DISCLAIMER: This article is preliminary research on the part of its author (Paul Strack) and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the owner of this site. Since the source material is complex and its interpretation can be subjective, multiple conclusions are possible.
It is well known that the original inspiration for Sindarin was the Welsh language, as Tolkien himself mentioned on several occasions:
Actually the changes worked on Sindarin very closely (and deliberately) resemble those which produced the modern and medieval Welsh from ancient Celtic, so that in the result Sindarin has a marked Welsh style, and the relations between it and Quenya closely resemble those between Welsh and Latin (1964 letter to W. R. Matthews, PE17/135).
The lenitions or “mutations” of S. were deliberately devised to resemble those of W[elsh] in phonetic origin and grammatical use; but are not the same in either p[honetic] o[rigin] or g[rammatical] u[se] (1972 letter to Richard Jeffrey, Let/426).
Although inspired by Welsh, Sindarin was a distinct language, sharing many phonological and some grammatical features with Celtic languages but having a completely different vocabulary and (imagined) linguistic history. Tolkien’s conception of his language’s linguistic history changed a great deal over time, and for the sake of convenience I often used the term Common Elvish to refer to Sindarin and its antecedents across all of its conceptual stages. Unlike Quenya, this “Welsh-like” language has had several different names throughout Tolkien’s life. The conceptual development of Common Elvish can be divided into four stages based on the names Tolkien used for the language in each period:
- Gnomish: 1910s.
- Early Noldorin: 1920s.
- Noldorin: 1930s to 1940s.
- Sindarin: 1950s to 1972.
Gnomish (1910s): The earliest iteration of Sindarin was called Gnomish or Goldorin, as represented by the Gnomish Grammar (GG) and Gnomish Lexicon (GL) written in the 1910s and first published in their entirety in Parma Eldalamberon #12 (PE12). This version of the language only barely resembles Sindarin as it was conceived during the publication of The Lord of the Rings. It does have some of the consonant mutations characteristic of Sindarin (GG/7), but other than that its grammar is very different. It had a system of noun cases including a dative and genitive case (GG/11) and it used suffixes like -in and -th for noun and adjective plurals (GG/12-15) instead of the i-affection seen in Sindarin. Very little is known of the Gnomish verb system of the 1910s, but based on examples in the Gnomish Lexicon there are signs of vowel-lengthening and occasional nasal-infixion in the Gnomish past tense, similar to later Sindarin. However, Gnomish used pronominal subject prefixes (PE13/97) instead of the suffixes used by Sindarin.
The linguistic history of Gnomish was likewise very different than Sindarin. As originally conceived, Gnomish was the language of the second tribe Elves, called the Gnomes or the Noldoli at this conceptual stage, whereas the third tribe and their language was called Solosimpi(lin) (precursor to Telerin).
Early Noldorin (1920s): Beginning in the 1920s, Tolkien began to refer to the Common Elvish language as Noldorin, and he gave more details on its history. Noldorin began to diverge from Quenya after the second tribe arrived in Valinor, and this change accelerated after the Exile. This divergence was encouraged by the Noldor’s encounter with native tongues of the Elves who remained in Middle Earth, who at this conceptual stage were called the Ilkorin:
Noldorin. This apparently began in some points (e.g. treatment of p, ú) to be differentiated from Common Kor-Eldarin [Ancient Quenya] before the Gnomish migration and the Flight … Owing to the early separation of Noldorin it followed a very individual development, but while in appearance it looks more like Ilkorin than Valinorian it has not been much influenced by Ilkorin except in this point of general similarity of development …
After the Nirnaith Unoth [Battle of Unnumbered Tears] began the process of division between the dialect of Mithrim and of Gondolin; other types of Noldorin speech were also once used in Doriath and in the countries to the south and west of Doriath by bands or groups of wandering Gnomes. These last were nearer related to the dialect of Mithrim than of Gondolin; they were particularly liable to influence from Ilkorin, and, through the fugitives from Angband, from Orc-speech. Old Noldorin is practically Gondolic, depending as it does mainly on the traditions of the survivors of Gondolin … Noldorin is still spoken widely as a kind of lingua franca by all the Elfin peoples in the lands of men, and in many cases of tribes of original Ilkorin extraction is tending to oust their Ilkorin language (PE14/61-62).
Tolkien keep using the name “Noldorin” for this language all the way through the 1940s, up until he adopted the name Sindarin around 1951. However, I refer to the Noldorin of the 1920s as Early Noldorin, because it was still part of a significantly different paradigm than the language as it was conceived of in the 1930s-40s. For example, the Primitive Elvish of the 1910s and 1920s including syllabic ṛ, ḷ, ṇ as vowels with both short and long forms which could result in some very strange present/past tense variations: ᴱN. lhib “drink” (>> lhif-) with past †hailf “drank”, from *sḷp- and *sḹpi respectively (PE13/149).
The most notable innovation from the Early Noldorin of the 1920s was the introduction of plurals via i-affection, which remained a feature of Common Elvish thereafter. The representative documents from this conceptual period are the Early Noldorin Grammar (PE13/120-132) and associated word lists (PE13/133-165). This version of the language has the earliest known non-trivial text in Common Elvish, the ᴱN. Nebrachar poem written around 1930 (MC/217).
Noldorin (1930s-1940s): In the Noldorin of the 1930s, the basic linguistic scenario remained the same, with the language starting to diverge in Valinor and then changing further after contact with the Ilkorins:
Now in this way did the daily speeches of the Lindar [the first tribe] and Noldor [the second tribe] draw apart … the Noldor were ruled by Finwë, and became a people apart, busy with the making of many things, and meeting with their kin only at such times as they journeyed into Valinor for feast or council … as the ages passed and the Noldor became more numerous and skilled and proud, they took also to the writing and using in books of their own speech beside the Qenya; and the form in which it was earliest written and preserved is the ancient Noldorin or Kornoldorin, which goes back to the days of the gem-making of Fëanor son of Finwë (LR/173-174).
After the departure of the Noldor to Beleriand:
The daily tongue of the Noldor changed therefore much in Beleriand, for there was death and destruction, woe and confusion and mingling of peoples; and the speech of the Gnomes was influenced also much by that of the Ilkorins of Beleriand, and somewhat by tongues of the eldest Men, and a little even by the speech of Angband and of the Orcs (LR/177).
Behind the scenes, however, the language underwent some radical changes. In the early 1930s, Tolkien decided to completely overhaul the structure of Primitive Elvish, eliminating features like syllabic ṛ, ḷ, ṇ and introducing new ones, as well as refining the phonetic history of both Quenya and Sindarin. He also expanded and refined the phonetic history of Ilkorin, and emphasized the mutual influence between Noldorin and Ilkorin. In Comparative Tables (CT) of phonology written in the mid-1930s, Tolkien said that “Noldorin is approximate of Welsh type” but also the Ilkorin dialect “Doriath[rin] etc. = Noldorin (viz. as it used to be)” (PE19/22). I am of the opinion that this meant that the updated Ilkorin language was more like Gnomish as it was in the 1910s since it had some “Gnomish-like” features such as -in plurals; in CT Tolkien originally said Ilkorin/Doriathrin was of Old English type (PE19/22 note #55), which was the original character of Ilkorin in the 1920s.
This revised linguistic structure for Noldorin and Ilkorin is best reflected in The Etymologies (LR/340-400) written around 1937. There are also a Noldorin phonology and grammar written in the 1940s that currently remain unpublished.
Sindarin (1950s-1960s): The last major conceptual shift for Common Elvish came around 1950, when Tolkien introduced the term Sindarin. Tolkien first used this as a new name for the Ilkorin people and their language without making any fundamental alterations to Noldorin itself, but as Tolkien was writing the The Grey Annals in 1951, he devised a completely new linguistic scenario, eventually writing:
But it came to pass ere long that the Exiles took up the tongue of Beleriand, as the language of daily use, and their ancient tongue was retained only as a high speech and a language of lore, especially in the houses of the Noldorin lords and among the wise. Now this change of speech was made for many reasons. First, the Noldor were fewer in number than the Sindar, and, save in Doriath, the peoples soon became much mingled. Secondly, the Noldor learned the Sindarin tongue far more readily than the Sindar could learn the ancient speech; moreover, after the kinslaying became known, Thingol would hold no parley with any that spake in the tongue of the slayers at Alqualonde, and he forbade his folk to do so. Thus it was that the common speech of Beleriand after the Third Battle, Dagor Aglareb, was the speech of the Grey-elves, albeit somewhat enriched by words and devices drawn from Noldorin (save in Doriath where the language remained purer and less changed by time). But the Noldor preserved ever the High-speech of the West as a language of lore, and in that language they would still give names to mighty men or to places of renown (WJ/26-27).
This “High-speech of the West”, the new native language of the Noldor, was Quenya. As his son Christopher Tolkien described it:
In this revised version, nothing is said about Sindarin and Noldorin “drawing together” again, and there is no suggestion that the later tongue of the Noldor came to be regarded as “debased”; spoken Noldorin endured (as the passage was originally written) in the wholly Noldorin city of Gondolin until its fall. The whole conception becomes in fact far simpler: the Noldor retained their own tongue as a High Speech, but Sindarin became their language of daily use (and this was because of the numerical inferiority of the Noldor and the mingling of the peoples outside Doriath, the difficulty that the Sindar found in acquiring the High Speech, and the ban imposed by Thingol). Sindarin received “loanwords” from Noldorin, but not in Doriath, where the language remained somewhat archaic (WJ/27).
In this new scenario, the Common Elvish tongue was no longer the language of the Exiled Noldor, displacing the native language of the Ilkorin of Beleriand. Rather, Common Elvish was the native language of the Elves of Beleriand, and the Noldor were forced to adopt it after Thingol banned the use of Quenya in response to the kinslaying. Thingol’s ban was described in The Silmarillion:
Never again in my ears shall be heard the tongue of those who slew my kin in Alqualondë! Nor in all my realm shall it be openly spoken, while my power endures. All the Sindar shall hear my command that they shall neither speak with the tongue of the Noldor nor answer to it (S/129).
This new linguistic scenario was much more plausible in Tolkien’s revised histories. He no longer needed to explain the divergence of High Elvish and Common Elvish while the Noldor still lived in Valinor, and its convergence with Beleriandic Elvish after the Exile. Rather, the divergence of High Elvish and Common Elvish was simply the natural result of the millennia of separation between the Elves of Aman and Beleriand. By transforming Sindarin into the native language of Beleriand which was adopted by the Exilic Noldor, Tolkien was able to retain all the names in his legendarium but still have a believable linguistic history.
The transformation from 1930s-1940s Noldorin to 1950s-60s Sindarin was less drastic and than the changes from 1910s Gnomish and 1920s Early Noldorin, but there were still adjustments to the languages phonology and some aspects of grammar. Furthermore, Tolkien continued to tinker with the language throughout the 1950s-60s, making updates to fundamental features like the pronominal system as late as 1969. The sad fact of the matter is that Sindarin was less well defined and less well documented than its sister-tongue Quenya, making it more difficult to analyze.
The grammatical discussions in the following entries focuses on our current understanding of Common Elvish grammar in its last stage, the Sindarin of the 1950s and 60s. Where appropriate, these entries includes a discussion of the conceptual development of the grammar as well, with pointers to earlier grammatical structures that may or may not be compatible with Tolkien’s later ideas.