaborate Tengwar of Fëanor when the Noldorin Elves returned to Middle-earth from the lands of the divine Valar.
Internal history and Description
In the Appendix E of The Return of the King, Tolkien writes that the Sindar of Beleriand first developed an alphabet for their language some time between the invention of the Tengwar by Fëanor and their introduction to Middle-earth by the exiled Noldor.
This alphabet was devised to represent only the sounds of their Sindarin language and its letters were entirely used for inscribing names or brief memorials on wood, stone or metal, hence their angular forms and straight lines. In Sindarin these letters were named cirth (sing. certh), from the Elvish root *kir- meaning "to cleave, to cut". An abecedarium of cirth, consisting of the runes listed in due order, was commonly known as Certhas ([ˈkɛrθɑs], meaning "rune-rows" in Sindarin and loosely translated as "runic alphabet").
The cirth used for voiceless stop consonants were constructed systematically by the combination of a "stem" and a "branch". The attachment of the branch was usually made on the right side. The reverse was not infrequent, but had no phonetic significance (this means that would just be an alternative form of ).
Other consonants were formed following two basic principles:
- adding a stroke to a branch added voice (e.g., /p/ → /b/);
- placing the branch on both sides of the stem added voice and nasality (e.g., /k/ → /ŋ/).
The cirth constructed in this way can therefore be grouped into series. Each series corresponds to a place of articulation. This earliest system had three series:
The original display of Cirth should have been this:
|⟨r⟩||/r/||⟨h⟩ or ⟨s⟩[iv]||/h/ or /s/||⟨i⟩[vi]||/i/, /j/|
|⟨l⟩||/l/||⟨s⟩ or ⟨h⟩[iv]||/s/ or /h/||⟨u⟩[vii]||/u/, /w/?|
The known ancient cirth do not cover all the sounds of Sindarin: there is no certh for ⟨rh⟩, ⟨lh⟩, ⟨mh⟩, ⟨y⟩ or ⟨œ⟩. Perhaps this system had been devised for Old Sindarin, since the above-mentioned sounds do not exist in that language.
However, still frequent ⟨w⟩ and a are missing, too. This indicates that some ancient, unknown cirth could have existed, but did not make it to the later systems. Therefore, a fuller table cannot be reconstructed.
Long vowels were evidently indicated by doubling.
|i.||^ The original value of the certh was not given by Tolkien, but he mentions that it took the value ⟨hw⟩ after the certh was adopted for ⟨m⟩. While he did not indicate what the former certh for ⟨m⟩ was, we can infer that it was this one, judging by both its labial shape and the typical symmetry of nasals.|
|ii.||^ The original value of the certh cannot be guessed but, judging from its shape, it was probably a labial consonant.|
|iii.||^ The certh was used to represent ⟨n⟩ followed by ⟨c⟩ or ⟨g⟩. In these positions, ⟨n⟩ is not pronounced /n/ but instead assimilates to /ŋ/. Thus, ⟨nc⟩ is written /ŋk/ and ⟨ng⟩ is written /ŋɡ/.|
However, when the grapheme ⟨ng⟩ occurs at the end of a word, it represents a simple velar nasal /ŋ/ in Sindarin (the ⟨g⟩ is "silent", just like in the English word ⟨sing⟩ //). In this case, the grapheme ⟨-ng⟩ would be written using the certh alone.
|iv.||^ The sound given to the cirth and was interchangeable.|
|v.||^ The certh will later have the value ⟨ss⟩ in Elvish languages. It could have had another unknown value before.|
|vi.||^ In Sindarin, ⟨i⟩ represents /j/ when initial before vowels, /i/ everywhere else.|
|vii.||^ Perhaps the certh was used for both /u/ and /w/, just like the ⟨v⟩ in Latin (e.g., the Classical pronunciation of ⟨vvlnvs⟩ is [ˈwuːɫnʊs]).|
|viii.||^ The earliest certh for ⟨a⟩ cannot be guessed: it was likely one of some other cirth that did not survive in later systems.|
Before the end of the First Age the Certhas was rearranged and further developed, partly under the influence of the Tengwar. This reorganisation of the Cirth was commonly attributed to the Elf Daeron, minstrel and loremaster of king Thingol of Doriath. Thus, the new system became known as the Angerthas Daeron (where "angerthas" [ɑŋˈɡɛrθɑs] is a compound of the Sindarin words "an(d)" [ɑn(d)] and "certhas" [ˈkɛrθɑs], meaning "long rune-rows").
Unlike the previous system, the flipped form of a certh had now a phonemic significance: it signalled the lenition of the original rune. These new cirth were needed in order to represent fricatives that were developed at one point in Sindarin (e.g., /t/ → /θ/).
Some new runes were introduced in the Angerthas with the purpose of writing:
- the frequent sounds /ɑ/ and /w/ ( and , respectively);
- long vowels, that evidently originated by doubling and joining the certh of the corresponding short vowel (e.g., ⟨oo⟩ → ⟨ô⟩);
- two front vowels, probably originated as ligatures of the corresponding back vowel with the /i/-certh (e.g., ⟨ui⟩ → ⟨ü⟩, and ⟨oi⟩ → ⟨ö⟩);
- two common consonant clusters ( /ŋɡ/ and /nd/).
However, the principal additions to the former Certhas were two entirely new series of regularly-formed cirth:
Since these new series represent sounds which do not occur in Sindarin but are present in Quenya, they were most probably invented by the Exiled Noldor that spoke Quenya as a language of knowledge. By loan-translation, the Cirth became known in Quenya as Certar [ˈkɛrtar], while a single certh was called certa [ˈkɛrta].
Back to the fictional history, after the introduction of the Tengwar in Middle-earth, the Angerthas Daeron was relegated primarily to carved inscriptions. The Elves abandoned the Cirth altogether, with the exception of the Noldor dwelling in Eregion, who maintained it and made it known as Angerthas Eregion.
Please note that, in this article, the primitive Certhas is transliterated using the regular Sindarin spelling, whereas the Angerthas is rendered using its own peculiar transliteration, introduced by Tolkien in the Appendix E, given that this script was meant to cover a much larger set of sounds than its primitive form. For example, the Sindarin spelling for /y/ is ⟨y⟩; in the transliteration of the Angerthas instead, the sound /y/ is spelled ⟨ü⟩, while ⟨y⟩ represents the sound /j/.
In this article, each certh of the ‑series presents two IPA transcriptions. The reason is that the palatal consonants of Noldorin Quenya are realised as palato-alveolar consonants in Vanyarin Quenya.
For example, the Quenya word ⟨tyelpë⟩ is pronounced [ˈc⁽ȷ̊⁾ɛlpɛ] in the Noldorin variety, but [ˈt͡ʃɛlpɛ] in Vanyarin. The very name of the language, whose archaic form is ⟨Quendya⟩ [ˈkʷɛɲɟa], is spelled ⟨Quenya⟩ in Noldorin (reflecting its pronunciation as [ˈkʷɛɲa]), but retains the spelling ⟨Quendya⟩ in Vanyarin (where it is realised as [ˈkʷɛnd͡ʒa] due to assibilation).
Although in the fictional history of Middle-earth this series of consonants was introduced by the Noldor, it is deemed necessary to show the Vanyarin pronunciation as well, given that the very transliteration used by Tolkien is more similar to the Vanyarin phonotactics than the Noldorin.
|p||/p/||zh||/ʝ/ or [ʒ]||l||/l/||e||/ɛ/|
|b||/b/||nj||/ɲ/ or [nd͡ʒ]||lh||/ɬ/||ê||/eː/|
|d||/d/||gw||/ɡʷ/||i, y||/i/, /j/||h[C]||/h/|
|ch[A]||/c/ or [t͡ʃ]||nw||/ŋʷ/→/nʷ/||û||/uː/|
|j||/ɟ/ or [d͡ʒ]||r||/r/||w||/w/|
|sh||/ç/ or [ʃ]||rh||/r̥/||or||ü||/y/|
|A.||^ The certh (that had been used for /h/ in the original Certhas) was chosen as the basis for the new series of palatal consonants. This means that it was given the value ⟨ch⟩, i.e. the voiceless palatal stop /c/ (or the voiceless palato-alveolar affricate [t͡ʃ], in the Vanyarin dialect).|
Please note that while this certh is transliterated ⟨ch⟩, it is completely unrelated to Sindarin ⟨ch⟩, which is pronounced /x/, and is rendered as ⟨kh⟩ in the Angerthas.
|B.||^ Tolkien gives the sound /z/ to this certh (probably in non-Elvish languages), but points out that it was used as /ss/ in Quenya and in Sindarin.|
|C.||^ This certh was made anew for the sound /h/. It is similar in shape both to the former /h/-certh , now used for /c/, and to the tengwa hyarmen .|
|D.||^ In archaic Sindarin a certh for ⟨mh⟩ (representing the sound /ṽ/) was needed, and the most appropriate solution was to flip the certh for ⟨m⟩ to indicate its lenition. But, being the certh horizontally symmetric, it could not be flipped. Therefore, the value ⟨m⟩ was given to (which until then had a different, unknown value), ⟨mh⟩ was given to , and the certh assumed the value ⟨hw⟩. The sound /ṽ/ merged with /v/ in later Sindarin.|
According to Tolkien's legendarium, the Dwarves first came to know the runes of the Noldor at the beginning of the Second Age. The Dwarves "introduced a number of unsystematic changes in value, as well as certain new cirth". They modified the previous system to suit the specific needs of their language, Khuzdul. The Dwarves spread their revised alphabet to Moria, where it came to be known as Angerthas Moria, and developed both carved and pen-written forms of these runes.
Many cirth here represent sounds not occurring in Khuzdul (at least in published words of Khuzdul: of course, our corpus is very limited to judge the necessity or not, of these sounds). Here they are marked with a black star (★).
|dh||/ð/★||ghw||/ɣʷ/★||hy||/j̊/ or /ç/★||or||[B]||/ʌ/|
|r||/ʀ/ or /ʁ/||ngw||/ŋɡʷ/★||u||/u/|
Notes on Angerthas Moria
|A.||^ The Khuzdul language has two glottal consonants: /h/ and /ʔ/, the latter being "the glottal beginning of a word with an initial vowel". Thus, in need of a reversible certh to represent these sounds, and were switched, giving the former the value /s/ and using the latter for /h/, and its reversed counterpart for /ʔ/.|
|B.||^ These cirth were a halved form of , used for vowels like those in the word ⟨butter⟩ //. Thus, represented a /ə/ sound in unstressed syllables, while represented /ʌ/, a somehow similar sound, in stressed syllables. When weak they were reduced to a stroke without a stem (, ).|
|C.||^ This sign denotes aspiration in voiceless stops, occurring frequently in Khuzdul.|
|D.||^ This certh is a scribal abbreviation used to represent a conjunction, and is basically identical to the ampersand ⟨&⟩ used in Latin script.|
In Angerthas Moria the cirth /dʒ/ and /ʒ/ were dropped. Thus and were adopted for /dʒ/ and /ʒ/, although they were used for /r/ and /r̥/ in Elvish languages. Subsequently, this script used the certh for /ʀ/ (or /ʁ/), which had the sound /n/ in the Elvish systems. Therefore, the certh (which was previously used for the sound /ŋ/, useless in Khuzdul) was adopted for the sound /n/. A totally new introduction was the certh , used as an alternative, simplified and, maybe, weaker form of . Because of the visual relation of these two cirth, the certh was given the sound /z/ to relate better with that, in this script, had the sound /s/.
At the beginning of the Third Age the Dwarves were driven out of Moria, and some migrated to Erebor. As the Dwarves of Erebor would trade with the Men of the nearby towns of Dale and Lake-town, they needed a script to write in Westron (the lingua franca of Middle-earth, usually rendered in English by Tolkien in his works). The Angerthas Moria was adapted accordingly: some new cirth were added, while some were restored to their Elvish usage, thus creating the Angerthas Erebor.
While the Angerthas Moria was still used to write down Khuzdul, this new script was primarily used for Mannish languages. It is also the script used in the Book of Mazarbul.
|dh||/ð/||ghw||/ɣʷ/||hy||/j̊/ or /ç/||or||/ʌ/|
Angerthas Erebor also features combining diacritics:
- a circumflex used to denote long consonants;
- a macron below to indicate a long vowel sound;
- an underdot to mark cirth used as numerals. As a matter of fact, in the Book of Mazarbul some cirth are used as numerals: for 1, for 2, for 3, for 4, for 5.
The Angerthas Erebor is used twice in The Lord of the Rings to write in English:
- in the upper inscription of the title page, where it reads "[dh]ə·lord·ov·[dh]ə·riŋs·translatᵊd·from·[dh]ə·red·b[oo]k..." (the sentence follows in the bottom inscription, written in Tengwar: "...of Westmarch by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Herein is set forth/ the history of the War of the Ring and the Return of the King as seen by the Hobbits.");
- in the bottom inscription of Balin's tomb—being the translation of the upper inscription, which is written in Khuzdul using Angerthas Moria.
The Book of Mazarbul shows some additional cirth used in Angerthas Erebor: one for a double ⟨l⟩ ligature, one for the definite article, and six for the representation of the same number of English diphthongs:
Notes on Angerthas Erebor
|A.||^ This certh is a scribal abbreviation used to represent the definite article. Although in English it stands for ⟨the⟩, it can assume different values according to the used language.|
|∗.||^ The cirth marked with an asterisk are unique of Angerthas Erebor.|
Other runic systems of Middle-earth
The Cirth is not the only runic writing system devised by Tolkien for Middle-earth. In fact, he invented a great number of runic alphabets, of which only a few others have been published. Many of these runic scripts have been included in the "Appendix on Runes" of The Treason of Isengard (The History of Middle-earth, vol. VII), edited by Christopher Tolkien.
Runes from The Hobbit
According to Tolkien, those used in The Hobbit are a form of "our ancient runes" deployed in the book to transliterate the actual Dwarvish runes. They can be interpreted as an attempt made by Tolkien to adapt the Fuþorc (i.e., the Old English runic alphabet) to the Modern English language.
These runes are basically the same found in Fuþorc, but their sound may change according to their position, just as the Latin script letters do: the writing mode adopted by Tolkien for these runes is mainly orthographic.
This system has one rune for each letter, regardless of pronunciation. For example, the rune ⟨c⟩ can sound either // (in the word ⟨cat⟩) or // (in the word ⟨cellar⟩) or even // (in the word ⟨ocean⟩) and // (in the digraph ⟨ch⟩).
A few sounds are instead written with the same rune, regardless of the way it is spelled with the Latin script. For example, the sound // is always written with the rune either if in English it is written ⟨o⟩ as in ⟨north⟩, ⟨a⟩ as in ⟨fall⟩, or ⟨oo⟩ as in ⟨door⟩. The only letters that are subject to this phonemic spelling are ⟨a⟩ and ⟨o⟩.
In addition, there are also some runes which stand for particular English digraphs and diphthongs.
Here the runes used in The Hobbit are displayed along with their corresponding English grapheme and Fuþorc counterpart:
|Rune||Fuþorc||English grapheme||Rune||Fuþorc||English grapheme|
Two other runes, not attested in The Hobbit, were added by Tolkien in order to represent additional English graphemes:
|English grapheme||Sound in IPA||Rune|
|every other sound|
|every other sound|
- Tolkien always wrote the English digraph ⟨wh⟩ (representing the sound [ʍ], or //, like in ⟨whine⟩) as ⟨hw⟩.
- There is no rune to transliterate ⟨q⟩: the digraph ⟨qu⟩ (representing the sound [kʷw], like in ⟨queen⟩) is always written in runes as ⟨cw⟩.
- ∗ ^ The three runes marked with an asterisk were invented by Tolkien and are not attested in real-life fuþorc.
Not all the runes mentioned in The Hobbit are Dwarf-runes. The swords found in the Trolls' cave (which were from the ancient kingdom of Gondolin) bore runes that Gandalf allegedly could not read. In fact, the swords Glamdring and Orcrist, forged in Gondolin, bore a type of letters known as Gondolinic runes. They seem to have been obsoleted and forgotten by the Third Age, and this is supported by the fact that Tolkien writes that only Elrond could still read the inscriptions of the swords.
Tolkien devised this runic alphabet in a very early stage of his shaping of Middle-earth. Nevertheless, they are known to us from a slip of paper written by J.R.R. Tolkien, a photocopy of which Christopher Tolkien sent to Paul Nolan Hyde in February 1992. Hyde then published it, together with an extensive analysis, in the 1992 Summer issue of Mythlore, no. 69.
The system provides sounds not found in any of the known Elven languages of the First Age, but perhaps it was designed for a variety of languages. However, the consonants seem to be, more or less, the same found in Welsh phonology, a theory supported by the fact that Tolkien was heavily influenced by Welsh when creating Elven languages.
||j (i̯)||/j/||w (u̯)||/w/|
Tolkien's mode of writing Modern English in Anglo-Saxon runes received explicit recognition with the introduction of his three additional runes to the Runic block with the release of Unicode 7.0, in June 2014. The three characters represent the English ⟨k⟩, ⟨oo⟩ and ⟨sh⟩ graphemes, as follows:
- U+16F1 ᛱ RUNIC LETTER K
- U+16F2 ᛲ RUNIC LETTER SH
- U+16F3 ᛳ RUNIC LETTER OO
A formal Unicode proposal to encode Cirth as a separate script was made in September 1997 by Michael Everson. No action was taken by the Unicode Technical Committee (UTC) but Cirth appears in the Roadmap to the SMP.
ConScript Unicode Registry
(128 code points)
|Assigned||109 code points|
|Unused||19 reserved code points|
|Note: Part of the Private-Use Area, font conflicts possible|
Two different layouts are defined by the CSUR/UCSUR:
- 1997-11-03 proposal implemented by fonts like GNU Unifont and Code2000.
- 2000-04-22 discussion paper implemented by fonts like Constructium and Fairfax.
Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols below instead of Cirth.
ConScript Unicode Registry 1997 code chart
ConScript Unicode Registry 2000 proposal
- Simek, Rudolf (2005). Mittelerde: Tolkien und die germanische Mythologie [Middle-earth: Tolkien and Germanic Mythology] (in German). C. H. Beck. pp. 155–156. ISBN 3-406-52837-6.
- Smith, Arden R. (1997). "The semiotics of the writing systems of Tolkien's Middle-earth". In Rauch, Irmengard; Carr, Gerald F. (eds.). Semiotics Around the World: Synthesis in Diversity. Proceedings of the Fifth Congress of the International Association for Semiotic Studies, Berkeley, 1994. 1. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 1239–1242. ISBN 3-11-012223-5.
- Tolkien, J.R.R. (1955). The Return of the King – Being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings; Appendix E. London: George Allen & Unwin.
- "Sindarin Words: certh". eldamo.org. Retrieved 2019-03-31.
- "Sindarin Words: certhas". eldamo.org. Retrieved 2019-03-31.
- "Sindarin Words: angerthas". eldamo.org. Retrieved 2019-05-11.
- Tolkien, J.R.R. (2015-06-12). "Quenya consonants". Parma Eldalamberon (22): 66.
⟨ty⟩ is pronounced as a 'front explosive' [c], as e.g. Hungarian ty, but it is followed by an appreciable partly unvoiced y-offglide [⁽ȷ̊⁾].
- "Quenya pronunciation". RealElvish.net. Retrieved 2019-05-07.
- Tolkien, J.R.R. (1994). Tolkien, Christopher (ed.). The War of the Jewels (The Later Silmarillion, Part 2). The History of Middle-earth. 11. London: George Allen & Unwin. ISBN 0-395-71041-3.
- Tolkien, J.R.R. (1937). The Hobbit. London: George Allen & Unwin.
- Lindberg, Per (2016-11-27). "Tolkien English Runes" (PDF). forodrim.org. Retrieved 2019-03-27.
- Hyde, Paul Nolan (July 1992). "Gondolinic Runes". Mythlore. 18 (iss. 3, no. 69).
- "Study explores JRR Tolkien's Welsh influences". BBC. 2011-05-21. Retrieved 2019-03-27.
- Everson, Michael (1997-09-18). "N1642: Proposal to encode Cirth in Plane 1 of ISO/IEC 10646-2". Working Group Document, ISO/IEC JTC1/SC2/WG2 and UTC. Retrieved 2015-08-08.
- "Roadmap to the SMP". Unicode.org. 2015-06-03. Retrieved 2015-08-08.
- "ConScript Unicode Registry". Evertype.com. Retrieved 2015-08-08.
- "Under-ConScript Unicode Registry". Retrieved 2015-08-08.
- "Cirth: U+E080–U+E0FF". ConScript Unicode Registry. 1997-11-03. Retrieved 2015-08-08.
- "GNU Unifont". Unifoundry.com. Retrieved 2015-07-24.
- Everson, Michael (2000-04-22). "X.X Cirth 1xx00–1xx7F" (PDF). Retrieved 2015-08-08.
- "Cirth, Range: E080–E0FF" (PDF). Under-ConScript Unicode Registry. 2008-04-14. Retrieved 2015-08-08.