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Quenya Grammar P2: Historical Development

Like all Elvish languages, the primitive precursors of Quenya appeared soon after the awakening of the Elves in Cuivienén, a period when all Elves spoke the same language. Tolkien referred to this period as Primitive Quendian or Common Quenderin [CQ]; most of the literature on Elvish uses CQ to avoid confusion with the Parmaquesta [PQ] period discussed below. The Elves themselves no longer remember what their speech was like at the dawn of their race (PM/399-400), and are forced to reconstruct the most ancient form of their language using the same comparative linguistic tools used to study ancient human languages.

After the First Sundering of the Elves, their languages split into two broad branches: the Eldarin languages for those who journeyed toward Valinor and the Avari languages for those who stayed behind (S/52). Of those who went on the journey, Tolkien called this the Common Eldarin [CE] period. In this ancient time, the speech of the Teleri (who traveled more slowly) began to diverge into a distinct dialect called Ancient Telerin [AT]. This new branch of Eldarin was the basis for the Telerin and Sindarin languages. Some elements of Common Eldarin were still preserved orally, probably in ancient songs (PE19/68). Nonetheless this exact form of the language in this period is uncertain, and it is not always easy to tell which developments of the language date to CE or CQ. I generally use the term “Primitive Elvish” to refer to these two periods collectively.

The next period of Quenya’s development was variously called Ancient Quenya [AQ] or Old Quenya [OQ], and was marked by the split between the Quenya and Telerin branches of the languages. It is not entirely clear when the AQ period began, but it definitely must have started by the time the Noldor and Vanyar crossed the sea to Valinor, leaving their Telerin brethren behind in Beleriand. I suspect some AQ/AT distinctions predate this physical division of the Elvish tribes, however, most notably the Ancient Telerin sound change whereby labialized velars became labials (kw > p).

In the middle of the Ancient Quenya period the Elves first invented writing: the Sarati system or Rúmilian Alphabet, created by the Elvish scholar Rúmil. There was thus a collection of literature dating back to the latter half of Ancient Quenya. It can be useful to subdivide the Ancient Quenya period in two, for pre- and post-literate Elvish. In my own writing I reserve the term Old Quenya [OQ] for the period when Sarati was the normal writing system of the Elves, but there is no indication Tolkien ever used the term this way. Furthermore, we don’t really have enough information about either Ancient Quenya or the Sarati alphabet to known for certain which developments came before or after the invention of writing.

After Ancient Quenya, the next period of Quenya’s development was Parmaquesta [PQ] of “Book Language” (PE19/68), so called because it remains the primary written form of Quenya. The beginning of the Parmaquesta period is marked by the introduction of a new writing system, the Tengwar or Feanorian Alphabet, created by the Noldorin loremaster Fëanor. Some of the more peculiar features of how tengwar are used in Quenya writing are more comprehensible once you understand that this system of writing originally reflected the pronunciation of the language at the beginning of the Parmaquesta period.

Up through the Parmaquesta period, the Vanyar and Noldor interacted frequently enough that there was little difference in the speech of the first and second tribes. In the thousand or so solar years before the end of the First Age, however, the Vanyarin and Noldorin dialects began to diverge. This division was probably exacerbated by the withdrawal of Fëanor and his followers from Elvish society after he threatened his half-brothers with violence. The two dialect split even further apart after the Noldor went into Exile, and their language continued to develop in isolation from the Vanyar. This last period of Quenya’s history is called Tarquesta [TQ] or “High Speech” (PE19/68).

After end the First Age, Quenya ceased to be used in daily speech among the Elves of Middle Earth, and the language was frozen in its Tarquesta form. Though the writing system still reflected the Parmaquesta period, the actual pronunciation of Quenya words was based on the Tarquesta forms, and this was the form of the language adopted by Elves and Men in the later ages of Middle Earth. As Quenya was used primarily in lore and ritual, the final form of the language was given the name “High Speech”.

Tolkien gave a rough timeline of Quenya’s development in both the Quenya Outline of Phonology (OP2, PE19/68) which fits the dating system used in the Annals of Aman (MR/48-134), both written in the 1950s. The dating system in the Annals of Aman used “Years of the Trees” [YT], since they describe the time period before the rise of the Sun and the Moon. Each “Year of the Tree” marked roughly 9.5 solar years of time (MR/60), so the periods described are much longer that they first appear. Also note that Tolkien continued to work on his histories through 1960s, and this chronology may not completely reflect his later conception of the histories. With those caveats, the major periods of Quenya’s historical development are:

  • Common Quenderin [CQ]: From the awakening of the Elves (YT 1050) through the First Sundering (YT 1105): approximately 500 solar years.
  • Common Eldarin [CE]: Lasted until the Vanyar and Noldor crossing the sea to Valinor leaving the Teleri behind (YT 1132): roughly 250 solar years.
  • Ancient Quenya [AQ]: Up through the invention of Sarati (YT 1180): roughly 450 solar years.
  • Old Quenya [OQ]: Up through the invention of Tengwar (YT 1250): roughly 650 solar years, or 1100 solar years when combined with Ancient Quenya.
  • Parmaquesta [PQ]: According to Tolkien, PQ was represented Elvish speech around YT 1300 (PE19/68), but it was probably much longer before the Noldorin and Vanyarin dialects diverged (perhaps around YT 1450-1470): roughly 2000 solar years.
  • Tarquesta [TQ]: This period began somewhat before the Exile of the Noldorin (in YT 1495), overlapping with the Years of the Sun after Morgoth destroyed the two trees, and lasting through the end of the First Age: roughly 1000 solar years.

As noted above, this chronology needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The division of AQ into two periods called Ancient Quenya and Old Quenya split by the invention of Sarati is my own terminology. Tolkien generally lumped this all into a single AQ period; where Tolkien used the term Old Quenya it seems to be synonymous with either Ancient Quenya or (occasionally) Parmaquesta.

The entries that follow are primary concerned with the Tarquesta form of the language, as it would have been used by Elves and Men in the Third Age of Middle Earth. As such, it is largely concerned with the Ñoldorin dialect of Quenya. The Vanyarin dialect is discussed separately, but many of the things that are true of Ñoldorin dialect are true of Vanyarin as well.

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