Elvish Roots – An Introduction

Fiona has asked me to update my writings on primitive Elvish roots and repost them on her site, something I am happy to do. This post is an introduction to that material for those unfamiliar with it. Since I don’t know who will be reading this, I’d first like to cover some basic concepts and terminology important to the rest of the series.

First of all, a “root” is a linguistic concept Tolkien used in the construction of his words. It is a primitive lexical construct, a sort of “proto word” used as the building block for the creation of more complex words. For example, the root √KAR “do, make” is the basis for the Quenya and Sindarin verbs car- “to make” and the nouns Q. carda and S. carth “deed”.

As Tolkien imagined the Elvish languages, Quenya and Sindarin were sister-languages descended from the same mother tongue, in much the same way that English and German are related languages that developed from the Proto-Germanic language spoken over a thousand of year ago. The relationship between Quenya and Sindarin is even distant than that, more like the relationship of Latin and Welsh, two very different real-world languages that nevertheless ultimately derive from the Proto-Indo-European ancestral language used five thousand years ago. Tolkien gave his ancient Elvish language various names, some of which indicate stages of its own development, such as Primitive Quenderin or Common Eldarin: for simplicity, I usually just call it “Primitive Elvish”. The process by which words develop from primitive roots is called “derivation”, and the words in the child languages are “derivatives” of the root.

The root √KAR is a bit unusual in that its derivatives in both Quenya and Sindarin strongly resemble the primitive root. For other roots, this is less true, since the phonetic developments in the two languages could be quite different. For example, a primitive initial “w” usually develop into a “v” in Quenya, but to “gw” in Sindarin, so that the root √WAN “fair” produced Q. vanya “beautiful” but S. gwain. In cases like these, it is sometimes possible to deduce the actual word in the Primitive Elvish language: ✶wanyā.

In real-world languages, linguists reconstruct primitive roots by comparing words of similar meaning in sister tongues, and roots are especially useful in cases where it is difficult or impossible to reconstruct the original primitive words. In Tolkien’s case, he was inventing both Quenya and Sindarin as well as the Primitive Elvish mother-tongue, and he also invented how the ancient language developed into its child languages. As such, he often explicitly wrote down the roots of related words, and described exactly how they developed.

One of the challenges in studying Tolkien’s languages, however, is that Tolkien often changed his mind about how he wanted his languages to behave. The Elvish languages were one of his major life-works, and the linguistic materials he left us are spread out over 60 years of Tolkien’s lifetime. The languages changed a great deal from how he conceived of them in his early 20s and 30s to how he thought of them towards the end of his life. For purposes of discussion, it is fairly common to divide this work up into three broad periods: Early Elvish (1910-30), Middle Elvish (1930-1950) and Late Elvish (1950-1973).

For example, we can discuss and compare Early Qenya (EQ. or ᴱQ.) from 1910-1930 to the Middle Qenya (MQ. or ᴹQ.) of 1930-1950 to the Late Quenya (which I simply designate as Q.) of 1950 and later. This change in spelling is deliberate: in Tolkien’s early writings he usually spelled the name of the language as “Qenya”, gradually shifting the spelling in the Middle Period from “Qenya” to “Quenya” and eventually adopting and primarily using “Quenya” in his later life.

The conceptual changes on the other side of the language family are even more complex. Tolkien changed not just his ideas about the phonetic development of the languages, but also their entire history and even their names. In the earliest period, he called the language “Gnomish” (G.), shifting to “Noldorin” (N.) in the middle period and finally to “Sindarin” (S.) around 1950-51. For purposes of discussion, I usually further break down the early period into the the Gnomish (G.) of the 1910s versus the Early Noldorin (EN. or ᴱN.) of the 1920s.

When discussing primitive roots and their development, there are therefore two dimensions of time you need to consider: the fictional history of the languages within Tolkien’s imagined world (the Internal History) and the real-world history of Tolkien’s own developing thoughts and concepts of his languages (the External History). This fictional history also evolved over time, so that Early Primitive roots (ᴱ√) and Middle Primitive roots (ᴹ√) and Late Primitive roots (√) were not the always same.

A third factor is that of Neo-Quenya and Neo-Sindarin, which I collectively call Neo-Eldarin. These terms refer to how fans have used his languages after Tolkien’s death. Strictly speaking, any use of Quenya or Sindarin that is not from Tolkien himself should properly be considered Neo-Quenya (NQ. or ᴺQ.) and Neo-Sindarin (NS. or ᴺS.), although most people (including me) use this term primarily to refer to words and linguistic constructions invented specifically by fans rather than Tolkien himself. Most everything on this site (including my own writing) is really about Neo-Quenya and Neo-Sindarin, although for simplicity we often just say “Quenya” or “Sindarin”.

To summarize, things developed (and are typically labeled) as follows:

  • Early (1910-1930): Early Quenya (ᴱQ.), Gnomish (G.) and Early Noldorin (ᴱN.), Early Primitive Elvish (ᴱ√)
  • Middle (1930-1950): Middle Quenya (ᴹQ.), Noldorin (N.), Middle Primitive Elvish (ᴹ√)
  • Late (1950-1973): Late Quenya (Q.), Sindarin (N.), Late Primitive Elvish (√)
  • Neo (1973+, Post-Tolkien): Neo-Quenya (ᴺQ.), Neo-Sindarin (ᴺS.), Neo-Primitive Elvish (ᴺ√)

When it comes to Neo-Eldarin, most fans want to use the languages in a way that is faithful to Tolkien’s ideas, and especially faithful the ideas he had in the Late Period of the languages (1950-1973) around when the Lord of the Rings was published and afterwards. As hinted at above, how best to do this can become extremely complicated very quickly.

A few of Tolkien’s ideas remained remarkably stable throughout his life. For example, he invented the words Q. alcar and S. aglar “glory” (both derived from the root √KAL “light”) in the 1910s and stuck with them thereafter. But most of the time, Tolkien’s ideas were constantly shifting back-and-forth. We have to dig through his published linguistic notes to try to puzzle out his intent, and in many cases the best we can manage is an educated guess.

That‘s what this series is about. They are my educated guess about how Tolkien’s thoughts about his languages evolved, and how various elements of them might be used in Neo-Eldarin writing. As with everything about Tolkien languages, individual opinions vary considerably, and its quite possible to come to different conclusions than mine even when examining the same information. This series isn’t about coming up with the “right” answer (which is impossible) but rather is about exploring various possibilities and offer my opinion on what the “best” options are for Neo-Eldarin writing.

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