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Quenya Grammar P57: Irregular Verbs

Quenya verbs show a number of irregularities and unexpected behaviors, especially in the past and present tenses. However, there are some verbs that, because of phonological peculiarities or their foundational natures, are more irregular than usual. Tolkien mentioned this in the Quenya Verbal System of the 1940s:

There are a number of verbal elements in Quenya (as in Eldarin generally) that are either of ancient type, of √TĀ-bases, not of the normal tal-form, or that have by loss of older consonants in Eldarin (e.g. ʒ, ñ) or in prehistoric Quenya (e.g. g), have assumed this simpler form. They are often important like the verb “to be”, or as auxiliaries, and modal verbs; but they have several irregularities, and are usually defective in one or more of the parts found in a full verb.

Verbs that are irregular because of their phonetic character are discussed in the entries for individual verbs, such as the rather abnormal verb auta- “to depart, leave, pass away”. The conjugations of more foundational verbs are discussed in this entry, in particular those verbs for “to be” and “to not be”. For more information on how these verbs (or quasi-verbs) are used in a sentence, see the entries on the copula and the negative.

Quenya has two different “to be” verbs: ná- “to be” and ea- “to exist”. The verb ná- mostly functions as a simple copula to link a subject to an attributive predicate: Valimar ná vanwa: “Valimar is lost” (A is B). The verb ea- is a more affirmative statement of existence, and does not require (or even allow) an attributive predicate: Valimar ea “Valimar exists” (A exists). It may by followed by an adverbial or predicative phrase, however: Valimar ea Amanesse “Valimar is [exists] in Aman”. Quenya likewise has two “negative verbs”, lá- and ui- “to not be”, but unlike the “to be” verbs they were often not part of the same conceptual paradigm (see below).

ná: The verb ná- is derived from the root √. Its conjugation is as follows (VT49/28):

  • Stem: ná- “to be”.
  • Aorist/Present: or na “be”.
  • Past: náne or “was”.
  • Perfect: anaie “has been”.
  • Future: nauva “will be”.

Some of the “irregularity” in this verbs form comes from Tolkien changing his mind on how it functioned. The verb and its root data back to Early Qenya. In one conjugation chart from the late 1960s, Tolkien said “nā̆ ‘it is’, often aorist” which according to Patrick Wynne probably means that its present tense was used for the aorist (VT49/30). In another place, though, there were declensions that were clearly aorist: nain, naitye, nailye, 1st and 2nd person singular aorist forms (VT49/27), but these appear nowhere else in the published corpus. The form na with short a also appears, especially in imperatives (PE17/58; VT44/34), but this shortened variation could simply be due to lack of stress.

The past tense of ná- appears both as a “weak” past náne and a “strong” past . In Quendian & Common Eldarin Verbal Structure from the 1940s, the past form was originally connected directly to the past tense suffix -nē:

… a [past] suffix (added to the unmodified base) -nḗ: √MBAR: mbarnē “dwelt” … It is thought (though it is not certain) that this form was in the beginning confined to intransitive verbs, and that nḗ (which also functioned alone as a base meaning “was”) was originally a time adverb “then, ago” (PE22/96).

The past form appears several times in Tolkien’s later writing as well (VT49/28-30), along with náne (VT49/27, PE22/158), so it is difficult to pick between them. In one place Tolkien also considered an inverted past form anen, anel, an (1st, 2nd and 3rd sg., VT49/28), but these seem to be experimental, with an being deleted and the whole set bracketed by -forms both before and after.

ea: The verb ea- is derived from the root √ or √. In Tolkien’s later writings, this verb coexisted with ná- but with a distinct meaning, as described above. Its conjugation is as follows, with identical aorist and present forms much like ná- (VT49/29):

  • Stem: ea- “to be, exist”.
  • Aorist/Present: ea “exist”.
  • Past: enge “existed”.
  • Perfect: engie or †éye “has existed”.
  • Future: euva “will exist”.

In earlier writings ea- (or its precursors) was sometimes the primary verb for “to be”. Perhaps the earliest precursor to this verb was ᴱQ. ō- “am” from the root ᴱ√Ō “be, exist” appearing in the Qenya Lexicon of the 1910s (QL/69). In the 1920s this became e- or i (the latter used especially with other inflections) with past tense ie and future va; in the Early Qenya Grammar (EQG) this was the basic verb for “to be”, as well as the main auxiliary verb for compound tenses (PE14/57). In the Qenya Word-lists of the mid-to-late 1920s, the verb for “to be” was ī (PE16/140), with various formations that seem to be precursors to the stative formations of the 1930s.

In ᴹQ. Fíriel’s Song of the 1930s, the verb for “to be” was ᴹQ. ye and the root ᴹ√ “to be” appeared in The Etymologies (EtyAC/YĒ) as did ᴹ√. In the Quenya Verbal System in the 1940s the basic verb for “to be” was at first ye- (PE22/123 note #130), but this was rejected and replaced by ea- (PE22/122). This verb ea already had the characteristic that its aorist and present forms were the same and it had the past tense enge, though in this conceptual period that past form was archaic and replaced by “modern” or eane (PE22/123). It likewise had two future forms, and éva; the forms and were used as past and future copulas, whereas eane and éva were limited in meaning to “did exist” and “will exist”. In Outline of Phonetic Development (OP1) from the 1930s Tolkien said the past tense was from a different root:

A case is seen probably in Q enge “ago, once (in past)”, originally pa.t. (“it was”) of the √EƷ “be” from which the Q ea is derived, though the pa.t. is from a different stem (PE19/48).

In Tengwesta Qenderinwa 2 written around 1950, Tolkien flirted with the idea of restoring √ (PE18/84, note #69) but it was quickly rejected again. In the 1950s and 60s it seems adopted its role as the only copula, and ea came to be used only for existential statements, as described above.

lá: The verb lá- is derived from the root √, both of which were introduced in The Etymologies of the 1930s (Ety/LĀ). It is used more often as a simple negative particle (“not”) than a verb (“to not be”). Its conjugation is similar to ná- (PE22/153, 156):

  • Stem: lá- “to not be”.
  • Aorist/Present: or la “not be”.
  • Past: láne “was not”.
  • Perfect: alaie “has not been”.
  • Future: lauva “will not be”.

In Late Notes on Verb Structure from 1969, Tolkien considered having more distinct aorist and present forms lai and laia (PE22/153, 156), but it is hard to tell what he decided. For the aorist, it seems the use of lai vs. la varied by long vs. short pronominal suffixes: lanye vs. lain. We have very few examples of lá- used as an actual verb outside of the Quenya Verbal System of the 1940s, where the conjugation was basically the same as above except with perfect lalie or lanie and future láva (PE22/126).

ui: Tolkien used a distinct negative verb ui- or ua- in his later later writings in the 1950s and 60s, derived from the root √Ū. This alternate negative verb mostly dates from a period between the 1st and 2nd edition of The Lord of the Rings when he decide √ was not a negative root (PE17/143). Its conjugation is similar to ná- (PE17/144):

  • Aorist/Present: ua or ui* “not be”.
  • Past: úne “was not”.
  • Perfect: uie “has not been”.
  • Future: úva “will not be”.

* The form ui appeared in Tolkien’s notes from 1967 (PE17/68) and 1968 (VT49/29). It is conceivable that ui was the aorist form and ua the present form, but I think it is likelier they were competing verbs, with ua >> ui.

The negative root √Ū dates all the way back to the 1910s, appearing in the Qenya Lexicon (QL/96). It did not appear as a negative verb in QL, but there was a negative verb derived from this root in Gnomish: û- (GL/73) or ug- (GL/74). When the negative root ᴹ√ was introduced in The Etymologies of the 1930s, a set of u-negatives coexisted with it derived from the roots ᴹ√GŪ/UGU and ᴹ√MŪ/UMU, along a negative verb ᴹQ. um- which coexisted with ᴹQ. lá-. In the 1930s these u-negatives had an extra “bad, evil” sense (Ety/UGU).

In the late 1950s or early 1960s Tolkien abandoned √ as a negative root (PE17/143). The u-negation was the norm up through 1968, but in 1969 notes Tolkien did an about-face, rejecting negative √Ū and restoring √ (PE22/153). ū was retained in the more limited sense of “bad, hard, difficult, unfavourable” to justify its use in phrases from The Lord of the Rings like únotima “uncountable”, now conceived of as “hard to count” (PE22/156), and S. ú-chebin “I do not keep”, now conceived of as “I cannot keep” (PE22/160).

This was not Tolkien’s last word on the subject, however. He wrote one more essay on negation in last years of his life where he reversed himself again, as noted in a letter to the editors of Vinyar Tengwar by Bill Welden. Tolkien wrote:

Back to ú
can be beyond …
ū should be negative particle (VT44/4).

The full essay where this last note appears remains unpublished.

Neo-Quenya: The use of the verbs ná- and ea- is mostly uncontroversial, and is discussed in more detail in the entry on the copula. Negation in Neo-Quenya can be an extremely heated topic, though, with strong proponents on both sides. This issue is discussed in more detail in the entry on the negative.

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