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The Conceptual History of Elvish

Tolkien worked on his Elvish languages through most of his life, constantly refining them. The linguistic elements defined by Tolkien as a young man were largely invalid in the languages as he conceived them when The Lord of the Rings was completed. This development was continuous and incremental, with later structures evolving from earlier ideas. Studying the early forms can provide many insights into the structure of the later forms of the languages.

This lexicon divides the conceptual development of the Elvish languages into three broad periods: an Early Period from Tolkien’s early academic years (roughly 1910-1930), a Middle Period during which he worked on the initial drafts of The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings (1930-1950) and a Late Period in which he finalized The Lord of the Rings for publication and made further revisions on The Silmarillion (1950-1973).

Some elements of Tolkien’s conception remained constant throughout his life. His primary focus was on two Elvish languages: a “High Elvish” language spoken by the Elves of Valinor and a “Common Elvish” language spoken in Middle Earth. The “High Elvish” language was originally inspired by Finnish, though it drifted far from its beginnings. The “Common Elvish” resembled Welsh in its grammar and phonology.

Note: Tolkien himself never used the term “Common Elvish”. I use this term here to identify all the various forms of his Welsh-like Elvish language throughout different time periods, in order to simplify discussion.

Throughout all Tolkien’s work, the Elves were divided into three tribes. In the Early Period, the three tribes were called the Teleri, the Noldoli and the Solosimpi (LT1/50). In the Middle Period the first and second tribe became the Lindar and the Noldor, while Teleri became the name of the third tribe (LR/168). In the Late Period, the Lindar became the Vanyar, with the Noldor and Teleri retaining their names (S/52-3).

In all three periods, the “High Elvish” language was called Quenya (in earlier writings spelled Qenya) and it was the language spoken by the first tribe. The “Common Elvish” language of the Early Period was called Gnomish or Goldogrin, and was the language of the Noldoli. In the Middle Period, “Common Elvish” was renamed Noldorin. In the Late Period, “Common Elvish” became Sindarin, a language spoken by descendants of the Teleri who remained in Middle Earth. After this conceptual change, the Noldor spoke the same Quenya language as the first tribe, though the Noldor and Vanyar spoke different dialects of Quenya.

Period: Early Middle Late
Rough Dates: 1910-1930 1930-1950 1950-1973
First Tribe: Teleri Lindar Vanyar
Second Tribe: Noldoli Noldor Noldor
Third Tribe: Solosimpi Teleri Teleri
High Elvish: Qenya Qenya Quenya
     Spoken by: 1st tribe only 1st tribe only Vanyar and Noldor
Common Elvish: Gnomish Noldorin Sindarin
     Spoken by: Noldoli Noldor Elves of Beleriand

The Early Period

Tolkien created the first versions of the Elvish languages in his youth. The Lord of the Rings was still decades in the future and Tolkien had no specific plans to share his languages with the public. In this period, he wrote a series of stories, The Lost Tales, that provided the setting and mythological context in which his languages were spoken. These Lost Tales originally described a forgotten history of our own Earth.

In the tales of Tolkien’s Early Period, the Elves learned their speech from the Valar, the gods of Valinor, so that all three tribes shared the same ancient language. Elven-kind left Middle Earth to dwell in Valinor, but the third tribe, the Solosimpi, were delayed on the journey long enough that their language diverged from the other tribes. Few details of this Solosimpi language are available.

The second split came when the Noldoli rebelled and left Valinor to pursue the evil Vala Melko (called Melkor or Morgoth in later stories). The Noldoli were exiled from Valinor for many centuries, and their language was greatly changed. It became the Gnomish or Goldogrin language, while the language of the Elves of Valinor became (or remained?) Qenya. The two languages were not in contact again until the end of The Lost Tales, when the remaining Elves marched forth from Valinor to fight Melko.

Tolkien created grammars and extensive vocabularies for both Qenya and Gnomish. He also defined the phonetic rules whereby these two languages descended from the original Valarin language. This linguistic evolution was inspired by the real-world evolution of the Indo-European language family. Towards the end of his work on The Lost Tales, Tolkien introduced a fourth Elvish language Ilkorin, or more accurately another language family, spoken by the “Dark Elves” who chose not to journey to Valinor. Ilkorin was not fully developed until later.

The Middle Period

In the Middle Period, Tolkien undertook an extensive revision both of his stories and the languages associated with them. He began writing the work that would eventually become The Silmarillion. In the 1930s, Tolkien also worked on a new collection of documents describing his Elvish languages, among which the best known is the Etymologies, first published in The Lost Road and Other Stories (LR). The primary change in this new conception was in the linguistic evolution of the Elvish languages. Certain Indo-European-like features of the Early Period disappeared, such as the use of syllabic , and as vowels in Primitive Elvish.

In this period, the native tongues of the first and second tribes remained the two major Elvish languages, called Qenya and Noldorin. In his revised history of the Elves, Tolkien further developed the minor Elvish languages of the lost Elves who had never reached Valinor, particularly the Ilkorin language and its dialect Doriathrin. As defined at this stage, Ilkorin was spoken by the Elves of Beleriand, a group of Elves originally belonged to the third tribe, the Teleri. The Ilkorin Elves chose to stay behind when the other Elves left for Valinor because their king Thingol fell in love with Melian, a Maia living in Beleriand.

The Ilkorin language was separated from the other Elvish tongues (Qenya, Noldorin and Telerin) for many centuries. In the revised stories, the exiled Noldor met these Ilkorin Elves when they left Valinor and their languages greatly influenced one another. As the more sophisticated Noldor became leaders of the Elves of Beleriand, the Noldorin language slowly displaced Ilkorin.

In this new scenario, the Noldor brought knowledge of Qenya, the language of the first tribe, with them to Middle Earth. Qenya was not the native language for any of the Elves living in Middle Earth, but it became the language of scholars, surviving into later ages. This was the linguistic scenario when Tolkien started writing The Lord of the Rings in 1937. The “High Elvish” sung by Galadriel in the poem Namárië was not her native language, but was the scholarly tongue of the Elves of Valinor. For their part, the non-Noldorin Elves of western Middle Earth had mostly adopted Galadriel’s native tongue: Noldorin.

It took twelve years for Tolkien to complete The Lord of the Rings, finishing in 1949. As he began editing the work for publication, he became dissatisfied with the origins of the Elvish languages. In the new stories, it less plausible that the language of the Noldor had diverged so much from that of other nearby Elves of Valinor. Why would the prideful Noldor put so much weight on Qenya, the language of the land they had left? Why would the Elves of Beleriand, often in conflict with the Noldor, adopt the Noldorin language and abandon their own?

The Late Period

Tolkien introduced a new linguistic scenario while he was preparing The Lord of the Rings for publication. The “Common Elvish” tongue became the language the Elves of Beleriand rather than that of the Noldor. That gave plenty of time for this language to have diverged from the languages of Valinor. In this new scenario, the Noldor themselves spoke a dialect of Quenya, as it was spelled in later writings. After coming to Beleriand, the Noldor adopted the native language of the Elves of that land for daily speech, using Quenya only for ritual, poetry and scholarship. This revised history is first mentioned in the Grey Annals, composed in the early 1950s (WJ/20-21).

Tolkien called this newly revised Elvish language Sindarin, which was the name Tolkien officially assigned the language in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings (the names Sindarin and Quenya do not appear anywhere in the main body of The Lord of the Rings). Sindarin was the Elvish language used in daily speech by the Elves of western Middle Earth. Quenya still served a role as a scholarly language, much like Latin did in Medieval Europe. Tolkien even called it “Elf-Latin” in The Lord of the Rings appendices (LotR/1128).

The introduction of Sindarin is a good place to separate Tolkien’s later linguistic ideas from those of the Middle Period. Unlike the transition between the Early and Middle Period, the changes in the Late Period are more evolutionary than revolutionary. The changes in Quenya between the two periods were comparitively modest and gradual. The changes from Noldorin to Sindarin were more significant, but Tolkien had already begun refining the phonetics and grammar of his “Common Elvish” language before he updated its origin and name.

When the last book of the 1st edition of The Lord of the Rings was published in 1955, Tolkien considered the basic definitions of the Elvish languages to be fixed, though he did slip a few changes into the 2nd edition published in 1966. He continued to extend the structure of both Sindarin and Quenya in his private writings, but he strove to not contradict his published works. This is the version of the Elvish languages that most fans of Tolkien’s languages are interested in, sometimes called the “LotR-compatible” or “Mature” version. It is important to remember that even in this late period, Tolkien continued to make changes to his languages.

Posthumous Publications

The details of the conceptual development of Tolkien’s languages were largely unknown while Tolkien was still alive. Comparatively little information about either Quenya or Sindarin appeared in The Lord of the Rings itself. More information about the Late Period conceptions became available with the posthumous publication of The Silmarillion and The Unfinished Tales, but it wasn’t until the publication of Christopher Tolkien’s series, The History of Middle Earth, that much was known about the earlier periods of Tolkien’s linguistic work.

The order of publication of the books in the The History of Middle Earth series meant that the earliest materials were revealed first. For years, students of Tolkien’s languages only had information from the Early Period of Tolkien’s languages, mostly from The Book of Lost Tales 1 and 2. With a gap of decades between The Lost Tales of the 1920s and The Lord of the Rings from the 1950s, it was difficult to figure out how the two fit together.

It wasn’t until the publication of the fifth volume of the series, The Lost Road and Other Stories in 1987, that a complete picture began to emerge. This book contained the very important Etymologies, the most extensive linguistic work of Tolkien’s Middle Period. For many years, the Etymologies was the best source for information about Tolkien’s languages. Later volumes in The History of Middle Earth series filled in some gaps, but none contained the same breadth of information as the Etymologies.

The twelfth and final volume of The History of Middle Earth was published in 1996. This series contained a great deal of important linguistic information, but its primary focus was on the development of Tolkien’s stories rather than his languages. Even after the completion of the series, there was still considerable linguistic material that remained unpublished. With the permission of the Tolkien estate, members of the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship began releasing this unpublished material in its two scholarly journals: Parma Eldalamberon (PE) and Vinyar Tengwar (VT).

Starting with Parma Eldalamberon #11 in 1997 and Vinyar Tengwar #39 in 1998, each issue of these two journals focused on some previously unpublished linguistic work of Tolkien. The Vinyar Tengwar articles surveyed material from various periods of Tolkien’s life, but the more extensive articles in Parma Eldalamberon were published chronologically, starting with glossaries and grammars of early Goldogrin and Qenya. Once again, fans of Tolkien’s languages had a wealth of information from Tolkien’s earlier works but comparatively little information from the period of The Lord of the Rings.

This changed with the publication of Parma Eldalamberon #17 in 2007, which described a set of documents entitled “Words, Phrase and Passages in The Lord of the Rings” with extensive Late Period linguistic material. These documents, as well as those published in subsequent issues of Parma Eldalamberon, filled in more gaps between Tolkien’s earlier and later conceptions.

Three Aspects of Temporal Development in Elvish

There are three different timelines to consider when studying Elvish languages:

Internal History: This is the fictional history of the Elvish languages within Tolkien’s world. This fictional history was extremely important to Tolkien. He did not define his languages as they existed at one point in time, but rather envisioned them as part of an evolutionary process from primitive to contemporary forms. Tolkien always imagined the Elvish languages as members of a common language family with similar origins. Understanding this fictional history is critical to understanding how the languages fit together.

External History: This is the history of the conceptual development of the languages throughout Tolkien’s life. The internal history (fictional linguistic history) of the languages itself changed over time as Tolkien updated his ideas of the relationships between the languages. This conceptual development was a gradual process, as Tolkien refined the details of his languages to meet his exacting standards.

Publication History: This is the order in which linguistic materials have become available to the general public. Much of Tolkien’s linguistic writings remained unpublished until the 1990s and early 21st century. The history of Elvish scholarship has long suffered from a scarcity of information and considerable guesswork was required to fill in otherwise unavailable details. Even the best Tolkien scholars sometimes made extrapolations that were contradicted by later publications. Even now, important questions remain unanswered in the published works. Many of these can never be “officially” answered, since there are many details that Tolkien never worked out (or wrote down) about his languages.

Terminology of this Lexicon: Given these different temporal aspects, it can be difficult to discuss the development of the Elvish languages. You could speak of the commonly spoken forms of the Quenya language within the early conceptual period from recently published material, or primitive forms of the Sindarin language within the late conceptual period available only in early published material.

In this lexicon, the terms “early”, “middle”, “late”, “earlier” and “later” are generally reserved for the external (conceptual) development of the language. For example, when the term “Early Qenya” is used, it refers to the form of Qenya from the Early Period of Tolkien’s conception of it. When describing the evolution of the languages within the internal (fictional) history, I use terms such as “primitive”, “ancient”, “archaic”, “old”, “classical”, or “contemporary”, and uses comparative terms such as “older” and “newer” or “more recent”. Thus “Old Sindarin” refers to an older form of the language within the fictional history.

I use the term “contemporary” when referring to the form of the languages spoken in the fictional eras described in Tolkien’s major stories: from the end of First Age through Third Age of Middle Earth. I sometimes use the term “modern” in the same way. When describing real-world works written by Tolkien in the same period of the external history, I use the term “contemporaneous” instead. This terminology allows me to make statements like “an earlier contemporary form of the word” or “the later form of the word’s primitive root” to simultaneously describe the fictional and conceptual timelines, hopefully with a minimum of confusion.

Publication history is mainly relevant when I make comparisons between my own analysis of Tolkien’s languages and those of other authors. In cases where I draw conclusions based on information unavailable to another author at the time they were doing their own analysis, I try to point out the additional information I used when I arrived at a conflicting conclusion.