Friday, June 6, 2014

The Elven Tongues

Once he had his languages, Tolkien sought to map out their historical relationships, beginning (philologist as he was) with a prototypical speech he at first called "Gnomish" (the Noldor were known as the "Gnomes" in his very early works). He then used what he knew of the principles of language change both to create and explain the relationship between this ancient Elvish, Quenya, and its more "worn down" relative "Sindarin." In doing so, he used well-known principles of historical language study, which suggested (for instance) that /v/ might "wear down" into /b/ and /k/ into /g/. Thus the Quenya "Valaröke" (spirit of fire) "wore down" into the Sindarin "Balrog." Eventually, he ran into issues which could only be explained by modifying the history of the Elves to explain the changes (or lack thereof). He knew that a population's speech, once separated from its main body, would begin to evolve differently, and thus difference required separation -- the Light Elves from various Dark Elves, the High from the Low, the Elves of Middle-Earth from those of Beleriand, and so forth.

The language of Men was always meant to have had a separate origin, though greatly influenced by the contact of the Edain with the Eldar. The more "noble" men spoke a speech with more Elvish influence, and borrowed many words from them. Early men spoke a language known as "Hadorian," which was the parent language of Adûnaic, the speech of Númenor. With the fall of that realm, the few Faithful brought their speech back into Middle-Earth, where it seems to have grown into a sort of "prestige dialect" of Gondor; the bulk of the rest of men spoke a distant tongue, which by late in the Third Age had become known as "Westron." Later in his career, Tolkien liked the conceit of having merely "translated" the works of Bilbo and Frodo out of Westron; he then rationalized the use of Old English to represent the speech of Rohan because the Rohirrim spoke an older form of Westron.

Not many examples, alas, of Westron, alas, are known; Tolkien principally talks about it in the Appendices to LOTR. The names of the Hobbits, for instance, are known; Frodo's actual name was Maura (the -a was a masculine ending in Westron names); Merry (Meriadoc) was Kalimac, with "Merry" representing the more familiar "Kali," and so forth.

The study of Tolkien's languages is now a field in and of itself, and has advanced greatly since Ruth S. Noel's little red book (which is now known to contain many errors). Linguists have had the advantage of access Tolkien's unpublished writings, including some which never even made it in the twelve volumes of the History of Middle-Earth. Some of their work is quite technical! But the fascination with invented speech is a key part of both Tolkien's and his fans' engagement, and the idea that it was speech -- language -- from which his world was wrought, provides a remarkable starting-point for the analysis of the worlds which resulted.

Note: The image at the top of this post is of a letter from Aragorn, after he had become king, announcing a visit to the edge of the Shire early in the Fourth Age. Tolkien made many facsimiles of this letter; this one I made myself back in 1979 after having copied one of these versions from his original manuscripts.


  1. Reading that more dignified or even noble man speech had a form of Elvish influence could make one believe that the Elves had a small hand in shaping the course of the human evolution. Seeing as Elves have lived before man and were already somewhat advance in culture when man was coming around, it may be possible to imagine that these early man, not primitive cave men or arnything but simply earlier man was influenced by Elvish culture and in a way could of based their own culture and civilization around the Elves. Over the centuries, however, man could of changed and tweaked their civilization to become autonomous of the Elves and eventually forget any influence.

  2. I think it is absolutely amazing how elaborate Tolkien made his languages. Most of the fantasy books that I have read that have created languages never create histories for the languages. The invented languages just stands alone, unchanging for the entire duration of that world. But not Tolkien's! He not only created several convincing languages, he created three levels of evolution for those languages, and also created a history of their interactions. Showing the impact and influences those interactions had. Also, unlike most other writers, he created the world around the languages, to explain their history. Tolkien didn't create all of Middle-Earth and then decide it would be a cool idea if all the races spoke different languages. I love how once he had created rules, he abided by them, and did not just do whatever he felt like doing within the language.

  3. "The language of Men was always meant to have had a separate origin, though greatly influenced by the contact of the Edain with the Eldar. The more "noble" men spoke a speech with more Elvish influence, and borrowed many words from them." Once again, the allusion of some sort of Greek/Latin word origin is prominent to me with the Elvish tongues. I am a big fan of the NPR program "Says You!" and lately, while listening, I think of the root words for the challenge words proposed to panelists in order for them to write-up a definition. Often times this same thought process appears in my head when combing through Tolkien's essays, writings, poetry, and other works in his fictional languages. You can really see this use of root words and meanings re-appearing over and over. It's a fun game to find them each time.

    Does anyone have any idea as to what (presumably) Anglo-Saxxon/Celtic group is being most often referred to in the tongue of Rohan? Eowyn & Eomer seem so nordic in the stories but in the films they feel very celtic. Perhaps it's costume and design that strikes me visually whereas my own imagination takes form in the context of the book, but it's always made me think about how Theoden & his troupe speak a specific tongue of Man and Aragorn comes in, years and years removed from it (as does Gandalf), and speaks rather eloquently and with little consequence. Would Aragorn have been speaking anything close to Rohirrim's dialect during his travels away from Man as Strider?


  4. The study of Tolkien's languages among modern day linguists and fans alike is a fascinating part of his creation. The development of languages, such as how the speech of elves change over time, reflects changes we see in our own language as well. For example, we speak different English today than we did in centuries past, so it would make sense for Tolkien to account for the different languages spoken. The differences in location also allow for differences in dialect, just as we see within our own language.
    Today I watched The Two Towers extended edition. As I watched it was interesting to hear the Elvish tongue according to Jackson's cinematic interpretation. It's amazing how not only are we studying Tolkien's languages in this class, but that linguists and Tolkien scholars alike are not only studying, but able to employ their skills in creating the films.

    1. Sara, interesting observation about the Two Towers scene -- Ryszard Derdzinski has an impressive website which lists this and all other instances of spoken Elvish in Jackson's films, with pretty good translations, too!

  5. Slightly related, though arguably more related for the weeks coming: <-- a video of Frasier Crane from the show "Frasier" (portrayed by Kelsey Grammer) attempting to read, for his son's Bar Mitzvah, a passage translated for him by a client in what is supposed to be Hebrew. Turns out it was Klingon. He doesn't do a bad job. Another example of application of fictional languages into real life, as written/studied by those who are most focused on it -- the fans.