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Quenya Grammar P64: Present

The present tense is used to describe ongoing actions occurring in the present moment: “the man is eating, I am eating”, i nér máta, mátan. Anything occurring in the present moment is generally an ongoing action, and the Quenya present tense can be more accurately labeled the present continuous or the present imperfect. As Tolkien described it Quendian & Common Eldarin Verbal Structure (EVS1) from the late 1940s and Common Eldarin: Verb Structure (EVS2) from the early 1950s:

Present. This is a genuine “tense”, can only be used of what is happening “now” — or of course what is regarded as “now” in narrative or supposition; and usually also implies a fairly continued action (that began before the immediate moment and is likely to continue for some time) (EVS1, PE22/95).

Present. This is a genuine tense, and can only be used of what is happening now, or of what is regarded as “now” in narrative or supposition. This tense also as a rule describes a fairly continuous action or event or process (that began before the immediate moment and is likely to go on for some time) (EVS2, PE22/129).

Contrast this with the Quenya aorist tense, which is not tied to any particular time and is used for habitual or timeless actions, much like the English simple present: “I eat eggs daily [habitual = aorist], it is good that you eat eggs [timeless = aorist], I am eating eggs now [present]”: matin ohti ilaurea, nás mára i matilye ohti, mátan ohti sí. The Quenya present tense (síla) can generally be translated using the English present continuous construction (“is/am/are shining”), but Tolkien sometimes translated it as the English simple present where that was more natural:

Forming the Present: For basic and u-verbs, the present tense is formed by lengthening the stem vowel and adding an -a: cen-i nér céna, cénan “the man is seeing, I am seeing”, liru-i nér lírua, líruan “the man is singing, I am singing”. For derived verbs ending in a the rules are more complex, but the most common pattern is to lengthen the stem vowel if possible (not in diphthongs or before consonant clusters) and change the final a to ea: laita-laitea “is praising”, henta-hentea “is reading”, fara-fárea “is hunting”. This basis for the present tense dates back to Common Eldarin:

The suffix of this tense is [ā]. The stem was in Eldarin made in various ways. One feature was lengthening or fortification of the base: so māt-ā; tūlā or taulā = “am eating”; “am coming” (EVS1, late 1940s, PE22/95).

Basic form kā́rā (i.e. the ending ā only appears as long when final in dissyllables in OQ or in polysyllables where separated from the initial syllable by an unstressed syllable: see Phonology). Q kāra “be doing”; ōla “is becoming”; nēma “is appearing”; māta “be eating” etc. (Quenya Verbal System, QVS, late 1940s, PE22/100).

The tense-vowel in this case is ā. The stem was in Eldarin constructed in various ways. One feature was the lengthening or fortification of the base-vowel: thus mātā, tūla/taula = “is eating, is coming” (EVS2, early 1950s, PE22/130).

At no point were forms like taula used for Quenya present tense, and Tolkien eventually abandoned them in Common Eldarin as well. In the last text (EVS2), Tolkien wrote “get rid of a-fortification in tense-system” in the margin (PE22/130 note #7), a change that was reiterated in later notes:

Eliminate[?] a-infixion as part of conjugation. So present continuative of √TUL is tūlā (not taula) but u > au, i > ai frequent in derivation (linguistic notes from the late 1950s or early 1960s, PE17/99).

A distinct present tense form for derived verbs ending in a was not established until later in Tolkien’s writing, from a different ancient suffix -(a)yā > -ea:

hentea (from -ayā), present continuative [followed by similar forms istea, nahtea, melyea, ortea, orea, the last from orya-] (linguistic notes from 1964, PE17/77).

The last few examples indicate a certain amount of vacillation on the present tense forms of ya-verbs, either melyea (keeping the y) or orea (dropping the y). Further examples from Late Notes on Verb Structure written in 1969 indicate Tolkien continued to vacillate on whether to drop the y, for example:

ya verbs must all be intransitive, and be . siryane. oryane.
the[?] present contin[uous] us[es?] ‘ea. sirya, sírea. siryane (PE22/157).

In these 1969 notes Tolkien also seems to have decided that there were distinct present tense forms for the causatives (from tā, yā) which continued to use -ea versus the formatives (from tă, yă) which instead used -ya or -ia (PE22/159):


  • (a) -tă as a nec[essary] formative to elements that were not verbal, as ortā̆, which must include the t element throughout conjugation, except perfect.
  • (b) -ta as a formative (that spread in CQ especially to verbal bases with medial cons. Y, W, and original G|Ñ) which did not nec[essarily] appear in other parts.
  • (c) -tā́ causative.
  • (a) orta, ortea [inserted:] {old ortia >>} ortya
  • (b) caita, CQ caitea … OQ caia, cea
  • (c) orta “raise”, {ort{e}a lat[er] ortea >>} ortea

Below these were a set of contrasting present forms: ortea, ortya, caitya, caitea, the latter with (archaic) cáya, cea without the formative suffix t. There were also “normal” present tense forms istea, nahtea, both (in this context) formative verbs in category (b) above. Later in this same bundle of notes (PE22/164) Tolkien had more of these experimental ia-presents: ortean < -ā́ya vs. ortian < -tiyan, the former written above a (rejected or archaic?) present orotan (PE22/164, note #103). Below these are still more present tense forms oryean vs. ōria; nahtia, kaitia vs. taltea, tulyea; and finally istya, ortya, sīria, ōria.

A similar set of rough notes (also on PE22/164) had [causative] tultā “fetch” with present tulteanye vs. [formative] ista “know” with present istianye (istyanye). Below these was a hard-to-read note that apparently says something like “Make Q. ea as present tense invade other forms” followed by various a-verb conjugations, whose aoist and present tense forms were:

alan, ālan (ālean†) …
faran, fāran (-ean) …
avan, āvan (āvean) …

Puzzling through these rough notes is difficult, but it seems that in 1969 Tolkien thought:

  1. Causative verbs (and weak verbs?) formed present tenses with -ea < -āya as in 1964.
  2. The a-verbs originally formed presents simply by lengthening the base vowel (fára) but adopted the -ea suffix from other verbs (fárea).
  3. The formatives used the suffix -ya > -ia (kaitia).
  4. The y was retained in the presents of -causatives (tulyea) but dropped in -formatives (síria).

All these 1969 forms seem to be experimental, with Tolkien shifting among different possibilities. For purposes of Neo-Quenya, I think it’s probably better to stick to the 1964 system and use -ea for all verb stems ending in a.

One last verb class worth discussing are the talat-stem verbs. From rough 1964 notes:

√TALAT. Conjugation of √TALAT stems. Strong intransitive.

  • *talatā > talta, present.
  • t’lăti- > talati- or tal’ti- > talt-, aorist.
  • talante, past.
  • ataltie, perfect < atā̆latie.

Weak transitive.

  • talta, taltane.
  • present taltea < taltăyā.

With all causatives in -ta, continuative present talt]ea ? ayā (linguistic notes from 1964, PE17/186).

Again, these rough notes are hard to parse, but my interpretation is that like basic verbs, the talat-stem verbs were in Common Eldarin inflected with the usual present and aorist suffixes and : talatā and talati. After the Quenya syncope these became talta (present) and talti- (aorist). At some point the present talta was reinterpreted as the aorist stem by analogy with the much more common weak verbs, and a new present tense form taltea was coined, again by analogy with other verbs.

A similar set of conjugations appear in the 1969 Late Notes on Verb Structure: stem talat-, aorist taltan, (archaic?) present talatan with a note below stating: “fall is taltaya > taltea” (PE22/164). Thus the 1964 talat-stem paradigm seems to have remained more or less the same in 1969.

To summarize:

  • Basic and u-verbs form their present by lengthening the stem vowel and adding a: cen-céna, liru-lírua.
  • Verb stems ending in a form their present by changing the final a to ea and lengthening the stem vowel if possible (not in a diphthong or before a consonant cluster): laita-laitea, henta-hentea, fara-fárea.
  • In 1969, and formatives changed the final a to -ia instead: caita-caitia, orya-ória.
  • Sometimes ya-verbs lost y, and sometimes didn’t: melya-melyea versus orya-órea in 1964; by 1969 this may have depended on whether the verb was a -causative (tulya-tulyea) versus a -formative (sirya-síria).
  • For Neo-Quenya, I’d ignore the ia-presents (treating them as either experimental or archaic), but I think it’s a matter of taste whether to drop the y in ya-verb present tenses: variant forms like oryea versus órea (both from orya-) appear almost as often as each other.

Conceptual Development: In the The Qenya Verb Forms (QVF) of the 1910s and the Early Quenya Grammar (EQG) of 1920s, the “present” tense as described by Tolkien had the same form as the later aorist: tule when uninflected and tuli- when inflected (PE14/28; PE14/57). QVF had a distinct aorist form (tulya), but EQG did not. In EQG, Tolkien distinguished between the present form (tule) and the present imperfect (tulinde “is coming”). So it seems in its earliest conception, the “present” tense in Early Qenya was more like the English simple present rather than the present continuous/imperfect of the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

In the Qenya Conjugations of the late 1920s or early 1930s, Tolkien had distinct aorist, present and imperfect forms: tulin, tulinye, tulan(ye) in 1st person (PE16/125, 127). This “present” tense was in one place explicitly marked “present indicative” (PE16/127). Thus the “imperfect” tense seems to be the proper precursor to the later present continuous; it already showed the suffix -a, but did not yet show vowel lengthening. The first proper mention of the present continuous or imperfect tense as Tolkien later conceived of it was in Quendian & Common Eldarin Verbal Structure (EVS1) from the late 1940s (túla), and for basic verbs it seems to have retained this form thereafter.

In EQG, the “present” tense forms for derived verbs ending in -a simply used the unmodified verb stem, much like the later aorist (PE14/58). In the Quenya Verbal System (QVS) of the 1940s, the ancient aorist and present continuous forms were identical for derived verbs ending in -a. For the a-verbs, this was due to the inherently continuative semantics of the verb (PE22/113); for other verb classes it was because the a suffix was already part of the verb stem (PE22/114, 117). However, a distinct present continuous form could be made using the so called “long imperfect”, which was simply the active participle fully inflected as a verb:

A distinct imperfect where required could be made with the imperfect partc. (“to be” understood), as ni taltalya “I am slipping down”. This then became inflected as a verb (like the long perfect): taltalya “to be slipping down”, he·taltalyar “they are etc.” (PE22/115).

This long imperfect syntax was a replacement for a more English-like syntax requiring the verb “to be”:

A distinct imperfect where required could be made with the imperfect partc. and verb “to be”, as nie[?] taltalya “I am slipping down”. In verse an agglutinated form like the long perfect is found: taltalye “to be slipping down” (PE22/115 note #87).

Perhaps in this rejected syntax nie = ni + ye, since ye was the general verb for “to be” in QVS. The long imperfect could also be used with basic verbs, especially when their normal present continuous form was problematic for some reason:

The long imperfect (of same sense as the simple one) was formed by using the Imperfect Participle (q.v.) as a verb. So karalyate “is making it” = kárat. This so called “long imperfect” could be formed by any verb (in verse), but in ordinary language was only formed by verbs that for any reason found it impossible or difficult to differentiate the “imperfect” from aorist (or future). This is specially common in late classical and TQ in weak verbs with ending -a, q.v. But certain strong verbs, notably those with stems ending in ov or uv had contracted futures identical with the imperfect (see Future). Thus √NOV-, future nouva > nova; √TUV, fut. túva. For such verbs already in classical the “long imperfects” [were] novalya, túlya (tuvalya) (PE22/101 note #11).

Outside of QVS there are no other signs of this long imperfect. By the 1960s the present tense of verb stems ending with a normally used the suffix -ea, along with some experimental ia-presents for formative verbs in 1969 as discussed above.

Neo-Quenya: I recommend avoiding the 1969 ia-presents in Neo-Quenya writing, as discussed above. The ea-presents are much better known to other Neo-Quenya writers and readers.

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