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Sindarin Grammar P11: Nasal Mutation

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.


Nasal mutation is the second most common form of mutation in Sindarin. It is the result of a preceding nasal n, and its most common use is with the plural definite article in. It also appears with certain prepositions, most notably na(n) “with, of” and (probably) an “to, for” which is the basis of the Sindarin dative. Thus i thîw “the signs (têw-plural), a Pherhael “to Samwise (Perhael)”, Taur-na-Chardhîn “Forest of [na(n)] Southern Silence (Hardhîn)”.

The nasal mutations of Sindarin are distinct from those of Welsh. In particular, the nasal mutation of voiceless stops (p, t, c) are voiceless nasals in Welsh (spelled “mh, nh, ngh”), whereas they become voiceless spirants in Sindarin (ph, th, ch). Like Welsh, the nasal mutation often modifies the preceding nasal itself, causing it to vanish or be altered. This is discussed in the section on Preceding Nasal Effects, below.

Tolkien wrote a brief paragraph on nasal mutation in some notes from 1957, mainly contrasting it with soft mutation (PE17/147):

na (< ) “to, towards” of space/time. with vocalic mutation. before vowel n’ … S na, before vowels nan (nasal mutation), means “with” in sense of possessing, provided with, especially of characteristic feature. Orad na Thôn “Mount of the Pine Tree(s)”. na “to” and na “with” are therefore distinct before vowels and b, d, g, p, t, c, m, s but same before h, f, þ, r (rh), l (lh). Late forms as nan-h as for vowels, archaic nath-r, nath-l for nan-rh, nan-lh. nan|sr > nassr > nathr. nað before r (nan-r > nađr).

Here Tolkien is contrasting two prepositions, na “to” and na(n) “with”, which took the same form before most consonants (na) but the first caused soft mutation whereas the second caused nasal mutation. This produced different mutations for b, d, g, p, t, c, m, s but the same mutations (or lack thereof) for h, f, th, r, l, rh, lh. The finer details in this quote are addressed below.

Voiceless Stops (p, t, c): The soft mutations of voiceless stops p, t, c are the voiceless spirants ph, th, ch. These are a result of the sound change whereby voiceless stops became spirants after nasals. The nasal mutations are not simply the same as the medial developments, however, since medial nasal-spirant combinations became long voiceless nasals and ultimately long nasals, so that medial mp, nt, nc > mph, nth, nch > mm, nn, ng. Indeed, this is how the Welsh nasal mutations ended up being voiceless nasals. However, voiceless spirants are well attested as the nasal mutations of voiceless stops in Sindarin and its conceptual precursors, dating back to the Early Noldorin of the 1920s (PE13/121). Some Sindarin examples:

  • Perian “Halfing” → i Pheriain “the Halfings” (LotR/953).
  • têw “letter” → i thiw “the letters” (LotR/305; PE17/44).
  • cair “ship” → na[n] chîr “of ships” (SA/an(d); PE17/147).

Thus, there must have been some additional phonological effect in play with the development of the nasal mutation in Sindarin. In his book Gateway to Sindarin, David Salo proposed (GS/63 §4.187) that nasals vanished at word boundaries before a single consonant, which also helps explain the soft mutation of ancient nasalized stops and the nasal mutation of voiced stops. See the relevant phonetic entry for further discussion.

Voiceless Stops (b, d, g): The nasal mutations of voiced stops b, d, g are less well attested than those of voiceless stops. Some clear examples are:

  • Taur-i-Melegyrn “Forest of the Great (beleg) Trees (orn-plural)” (WJ/185).
  • Caras (i)Ngelelaið “City of the Trees (galadh-plural)” (PE17/60) [sic., probably a slip for Ngelaið as suggested by Christopher Gilson].

The first example clearly shows that the voiced stop b becomes simple nasal m, but the second example is more ambiguous since the ng could represent either [ŋg] or [ŋ]. Indeed, some Noldorin examples from the 1930s and 40s indicate Tolkien considered alternate nasal mutations preserving nasal-stop clusters or long nasals:

  • N. Cerch iMbelain “Sickle of the Gods (balan-plural)” (Ety/KIRIK).
  • N. i·nnýr “the lands (dôr-plural)” (PE22/33).

The second example is a bit peculiar, because usually dôr was usually derived from ancient ✶ndorē, but a nearby soft mutated definite singular form i·ðór “the land” makes it clear that in that moment Tolkien imagined it was derived from primitive simple d. Thus the example nnýr is, in fact, representative of the nasal mutation of simple d rather than ancient nasal stop [n]d.

In the Early Noldorin Grammar of the 1920s (PE13/120), however, the results were simple nasals: b, d, gm, n, ng (the last probably representing [ŋ]). The general consensus among most Neo-Sindarin writers is the most likely nasal mutations of voiced stops are simple nasals m, n, ng or ñ, with ñ being a less ambiguous representation of isolated velar nasal [ŋ] that Tolkien usually wrote as ng. Thus:

  • bereth “queen” → *i merith “the queens”.
  • “night” → *i nui “the nights”.
  • galadh “tree” → *i ñelaidh “the trees” (which Tolkien wrote as i ngelaidh).

For this to be true, the phonological origin for the nasal mutations of voiced stops would need to be different from the medial developments of nasal-stop clusters, as was the case for the previously described voiceless stops. In particular, it could be explained if the preceding nasal vanished before the (relatively) new mutated nasal, a similar development to that seen in the nasal mutations of voiceless stops given above.

Voiced Stop Clusters: The nasal mutations of simple voiced stops are dependent on their being isolated between vowels, so that (for example) intervocalic n·b > m·b > m·m > ø·m. This means that, where voiced stops appear as part of clusters, they would resist nasal mutations. The preservation of voiced stop clusters can be seen in:

The historical case for gw- is a bit muddled, in that this initial combination arose from ancient simple w-, a sound change that conceivably could have been inhibited by a closely preceding nasal. However, the (lack of) nasal mutation could have developed by analogy with other forms, and something similar happened even in compounds like dangweth “answer” = dan + gweth (PM/395). However, it seems Tolkien vacillated on this point, because in the drafts of The Lord of the Rings appendices he had i·Wenyn as the plural of gwanun(ig) “twin” with a vanishing g. Another unattested case is clusters beginning with b. David Salo suggested these would still undergo nasal mutation (GS/76), but the current Neo-Sindarin consensus is that they would probably resist nasal mutation on the basis of compounds like Nimbrethil. So: *im brennyn “the lords (brannon-plural)”.

It is even less clear what would happen with stop-clusters beginning with voiceless stops, since (a) they are rare and (b) do not survive medially. For clusters like pl, pr, tr, cl, I suspect they would not resist nasal mutation and would become phl, phr, thr, chl as in: *i thrync “the stakes (trunc)”.

Ancient Nasalized Stops ([m]b, [n]d, [n]g) As with soft mutations, the evidence for the nasal mutations of ancient nasalized stops [m]b, [n]d, [n]g is mixed. There are two examples presenting contradictory possibilities:

Both are definite plural forms of bâr [mb-] “home”, but the first implies the restoration of the ancient cluster mb-, while the second implies a simple nasal m-. This second scenario was the one presented in the Early Noldorin Grammar of the 1920s, where the nasal mutations of ancient simple stops and nasalized stops were the same: they both produced simple nasals (PE13/120-121). The general consensus among Neo-Sindarin writers is that restoration of the ancient nasal stops is more likely, however, as seen in the Noldorin example: Hauð i Ndengin “Hill of the Slain (dangen-plural [nd-])” (Ety/NDAK). This is supported by the compounds like Brithombar = brithon + [m]bâr and Thorondir = thoron + [n]dîr.

As is the case with simple g-mutations, analysis is complicated by Tolkien’s representation of both [ŋg] and [ŋ] by ng. Thus naur dan i ngaurhoth “*fire against the wolf-horde (gaurhoth, ng-)” (LotR/299; PE17/38) could be either [ŋgaurhoθ] or [ŋaurhoθ]. Tolkien also seems to sometimes represent the split in the ng differently, as in Tol-in-Gaurhoth “Isle of Werewolves” (S/156) rather than **Tol-i-Ngaurhoth. However, I think the latter is actually a genitive plural and representative of mixed mutation. I would represent the nasal mutation of ancient nasalized stops as follows:

  • bâr [mb-] “home” → i mbair “the homes”.
  • dôr [nd-] “land” → *i nduir “the lands”.
  • Golodh [ng-] “Gnome” → *i ngelydh “the Gnomes”.

Voiceless sounds (h, hw, lh, rh): The nasal mutation of breath h is attested in Narn i Chîn Húrin “Tale of the Children (hên-plural) of Húrin” (WJ/160). This is identical to its soft mutation, but like the nasal mutation of voiceless stops requires some special explanation. In particular, the older form would have been *in·chīn, since initial h- in Sindarin arises only from an initial voiceless spirant ch (IPA [x]). The normal medial development of -nch- is -ng-, as noted above. Thus, like the nasal mutation of initial c to ch, the nasal mutation of initial h to ch can only be explained by a special historical phonetic development whereby nasals vanished at word boundaries before a single consonant, as suggested by David Salo (GS/63 §4.187, 76). There are no examples of hw-mutations, but these probably become chw for similar reasons.

As for voiceless liquids lh, rh, the Noldorin word lhathron “listener” < la(n)srondo suggests that n vanished before (ancient) sr. Thus the medial developments for nsl, nsr ended up being the same as sl, sr, which is confirmed by the 1957 note described above. From a purely phonological basic, the nasal mutations for lh, rh would therefore be thl, thr. However, in this same 1957 note Tolkien said these mutations were archaic, and the modern forms are unmutated: “archaic nath-r, nath-l for nan-rh, nan-lh” (PE17/147).

Thus:

  • hên “child” → i chîn “the children”.
  • lhûg “snake” → in lhuig “the snakes” (†i-thluig or †ith-luig).
  • rhond “body” → in rhynd “the bodies” (†i-thrynd or †ith-rynd).

Assuming this analysis is true, and that soft and nasal mutations are identical before lh, rh as indicated in the 1957 note, then the voiceless liquids would likewise be immune to soft mutation in modern Sindarin: i lhûg “the snake”, i rhond “the body” (†i thlûg, †i thrond).

Preceding Nasal Effects: As noted above, many of the nasal mutations only make sense if at some point in Sindarin’s history the nasal was lost before the mutated consonant. There is ample evidence of this for the plural definite article in, which frequently loses its n before consonants, mutated or not:

  • i chîn “the children” (hên-plural)” (WJ/403).
  • i mbair “the houses (mâr-plural [mb-])” (SD/128).
  • i melegyrn “the great trees (belegorn-plural)” (WJ/185).
  • i mírdain “the jewelsmiths (mírdan-plural)” (S/286).
  • i Negyth “the Dwarves (Nogoth-plural)” (WJ/338).
  • i ngaurhoth “the wolf-horde (gaur-class-plural [ng-])” (WJ/160).
  • i ngelaidh [*i ñelaidh] “the trees (galadh-plural)” (PE17/60).
  • i Pheriain “the Halflings (Perian-plural)” (LotR/859).
  • i sedryn “the faithful (sadron-plural)” (UT/153).
  • i thiw “the signs (têw-plural)” (LotR/305).
  • i thuin “the pines (thôn-plural)” (PE17/81).

Note how the nasal is lost before most initial consonants even where no mutation occurs: m, n, th, s and probably f and l as well (see below). The nasal effects before f are not attested for the plural definite article in, but they are for the preposition na(n), as in:

  • Arthor na Challonnas “Realm of the South-harbourage (Hallonnas)” (PE17/28) with nasal mutation.
  • Arthor na Forlonnas “Realm of the North-harbourage” (PE17/28) with no nasal mutation but with lost n.

The full form generally appears before vowels and consonant clusters that resist mutation:

  • in Edenedair “the Fathers of Men (Adanadar-plural)” (MR/373).
  • in Edhil “the Eldar (Edhel-plural)” (S/286).
  • in Ellath “the Elves (†Ell-class-plural)” (VT50/5).
  • in Drúedain “the Woses (Drúadan-plural)” (UT/319).
  • in Gwanûr “the twins (gwanunig-dual)” (LotR/1054).

As noted above, the full form in may also appear before the modern nasal mutations of voiceless liquids lh, rh (PE17/147). Though not attested, probably the semi-vowel i (English “y”, IPA [j]) functions like a vowel, so you would get in ient “the bridges (iant)”, pronounced (in English spelling) “een yehnt” or in IPA [in jɛnt]. In cases where the nasal is preserved before consonants, it very likely assimilates to the sound of that consonant. There are no clear examples of this with the plural article in, but such an assimilation can be seen in am Meril “to Rose (Meril)” in the King’s Letter to Sam and his wife Rose (SD/129). Thus probably *im brennyn “the lords (brannon-plural)” assuming the cluster br resists mutation.

Cases where the nasal is lost despite the lack of mutation can be explained by various other sound changes:

  • The loss before nasals n and m can be explained by the assimilation of in to the following nasal and then shortening of that nasal.
  • The loss before th and f can be explained the same nasal loss at word boundaries seen in the nasal mutations of t and p.
  • The loss before s can be explained because [ns] became [ss] which likewise shortened later at the word boundary: in·s > is·s > i·s.
  • Before l, we also have a phonetic development where [nl] became [ll], so perhaps: in·l > il·l > i·l.

This loss of n before l is also necessary if na “to” and na(n) “with” are to be identical before l, as indicated by the 1957 note mentioned above.

One last special case is the transformation of n before r mentioned in this same 1957 note: “nað before r (nan-r > nađr)”. This was the result of the historical change whereby [nr] became [ðr] as in Caradhras “Redhorn” = caran + ras(s). It seems likely that the n in the plural definite article in went through a similar change, so you’d get idh rem “the walls (ram-plural)”.

Long Nasal Mutations: There may be some special nasal mutations for the preposition an “to, for”, based on the example am Meril “to Rose (Meril)”, noted above (SD/129). Unlike the nasal mutation of in, it seems the nasal of an is preserved before other nasals, albiet with assimilation. There is no good phonological justification for this difference, but there might be a morphological one. In particular, the dative preposition also appears in pronominal forms like annin “to/for me” and ammen “to/for us”; and the preserved nasals might be by analogy with such forms. Assuming this is the case, the n in the dative preposition an would likely be preserved before both original m, n and mutated m, n, ñ that originate from b, d, g:

  • mellon “friend” → *am mellon “to/for a friend”.
  • narn “tale” → *an narn “to/for a tale”.
  • bereth “queen” → *am mereth “to/for a queen”.
  • “night” → *an nû “to/for a night”.
  • galadh “tree” → *an ñaladh “to/for a tree”.

The last of these would probably be pronounced [aŋ·galað]. These long nasal mutations for an have become popular in Neo-Sindarin because they help differentiate phrases like a mellon “and a friend” from am mellon “for a friend” (hat to tip to Elaran for this last note).

There might be a similar preservation/assimilation before l as in al lam “to/for a language”. Since the change of [nl] > [ll] is no longer an active sound change in Sindarin (c.f. minlamad), it is also possible the nasal is simply preserved but not assimilated: an lam. It may depend on what the 2nd person plural dative pronoun is: allen (older assimilated) or anlen (modern not assimilated). The current consensus for Neo-Sindarin seems to be al lam and allen.

Summary: To summarize the above discussion, I would use the following for normal nasal mutation in Neo-Sindarin:

  • Voiceless stops (p, t, c) become voiceless spirants (ph, th, ch).
  • Voiced stops (b, d, g) become nasals (m, n, ñ).
  • Ancient nasalized stops ([m]b, [n]d, [n]g) are restored to (mb, nd, ng).
  • Breath h becomes ch (probably including hw to chw).
  • In archaic speech only, voiceless liquids (lh, rh) become thl, thr.

In modern Sindarin, voiceless liquids lh, rh resist nasal mutation. In addition to the mutation of the following consonant, the preceding nasal n is altered as follows:

  • The nasal is lost before consonants in most cases, except as noted the below (i·ph, i·m).
  • It is preserved before vowels (in·e).
  • It is preserved before clusters that resisted mutation (in·dr, in·gl) including voiceless liquids in modern Sindarin (in·lh, in·rh).
  • For the preposition an, it is also preserved before other nasals, both originals and the results of mutation (an·n, an·ñ).
  • When preserved, the nasal assimilates to the following sound (im·br, am·m).
  • When preceding r, the nasal n becomes dh (idh·r, adh·r).
  • When preceding l, the nasal n in an (but not n) survives and becomes l (al·l).

The four of these are is based on some tenuous reasoning, but there are no clear examples either way.

Conceptual Development: There are no signs of nasal mutation in the Gnomish of the 1910s, probably because in was not the plural form of the definite article (GG/7). Instead, the form in was used (singular or plural) mainly before vowels (GL/50). By the time the Early Noldorin Grammar was written in the 1920s, however, nasal mutation was a feature of the language and it remained thereafter (PE13/120-121). These Early Noldorin nasal mutations were very similar to the ones described above except (a) both voiced stops and ancient nasal stops became simple nasals (m, n, ng) and (b) the nasal mutation of h was (archaically) a voiceless nasal nh, and h was not mutated in the “modern” form of the language. There isn’t enough information about the nasal mutations from the Noldorin of the 1930s and 40s to determine their differences from later Sindarin in any detail.

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