A star shines on the hour of our Elvish lesson: An introduction to Tolkien’s languages
Despite having been named for the legendary Elvish forest in the works of J.R.R Tolkien, my interests in silvology and arboriculture are inexcusably limited.
It’s high (elven) time I write about what I know.
What I lack in these realms of science I make up for in amateur linguistics. For almost six years now, I have studied two written sublanguages of Tolkien’s Elvish; Quenya and Sindarin. The Hereby the Maverick logo is even written in a Tolkien font reminiscent of Elvish script. It’s high (elven) time I write about what I know.
An Introduction to Elvish
Before I begin, let’s assess the obsessiveness of Tolkien in his linguistics. Tolkien began to develop what he later called Quenya at the age of 18, before he wrote the Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings. But not only did he invent a variety of languages to permeate communication in Middle Earth (i.e., Elvish, Dwarvish, Gnomish, Blackspeech); not only did he invent sublanguages of those languages (i.e., Quenya Elvish, Nandorin Elvish); Tolkien invented multiple forms of the same sublanguages to account for their evolution through time. That is how deeply Tolkien enjoyed linguistics.
For this reason, the system of Elvish is quite extensive, not to mention intricate. Elvish is an umbrella term referring to the individual components and the aggregate of the Elvish sublanguages. I’ve graphically represented the forms of Elvish for your convenience. See below.
Elvish is an umbrella term referring to the individual components and the aggregate of the Elvish sublanguages.
Elvish, however, is like Chinese in terms of how we adherents to the Phoenician alphabet interact with the language. Chinese has a word, which has a definition, and associates that word with a logogram in the Chinese character system. But third-party observers of the language need an intermediator—called pinyin, to Chinese learners—to Romanize the language and thus to understand how the words in Chinese translate to their own language, and then to Chinese characters.
The same is true for Elvish. The Elvish languages have words, like síla – star (Quenya). Those words can be visually represented with a sequence of Tengwar (or symbols), Elvish characters that individually represent sounds and mouth formations. This is the type of Elvish you are probably most familiar with, as the inscription on the One Ring is written in Tengwar script. In a later post, I’ll describe the intricacies of Tengwar.
But, wait! The inscription on the One Ring isn’t Elvish; it’s Blackspeech. This is precisely why I comment on the similarity between the Elvish and Chinese lingual systems. Technically, you can write anything in Elvish script—an English phrase, and Elvish phrase, a dark and orkish poem, etc. Third-party observers and learners of Elvish must therefore translate the Tengwar into an alphabet with which they are familiar, and subsequently translate that collection of sounds into words to which they attribute meaning.
I stress, however, that the intermediary translation of script into the Phoenician alphabet upon which I will henceforth rely is not technically Elvish. It is a tool we Romanized Elvish enthusiasts utilize to better understand the pronunciation of Elvish words.
Briefly, on Elvish Languages
The two branches both Modern Earth and myself are most familiar with are Quenya (pronounced kwen-ya) and Sindarin. Both are, by today’s standards, spoken quite formally, prosaically. This explains why Legolas is portrayed as speaking in grandiose, starry, romantic phrases: “Green are the leaves I leave in Mirkwood,” or “oft hope is born when all is forlorn.” This formalism is perhaps resultant of the lack of vocabulary available to Elvish speakers (Quenya has approximately 2,500 compared to the 600,000 in English).
Quenya is the language characteristic of the High Elves: the Calaquendi, literally meaning the light elves in Quenya. These Elves are significant in that they saw the light of the Two Trees in Valinor. Galadriel is perhaps the most well-known of the high elves. She also is written as conduit for Tolkien’s most famous Quenya poem “Namarie,” meaning farewell. Just as there are variants in the Elvish languages, Tolkien incorporated variants in the Elvish Tengwar, so Quenya is typically written in the Tengwar of Fëanor (who happens to be Galadriel’s uncle).
This explains why Legolas is portrayed as speaking in grandiose, starry, romantic phrases: “Green are the leaves I leave in Mirkwood,” or “oft hope is born when all is forlorn.”
Sindarin, as a language, is far less regal. It is spoken by the Sindar, or the grey ones. It was the language most commonly spoken in Middle Earth. Legolas spoke Sindarin in addition to other dialects. Loth Lórien is also a Sindarin phrase meaning dream flower. Sindarin is typically written in Sindarin Tengwar or also in Cirth, a system of tengwar tailored for Sindarin.
I’d imagine you’re quite saturated with information, so the Maverick and I will permeate other blog posts with our Elvish shenanigans. Until then, elen síla tielyanna — a star shines on your path.
Loth Lórien is a Sindarin phrase meaning dream flower.