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Quenya Grammar P5: Pronunciation and Transcription

Quenya has a rather small inventory of consonants: p, t, k; b, d, g; f, s, h; v; m, n, ñ [ŋ]; l, r, y, w; hl, hr, hy, hw (PE19/80-81). The last set is a group of voiceless consonants, represented in spelling by a preceding “h”. You can approximate the pronunciation of these voiceless consonants by blending the “h” sound with the following consonant. According to Tolkien voiceless hl, hr were often voiced to l, r in Third-Age pronunciation (LotR/1114-5), but the hl, hr are consistently retained in spelling. The h sound also has a different pronunciation before the letter t:

The Quenya combination ht has the sound of cht, as in German “echt, acht”: e.g. in the name Telumehtar “Orion” (LotR/1113).

Thus, in this combination is h pronounced like the “ch” in “loch, Bach” (IPA [x]). The remaining consonants are mostly pronounced as they are in English, with the exception of r and ñ. The Quenya r is the “trilled r” common European languages (IPA [r]), not the “untrilled r” common to English (especially American) dialects (IPA [ɹ]). The sound ñ is a velar nasal (IPA [ŋ]), not a palatal nasal as it is in Spanish (IPA [ɲ]). As Tolkien described this sound:

NG represents ng in finger, except finally where it was sounded as in English sing [pronounced without a “g”]. The latter sound also occurred initially in Quenya, but has been transcribed n (as in Noldo), according to the pronunciation of the Third Age (LotR/1114).

Where this sound appears initially, Tolkien usually represented it with the character ñ: Ñoldo. The velar nasal [ŋ] is pronounced towards the back of the mouth. You can learn how to pronounce by taking the nasal sound in “ng” and removing the “g”: n[g]oldo. The same velar nasal also appears in the combinations nk, ng (“sank, sang”), but many English speakers don’t realize this is pronounced differently from the dental nasal n in the combinations nt, nd (“slant, sand”). In Third Age pronunciation, this sound no longer appeared initially, having changed to n, so you can get by with treating it like “n”. However, many Neo-Quenya writers restore the ñ spelling and use that pronunciation. Words that originally had that spelling/pronunciation are marked with a following [ñ] in Eldamo word entries: Noldo [ñ] “Gnome”.

Another older sound in Quenya is þ or a voiceless “th” (IPA [θ]), pronounce as in English “thin” (not voiced as in “this”). Quenya no longer has this sound, since it became s well before the end of the First Age, before the Noldor even left Valinor. Its original pronunciation is still represented in tengwar spelling (as is also the case for ñ). Some Noldor started using this sound again after they encountered Sindarin, which does have a voiceless “th” sound. Some Neo-Quenya writers use it as well, and words where the s originally had that pronunciation are marked with a following [þ] in Eldamo word entries: Isil [þ] “Moon”.

Quenya has its own alphabet, the tengwar, but most Quenya writing (including Tolkien’s) uses the Latin alphabet. In purely linguistic writings, Tolkien used the letters from the start of this entry, but in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion he represented the [k] sound with c in imitation of Latin spelling. He also used qu (sometimes just q) to represent [kw] and x to represent [ks]. Some Neo-Quenya writers use the more phonetic spellings given at the beginning of this entry (k, kw, ks), but the Quenya word entries in Eldamo generally use the LotR-style orthography (c, qu, x). Just bear in mind that a c is always pronounced like a [k] in Quenya: it is a beginner’s mistake to pronounce Cermie “July” as [sermie].

Quenya has five vowels i, e, a, o, u, but they do not have the same pronunciation as English. In Quenya these are the five “pure vowels”, pronounced much as they are in Italian. As Tolkien described them:

That is, the sounds were approximately those represented by i, e, a, o, u in English “machine”, “were”, “father”, “for”, “brute”, irrespective of quantity (LotR/1115).

A representation of these sounds in typical English-dictionary style would be “ee, eh, ah, oh, oo”. Quenya has both long and short vowels, but unlike English, the long vowels generally have the same quality as the short vowels: í, é, á, ó, ú (as opposed to English “long vowels” which are frequently diphthongs: compare short “ah” and long “ay”). Long vowels in Quenya are held longer, lasting about twice as long as short vowels. The main exceptions to this rule are long é, ó, which are “tenser and closer (LotR/1115)”, pronounced with the tongue closer to the top of the mouth.

This treatment of long vowels can be tricky for English speakers to grasp. Tolkien said that hobbits tended to mispronounce long é and ó as diphthongal “ay” (IPA [eɪ]) and “oa” (IPA [oʊ]), which “concidentally” is also how English speakers would be likely to mispronounce them. I tend to pronounce long vowels the same as short vowels but with “extra emphasis”, which is enough of a prompt for me to remember to hold them longer. This works because a long vowel almost always has the primary or secondary stress in Quenya words. In phonetic writing, Tolkien often represented long vowels with a macron: ī, ē, ā, ō, ū.

Any vowel combination in Quenya ending in an i or u is a diphthong (two vowels blended together in a single syllable). The full set of Quenya diphthongs are ai, oi, ui; iu, eu, au. Tolkien described the pronunciation of Elvish diphthongs like this:

All these diphthongs were “falling” diphthongs, that is stressed on the first element, and composed of the simple vowels run together. Thus ai, ei, oi, ui are intended to be pronounced respectively as the vowels in English rye (not ray), grey, boy, ruin; and au (aw) as in loud, how and not as in laud, haw … [in a footnote] iu in Quenya was in the Third Age usually pronounced as a rising diphthong as yu in English yule (LotR/1116).

The ei in the description above is a Sindarin diphthong not used in Quenya. Thus Quenya ai, oi, ui are pronounced as in English “eye, oy, ui” (blended “ah-ee, oh-ee, oo-ee”) and Quenya au, iu are pronounced like “ow, yu” (blended “ah-oo, ee-oo”). Quenya eu does not appear in English, but you can approximate it by blending “eh-oo”.

Other than the six diphthongs above, all other vowel combinations are pronounced separately as two syllables. Thus Quenya ear “sea” is pronounced as disyllabic “EH-ahr” (not as monosyllabic English “ear”). In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien would often put a dieresis (¨) on one of the vowels to indicate each vowel was pronounced separately: ëar. Tolkien would also put a dieresis on a final e to indicate it was not silent as is often the case in English: essë “name” pronounced like “ES-seh”.

In his private linguistic writings, Tolkien would usually omit the dieresis, since it has no effect on pronunciation. Neo-Quenya writers sometimes include it and sometimes omit it. In the Eldamo word entries I generally include it, but I usually omit it in phonetic and grammatical discussions because frankly it is a bit annoying to type.

In this entry on pronunciation, I used English-dictionary style “ee, eh, ah, oh, oo”, but elsewhere I just use the simple vowels i, e, a, o, u when discussing pronunciation. In IPA notation, the actual vowels are likely [i, ɛ, ɑ, ɔ, u], ignoring dialectical variations. Long é, ó are probably closer to IPA [e:] and [o:]. In practice, Quenya a may be anything from IPA [a] to IPA [ɑ], e anything from [e] to [ɛ] and o anything from [ɔ] to [o]. I generally use i, e, a, o, u even in phonetic discussions, because that’s what Tolkien did, and I don’t want to cause dissonance be switching notation all the time (and again, the basic vowels are easier to type).

One open question is whether certain digraphs ending in “y” or “w” represent consonant pairs or unitary palatalized or labialized consonants: ty = IPA [tj] or [tʲ] (or [c]), qu/kw = [kw] or [kʷ]. For the purposes of basic pronunciation, though, it barely matters. For more detailed discussions of these issues and other matters of pronunciation, see the section on Quenya phonetics.

Here are some links to more detailed pronounciation guides with sound files:

Conceptual Development: Tolkien established the same set of consonants and vowels for Early Qenya in the 1910s (PE12/8, 16), no doubt inspired by Finnish phonology which it strongly resembles. The list of basic Quenya consonants and vowels remained remarkably stable throughout his life. He did change his mind about which consonant clusters were permitted in Quenya, but those kinds of details are better addressed in the discussion of Quenya phonetics.

In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien did not explain the origin of the Latin orthography for Quenya, but in private linguistic writings he often attributed it to the Anglo-Saxon traveler Ælfwine (“Elf-friend”) who encounter the Elvish languages some time during the Middle Ages (PE19/30, PE22/64).

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