Elvish Roots – Vowels

Several weeks ago I posted about Primitive Elvish consonants. This posts discusses the primitive vowels.

Like its child languages, Primitive Elvish has the five basic short vowels i, e, a, o, u. Unlike the child languages, it has 7 long vowels, with the addition of ę̄ (sometimes written ǣ) and ǭ. These two long vowels are pronounced somewhere between e, i and i, o in pronunciation; their exact quality isn’t clear. The two extra long vowels ę̄, ǭ were in any case quite rare, especially ę̄.

These two extra long vowels were only produced by a process called fortification, or a-fortification, in which an a-sound was blended with another basic vowel in Primitive Elvish words, producing: ai, ę̄, ā, ǭ, au (see Parma Eldalamberon #18, p. 95). This process produced the two extra long vowels, as well as the two “primary diphthongs” ai and au, the two most common diphthongs in Primitive Elvish.

Primitive Elvish had a total of 8 diphthongs, the combination of all the basic vowel with either i or u. Excluding the two cases of double-vowels (which occurred only rarely and produced long ī and ū), this gives eight diphthongs: ei, ai, oi, ui; iu, eu, au, ou.

short vowels i e a o u
long vowels ī ē ę̄ ā ǭ ō ū
i-diphthongs ei ai oi ui
u-diphthongs iu eu au ou

The diphthongs were produced primarily via vowels combined with the semi-vowels w, y [j] coming into contact with consonants, where the w, y themselves became the vowels u, i and thereby produced diphthongs. Thus KAY + ta became kaita- “to lie (down)”, from the root √KAY combined with the verbal suffix -ta. Similarly √KEW “new” combined with the adjectival suffix -rā became primitive keurā “renewed” (Q. ceura, S. cŷr). Diphthongs could also be produced by other less-common processes, such as i-intrusion (addition of an i after the base vowel) into words. In general, the i-diphthongs were more common than the u-diphthongs.

In the child languages, the two extra long vowels ę̄, ǭ did not survive. They became long ē, ō in Quenya, while in Sindarin they developed into the diphthongs ai, au, the first of which further developed into ae.

In Quenya most of the primitive diphthongs were preserved, but ei, ou became ī, ū. Thus Quenya has only six diphthongs: ai, oi, ui; iu, eu, au. In general, the original primitive short and long vowels were preserved in Quenya. Thus, Quenya vowels were frequently very close to their original Primitive Elvish values.

In Sindarin the developments were much more complex. To begin with, there were various special vocalic effects, such as a-affection and i-affection, that could alter the quality of vowels elsewhere in the word (the details are too complex to cover here). Absent these special affects, the primitive short vowels were usually preserved in Sindarin, except that short u frequently became o, preserved only in a few special cases. Long ī, ū were also preserved, but long ē, ō developed into ī, ū, while long ā became ǭ and then developed into au, as noted above.

Sindarin has a sixth basic vowel: y. A long ȳ developed from the primitive diphthongs eu, iu, while a short y could be produced from primitive short u via i-affection. The primitive diphthongs ai, oi became ae, ui, while primitive ei, ou became long vowels ī, ū. The only primitive diphthongs preserved in Sindarin were ui, au.

For a chart describing the development of Primitive Elvish diphthongs in Quenya and Sindarin, see Vinyar Tengwar #48, p. 7.

The results in Quenya:

short vowels i e a o u
long vowels ī ē ē [< ę̄] ā ō [< ǭ] ō ū
i-diphthongs ē [< ei] ai oi ui
u-diphthongs iu eu au ō [< ou]

And in Sindarin:

short vowels i e a o o [< u]
long vowels ī ī [< ē] ae [< ai < ę̄] au [< ǭ < ā] au [< ǭ] ū [< ō] ū
i-diphthongs ī [< ei] ae [< ai] ui [< oi] ui
u-diphthongs ȳ [< iu] ȳ [< eu] au ū [< ou]

Note: In the chart about, there are only three Sindarin diphthongs: ae, au, ui that were survivals or products of primitive diphthongs. Sindarin has three further diphthongs: ai, ei, oe which were products of other phonetic developments. Similarly, long vowels â, ô, ê could also reappear in stressed monosyllables in Sindarin. Sindarin vocalic developments are extremely complicated, beyond the scope of this short article.

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