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The Man who Created Languages

An insight into J.R.R. Tolkien’s many invented languages.

Before you read any further, let’s see if you know the answer to this question: How many languages did Tolkien imagine were spoken in his fictional world? (We shall only count those for which there is at least one clear mention in his books.) There’s the one spoken by Galadriel in her poem, right? That’s Quenya. Then the one Legolas and Aragorn use to exchange dirty jokes or something, which sounds like Quenya but not quite. Oh, and the garbled stuff that gets chanted every time the One Ring shows off its writing, so that’s one, two… got your number straight? Ok, here’s a full list, in order of appearance from the creation of Arda to our days:

1: Valarin –“Like the glitter of swords”

Valarin is the first language ever to be spoken on Arda, it is the language of those among the Ainur who chose to become incarnate and enter the world. “The Valar, having arrayed them in this manner, would inevitably during their long sojourn in Arda have made a lambe for themselves”.
“The tongues and voices of the Valar are great and stern,” wrote Rúmil of Tirion, the elven loremaster who invented writing “and yet also swift and subtle in movement, making sounds that we find hard to counterfeit; and their words are mostly long and rapid, like the glitter of swords, like the rush of leaves in a great wind or the fall of stones in the mountains.” Valarin employed many sounds that were alien to the Eldarin languages, which inherited very few words from the Valar, who encouraged elves to make words and sounds in their own fair language. The few borrowings can be seen in the names of the Valar, such as Aulë from Avarin A3ûlêz (3 is the spirant equivalent of g, spelt gh in Orkish ghâsh) or Manwë from Avarin Mânawenûz.
All the known names of various Valar end in -z: Arômêz ‘Oromë’ , Tulukastâz ‘Tulkas’, Ulubôz or Ullubôz ‘Ulmo’. Other names do not have this ending, not even the name of the Maia Ossë (Ošošai, Oššai). But perhaps significantly, the words ayanûz ‘ainu’, singular form of Ainur, the angelic race of the Valar, and Mâchanumâz ‘Aratar’, the name given to the most powerful among the Valar, have this same ending.

2: Primitive Elvish  –The ancestor of all the languages of Arda.

Already in the very first Elvish wordlist, the ‘Qenya Lexicon’ of 1915, the words were derived from ‘primitive roots’ (as in the Etymologies). These stems provide glimpses of a proto-language that seems somewhat inspired by the proposed reconstructions of Indo-European. For instance, Tolkien included stems involving syllabic N and L, such as SŅKŅ and FĻKĻ. Apparently starting from the same primitive stems, Tolkien two years later derived a new Elvish language, cognate with ‘Qenya’ – Gnomish, a Celtic-sounding Elvish language that after thirty years of revisions and changing conceptions finally became what is now known as Sindarin, the language of the Grey Elves.
Tolkien distinguished two stages of primitive Elvish. The very first stage, as noted above, was Primitive Quendian. This was the ancestor of all Elvish tongues in the world.
In the Etymologies, an asterisk indicates the words which must be assumed to represent the most primitive stage of the language. The next stage was Common Eldarin, the ancestor of all the Eldarin (as opposed to Avarin) tongues, including Quenya and Sindarin. Common Eldarin would be the language spoken by the Elves that followed Oromë and embarked on the March from Cuiviénen to the Sea, or, to be more specific, the language they developed during the March.

3: Telerin  –The language of the Sea-Elves

In Aman, the speakers of Telerin outnumbered the Quenya-speaking Vanyar and Noldor, but the Teleri and their language were not destined to play a prominent part in the history of Arda. Tolkien stated that from the viewpoint of speakers of Quenya, Telerin was a “closely related language still largely intelligible”. However, the phonology of the two languages differed much, Telerin often being more conservative than Quenya: Finarfin, a speaker of Noldorin Quenya, is said to have learnt Telerin, clearly indicating that it was a language markedly different from his own. The Telerin of Aman was the most well-preserved descendant of Common Telerin, the language spoken by the Teleri on the Great March from Cuiviénen and in Beleriand before many of the Third Clan went over the Sea. Back in Middle-earth, Common Telerin yielded Sindarin.
In at least one case, a Telerin word was adopted into Quenya. The linear descendant of Primitive Quendian kyelepê ‘silver’ emerged as telpe (or telepe) in Telerin and tyelpe in Quenya. Nevertheless: “In Quenya the [Telerin] form telpe became usual, through the influence of Telerin, for the Teleri prized silver above gold, and their skill as silversmiths was esteemed even by the Noldor. Thus Telperion was more commonly used than Tyelperion as the name of the White Tree of Valinor”.

4: Avarin –All six words

“The Avari were those Elves who remained content with Middle-earth and refused the summons of the Powers; but they and their many secret tongues do not concern this book,” Tolkien wrote in an early version of the Appendix on languages that he was preparing for The Lord of the Rings. Does this mean that some Avari deliberately developed or even constructed new languages for the purpose of secrecy? But some Avarin tongues were evidently similar to the Eldarin ones: Felagund quickly interpreted the language of the people of men, and one reason why he was able to do this was that Mannish languages had inherited much of their vocabulary from prolonged contact with the Elves in the east.  Indeed it is said that “in the North and West of the Old World [Men] learned language direct and fully made from Elves who befriended them in their infancy and early wanderings”, and Faramir even claimed that “all speech of men in this world is Elvish in descent”. In the early days, this Elvish influence on the tongues of Men could only come from Avarin.
Even the Dwarves seem to have borrowed a few words from the non-Elda Elves, probably long before they met the Eldar in Beleriand. Tolkien states that “the Dwarvish name for Orcs, Rukhs pl. Rakhâs, seems to show affinity to the Elvish names, and was possibly ultimately derived from Avarin”. It is said that in the Avarin tongues (as well as in Eldarin languages), there were many derivatives of the primitive stem RUKU, the source of the Quenya and Sindarin words for ‘Orc’.
Tolkien’s interest lay in the Eldarin branch of the Elvish language family, and it seems that he left the Avarin tongues virtually unexplored. The only recorded words are the different forms of the word ‘Quendi’ (Elves) in six Avarin dialects: Kindi; Cuind; Hwenti; Windan; Kinn-lai (the last element –lai probably related to Quenya líë, ‘people’) and Penni.

5: Khuzdûl –The secret tongue of the Dwarves.

As soon as Aulë had made the Seven Fathers of the Dwarves, he “began to instruct the Dwarves in the tongue that he had devised for them”. Their own name for their language was Khuzdûl, which is evidently simply ‘Dwarvish’, the Dwarves calling themselves Khazâd (you may remember the home of the dwarves is called Khazâd Dûm, “Dwarf Mansion”). We read that “according to their legends their begetter, Aulë the Vala, had made this [tongue] for them and had taught it to the Seven Fathers before they were laid to sleep until the time for their awakening should come. After their awakening this language (as all languages and all other things in Arda) changed in time, and divergently in the mansions that were far-sundered. But the change was so slow and the divergence so small that even in the Third Age converse between all Dwarves in their own tongue was easy. As they said, the change in Khuzdûl as compared with the tongue of the Elves, and still more with those of Men, was ‘like the weathering of hard rock compared with the melting of snow’ “. Also Pengolodh comments upon “the tradition that they have…that Aule devised for them their tongue in its beginning, and therefore it changes little”. In contrast a gesture-language the Dwarves had devised for themselves, the so-called iglishmêk, was more changeable. Of the Dwarvish language we are told that “structurally and grammatically it differed widely from all other languages of the West at that time”. It seems that it was widely regarded as the proverbial ‘difficult language’.

6: Quenya –The Ancient Tongue.

As an overview, we must note that although within Tolkien’s fictional history Quenya appears only about half-way, it was, in fact, the first language invented by Tolkien, to be used in his books. It began as early as 1915 and Tolkien never stopped adding, perfecting or completely subverting parts of it. So close to Tolkien’s ‘play’ languages, in fact, that English ‘swift, nimble’ is still translated into Quenya lintë, which dates back to his childhood ‘Nevbosh’ language. (Nevbosh means ‘new nonsense’ and was never included in his books.)
One of Quenya’s most interesting aspects is its fictional etymological value. In studying it, Tolkien’s unique ‘reverse’ approach to writing becomes evident. The same way that his ‘Silmarillion’ is meant to be the archetype of known myths, his languages, and especially Quenya, are meant to be predecessors of known idioms. In this sense, for example, the Greek word for mountain, óros was fictionally borrowed from Quenya oron ‘mountain’. Latin taurus, the word for ‘bull’ apparently comes from the Quenya adjective taura, originally meaning ‘strong’. To let you understand how careful Tolkien was in retrofitting Quenya as the origin of real-world languages and cultures, just look at the Quenya verb tal, ‘to fall’. The grammar needed to change it into the word “The Downfallen”, a name given to the sunken island of Númenor, is Atalantë. Sound familiar?
Quenya can be classified as an inflectional-agglutinative language, with complex sentences such as ‘I have found it’ or ‘we shall praise them’ that can be condensed into single words: utuviénies and laituvalmet.

Important samples of Quenya in the Trilogy include:

Frodo’s greeting in an early meeting with elves: Elen síla lúmenn’ omentielvo  ‘A star shines on the hour of our meeting’

The poem known as ‘Namarië’, of which the first line reads: Ai! laurië lantar lassi surinen ‘Alas! Golden fall the leaves in the wind’.

Frodo’s cry of wonder in Shelob‘s lair, when the Phial of Galadriel begins to glimmer in the dark: Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima! ‘Hail Earendil, brightest of stars!’ Incidentally, this sentence is very similar to one found in an ancient Anglo Saxon text called “Beowulf”, which had intensely captured young Tolkien’s imagination.: Eala Earendel, engla beorhtast. ‘Hail Earendel, brightest of angels’.

The words spoken by Aragorn as he takes the crown as King of Gondor: Et Eärello Endorenna utulien. Sinomë maruvan ar Hildinyar tenn’ Ambar-metta! ‘Out of the Great Sea to Middle-earth I am come. In this place will I abide, and my heirs, unto the ending of the world.’

A note of  particular interest comes from Peter Jackson’s filmed version of the trilogy, in which additional Elvish lines were added in both Quenya and Sindarin. The most prominent sample of the film’s additional Quenya corpus comes from the first movie, ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, when the wizard Saruman casts a spell from the top of his tower in Isengard to bring down an avalanche to stop the company at the pass of Wheathertop. His invocation: Nai yarvaxëa rasselya, taltuva notto-carinnar! simply means: ‘May your bloodstained horn collapse upon enemy heads!’ (not translated in the movie). The late Christopher Lee, in the role of Saruman, shows an appreciable effort in rendering the correct pronunciation, although not all the words in the spoken sentence are accented as they should be. Rasselya should have been accented rassELya rather than RASSelya, and notto-carinnar should have been notto-carINNar rather than notto-CARinnar, but perhaps we should believe that spell-casting obeys its own meter, discarding the normal stress rules.

7: Sindarin –Common Elvish.

The most radically changed Elvish language we have any extensive knowledge of:
“The language of the Sindar had changed much, even in unheeded growth as a tree may imperceptibly change its shape: as much maybe as an unwritten mortal tongue might change in five hundred years or more. It was already ere the Rising of the Sun a speech greatly different to the ear from [Quenya], and after that Rising all change was swift, for a while in the second Spring of Arda very swift indeed”.

It was the most prominent descendant of Common Telerin, Common Telerin itself branching off from Common Eldarin, the ancestor of Quenya, Telerin and Sindarin.

Important samples of Sindarin in the Trilogy include:
Glorfindel’s greeting to Aragorn: Ai na vedui Dúnadan! Mae govannen!. The first words are not translated, but probably mean *’Ah, at last, Westman!’ Mae govannen means ‘well met’.

Gandalf’s invocation before the Moria Gate: Annon edhellen, edro hi ammen! Fennas nogothrim, lasto beth lammen! ‘Elvish gate open now for us; doorway of the Dwarf-folk listen to the word of my tongue’.

8: Orkish –A base language for base purposes.

Concerning the language of the Orcs in the Elder Days “it is said that they had no language of their own, but took what they could of other tongues and perverted it to their own liking, yet they made only brutal jargons, scarcely sufficient even for their own needs, unless it were for curses and abuse”. However, it is also said that Morgoth, the first Dark Lord, “had made a language for those who served him”.
In Frodo’s day, the linguistic situation was unchanged: “these creatures, being filled with malice, hating even their own kind, quickly developed as many barbarous dialects as there were groups or settlements of their race, so that their Orkish speech was of little use to them in intercourse between different tribes”. Therefore there is no single ‘Orkish’ language for us to analyze. Indeed “Orcs and Trolls spoke as they would, without love of words and things”. Hence their attitude towards Language was totally different from that of the Elves, who loved and cultivated their tongue. Tolkien was himself a philologist, which title literally implies lover or friend of words, and in his invented world, total absence of love for language could only be a characteristic of evil.

9: Dark Speech –The Language of the One Ring.

“It is said that the Black Speech was devised by Sauron in the Dark Years,” But he failed in his purpose to make it the language of all his servants, although many Orkish words, such as ghâsh ‘fire’ were derived from it. After the first overthrow of Sauron this language in its ancient form was forgotten by all but the Nazgûl until he arose again, and it became once more the language the captains of Mordor. Later it is stated that the Olog-hai, the fell Troll-race bred by Sauron in the Third Age, understood no other tongue than the Black Speech of Barad-dûr. Olog-hai was itself a Black Speech word. Tolkien himself did not like the Black Speech at all. One admirer sent him a steel drinking goblet, but to his disappointment he discovered that it was “engraved with the terrible words seen on the Ring. I of course have never drunk from it, but use it for tobacco ash”.
The Black Speech possesses the plosives b, g, d, p, t, k, the spirants th, gh (and possibly f and kh, attested in Orc-names only), the lateral l, the vibrant r, the nasals m, n, and the sibilants s, z, sh. The vowels are a, i, o, u; the vowel o is stated by Tolkien to be rare. The Black Speech does not seem to use e. Long â and û are attested.
Our sole example of pure Black Speech, then, is the inscription on the Ring: Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul. “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the Darkness bind them.”. Nazg is ‘ring’, also seen in Nazgûl ‘Ring-wraith(s)’. Ash is the number ‘one’, agh is the conjunction ‘and’, disturbingly similar to Scandinavian og, och. Burzum is ‘darkness’.
Verbs with the ending -at are translated by English infinitives: durbat, gimbat, thrakat, krimpat = ‘to rule, to find, to bring, to bind’.  The suffixes ul and ûk respectively mean “them” and “all”.

10: Adûnaic –The Vernacular of Númenor.

Just like the Elves had done at their awakening at Cuiviénen millennia before, men too began to make a language for themselves, although for them,”the making of words was slow”. Contact with the elves soon led to a conatmination of the original language, so that by the time they got to Beleriand, the language of men “resembled the Elven-tongue in many words and devises”.
Men learnt Sindarin in Beleriand, while never forgetting their own speech, which became the common tongue of Númenor. With the War of Wrath and the defeat of Morgoth, Beleriand was also destroyed and sank beneath the sea. But the Valar created the great island of Númenor by of the ocean, closer to Valinor than to Middle-earth. and Elros the son of Eärendil founded the realm of Númenor together with the Edain.

11: Rohirric –and other Mannish languages.

In ‘The Two Towers’, while approaching the Golden Hall of Rohan, Aragorn recites a poem in a strange tongue. “That, I guess, is the language of the Rohirrim,” is Legolas’ comment, “for it is like to this land itself; rich and rolling in part, and else hard and stern as the mountains”
We don’t know much genuine Rohirric, for in the Ring trilogy, Tolkien rendered it by Old English: He tried to reproduce for English readers its archaic flavor in relationship to the Common Speech (itself represented by modern English – but it must be understood that Rohirric was not the ancestor of the Common Speech the way Old English is of modern English). Thus, names like Éomer and phrases like ferthu Théoden hál are not transcriptions of the actual words used back in the Third Age. The frequent Old English element éo– ‘horse’ (in Éowyn, Éomer etc.) represents genuine Rohirric loho-, -, evidently a derivative of the Elvish words for ‘horse’ (cf. Quenya rocco, Sindarin roch) – demonstrating the influence of Elvish on the Mannish tongues. Éothéod, ‘Horse-folk’ or ‘Horse-land’, is a translation of genuine Rohirric Lohtûr. The Sindarin name Rohan corresponds to the native Lôgrad (in the Old English version Éo-marc, the ‘Horse-mark’). Théoden represents tûrac-, an old word for ‘king’.
Other Mannish tongues are attested in the Ring trilogy, the  ‘Northern Tongues’ and other languages such as Dunlending, of which only one word, forgoil occurs and is mentioned in appendix f of The Silmarillion, translated as ‘strawheads’ a derogatory name shouted by the attackers at Éomer and his men at the Hornburg. Some languages were so barely sketched that, for example in the case of the tongue of the Haradrim in the far south, Tolkien himself wasn’t sure whether Gandalf’s nickname there, Incánus meant ‘North-Spy’ or ‘Mind-Leader’. Drúedainic, the strange, guttural language of the Wild Men of the Drúadan Forest is also mentioned, Ghân-buri-Ghân, the Drúedain leader repeatedly uses the word gorgûn, evidently meaning ‘orcs’

12: Westron –The Common Speech.

In the Second Age, the Adûnaic of Númenor was spoken in the forts and havens that the Númenóreans maintained upon the coast of Middle-earth, “and mingled with many words of the languages of lesser men it became a Common Speech that spread thence along the coasts among all that had dealings with Westernesse”. This process continued after the Downfall:
“The people of Elendil were not many, for only a few great ships had escaped the Downfall or survived the tumult of the Seas. […] the Dúnedain were now only a small folk in the midst of strangers. They used, therefore, the Westron speech in all their dealings with other men, and in the governing of the realms of which they had become the rulers; and this Common Speech became now enlarged, and…much enriched with words drawn from the Adûnaic language of the Dúnedain, and from the Noldorin [read: Sindarin] ”
Westron changed from the original Adûnaic partially by neglect: The survivors had no great love of Adûnaic, this being the language of the rebel Kings of Westernesse that had tried to suppress all other tongues. Tolkien described Westron as “about as mixed as modern English”. The Elvish elements in Westron can probably be compared to the numerous French words that have become naturalized to English. Westron is the language, rendered into English by Tolkien, of  Bilbo Baggins’ diary, ’There and back again’, also known as the ‘Red Book of Westmarch’, transcribed by a scribe named Findegil in the Fourth Age. The Red Book is first mentioned in the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings, as the legendary source for all of Tolkien’s tales, and thus the circle is complete, and the counting has ended.

Source: Most of the descriptions of the languages in this article can be found, with additional information on phonetics, on Ardalambion.

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