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Quenya Grammar P49: Basic Verbs

The basic verbs in Quenya are those verbs whoses stem ends in a consonant. They are mostly derived from primitive biconsonantal verbal roots of the form √KAT, though a few of them like ec- “to have a chance of” begin with a vowel and end with a consonant.

Tolkien himself frequently called these “basic” verbs (PE22/98, 129), but he sometimes labeled them “strong” verbs (PE22/92, 99, 163). This terminology was almost certainly inspired by the verb classes of Germanic-languages (including English), where the “strong” verbs are those that modify the verb stem in the past tense: present “eat” vs. past “ate”, present “come” vs. past “came”. This is opposed to the more regular “weak” verbs that form the past tense with a suffix, which is “-ed” in English: present “marry” vs. past “married”, present “lift” vs. past “lifted”.

Basic verbs in Quenya likewise frequently modify their verb stems in the past tense, a remnant of the Primitive Elvish method of forming past tenses via nasal-infixion. These ancient past tenses inserted an n in the interior of the verb, which was sometimes preserved in Quenya but other times underwent further phonological changes. Thus aorist mate vs. past mante, aorist tule vs. past tulle/tulde or (later) túle. By contrast, many derived verbs in Quenya have “weak” past tenses, in the sense that they are formed by adding the past suffix -ne to the verb stem: aorist verya- vs. past veryane, aorist orta vs. past ortane.

In this lexicon, I prefer to use the term basic verbs for this verb class, because the analogy with Germanic strong/weak verbs isn’t ideal. In particular, there are verbs in other classes that can have “strong” or “weak” past tenses, depending on circumstances. Furthermore, there are basic verbs whose past tense is formed by adding -ne to the stem, as with aorist care vs. past carne.

The past tense forms of basic verbs can be rather irregular, influenced as they are by various phonetic changes and reformations. The forms tend to depend on the consonant at the end of the verb stem. The other verb tenses for basic verbs are more straightforward. The basic verb conjugations for the five common Quenya verb tenses are:

  • Stem: mat- “to eat”.
  • Aorist: mate or matin with subject suffixes like -n.
  • Present: máta.
  • Past: mante via nasal infixion, but with numerous variations.
  • Perfect: amátie.
  • Future: matuva.

These forms are discussed in more detail in the entries for the various verb tenses.

Conceptual Development: In Tolkien’s earliest writing, the basic verbs are the ones we have the most information about. Even in the earliest documents, one distinctive characteristic of the basic verbs was their “irregular” past tenses.

In Thorsten Renk’s Quenya Past Tense article, he discussed the past tense verbs of Early Quenya verbs in the Qenya Lexicon (QL) of the 1910s, as well other later documents. As pointed out by Renk, in QL there were two competing past formation mechanisms for basic verbs: vowel lengthening and nasal infixion, as in: sāke past tense of ᴱQ. saka- (QL/81) vs. tanke past tense of ᴱQ. taka- (QL/88). Sometimes both forms appear for a single verb: nāke and nanke past tense of naka- (QL/64).

The variation between vowel-lengthening and nasal-infixion continued in the Early Qenya Grammar (EQG) where we see past tenses tinqie of ᴱQ. tiqi- (PE14/58) but sōrie of ᴱQ. soro- (PE14/46). The main change from QL is the use of the suffix -ie in the past tense. This suffix shows up pretty consistently in the vowel-lengthened forms, but may have been optional for the nasal-infixed forms: compare alternate past tense forms mante vs. mansie for ᴱQ. mata-, the second past tense being the result of regular Early Qenya phonetic development nti > nsi (PE14/57 note #102).

These -ie past tenses showed up in both The Qenya Verb Forms (QVF, PE14/28-30) from the late 1910s and Early Qenya Grammar from the 1920s (PE14/57-58), though in QVF the singular impersonal past forms show -e < -ı̯ĕ (PE14/31 author note #2). One tricky aspect of analyzing the Quenya past tense in the 1910s and 20s is that the Primitive Elvish of this conceptual period included syllabic nasals and liquids. Some of the past tense forms vary because of the different phonetic developments of short and long syllabic ṇ, ḷ, ṛ. For example, the root ᴱ√TṆQṆ producing ᴱQ. present tunqe vs. past tanqe in QL (QL/93) or tanqie in EQG (PE14/58): the past tenses are the result of ṇ̄ > an but the present is because ṇ̆q > unq.

In EQG and QVF, Quenya did not have a distinct perfect verb form, or more accurately the perfect was a compound tense: e tulien “is having come, has come” (PE14/57). Perhaps the long-vowel past tense with -ie suffix was a precursor to the later Quenya perfect tense. On the other hand, there is at least one phrase tulielto “they have come” appearing in The Lost Tales that looks suspiciously like a perfect form (LT1/114), so the idea may have gestated earlier. The Qenya Conjugations from the late 1920s (PE16/124-127) did provide a separate perfect tense inflection, but its form is identical to the past tense with a different pronominal suffixes, a paradigm used for several verb tenses such as:

  • 1st singular: aorist tulin, present tulinye, past tūlien, perfect tūlienye.
  • 2nd plural: aorist tulilen, present tulille, past tūliēlen, perfect tūlielle.

There are still a few past tenses in the 1930s showing vowel-lengthening, such as káre “made” in Fíriel’s Song (LR/72) versus karne in The Etymologies. In the Quendian & Common Eldarin Verbal Structure document of the mid-1930s, however, Tolkien described distinct perfect and past formations. The perfect was derived from vowel-lengthening with the ancient suffix (i)yē > -ie as well as an occasional vocalic argument (PE22/95-96), a basic structure this tense kept thereafter. The past tense, however, was derived from nasal infixion or suffixal -ne (PE22/96).

From this point forward, Tolkien consistently described the primitive origins of the Quenya past tense as the result of nasal infixion or suffixion, and the vowel-lengthening past tense for basic verbs mostly faded away or was given new justifications. For example in the Quenya Verbal System of the 1940s, the past tense of ᴹQ. tyav- was (ancient) tyambe, reformed to tyáve, which Tolkien explained as follows:

In case of [v] from b the historic forms were mn, or mb, but “perfect” stem with lengthening tended to intrude … tyave, taste: pa.t. tyambe or later tyáve; perf. atyávie (PE22/102).

In this new paradigm, there was a general trend for the relationships between Quenya past and present tenses of basic verbs to be obscured by phonetic developments, and for these obscured past tenses to be reformed by analogy with the perfect (or vice versa). This was true, for example, with basic verbs whose stem ended in v (as above) or l, as with túle the past tense of tul-, replacing older tulle or tulde (PE22/139, 140). These reformations were inconsistently applied, resulting in a past-tense system for basic verbs that could be very unpredictable.

To summarize, throughout Quenya’s conceptual history, the basic verb class was distinguished by irregularities in its past tense. In Early Qenya these irregularities were often the result of two competing past tense formations: vowel-lengthening vs. nasal-infixion. By the 1930s the nasal-infixed forms became the primary basic past tense, with the caveat that sometimes phonetically obscured past tenses were reformed to match the perfect. The basic conjugations for other verb tenses also underwent conceptual development, but those forms were more regular and are better discussed in the entries for the individual verb tenses. More details on the various past tense forms of basic verbs are given in the entry on the Quenya past tense.

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