New Theme! What do you think?

Study, speak, and hang out with fellow Elvish students!

Quenya Grammar P37: Pronouns

Now that Eldamo 0.7.5 is published, I’m restarting the number sequence for this series at P37 to match what is in the data model. The numbering of the old posts don’t match what is in Eldamo, so don’t worry that P35 and P36 were “skipped”.


Quenya uses pronouns as most languages do: for noun replacement with either a participant in the discourse (“I, you, we”) or someone referenced in the discourse (“he, she, they”). Quenya has a set of pronouns similar to English, but makes some distinctions that English does not:

  • It distinguishes between singular “you” (lye) and plural “you” (le) as in slang English “ya’ll”.
  • In the singular, it distinguishes between polite “you” (lye) and familiar “you” (tye) as in French “vous” vs. “tu”.
  • It distinguishes between exclusive “we” (me = “we but not you”) and inclusive “we” (ve = “we including you”).

Unlike English, Quenya does not distinguish gender in pronouns. Where English has “he, she, it”, Quenya has only se “he, she” and sa “it”. In Quenya, se is mostly used to refer to living beings (including animals and large plants like trees), where sa is used to refer to unliving inanimates (rocks, houses, swords, etc.). All these special Quenya pronouns were mentioned in a 1964 letter to W. R. Matthews:

… there is no gender. There are other features of course that are unusual, mostly not European, such as the possession of two different pronouns for the 2nd person sg. (not pl.), the one imperious or familiar, the other polite; the two pronouns of the 1st person pl. “we and not you that I am speaking to”, and “we, you and I, us” … (PE17/135).

Regarding the use of polite le vs. familiar tye Tolkien said:

In CQ [= Classical Quenya, more commonly labeled PQ] tye had gone out of use except in colloquial language where it was used chiefly among kinsfolk, but also as an endearment (esp. between lovers). When used by parents to children there was nothing “imperious” about it — for children used tye to parents and grandparents etc. — to use the adult lye was more stern (Quenya Pronominal Elements, 1968, VT49/51).

Thus tye could originally be used imperiously, as a reference from a superior to a subordinate, but by modern Quenya was used almost exclusively as a mark of affection, especially among family members, though a child might use lye to refer to a parent when being deferential (“yes ma’am”), and parent might use lye to a child when being angry or stern. The pronoun lye was both polite and formal, used between strangers, acquaintances and in formal speech. Probably there is a point in a relationships where you would switch between formal lye and familiar tye, as with French “tutoyer” describing the transition from formal French “vous” to informal “tu”.

Quenya also had a set of dual pronouns, although Tolkien revised these quite frequently. Most Neo-Quenya writers use the paradigm Tolkien gave in the aforementioned 1968 Quenya Pronominal Elements (VT49/50-52), which is (mostly) as follows:

  Singular Plural Dual
1st Person ni “me” me “us (but not you)” met “us two (but not you)”
    ve “us (including you)” wet “you and I” ¹
2nd Person tye “you (familiar)” le “you” tyet “you two (familiar)”
  lye “you (polite)”   let “you two (polite)”
3rd Person se “him/her” te “them” tu “them two”
  sa “it (inanimate)” tai “them (inanimate)” ²  

¹ Tolkien marked the 2nd person dual inclusive †wet as archaic and did not give its “modern” form (which would be *vet). I think it may have been displaced by the more familiar form inque based on the 2nd person dual inclusive subject suffix. The pronoun inque was actually based on ancient ni “me” + ki “(familiar) you” and thus is more intimate. This oholima “confidential” pronoun inque is one of my favorite Quenya words.

² In Quenya Pronominal Elements Tolkien said sa was used for both the singular and plural 3rd person inanimate pronouns, but this is rather confusing. Elsewhere he said the inanimate plural form was ta (VT43/20) or tai (VT49/32). Of these, I think tai is the most distinctive, and I recommend that form for Neo-Quenya writing.

In the chart above I purposely used the English object forms (“me, them”) for the translations of the independent pronouns. That is because pronominal subjects almost always use subject suffixes like -n(yë) or -ntë for subjects such as “I” or “they”. Where independent pronouns appear, they are generally objects, either the object of a verb, the object of a preposition, or in some inflected noun form like the dative. Indeed, it seems unlikely that Quenya grammar allows the use of independent pronouns as subjects, so that rather than saying **ni care for “I do” you must instead say carin = “do-I”. See Conceptual Development below for further discussion.

The independent pronouns are, however, the basis for the inflected pronoun forms, that is pronouns which are declined into the various noun cases. There is no evidence of any irregularities in pronominal inflected forms: they seem to inflect as ordinary vocalic nouns. They also seem to allow any noun inflections, including even possessive suffixes as in tyenya “my (familiar) you”, an affectionate term for a kinsman (VT49/51).

When combined with prepositions, independent pronouns are sometimes “attached” to the preposition as if they were suffixes, such óle “with you [plural]” = ó + le (VT43/29). Other times, the pronoun and noun are written separately: vá meninye ó le “I won’t come with you [plural]” (PE22/162). I suspect these are simply orthographic variations, and I would write them separately in Neo-Quenya. See the entry on prepositions for further discussion.

Tolkien mentions the existence of stressed forms of the pronoun, where the vowel was long: ní, tyé, lyé and so forth (VT49/51). It’s not clear when pronoun would be stressed, but it seems likely they would be stressed for emphasis, as in English. However, Quenya also has separate emphatic pronouns, so perhaps there is a gradation of emphasis: lye (unstressed) → lyé (stressed) → elye (emphatic).

Origins of the pronouns: In the 1968 Quenya Pronominal Elements, Tolkien gave the Primitive Elvish pronominal forms as follows (VT49/50, 52):

  Singular Plural
1st Person ni me (exclusive) or ✶we (inclusive)
2nd Person ki (familiar) or ✶le de
3rd Person se te
(inanimate) sa ta

There was a fair amount variation in function in Primitive Elvish. Both ✶sa and ✶ta were used as demonstratives as well as inanimate pronouns. There was some variation in use between ✶se vs. ✶te and ✶le vs. ✶de for singular/plural pronouns. The se/te distinction was resolved in the Common Eldarin (CE) period in favor of se = singular and te = plural, but the le/de variation did result in some differences in the child languages:

2b originally (as modern English) probably did not differentiate sg. and pl. In CE l/d actually interchanged not infrequently especially as an initial consonant of stems. But agreement of Sindarin and Quenya in distinguishing l- sg. and d- pl. (Telerin has de for both). Only Quenya distinguished sg. as le and pl./dual as de (differentiated later by inflexion). The use of le as “polite/deferential” sg. was introduced by Noldor from Quenya and became general in the Sindarin of Beleriand apart from Doriath, where it was not used. In Quenya initial d- normally > l but the verbal forms clearly used -de (VT49/51).

As a result, ✶le was the basis of the singular polite 2nd person Quenya forms, and ✶de was the basis of the plural forms, but for independent pronouns the result was plural le since initial [d] became [l] in (Ancient) Quenya. This meant that the 2nd person plural form, could at some point have merged with the singular polite form, at least in theory. However, the 2nd person singular familiar form developed as follows:

The Quenya form ki̯e > tye is probably due to adding -e to ki (VT49/50) [where ky > ty was likewise the normal phonetic development].

The ambiguities in the singular polite form were thus resolved by shifting the form of the pronoun, probably by analogy with the singular familiar form tye as well as the (suffixal) 1st person singular suffix -nye:

ly was derived from gy; and in case only of lye, you (sg.) by analogy from le (after nye) (Outline of Phonology, 1950s, PE19/80).

Thus, the Quenya independent pronouns mostly retained the forms they had in Common Eldarin except:

  • 2nd person singular familiar:ki + e > ki̯e > tye.
  • 2nd person plural:de > le, its origin made obvious by the pronominal subject suffix -lde.
  • 2nd person singular plural:le > lye by analogy with tye and -nye.
  • 1st person plural inclusive:we > ve, with usual sound change: [w] > [v].

Assuming you accept tai as the 3rd person plural inanimate, it was probably pluralized with the suffix -i to better differentiated it from demonstrative ta.

Conceptual Development: Some of Quenya’s pronouns remained very stable in Tolkien’s mind, especially 1st person singular ni and 2nd person plural le, which he introduced early in his work on Quenya and retained for the rest of his life. Other elements, however, were quite unstable and underwent frequent changes, especially the 3rd person pronouns.

The earliest complete and surviving Quenya pronominal paradigm appeared in the Early Qenya Grammar (EQG) from the 1920s (PE14/52, 80):

  Singular Plural
1st Person ni me
(inclusive)   qe
2nd Person ke le
3rd Person (m.) hu tu
3rd Person (f.) hi si
3rd Person (n.) ha ta

This paradigm already had the distinct exclusive/inclusive 1st person plural forms, which Tolkien labeled 2a and 2b in this and later pronominal charts, up through and including the 1968 Quenya Pronominal Elements (QPE) mentioned above. This version of Qenya did not yet distinguish polite and familiar in 2nd person singular, however, and it had distinct masculine and feminine pronouns. Clearly h indicated singular 3rd person and t plural, while u, i, o indicated masculine, feminine and neuter; the outlier 3rd sg. fem. si was originally derived from ti (PE14/85).

As later, pronouns could receive noun inflections, but there were some irregularities in 3rd singular forms: sometimes an inflected masculine pronoun changed its vowel from u to o, and an inflected feminine changed i to e, so that the accusative masculine singular might be ho and feminine might be he (PE14/53). Sometimes the 3rd singular h was lost, so that dative masculine, feminine and neuter forms could be or, er, ar, but these seem to be archaic vs. more “modern” and regular hur, hir, har.

We don’t yet have a good chart of pronouns from the 1930s in the currently published material, so evidence from that period is fragmentary. However, that there were primitive masculine and feminine pronouns in The Etymologies: ᴹ✶sū̆/sō̆ masculine and ᴹ✶sī̆/sē̆ feminine (Ety/S, EtyAC/S), but Tolkien did not give Quenya forms.

The next complete and published pronominal paradigm appears in an inflectional chart for the verb ᴹQ. ye- “to be”, appearing in the Quenya Verbal System (QVS) from the 1940s (PE22/123, note #130). This inflection chart was rejected, but only because ᴹQ. ye- >> ᴹQ. ea-. Thus the pronoun part of the paradigm probably remained valid. The pronouns are most easily distinguished in the past tense inflections, which are simply the pronoun with a long vowel + the past tense suffix -ne (or -ner in the plural): níne, méner, etc. Extracting this set of pronouns:

  Singular Plural
1st Person ni me
(inclusive)   ñwe
2nd Person le le
(familiar) ke ke
3rd Person e the
(inanimate) he the

As in EQG, the QVS exclusive/inclusive 1st person plural forms were labelled 1a, 1b. The 2nd person forms were likewise labeled 2a, 2b, probably familiar and polite forms since these match the labels in the 1968 QPE. Thus, it seems the QVS paradigm gained the familiar/polite distinction in 2nd person, but lost the singular/plural distinction. Elsewhere in QVS, le was glossed “you”, but it is impossible to tell whether it was singular or plural since English also lacks that distinction. The fact that Tolkien didn’t specifically call out the le glosses as singular or plural may be indicative that Quenya was similarly ambiguous at this conceptual stage. However, elsewhere in QVS ke was specifically labeled “2 sg.” in a discussion of the imperative (PE22/105), so perhaps Tolkien was still experimenting.

The 3rd person forms were also labeled 3a (e/he) and 3b (the) in this QVS chart. Elsewhere in QVS e was regularly labeled “he”, but the only other instance of the was labeled [neuter] “it”: etta matie the ye úmahta “his eating it is a nuisance” (PE22/119). This and the lack of a distinct feminine form are strong indications that Tolkien used a genderless animate/inanimate pronominal paradigm in QVS.

Using these labels to put the EQG (1920s), QVS (1940s) and QPE (1960s) paradigms into a single table, we get:

Version 1a 1b 2a 2b 3a 3b
EQG singular ni   ke   hu (m.); hi (f.) ha
EQG plural me qe le   tu (m.); si (f.) ta
QVS singular ni   ke le e the
QVS plural me ñwe ke le he the
QPE singular ni   tye lye se sa
QPE plural me ve le   te sa

Some additional late period pronominal paradigms can be deduced from charts of prepositional “inflections” as mentioned above. Tolkien wrote down mostly complete paradigms for ó “together” in the 1950s (VT43/29) and ara “beside” in the 1960s (VT49/25). These paradigms mostly match the QPE paradigms except:

  • The ó-paradigm has inanimate plural ta (óta).
  • The ó-paradigm has exclusive me but not inclusive we/ve.
  • The ó-paradigm does not have familiar tye.
  • The ó-paradigm has le (óle) as the normal 2nd singular form beside olye, but olye that may be the verbal suffix form (it appears beneath onye vs. óni).
  • The ara-paradigm also has 2nd singular polite le with assimilation alle.
  • The ara-paradigm has 2nd plural -de (arde), but that is probably a preserved or restored archaic form.
  • The ara-paradigm has 1st plural inclusive we (arwe), likewise probably a preserved archaic form.

Since these paradigms represent agglutination to prepositions, they may not be entirely regular or representative of independent pronouns. In the 1950s it seems the ancient inclusive pronoun we/ve had fallen out of use (PE17/130), as discussed in the entry on subject suffixes, so its omission from the 1950s ó-paradigm is probably deliberate. However, I suspect the variations between the 1960s ara-paradigm and QPE represent ancient forms preserved and/or assimilated when combined with the preposition rather than a significant conceptual divergence from the contemporaneous QPE paradigm.

There are other pronominal paradigms that remain unpublished, so this analysis of the conceptual development of the Quenya pronoun must be considered preliminary and incomplete. For example ᴹQ. tye “thee” appears as a 2nd singular familiar pronoun in the 1930s (LR/61, PE21/65), and in one deleted 1930s note was given as a derivative of ancient kyĕ (PE21/65 note #13), but how that fits in with all the other developments is unclear. I’m not even going to attempt analyze the conceptual development of the highly variable dual forms until more information is published.

Neo-Quenya: As mentioned above, most Neo-Quenya writers simply adopt the 1968 Quenya Pronominal Elements paradigm, with the possible exception of 3rd plural inanimate sa, which is indistinguishable from the singular inanimate. I recommended using tai for the 3rd plural inanimate instead. This coincides with the plural demonstrative (“those”), but that’s much less of a problem than with the other alternatives sa or ta which coincide with singular demonstratives instead.

Another common solution is to not distinguish between animate/inanimate in 3rd person plural and use te for both, much like English “they” is a generic 3rd singular plural. I think that’s also acceptable for the purpose of Neo-Quenya.

Speak, Friend!