A short introduction to J. R. R. Tolkien’s languages and scripts
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is not only the creator of an extensive imaginary world, the framework of his most important and famous fictions: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. He has also invented more than a dozen of constructed languages, which have reached very variable levels of elaboration, and several original writing systems.
Scope and significance
Tolkien’s invented languages are closely related to the development of his legendarium, to which they provide most of the proper names. Nonetheless they were largely composed for their own sake and for the pleasure their author experienced in their creation, with the stories setting only afterwards the frame of their evolution. Tolkien insisted on that point, as can be read from his Letters (the numbers are those of Humphrey Carpenter’s edition):
“[my fiction is] so to speak an attempt to give a background or a world in which my expressions of linguistic taste could have a function. The stories were comparatively late in coming.”
– Letter n° 163.
“my work (...) is all of a piece, and fundamentally linguistic in inspiration. (...) 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. I should have preferred to write in ‘Elvish’. (...) It is to me, anyway, largely an essay in ‘linguistic æsthetic’, as I sometimes say to people who ask me ‘what is it all about?’.”
– Letter n° 165.
“It has been a considerable labour, beginning really as soon as I was able to begin anything, but effectively beginning when I was an undergraduate and began to explore my own linguistic æsthetic in language-composition. It was just as the 1914 War burst on me that I made the discovery that ‘legends’ depend on the language to which they belong; but a living language depends equally on the ‘legends’ which it conveys by tradition.”
– Letter n° 180.
Those declarations may quite rightly be taken with a grain of salt: it clearly appears from Tolkien’s biography and letters that his work as a storyteller also owes much to his interest in mythology, fairy tale and poetics, as well as to his Catholic faith and his work as a philologist specializing in the English Middle Ages. Nonetheless, those quotes well illustrate how important his invented languages were to him. In his essay A Secret Vice, transcribed from a conference he held in 1931 and published posthumously in the collection The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, Tolkien explains and recapitulates his interest in their building. He especially insists on the pleasure found in the personal association between a sound shape and a meaning, and on the harmony composed by the general arrangement of those preferences, that he compares to a “private symphony”. His invented languages can accordingly be regarded as exacerbations of the poetic function of language, that is to say the work upon the very substance of the linguistic medium, independently of the message.
Inventory of languages
From an early age, J. R. R. Tolkien took part with fellow children in the making of two “secret languages” called Animalic and Nevbosh. Such language games invented by children are by no means unusual (the reader of those lines might have personal memories of participating in some of the like), but J. R. R. Tolkien was to carry on with the game all his life along and put it to an incomparably higher level. He first invented Naffarin, long before he began to conceive his legendarium, which was to become the repository of all his later linguistic creations.
Two among those languages hold a privileged position and illustrate Tolkien’s steady search towards two different kinds of æsthetic. The first is Quenya
(for a long time written Qenya
): inspired by Finnish, Latin and Greek, it is the classical Elvish language par excellence
inside the fictional universe, the language of Valinor, the Blessed Realm beyond the Sea. The second, mainly inspired by Welsh, and to a lesser extent by Germanic languages, is the embodiment of what Tolkien called the “North-western air”: it was called in succession Gnomish
, then Noldorin
, then at last Sindarin
. Under that last guise, it is the language of the Grey Elves of Beleriand, that came to become the most common form of Elvish speech in Middle-earth. Tolkien began elaborating those two languages around 1915 and kept it up until his death in 1973. We have a large body of documents describing (most often in part only) their phonetics, grammar and vocabulary, and a substantial number of texts.
Other languages have been but sketched: we can get the gist of their phonetics and know some elements of grammar, a bit of vocabulary and sometimes a few sentences. Those languages are:
Taliska, a language of the Edain in Beleriand in primitive forms of the legendarium, of which a still unpublished grammar and lexicon are known to exist;
Adûnaic, the mother tongue of most Númenoreans in the Second Age;
Westron or Common Speech, a later evolution of Adûnaic spoken by the Dúnedain of Arnor and Gondor and adopted by various other peoples, notably Hobbits, and the usual trade language in the Third Age of Middle-earth;
Khuzdul or Dwarvish, the Dwarves’ own language;
Black Speech, the language of the One Ring’s inscription, invented by Sauron for his minions;
Valarin to a lesser extent, the language of the incarnate Valar and Maiar, of which we know some words;
- and a number a secondary Elvish languages that provide a foil to Quenya and Sindarin: Telerin, the language of the Teleri of Aman, not far removed from Quenya; Ilkorin and Doriathrin, the indigenous languages of Beleriand in the first stages of the legendarium; Nandorin, mostly known in the Ossiriandeb dialect of the Green Elves of Ossiriand; and Primitive Quendian and Common Eldarin, primeval forms of speech in which all the later Elvish languages have their origin.
Finally, many languages have been merely alluded to in the legendarium: we usually know no more than their existence, a few words at most. Such is the situation of the Avarin Elvish languages; of the languages of the many Mannish peoples other than the Dúnedain; of the language of the Ents; or of the many speeches of the Orcs and other evil creatures like the Wargs of the giant spiders of Mirkwood. Here the purpose is more to give depth to the telling than to really create a language.
Sources and methods
The invented languages in the stories themselves are mostly exemplified by proper names and by a few utterances and poems. Truly linguistic statements typically appear as appendices: so in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. Christopher Tolkien, J. R. R. Tolkien’s third son and literary executor, later published some important writings in the twelve-volume series The History of Middle-earth, the purpose of which is to illustrate the development of the legendarium through its main draft versions. The other linguistic writings left unreleased are progressively published in the journals Parma Eldalamberon and Vinyar Tengwar by a team of the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship (a special interest group of the Mythopoetic Society, an American organization) including Christopher Gilson, Carl Hostetter, Patrick Wynne, Arden Smith and Bill Welden, to which Christopher Tolkien has committed the edition of his father’s manuscripts. Those are difficult documents, as drafts that J. R. R. Tolkien did not intend to be read by any other than himself, so that the presentation is frequently unclear and the wording is allusive. They cannot therefore be fully understood without an extensive previous knowledge of the field.
J. R. R. Tolkien kept up elaborating his invented languages all his life along. He was evidently not interested in making them usable as communication tools: he rather delighted in imagining their structure, their æsthetic and their fictional evolution. Being a proper philologist, in conformity with his training at the beginning of the 20th century in the heyday of the Neogrammarian school of linguistics, he envisioned them piecemeal and in a fundamentally historical manner. Moreover, he never stopped tinkering with them, reshaping them during the nearly sixty years he worked them through, even if some elements remained quite stable over time. There are consequently two historical axes to consider in the study of every of his languages: the external history, that is how Tolkien’s conceptions of his languages evolved over his lifetime; and the internal history, that is the historical development of the language within the imaginary world it is set in.
Another consequence is than none of his languages can be considered as complete or finished: rather than a well-defined linguistic system at a clear point of time, they are a puzzle of incomplete, often renewed and sometimes contradictory conceptions. Thus it is impossible to use them immediately to put new texts together, even the two best-attested ones, Quenya and Gnomish-Noldorin-Sindarin. This requires in practice to define a norm by selecting some conceptions over others that may contradict them (a process that cannot avoid arbitrariness) and extrapolating to fill the gaps: this means that, strictly speaking, only forms of “Neo-Elvish” are usable, not Tolkien’s authentic creations, which he did not really devise for this use. There is nonetheless enough material in Quenya and Sindarin (the latter with more difficulty) to build neo-dialects that are reasonably complete while remaining close enough to Tolkien’s own attestations to be satisfying, and so make possible to write many kinds of texts. There is no lack of fans to try their hand at it, with a predilection for poetry.
J. R. R. Tolkien also had an interest for writing systems, a fact that obviously relates to his position as a philologist, since the study and interpretation of ancient texts requires notions of palæography, the science dealing with reading and deciphering scripts of the past. Tolkien occasionally used ancient scripts, for instance the Anglo-Saxon runes on the first page and on Thrór’s map in The Hobbit. But he went further and devised himself several writing systems for his own use, notably to write his diary. Two writings systems are quite visible in his works: the letters of Fëanor (called tengwar in Quenya and tîw in Sindarin) and the Elvish runes (called certar in Quenya and cirth in Sindarin). They are respectively exemplified in The Lord of the Rings by the inscriptions on the One Ring and on the tomb of Balin. The Appendix D mentions a third writing system: the letters of Rúmil or sarati. Tolkien also experimented with little-disclosed systems like the Goblin alphabet, the runes of Gondolin, the Valmaric script and various alphabets foreshadowing the tengwar: Quenyatic, Falassin, Noriac, etc.
The scripts are less tightly bound to the legendarium than the languages are; the available samples include a fair variety of texts, the majority being in English. All scripts are alphabetic or alphasyllabic systems. Like in the Middle Ages, they often include a large array of diacritics, ligatures and abbreviations in order to save space. The tengwar and the cirth, which are the most fully worked out systems, also display a systematic correspondence between the relatedness of sounds and of the shapes used to represent them.