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Quenya Grammar P9: Word Order

Ordinary word order in Quenya is quite similar to English:

  • The ordinary sentence order is subject-verb-object (PE17/72).
  • Adjectives precede the nouns they modify (PE17/93, PM/346).
  • Prepositions and relative pronouns appear at the beginning of subordinate clauses.

Some of these rules were described by Tolkien. He stated that “the classical and normal order was expressed subject, verb, object” (PE17/72) and “Quenya preferred the (older) order in which adjectival stems preceded” (PM/346). Overall, though, Tolkien wrote very little on the topic of Elvish syntax (how words are arranged in sentences), and most of what we know is derived from examining those sentences Tolkien provided us.

In English, the function of a word is sentence is often indicated only by its position in the sentence. For example, in the sentence “the men gave the elf a knife” the subject, indirect object and direct object are indicated by their position in the sentence. If the sentence were rearranged, the meaning would change: “A knife gave the man the elf”. Quenya, however, has an advanced system of noun cases. The indirect object is indicated by the dative suffix -n: i atan anta i eldan cirma. This gives Quenya speakers more freedom to rearrange the sentence without loosing in meaning: i atan anta cirma i eldan; i eldan i atan anta cirma. A similar affect in English can be produce by using the preposition “to”: “the man gave a knife to the elf”; “to the elf the man gave a knife”.

NOTE: This freedom is even more pronounced in Classical Quenya (Parmaquesta) from before the Exile of the Noldor. This older form of the language had a distinct accusative case to mark the direct object as well: i atan anta cirmá i eldan (vs. nominative cirma). But this direct-object inflection was lost in “modern” Quenya (Tarquesta).

In general, this means word order is freer in Quenya than it is in English, and words can be rearranged for emphasis. This is especially true in poetry, where word order can be very flexible. The best example of this is the poem Namárië (Galadriel’s Lament). In the book of songs The Road Goes Ever On (RGEO), Tolkien gave both the original poem and a “prose” version in more ordinary speech order, so we can compare “poetic” and “normal” styles of speech (RGEO/58-59):

The glosses in the above are mine, to render the English words in the same basic order as the Quenya ones. Note how the “prose” forms are much closer to normal English word order. The dashes in the English phrases above indicate places where a single Elvish words corresponds to multiple English words. In such agglutinated words, Quenya uses suffixes where English would uses prepositions or possessive adjectives, and these suffixes are often in the opposite order from English. Decomposing some of the Quenya words above:

  • má-rya-t = “hand-her-(dual)”.
  • Oio-lossë-o = “Ever-white-from”.
  • sinda-nórie-llo = “grey-country-from”.

This, plus the fact that subject suffixes follow the verb, are strong indications that the basic word order in Primitive Elvish was different, in many cases the reverse of “modern” Quenya. Tolkien mentioned this specifically in the context of subject suffixes:

The normal order in [ancient] Quenya had been verb first, subject, direct object, indirect object. This survives in cases of “persons” inflexionally expressed, but the classical and normal order was expressed subject, verb, object (PE17/72).

More complex arrangements of words within Quenya sentences are explored in the entries under syntax.

Conceptual Development: Elvish syntax is a topic Tolkien rarely wrote about, but the same basic word order appeared in the Early Quenya Grammar from the 1920s: “The natural order in Qenya is (1) subject, (2) verb, (3) object of verb (PE14/56).” His only major conceptual shifts in this area was his vacillation between subject suffixes and subject prefixes; see the entry on that topic for details.

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