Elvish is a group of fictional languages originally created by J.R.R. Tolkien for the world of Arda and Middle Earth – the setting of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, and more.
Tolkien was a philologist with a fascination for realism within fantastic worlds. The languages of Middle Earth are so fully developed that two forms of Elvish are suitable for normal conversation, while many more are at various earlier developmental stages.
This article shares some fascinating facts both in and out of universe about Tolkien’s Elvish languages and what they show about linguistic fact and fantasy.
A Few Interesting Facts about Elvish
1. Quenya and Sindarin are the two most widely-known versions of Middle-Earth Elvish
Quenya is spoken by the High Elves who retained it before the split of the Quendi (speakers). Sindarin, meanwhile, is the language of the Grey Elves. Sindarin as a concept is a Quenyan word, as the Grey Elves themselves call it “Edhellen”, elven.
2. Tolkien created the Elvish languages before he even created Middle Earth
In one letter, he wrote that “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.”
3. Several Elvish scripts are used alongside Latin script
These scripts are Tengwar (a flowing written script which is either an alphabet or abugida depending on several modes), Cirth (a runic alphabet), and Sarati (an abugida).
Below is an example of Vanyarin-Quenyan Elvish written in Latin and in Tengwar script.
|English Phrase||I will teach you how to speak like a Vanyarin Elf|
|Latin Script||Ñoltuvan le pá quetie ve Vanya|
4. Quenya was based mostly on Finnish, while Sindarin took most of its inspiration from Literary Welsh and other Celtic languages
Quenya was also influenced by Latin, Greek, Welsh, and ancient Germanic languages.
5. There is a developmental tree of Elvish which shows the roots of the major Elvish branches
6. Tolkien’s son Christopher released a book called The Etymologies which was a complex etymological dictionary of his father’s Elvish languages
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote this book for his own reference and never intended to publish it. It focuses on the bases and roots of words alongside their development. It traced words backward and forward through alterations and changes.
7. By the Third Age (the time of the events of The Lord of the Rings), Quenya was the second language of all Noldorin-descended elves.
Sindarin, however, was their spoken first language.
8. Sindarin has different plural forms for nouns depending on if the plural means “some” or “all” for nouns ending in S
For example, êl means ‘star’, elin means ‘stars’, and elenath means ‘all of the stars’. There are three plural endings in Quenyan; some, all, and dual.
9. Quenya has no grammatical gender
Nouns and verbs don’t inflect differently for masculine, feminine, or neutral.
10. The proto-language of all Elvish languages was Valarin, the language of the gods.
The Valar are angelic or god-like beings who came to Arda and Middle-Earth and assumed bodies. While they had no need for speech, they developed a language to communicate with each other in physical form. The elves are the descendants of the Valar, and Valarin is the Quenyan name for the language.
11. Quenyan is used by humans in-universe in ceremonial and royal activities
The Men of Númenór and their descendants in Gondor and Arnor used Quenyan official names for their kings and queens in the Second Age. In the Third Age, its use died out to the point of antiquity, much as Latin is seen today. However, when Aragorn assumed the throne, he did so under the official name of Elessar Tencontar, therefore reconstituting the practice.
12. Quenyan verbs are very regular, but Sindarin is complex
Quenyan verbs are always inflected in terms of personal and impersonal forms.
13. Quenyan usually uses a subject-verb-object (SVO) structure, like English, but it is extremely flexible.
Sentences depend on inflection, much like Latin.
14. Tolkien wrote several full poems in Quenyan, some of which have been published and some of which have not
The most famous and longest was the Namárië, meaning “The Farewell”. Tolkien also gave this poem the formal title of Altariello nainië Lóriendesse, which translates as “Galadriel’s Lament in Lórien”. This poem is published in Lord of the Rings and an English translation is provided alongside it.
15. The Mythopoeic Society, an organization dedicated to folklore, has a subdivision known as The Elvish Linguistic Fellowship (or ELF) which is dedicated to the study of Elvish.
The group was appointed by Christopher Tolkien to organize and catalog his father’s writings concerning the Elvish languages. ELF runs two publications dedicated to Elvish. Vinyar Tengwar was a journal dedicated to the study of Elvish linguistics, last published in 2013. Meanwhile, Parma Eldalamberon is a very irregular fanzine dedicated to all constructed languages in fantasy.
16. The Etymologies presented words in several Elvish languages
Those mentioned are:
- Doriathrin (a dialect of Ilkorin)
- Eldarin (the proto-language of the Eldar)
- (Exilic) Noldorin
- Lindarin (a dialect of Quenya)
- Old Noldorin
- Primitive Quendian (the oldest proto-language)
17. Elves count in two systems. They prefer base 12 (counting in sixes and twelves, and secondarily use base 10 (counting in fives and tens)
The elves call their decimal system maquanotië in Quenyan. Most of the numbers have more than one form depending on when and how they’re used. The first ten numbers in Quenyan are:
Though they are languages of a fictional people, the Elvish languages are so fully developed and understood that they can hardly be called fictional languages anymore. They are influenced by several real-world languages and encapsulate a whole other world – which says exciting things about cultural development via language.