The function of the aorist tense in Quenya most closely resembles the simple present form in English: “the man eats, I eat”, i nér mate, matin. It is not, strictly speaking, tied to the present moment, however. More accurately the Quenya aorist is not tied to any particular time at all. Although it is often used to refer to the present, it is also used for habitual actions or other statements which are true independent of time. As Tolkien described it Quendian & Common Eldarin Verbal Structure (EVS1) from the late 1940s:
Aorist … This “tense” denoted no tense or time. Its uses closely resembled those of the simple so-called present of English: “I eat, I do”. It was thus used of all statements true at all times (as in proverbs): “gold glitters”; “the sun rises in the morning”; habits, etc.: “I live in a small house”. Also as with E. it may be employed as an “historic present” for narrative; and for the future when defined by such words as “tomorrow” (PE22/95).
Contrast this with the Quenya “present” tense (strictly speaking, the present continuous or present imperfect tense) “the man is eating, I am eating” i nér máta, mátan, which can only refer something going on in the present moment. Something that is happening now must necessarily be an ongoing action, which is why the present continuous form is used. Compare also English “something happens” (aorist, no specific time) versus “something is happening” (present continuous, necessarily happening now).
A slightly longer description appears in Common Eldarin: Verb Structure (EVS2) from the early 1950s:
Aorist … This “tense” actually defined no tense or time. Its uses most closely resembled those of the simple present of English: “I eat, I do”. It was thus used of all statements true at all times (as in proverbs): “gold glitters”; “the sun rises in the morning”. It is also used of habitual actions: “I walk to my work”, “I sleep badly at night”. It is often employed as an “historic present” in narrative; in fact this employment is normal in extended narrative. A common narrative idiom is for the first verb to be in the past tense, and succeeding verbs (with the same subject) describing subsequent acts or events in a connected series to be in the aorist. This is notably the case in swift narrative where the subject (noun or pronoun) is not repeated: as if in English one wrote: “he came home, opens the doors, calls, hears no answer, searches all the rooms, etc.”
In sentences containing a clear time indicator or adverb the aorist is still sometimes used. This is for historical reasons only usual in English with future adverbs: as “he starts tomorrow”. But the Eldarin languages could also say “he starts yesterday”. Neither idiom is frequent in Quenya outside the archaic language of verse (PE22/129-130).
These notes describe the rather interesting convention of marking only the first in a series of closely associated verbs with the tense (past or future), while putting the rest into the aorist: túles [past] már, latya [aorist] i fendi, holtu, hlare lá hanquenta, cese ilye sambi and so forth. The aorist can also be combined with temporal adverbs to indicate some other time, but this is less common than using the appropriate tense: yestas enar “he starts tomorrow” vs. (more common) yestuvas enar “he will start tomorrow”.
Some Quenya verbs, most notably the a-verbs, did not originally in Common Eldarin have distinct aorist and present forms:
A difference from English is seen in the verbs such as “love, know”, which in English seldom (or never in their proper sense) use the true or analytic present “I am knowing”. In verbs of this sort the aorist is usually not constructed in Eldarin; or rather a similar “tense” but with a suffix -ā̆- is made: so CE melā- “love”, istā- “know” (EVS1, PE22/95).
A marked difference between Eldarin and English is found in the case of verbs whose fundamental sense describes a state, or process of development. Many of these like “have” (in sense “possess” not “take”), “love”, “know” in English use the simple present or aorist only, and avoid the analytic form “I am loving” etc. Almost the reverse is the case with verbs of this kind in Eldarin: they usually do not form a normal i-aorist, but make a durative present with tense-vowel ā̆, with or without any other consonantal adjunct. So CE melā “love”, galā “grow” (of plants), is-tā “know” (EVS2, PE22/130).
In later Quenya, however, the a-verbs could have a distinct present tense form, adapted from other verb classes (PE22/164), for example: horan “I wait” (aorist) vs. hórean “I am waiting” (present). See the entry on the present tense for more information.
Forming the Aorist: For derived verbs (those whose stems end in a or u), the aorist is simply the verb stem, with additional pronominal suffixes added as needed: laita- → i nér laita, laitan “the man praises, I praise”, liru- → i nér liru, lirun “the man sings, I sing”. For basic verbs, the ancient aorist suffix was ✶-i (PE18/86; PE22/95, 129), which remained if pronominal inflections were added but becomes -e if there are no such suffixes: i nér cene “the man sees” vs. cenin “I see”. The -i is also used with aorist basic verbs inflected for number to agree with the noun: i néri cenir “the men see”. As Tolkien described it in the 1948 Quenya Verbal System (QVS):
Aorist stem: Basic form kărĭ- “do”; nĕmĭ- “seem” etc.
Uninflected form: kărĕ, nĕmĕ.
Inflected form: this form could only inflect for:
(a) number agreeing with that of subject ofthe action, pl. karir, nemir etc., dual karit, nemit.
(b) the pronominal object, which was then always the direct object, except in the case of intransitive impersonal verbs where it could be “indirect” or dative (as regarded by European languages). So karin “makes me”; nemin “seems to me” (PE22/99).
In the original, Tolkien also inserted basic and uninflected forms ŏlē̆ “become” and ŏlĕ (PE22/99 note #2) which seem to be variant aorist forms for the verb ol-, but this was never explained and elsewhere in QVS Tolkien gave it the more ordinary aorist stem oli- (PE22/113). In QVS, Quenya used only pronominal object suffixes and not subject suffixes, but examples elsewhere make it abundantly clear the same rules apply to subject suffixes in Tolkien’s writing after QVS: carin(ye) “I make”, nemin(ye) “I seem”.
In QVS, all the derived verb classes use the unmodified verb stem for the aorist as indicated above (PE22/114-118). Elsewhere, though, Tolkien experimented with some abnormal aorist forms for talat-stem verbs. Since these were derived from verbal roots of the form √TALAT, in Common Eldarin they would have used the same aorist suffix -i as basic verbs. The result was some rather strange looking aorist forms like talati or tal’ti, but these were eventually regularized to aorists of the form talta by analogy with the much more common weak verbs (PE17/186). The net result is that all verbs ending in a use the verb stem for the aorist, and this was true up through Tolkien’s Late Notes on Verb Structure written near the end of his life (PE22/159, 164).
Using the Aorist: The most basic use of the aorist is like the English simple present as in:
- lassi lantar laurie súrinen “leaves fall golden in the wind” (RGEO/58).
Strictly, speaking, this phrase does not designate exactly when the leaves are failing. A more illustrative examples is:
- merin sa haryalye alasse nó vanyalye Ambarello “I hope that you have happiness before you pass from the world” (MS, Merin Sentence).
Every verb in this sentence is in the aorist form, and the timing of each action is understood only from context: merin “hope” in the present, vanyalye “pass (from the world)” in the future and haryalye “have (happiness)” unspecified, perhaps past, present or future. The aorist behaves no differently than the English simple present in the above sentence. The aorist is also used to describe regular or habitual activity vs. current activity: faran senyave i tauresse, mal síra fárean i orontissen “I hunt [aorist] usually in the forest, but today I am hunting [present] in the mountains”.
Conceptual Development: The aorist is mentioned as a distinct verb form all the way back in The Qenya Verb Forms of the 1910s, though its formation in this document is rather complicated, depending on the pronominal inflection (masculine, feminine and neuter); it’s uninflected suffix was -ya (PE14/28). There is no mention of the aorist in the Early Qenya Grammar of the 1920s (PE14/41-86); it is unclear whether Tolkien temporarily abandoned this tense or just didn’t get around to writing about it.
The aorist did appear in the Qenya Conjugations of the late 1920s or early 1930s (PE16/124-128). In these conjugations, it had already reach its final form for basic verbs: tule uninflected but tuli- when inflected. The aorist kept this form thereafter, making this verb tense quite stable in Tolkien’s mind. The only possible vacillations on the aorist I have found were in the aorists of talat-stem verbs, as mentioned above.