This entry provides a basic overview of the major features of Quenya grammar. It lists these features with only minimal explanation, to provide a broader context for Quenya grammar as a whole. Knowing these major elements at a general level is helpful for understanding the details of more specific grammatic rules, since they are often interrelated.
Quenya has the same major parts of speechs as most languages: nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives and (less prominently than some languages) adverbs. The normal Quenya word order is subject-verb-object (SVO), with adjectives placed before the noun they modify, much like English. However, Quenya has an extensive system of noun cases, and word order is somewhat freer than it is in English because case markers often indicate the role of a word in a sentence.
Quenya is mainly an “agglutinative” language, a linguistic term for languages that modify words with numerous suffixes that alter its meaning (as opposed to English which is mainly an “isolating” language with very few grammatical suffixes). Learning Quenya grammar is mostly a matter of training yourself to recognize these suffixes and separate them for the base word or stem: antanenye cirmalya atarinyan “I gave your knife to my father” decomposes as anta-ne-nye cirma-lya atar-inya-n = “give-(past)-I knife-your father-my-to”.
Quenya has a definite article i equivalent to English “the”: i atan = “the man”. It does not have an indefinite article like English “a”, and such words are unmarked: atan = “[a] man”.
Note: In Quenya, the term atan (or Atan) refers to “man” as a species, not a gender. A more exact translation might be “human”. English tends to use the same word for both the species (Man) and gender (man), but Quenya distinguishes the two: atan, elda = “man [human], elf” (of any gender) vs. nér, nís = “man, woman” (of any species). In example sentences I often use atan and translate it as “man” since that sounds more natural in English sentences, but the Quenya word actually refers to a human of either gender. I apologize in advance for the apparent gender bias of the examples, but that is a limitation of English, not Quenya.
Quenya nouns are divided into three major classes:
- The consonantal nouns ending in a consonant.
- The vocalic nouns ending in a vowel.
- The e-nouns ending in the vowel e.
Noun cases: The noun classes differ in how they are declined for the various cases. For example, consonantal nouns often insert a “joining vowel” -e- between the end of the noun and the case suffix, since case suffixes frequently begin with a consonant. The major noun cases are as follows:
- The dative marks the indirect object of a sentence using the suffix -n: i atan antane cirma i eldan “the man gave a knife to the elf”; i elda cestane rehtie i atanen “the elf sought help [lit. saving] for the man”.
- The genitive is roughly equivalent to the English preposition “of” using the suffix -o: cirma ango “knife of iron”.
- For nouns ending -a or -o the suffix replaces the final vowel.
- For other vocalic and consonantal nouns, the suffix is added to the end of the word.
- The possessive-adjectival is roughly equivalent to the English apostrophe-s (’s) indicating possession, using the suffix -va after vowels and -wa after consonants: cirma i eldava “the elf’s knife, knife of the elf”.
- The allative indicates motion towards a place using the suffix -nna: tulen i coanna “I come to the house”.
- The ablative indicates motion away from a place using the suffix -llo: autan i coallo “I leave from the house”.
- The locative indicates location at a place using the suffix -sse: haren i coasse “I stay at the house”.
- The instrumental indicates the means whereby something is accomplished using the suffix -nen: nahtan i orco cirmanen “I killed the orc with a knife”.
Noun plurality: Quenya nouns can be marked with three different kinds of plurals: dual, plural and partitive-plural. The exact plural inflections vary by noun class. The interactions between the plural suffixes and the case suffixes is complex, and is discussed in more detail in the entries for each noun case.
- The dual nouns represent two items, generally used only for natural pairs, mostly with the suffix -t after vowels and -u after consonants: mát “two hands”, hlaru “two ears”.
- The plural nouns are the “ordinary plural” representing multiple items or an entire group, with the suffix -r after most vowels and -i after consonants, except most nouns ending in -e change it to -i in the plural (see e-nouns): aldar “trees”, atani “men”, essi “names” (singular esse).
- Note: Some e-nouns, particular those ending in -ie or -le, are marked with -r in the plural instead: tie “path”, tier “paths”.
- The partitive-plural is a special plural used for part of a group, roughly equivalent to English “some”, with the suffix -li often with the assimilation of a preceding consonant: aldali “some trees”, casalli “some dwarves” (singular casar).
Stem forms: Some Quenya nouns have stem forms (forms to which suffixes are added) that are distinct from their uninflected forms. In the vocabulary lists, stem forms are given in parenthesis after the normal form, such as nér (ner-) “man” and nís (niss-) “woman”. Thus nér “man” vs. neri “men”, nís “woman” vs. nissi “women”. For such words, you will need to learn the stem form as well as the uninflected form.
Pronouns in Quenya serve the same basic function of as English pronouns “I, you, him, her, it, we, they”, but appear in a larger variety of forms. Quenya pronouns can appear as both independent words or as suffixes on other words. For example, the suffix lye means “you” (polite singular), and can appear in the following forms:
- Independent pronoun lye mostly used as the object of verbs and prepositions: atan cene lye “a man sees you”.
- Subject suffix -lye attached to verbs to mark the subject: cenilye atan “you see a man”.
- Emphatic pronoun elye which can be used as either subject or object: elye cene atan “it is you that sees a man” or atan cene elye “it is you the man sees”.
- Possessive suffix -lya “your”, added to nouns: atan cene cirmalya “a man sees your knife”.
Independent and emphatic pronouns can be inflected with noun cases: i atan antane cirma lyen (dative) “the man gave a knife to you” or i atan antane cirma elyen “it is you that the man gave a knife to”.
The most common pronouns are:
|First Person Singular||“I”||ni||-n(ye)||inye||-nya “my”|
|Second Person Singular||“you (familiar)”||tye||-tye||—||-tya “your”|
|Second Person Singular||“you (polite)”||lye||-l(ye)||elye||-lya “your”|
|Third Person Singular||“he/she/it”||se||-s(se)||isse||-rya “his/her”|
|First Person Plural (inclusive)||“we (you and I)”||ve||-lve||elve||-lva “our”|
|First Person Plural (exclusive)||“we (us but not you)”||me||-lme||elme||-lma “our”|
|Second Person Plural||“you (ya’ll)”||le||-lde||ilce||-lma “your”|
|Third Person Plural||“them”||te||-nte||inte||-nta “their”|
The second person familiar emphatic pronoun (“you” familiar) is not known; it may be *etye or it may be this form is never used emphatically. Tolkien often used -lte instead of -nte for the third person plural suffix “they”, frequently enough that we are not sure which form Tolkien preferred. There are a set of dual pronouns as well, but they are used less often, and Tolkien changed his mind on their proper forms nearly every time he wrote about them. There are alternate (earlier) forms of many of the above pronouns, but the table above reflect the ones Tolkien used in later writings after the publication of the second edition of The Lord of the Rings (for the most part). This table shows the most popular forms used in Neo-Quenya writing, with the caveat that -lte is about as popular as -nte for “they”.
Unlike English, Quenya distinguishes between a plural “you” (ya’ll) form le, versus two forms of singular “you”: tye (familiar) and lye (polite). The familiar “you” tye is used with close friends and family, while the polite “you” lye is used when being more formal: between strangers, between subordinates and superiors, and perhaps from a child to a parent when the child is being respectful. In the second person plural “we”, Quenya distinguishes between inclusive “we” ve (including the people being addressed: “you and I”) and exclusive “we” me (excluding the people addressed: “us but not you”).
For the singular subject inflections, Tolkien used both short forms -n, -l, -s “I, you, he/she/it” and long forms -nye, -lye, -sse (or -se), represented in the table above as -n(ye), -l(ye), -s(se). In most cases either can be used, but the short forms are more common. Quenya also has a set of object suffixes, but these only appear for the third person: -s “him/her/it” and -t “them”. These object suffixes can only follow the long form of the subject pronoun: utúvienyes “I have found it” (u-túv-ie-nye-s = “found-have-I-it”) or laituvalmet “we will praise them” (lait-uva-lme-t = “praise-will-we-them”). Some Neo-Quenya writers use the other short subject suffixes as object suffixes, such as: melinyel = “I love you”; meli-nye-l = “love-I-you”. However, Tolkien himself said only the third person object suffixes -s/-t can be used this way (PE17/110).
Quenya does not distinguish gender in the third person: se could mean either “he” or “she”, depending on context. However, Quenya does have separate third person pronouns that can be used for inanimate and unliving things: sa “it” and tai “them”. These specifically inanimate forms seem be used mostly for independent pronouns, not emphatic or suffixal forms, though in one place Tolkien gave -s(sa) and -nta as an inanimate third person singular and plural subject suffixes (PE17/57).
Quenya has a number of other more specialized pronouns beyond the scope of this introductory discussion.
Verbs in Quenya are inflected for both tense and subject, using the subject suffixes given above. The inflections for tense depends on the verb class. In vocabulary lists, verbs are typically shown in the stem form (with no inflections added). The “base vowel” (first vowel in the verb stem) is also important for inflecting verb tenses. There are three major verb classes:
- The basic or “strong” verbs whose stem ends in a consonant: cen- “to see”.
- The derived or “weak” verbs produced with a verbal suffix ending in the vowel a: laita- “to praise”.
- The rather rare u-stem verbs whose stem ends in u: liru- “to sing (gaily)”.
Some authors use the term “a-stem” for derived verbs, since they invariably end in a. However, Tolkien himself used the term “a-stem” for a more specific set of verbs, so I limit myself to the terms “derived” or “weak” verbs to describe the larger group. Other more specialized verb classes exist, but they are beyond the scope of an introductory discussion like this one.
Verb tenses: The major Quenya verb tenses are:
- The aorist tense is used for the simple present, habitual acts or timeless statements. It is marked by adding an -e (unsuffixed) or an -i (suffixed) for basic verbs, and is simply the unmodified verb stem for weak and u-stem verbs:
- i atan cene “the man sees”, cenin “I see”.
- i atan laita “the man praises”, laitan “I praise”.
- i atan liru “the man sings”, lírun “I sing”.
- The present tense is for ongoing actions occurring in the present moment. It is marked with the suffix -a and a lengthening of the base-vowel for basic and u-stem verbs, while weak verbs change the final -a to -ea:
- i atan céna “the man is seeing”, cénan “I am seeing”.
- i atan laitea “the man is praising”, laitean “I am praising”.
- i atan lírua “the man is singing”, lirun “I am singing”.
- The past tense is for actions that happened in the past. It is marked with the suffix -ne for weak, u-stem and (some) basic verbs; see below for more rules on the past tense of basic verbs:
- i atan cenne “the man saw”, cennen “I saw”.
- i atan laitane “the man praised”, laitanen “I praised”.
- i atan lirune “the man sang”, lírunen “I sang”.
- The perfect tense is for completed actions. It is marked in three ways: (1) by prefixing the base vowel to the verb, (2) by lengthening the base vowel (but not before consonant clusters and not for diphthongs/vowel pairs) and (3) adding the suffix -ie, which replaces the final vowel for weak and u-stem verbs:
- i atan ecénie “the man has seen”, ecénien “I have seen”.
- i atan alaitie “the man has praised”, alaitien “I have praised”.
- i atan ilírie “the man has sung”, ilírien “I have sung”.
- The future tense is for future actions. It is marked with the suffix -uva, replacing the final a for weak verbs and lengthening the final u for u-stem verbs:
- i atan cenuva “the man will see”, cenuvan “I will see”.
- i atan laituva “the man will praise”, laituvan “I will praise”.
- i atan lirúva “the man will sing”, lirúvan “I will sing”.
If the subject is a distinct singular noun, the verb tense has no further suffix: i atan lirúva “the man will sing”. If the subject is a pronoun, the appropriate subject suffix must be added to the verb: lirúvan “I will sing”. If the subject is plural or dual noun, the verb must add a plural suffix (-r) or a dual suffix (-t) to agree with the subject: i atani lirúvar “the men will sing”; i atanu lirúvat “the pair of men will sing”. The object suffixes -s “it” and -t “them” can only follow the long subject suffixes, otherwise the object must be an independent pronoun: laituvanyet “I will praise them” (lait-uva-nye-t “praise-will-I-them”) vs. i atani laituvar te “the men will praise them”. If there is a separte subject and no other suffix, the object suffix can always be added: i atan laituvas “the man will praise him/her”. For clarity an independent pronoun may be used, especially for a plural object: i atan laituva te “the man will praise them” (laituvat looks like a dual).
Special Case: The aorist form of basic verbs uses the suffix -e if there are no further suffixes, but -i if more verbal suffixes (of any kind) are added: i atan cene “the man sees”; i atani cenir “the men see”. This is because of the historical phonetic development of Quenya, since the ancient aorist suffix was -ĭ and short final -i normally became -e, but this did not happen if a suffix was added.
Past tense of basic verbs: The past tenses of basic verbs can get quite complicated. In Primitive Elvish, there were two competing past tense formations: one with a nasal suffix (-nē) and another with a nasal infix (-n-ē). The ultimate form depends on the consonant clusters preferred by Quenya; this in turn depends on the final consonant of the verb stem. In some case, the clusters underwent some phonetic change, and in others the individual consonant changed. Both kinds of phonetic change obscured the relationship between the present and the past tense forms. These apparently unrelated past tenses were often revised either to use the long vowel seen in the perfect tense, or to match the past tenses of more regular verbs. In the examples below, archaic forms are marked with a †, and are followed by the form used in “modern” Quenya:
- Basic verbs with nasal infix past tenses:
- p, t, c: tupe “covers” vs. tumpe “covered”; mate “eats” vs. mante “ate”; race “breaks” vs. rance “broke”.
- s (from primitive th): pase “smooths” vs. †patte/panse “smoothed”.
- Basic verbs with suffixed past tenses:
- m, n: neme “seems” vs. nemne “seemed”; cene “sees” vs. cenne “saw”.
- r: care “makes” vs. carne “made”.
- Less regular formations:
- l: tule “comes” vs. †tulle/túle “came”.
- v, r (from primitive b, d): lave “licks” vs. †lambe/láve “licked”; nire “forces” vs. †ninde/nirne “forced”.
- f, h (from primitive ph, kh): rafe “seizes” vs. rappe “seized”; lahe “kicks” vs. lacce “kicked”
Basic verbs with the identical consonants sometimes had different developments, so there are quite a few irregularities here. In many cases you simply need to memorize the past tense of basic verbs; the various patterns are discussed in more detail in the entry on the Quenya past tense.
Verbal nouns, gerunds and infinitives: The gerund is a way of forming a noun from a verb, similar to the English suffix “-ing”, but in Quenya the suffix is -ie: tyale “plays” vs. tyalie “playing”. This suffix replaces the final a in derived verbs, but becomes -ye at the end of u-stem verbs: laitie “praising”, liruye “singing”. The Quenya gerund functions in all respects like a noun: it can be the subject of a sentence, can be singular or plural, can be inflected for noun case, and so forth: tyalie envinyata i fea “playing renews the spirit”; olólien alassea tyalielyanen “I have become happy from [lit. by means of] your playing”; tyalie-lya-nen = “playing-your-(instrumental)”.
The Quenya infinitive is more limited. It has the same form as the uninflected aorist and can only be the object of another verb: i atan mere tyale nande “the man wants to play a harp”. Any inflections, including the subject suffix and verb tense, must be on the initial verb: mernen tyale nande “I wanted to play a harp”; mer-ne-n = “want-(past)-I”. The English infinitive can be the subject of a sentence “to play brings joy”, but the Quenya infinitive cannot be used this way; a gerund must be used instead: tyalie tulya alasse.
Quenya has a more specialized particular-infinitive that can serve a more noun-like function: it can be the subject of a sentence, for example. It is formed using the suffix -ita, but can only be used for a specific instance of an action (hence “particular”). Unlike the gerund, it can take subject and object inflections, though it uses the possessive form for the subject: tyalitalyas tulyuva nin alasse “your playing it will bring me joy”; merin tyalitalyas rongo “I want you to play it soon”; tyalita-lya-s = “(to-play)-you-it”.
Verbal adjectives or participles: Quenya has active and passive participle forms of the verb, similar in function to the present and past participles in English: “killing” vs. “killed”. In English, these participles function both as adjectives and (along with various auxiliary verbs) as part of the verbal inflection system: “I am killing the orc” or “I have killed the orc”. This is not the case in Quenya, where the participles are only used as adjectives. The Quenya translations of two previous English sentences would use a more specific verb tense: nahtean i orco (present tense) or anahtien i orco (perfect tense).
The active participle is formed with the suffix -ila, appended to the verb stem for basic and derived verbs, but losing the i for u-stem verbs (probably). Thus from car- “to make” or nahta- “to slay, kill”: carila “making”, nahtaila “slaying, killing”. The active participle indicates a noun that is the subject of the action, as in i nahtaila cirma “the killing knive”, that is a knife which kills.
The passive participle is formed with the suffix -ina, appended to the verb stem for basic and derived verbs, but losing the i for u-stem verbs. Thus carina “made”, nahtaina “slain, killed”. The passive participle indicates a noun which is the object of the action, as in i nahtaina orco “the slain orc”, that is an orc who was slain.
Quenya has a number of specialized participles and complex verb tenses that are the result of combining various tense markers and participial suffixes, for example: the aorist, present, perfect and future active participles. These are outside the scope of an introductory discussion.
“To Be” Constructions
Quenya has a verb ná- “to be” that can be used to join a subject (man) to a predicate (happy): “the man is happy”. Such small linking verbs are called a copula in linguistic terminology. The Quenya verb ná- can be inflected in all the major verb tenses:
- Present or aorist: ná or na.
- Past: náne or né.
- Perfect: anaie.
- Future: nauva.
The verb ná is only required if it carries a subject suffix or is inflected for tense: nanye alassea “I am happy”; i atan náne alassea “the man was happy”. In the present or aorist tense with an independent noun as subject (singular or plural) the ná is optional: i atan alassea “the man [is] happy”; i atani alassie “the men [are] happy” (here the adjective alassie agrees in number with the subject, see below).
For such constructions, the ná may optionally be added to the end: i atan alassea ná; i atani alassie nár. This formation is probably a result of the otherwise-optional ná verb being added as an afterthought to emphasize that a particular noun-adjective or noun-noun combination is really a “to be” statement.
Quenya has a number of verbal particles (my own term for them, not one Tolkien used) that can modify the meaning of a sentence or indicate the verbal mood. One interesting trait of these particles is that they can sometimes receive the subject suffix rather than the verb. For example: álye [á-lye] anta massa men “give (you) bread to us”, where the subject suffix is added to the imperative particle á. The major particles are:
- The imperative particle á.
- Various negative particles: lá, vá, ua (or ui).
- The interrogative particle: ma.
- Various particle of uncertainty: qui, cé, ai, nai.
Imperative: The Quenya imperative is formed by putting the imperative particle á before the uninflected aorist form of the verb: á laita te “praise them”. As noted above, a subject suffix can be added to the particle, to clarify who is addressed, since Quenya distinguishes plural and familiar/polite singular “you”: álye anta massa men “give us bread”. This formation is probably also more polite than the ordinary imperative. A short imperative can be formed by attaching the imperative particle to the end of a verb, for curt or urgent commands: tulá! “come!”.
Negation: Tolkien kept changing his mind on the “proper” way to form the negative in Quenya, so the following is an aggregation of Tolkien’s ideas (and thus falls into the realm of Neo-Quenya). For more details, see the full entry on the negative. Quenya has three major negative particles:
- lá used for a “simple negation”: i atan lá norne “the man did not run”.
- vá used for “refusal or forbidding”: i atan vá norne “the man would not run”.
- ua used for a “strong or bad negative”: i atan ua norne “the man absolutely did not run (because his legs were broken)”.
Note: At various points the lá and ua/ui negatives fell in and out of favor with Tolkien, and many Neo-Quenya writers use only one or the other for “negation of fact” (vá, the “negation of volition”, is broadly used without any changes). The usages described above is roughly based on the system of the 1930s, where the two negatives coexisted but lá was the normal negative whereas u-negatives had an added “unpleasant” connotation. It also incorporates Tolkien’s ideas from the late 1960s that the u-negatives were used for “impossible” things.
The negative particle could take a subject suffix: lanye norne “I did not run”, but the tense marker is applied to the modified verb: norne is the past tense of nor- “to run” in the prior example. There are examples of the subject suffix being added to the main verb as well: lá nornen “I did not run”.
The negative element can take a tense marker in the case of a negative copula (a “to not be” statement): i atan lá alassea “the man is not happy”, i atan láne alassea “the man was not happy”, i atan lauva alassea “the man will not be happy”. The particle vá is a bit of an exception: the fully inflectible verb ava- “to refuse, forbid” is often substituted, especially in the imperative: avá! “don’t!”.
Interrogative: The interrogative particle ma is added to the beginning of a sentence to turn a statement into a question, something that English marks by rearranging word order: i atan noruva “the man will run”; ma i atan noruva? “will the man run?”. Various questions words are derived from this base form:
- man “who”.
- mana “what”.
- masse “where [lit. at what]”.
- manna “whither [lit. towards what]”.
- mallo “whence [lit. from what]”.
- manen “how [lit. by what means]”.
Uncertainty: The various particles of uncertainty can be used to form conditional or hypothetic statements: qui, cé, ai, nai. See the entry on the subjunctive for further discussion. @@@ revisit after the main entry is written.
Adjectives and Adverbs
Quenya adjectives generally end with the vowels a or e, or the consonant n. An adjective must be declined into the plural to agree the number of the noun. The declension depends on the ending of the adjective:
- -a becomes -e: vanima elda “beautiful elf”; vanime eldar “beautiful elves”.
- -e becomes -i: luine ailin “blue lake”; luini ailini “blue lakes”.
- -ea becomes -ie: alassea atan “happy man”; alassie atani “happy men”.
- -i is added to consonants: firin orco “dead orc”; firini orcor “dead orcs”.
The adjective generally precedes the noun it modifies: i alassea atan “the happy man”. If it follows, the phrase is generally a copula (“to be”) expression: i atan alassea “the man [is] happy”. Noun-adjective agreement is also required in such expressions: i atani alassie “the men [are] happy”.
Quenya makes less use of adverbs than in English. In particular, it is not clear whether an adverb can modify an adjective in Quenya. Quenya has a number of dedicated adverbs that can modify verbs, and adjectives can be changed into adverbs using suffixes like -ve, roughly equivalent to English “-ly”: linta “swift”, lintave “swiftly”.