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J. R. R. Tolkien constructed many Elvish languages. These were the various languages spoken by the Elves of Middle-earth as they developed as a society throughout the Ages. In his pursuit for realism and in his love of language, Tolkien was especially fascinated with the development and evolution of language through time. Tolkien created two almost fully developed languages, and a dozen more in various beginning stages as he studied and reproduced the way that language adapts and morphs. A philologist by profession, he spent much time on his constructed languages. In the collection of letters he had written, posthumously published by his son, Christopher John Tolkien, he even stated that he began his stories that were within this secondary world, the realm of Middle-earth, not with the characters or narrative as one would assume, but with a created set of languages. The stories and characters serve to be the conduits to make those languages come to life. Inventing language was always a crucial piece to Tolkien's mythology and world-building.
"The invention of languages is the foundation. The 'stories' were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows"
J. R. R. Tolkien began to construct his first Elvin tongue c. 1910–1911 while he was at the King Edward's School, Birmingham and which he later named Quenya (c. 1915). At that time, Tolkien was already familiar with Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, and several ancient Germanic languages, Gothic, Old Norse and Old English. He had invented several cryptographic codes (one called Animalic), and two or three constructed languages (one called Naffarin). He then discovered Finnish, which he described many years later as "like discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me."[T 1] He had started his study of the Finnish language to be able to read the Kalevala epic.
The ingredients in Quenya are various, but worked out into a self-consistent character not precisely like any language that I know. Finnish, which I came across when I first begun to construct a 'mythology' was a dominant influence, but that has been much reduced [now in late Quenya]. It survives in some features: such as the absence of any consonant combinations initially, the absence of the voiced stops b, d, g (except in mb, nd, ng, ld, rd, which are favoured) and the fondness for the ending -inen, -ainen, -oinen, also in some points of grammar, such as the inflexional endings -sse (rest at or in), -nna (movement to, towards), and -llo (movement from); the personal possessives are also expressed by suffixes; there is no gender.[T 2]
Tolkien with his Quenya pursued a double aesthetic goal: "classical and inflected".[T 3] This urge, in fact, was the motivation for his creation of a 'mythology'. While the language developed, he needed speakers, history for the speakers and all real dynamics, like war and migration: "It was primarily linguistic in inspiration and was begun in order to provide the necessary background of 'history' for Elvish tongues".[T 4]
The Elvish languages underwent countless revisions in grammar, mostly in conjugation and the pronominal system. The Elven vocabulary was not subject to sudden or extreme change; except during the first conceptual stage c. 1910–c. 1920. Tolkien sometimes changed the "meaning" of an Elvish word, but he almost never disregarded it once invented, and he kept on refining its meaning, and countlessly forged new synonyms. Moreover, Elven etymology was in a constant flux. Tolkien delighted in inventing new etymons for his Elvish vocabulary.
From the onset, Tolkien used comparative philology and the tree model as his major tools in his constructed languages. He usually started with the phonological system of the proto-language and then proceeded in inventing for each daughter language the many mechanisms of sound change needed.
I find the construction and the interrelation of the languages an aesthetic pleasure in itself, quite apart from The Lord of the Rings, of which it was/is in fact independent.[T 5]
In the early 30s Tolkien decided that the proto-language of the Elves was Valarin, the tongue of the gods or Valar: "The language of the Elves derived in the beginning from the Valar, but they change it even in the learning, and moreover modified and enriched it constantly at all times by their own invention."[T 6] In his Comparative Tables[T 7] Tolkien describes the mechanisms of sound change in the following daughter languages: Qenya, Lindarin (a dialect of Qenya), Telerin, Old Noldorin (or Fëanorian), Noldorin (or Gondolinian), Ilkorin (esp. of Doriath), Danian of Ossiriand, East Danian, Taliska, West Lemberin, North Lemberin, and East Lemberin.
In his lifetime J.R.R. Tolkien never ceased to experiment on his constructed languages, and they were subjected to many revisions. They had many grammars with substantial differences between different stages of development. After the publication of The Lord of the Rings (1954–1955), the grammar rules of his major Elvish languages Quenya, Telerin and Sindarin went through very few changes (this is late Elvish 1954–1973).
Publication of linguistic papers
Two magazines (Vinyar Tengwar, from issue 39 in July 1998, and Parma Eldalamberon, from issue 11 in 1995) are exclusively devoted to the editing and publishing of J.R.R. Tolkien's gigantic mass of previously unpublished linguistic papers (even those not published by Christopher Tolkien in "The History of Middle-earth"). Almost each year, new Elvish words are published and the grammar rules of the Elvish languages are disclosed. Access to the unpublished documents is severely limited, and the editors have yet not published a comprehensive catalogue of the unpublished linguistic papers they are working on.
The Elvish languages are a family of several related languages and dialects. Here is set briefly the story of the Elvish languages as conceived by Tolkien around 1965. They all originated from:
- Primitive Quendian, also called Quenderin, the proto-language of all the Elves, who awoke together in the far east of Middle-earth, Cuiviénen, and began "naturally" to make a language.
- All the Elvish languages are presumed to be descendants of this common ancestor.
Tolkien invented two subfamilies (subgroups) of the Elvish languages. "The language of the Quendelie (Elves) was thus very early sundered into the branches Eldarin and Avarin".[T 8]
- Avarin is the language of various Elves of the Second and Third Clans, who refused to come to Valinor.
- Avarin developed into at least six Avarin languages.
- Common Eldarin is the language of the three clans of the Eldar during the Great March to Valinor. It developed into:
- Quenya, the language of the Elves in Eldamar beyond the Sea; it divided into:
- Common Telerin, the early language of all the Teleri
- Telerin, the language of the Teleri, Elves of the Third Clan, living in Tol Eressëa and Alqualondë.
- Nandorin, the language of the Nandor, a branch of the Third Clan.
- Nandorin developed into various Nandorin and Silvan languages.
- Sindarin is the language of the Sindar, a branch of the Third Clan, who dwelt in Beleriand. Its dialects include:
The acute accent (á, é, í, ó, ú) or circumflex accent (â, ê, î, ô, û, ŷ) marks long vowels in the Elvish languages. When writing Common Eldarin forms, Tolkien often used the macron to indicate long vowels. The diaeresis (ä, ë, ö) is normally used to show that a short vowel is to be separately pronounced, that it is not silent or part of a diphthong. For example, the last four letters of Ainulindalë represent two syllables, rather than the English word dale, and the first three letters of Eärendil represent two syllables rather than the English word ear.
Internal development of the Elvish word for "Elves"
Below is a family tree of the Elvish languages, showing how the Primitive Quendian word kwendī "people" (later meaning "Elves") was altered in the descendant languages.[T 9]
|The Awakening||Primitive Quendian|
The tongue of all Elves at Cuiviénen
|The Westward March||Quenya
Vanyar and Noldor
The tongue of the Elves during the March
Avari, those Elves who stayed at Cuiviénen and from there spread across Middle-earth (many languages)
Kindi, Cuind, Hwenti, Windan, Kinn-lai
|The First Age of the Sun||Telerin
Teleri in Aman Pendi
Elves of the Third Clan in Beleriand did not use it: "P.Q. *kwende, *kwendī disappeared altogether."[T 10] The exiled Noldor used in their Sindarin:
Penedh, pl. Penidh[T 11]
Elves of Ossiriand sg. Cwenda[T 11]
The Wood-elves of the Vale of Anduin
There is a tradition of philological study of Elvish languages within the fiction. Elven philologists are referred to by the Quenya term Lambengolmor. In Quenya, lambe means spoken language or verbal communication.
The older stages of Quenya were, and doubtless still are, known to the loremasters of the Eldar. It appears from these notices that besides certain ancient songs and compilations of lore that were orally preserved, there existed also some books and many ancient inscriptions.[T 13]
Known members of the Lambengolmor were Rúmil, who invented the first Elvish script (the Sarati), Fëanor who later enhanced and further developed this script into his Tengwar, which later was spread to Middle-earth by the Exiled Noldor and remained in use ever after, and Pengolodh, who is credited with many works, including the Osanwe-kenta and the Lhammas or "The 'Account of Tongues' which Pengolodh of Gondolin wrote in later days in Tol-eressëa".[T 14]
Pronunciation of Quenya and Sindarin
Sindarin and Quenya have a very similar pronunciation. The following table gives pronunciation for each letter or cluster in international phonetic script and examples:
|Letter / Digraph||Pronunciation||IPA||Further comment|
|a||as in father, but shorter.||[ɑ]||never as in cat [*æ]|
|á||as in father||[ɑˑ]||.|
|â||(in Sindarin) as in father, but even longer||[ɑː]||.|
|ae||(in Sindarin) the vowels described for a and e in one syllable.||[ɑɛ̯]||Similar to ai|
|ai||a diphthong, similar to that in eye, but with short vowels||[ɑɪ̯]||never as in rain [*eɪ]|
|au||a and u run together in one syllable. Similar to the sound in house||[ɑʊ̯]||never as in sauce [*ɔ]|
|aw||(in Sindarin) a common way to write au at the end of the word||[ɑʊ̯]||.|
|e||as in pet||[ɛ]||.|
|é||the same vowel lengthened (and in Quenya more closed; as in German)||S: [ɛˑ], Q: [eˑ]||Rural Hobbit pronunciation allows the sound as in English rain|
|ê||(in Sindarin) the vowel of pet especially lengthened||[ɛː]||Rural Hobbit pronunciation allows the sound as in English rain|
|ei||as in eight||[ɛɪ̯]||never as in either (in neither pronunciation) [*i] [*aɪ]|
|eu||(in Quenya) e and u run together in one syllable||[ɛʊ̯]||never as in English or German [*ju] [*ɔʏ]|
|i||as in machine, but short||[i]||not opened as in fit [*ɪ]|
|í||as in machine||[iˑ]||.|
|î||(in Sindarin) as in machine, but especially lengthened||[iː]||.|
|iu||(in Quenya) i and u run together in one syllable||[iʊ̯]||later by men often as in English you [ju]|
|o||open as in sauce, but short||[ɔ]||.|
|ó||the same vowel lengthened (and in Quenya more closed; as in German)||S: [ɔˑ], Q: [oˑ]||Rural Hobbit pronunciation allows the sound of "long" English cold [oː]|
|ô||(in Sindarin) the same vowel especially lengthened||[ɔː]||Rural Hobbit pronunciation allows the sound of "long" English cold [oː]|
|oi||(in Quenya) as in English coin||[ɔɪ̯]||.|
|oe||(in Sindarin) the vowels described for o and e in one syllable.||[ɔɛ̯]||Similar to oi. Cf. œ!|
|œ||(in early Sindarin) as in German Götter||[œ]||in published writing, has been incorrectly spelt oe (two letters), as in Nírnaeth Arnoediad. Later became e.|
|u||as in cool, but shorter||[u]||not opened as in book [*ʊ]|
|ú||as in cool||[uˑ]||.|
|û||(in Sindarin) the same vowel as above, but especially lengthened||[uː]||.|
|y||(in Sindarin) as in French lune or German süß, but short||[y]||not found in English; like the vowel sound in "eat", but with rounded lips.|
|ý||(in Sindarin) as in French lune or German süß||[yˑ]||.|
|ŷ||(in Sindarin) as in French lune or German süß, but even longer||[yː]|
Consonants (differing from English)
- The letter c always denotes [k], even before i and e; for instance, Celeborn is pronounced Keleborn, and Cirth is pronounced Kirth; thus, it never denotes the soft c [*s] in cent.
- The letter g always denotes the hard [ɡ], as in give, rather than the soft form [*d͡ʒ], as in gem.
- The letter r denotes an alveolar trill [r], similar to Spanish rr.
- The digraph dh, as in Caradhras, denotes [ð] as in English this.
- The digraph ch, as in Orch, denotes [χ] as in Welsh bach, and never like the ch [*t͡ʃ] in English chair.
- The digraph lh denotes [ɬ] as in Welsh ll.
Most samples of the Elvish language done by Tolkien were written out with the Latin alphabet, but within the fiction Tolkien imagined many writing systems for his Elves. The best-known are the "tengwar of Fëanor", but the first system he created, c. 1919, is the "tengwar of Rúmil", also called the sarati.
List of known Elvish scripts devised by Tolkien
In chronological order:
- Tengwar of Rúmil or Sarati
- Gondolinic Runes (Runes used in the city of Gondolin)
- Valmaric script
- Tengwar of Fëanor
- The Cirth of Daeron
Internal history of the scripts
Prior to their exile, the Elves of the Second Clan (the Noldor) used first the sarati of Rúmil to record their tongue, Quenya. In Middle-earth, Sindarin was first recorded using the "Elvish runes" or cirth, named later certar in Quenya. A runic inscription in Quenya was engraved on the sword of Aragorn (II), Andúril. The swords inscriptions were not revealed in the movie trilogy, nor in the book.
- This list identifies each item's location in Tolkien's writings.
- Letter number 214, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.
- From a letter to W. R. Matthews, dated 13–15 June 1964, published in Parma Eldalamberon 17, p. 135.
- Parma Eldalamberon 17, p. 135
- Tolkien, J. R. R The Lord of the Rings "Foreword to the Second Edition".
- Tolkien wrote in a letter to a reader, published in Parma Eldalamberon 17, p. 61
- J.R.R. Tolkien, "Lambion Ontale: Descent of Tongues", Tengwesta Qenderinwa 1, Parma Eldalamberon 18, p. 23.
- Parma Eldalamberon, 19, pp. 18–28
- J.R.R. Tolkien, "Tengwesta Qenderinwa", Parma Eldalamberon 18, p. 72
- J.R.R. Tolkien, "Quendi and Eldar", The War of the Jewels, pp. 372–377
- J.R.R. Tolkien, "Quendi and Eldar", The War of the Jewels, p. 376
- J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Etymologies", The Lost Road, p. 366.
- The origin of the Silvan language is uncertain. Some sources state that the Silvan language was Avarin in origin, some that it descended from the language of the Nandor. Culturally, the Silvan Elves were certainly a mix of Avari, Nandor, and Sindar.
- J.R.R. Tolkien, "Outline of Phonology", Parma Eldalamberon 19, p. 68.
- J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Lhammas", The Lost Road, p. 167.
- Humphrey with Christopher Tolkien, Carpenter; Tolkien, Christopher (1981). The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. United Kingdom: George Allen & Unwin, Houghton Mifflin. pp. Letter No.165. ISBN 0-04-826005-3.
- Hostetter, Carl F. (2013) . "Languages Invented by Tolkien". In Drout, Michael D. C. (ed.). J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. Routledge. pp. 332–343. ISBN 978-0-415-86511-1.
- Elvish.org FAQ – Article by Carl F. Hostetter. Succinct citations of Tolkien's own views of the purpose, completeness and usability of his languages.
- "Elvish as She Is Spoke" – Article by Carl F. Hostetter. A thorough examination of Tolkien's purposes in inventing his Elvish languages and his practices in describing them, their consequent nature, and the inherent pitfalls in any attempt to "speak Elvish". Republished with permission from The Lord of the Rings 1954–2004: Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Blackwelder (Marquette, 2006), ed. Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull.
- The Elvish Linguistic Fellowship: Publishes the journals Parma Eldalamberon, Tengwestië, and Vinyar Tengwar