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Sindarin Grammar P34: Copula

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.

This post skips another small bridge entry introducing verbs.


In English, “to be” statements are phrased with some form of the verb “to be” as in “you are wise”, “Elrond is an elf”. In linguistics a word like “is” or “are” is called a “copula”, which is a simply a small linking word connecting the subject (you, Elrond) to its predicate (wise, an Elf). The Elvish languages are notable in that they do not normally use a copula word in such sentences: the subject and predicate are simply placed next to each other with no joining word (in linguistics this referred to as a “zero copula”). In other words, the verb “to be” in Elvish languages is frequently optional, and this seems to be true of Sindarin as well. Attested examples include:

In the last two examples, the parenthesis and brackets around (art) and [be] appear in Tolkien’s own translation, so he explicitly marked the copula as absent. However, Sindarin does have a verb “to be” na- used in some circumstances, most notably in an imperative in the 1950s prayer Ae Adar Nín:

We know a fair amount about the copula ná- in Quenya, in particular that (a) it is mostly optional but can appear, usually at the end of the sentence and that (b) it becomes required when the verb has a subject suffix or is inflected into a verb tense like the past or the future. Thus Q. Elerondo elda (ná) “Elrond (is) an Elf” but Q. nálye saila “you are wise” and Q. Elerondo nauva sís “Elrond will be here”. However, Sindarin seems to be different; na- almost never appears as a copula in the published corpus. For example, we have one Sindarin “to be” statement in the future tense which in its final form did not use any form of na-:

This sentence is from the Túrin Wrapper probably written in the early 1950s, and is untranslated. Tolkien at first wrote natho, which seems to be a future form of na- meaning “will be” (perhaps incomplete, because it lacks the plural -r). He changed this to thor which seems to be a plural future copula formed with the bare future suffix -th(o).

Based on examples like these, it has become a popular notion in Neo Sindarin that the copula na- is not merely “optional” as it is in Quenya, but is in fact almost never used. Based on this theory, many Neo-Sindarin writers use an independent pronoun together with its predicate for “to be” statements that use pronouns:

  • me elidh “we [are] Elves”.
  • le sail “you [are] wise”.
  • ti belig “they [are] mighty”.

In this system, the predicate noun or adjective matches the subject in number: ti “them”, me “we” vs. elidh “elves”, belig “mighty (beleg-plural)”. However, it is generally believed that a predicate adjective is not lenited. Among other things, this helps you distinguish a “to be” statement from an adjective modifying a noun via its lack of mutation: i edhel bain “the elf [is] beautiful” vs. i edhel vain “the beautiful elf”. Thorsten Renk suggested this lack of mutation in his book Pedin Edhellen: a Sindarin Course (2010, PESC/101), and Fiona Jallings detailed detailed a similar system in her book A Fan’s Guide to Neo-Sindarin (2017, FGNS/68-69).

Jallings goes on to suggest that a noun would undergo lenition in a “to be” statement, so it could be distinguished from an appositional genitive: *i aran vaethor “the king [is] a warrior” vs. i aran maethor “the king of warrior”. However, this strikes me as unlikely; I can see no reason why a noun would be lenited in a “to be” expression but an adjective would not be. I also think there would rarely be any confusion: Boromir maethor “Boromir [is] a warrior” would almost certainly not be confused for “Boromir of a warrior”, which makes no sense.

Finally, it seems the Sindarin verb na- “to be” might not inflected into the future or past. Based on the example above from the Túrin Wrapper (VT50/23), there might be a distinct future copula tho (or perhaps thaw) “will be”, probably derived from primitive ✶thā “then, next” (PE22/97, 131), so that “Elrond will be here” might be Elrond tho hí. We don’t know what the past copula would be in Sindarin, but (assuming it exists at all) it might be based on the ancient past particle ✶ “was; then, ago” (PE22/96, 131), so perhaps (unstressed) S. *ne “was” as in: Elrond ne ennas “Elrond was there”. I suspect these would be inflected with pronominal suffixes: thon hí, nen ennas “I will be here, I was there”.

Conceptual Development: The Gnomish language of the 1910s did use na- as the verb “to be”, and it did not omit the copula with the same frequency as Sindarin:

There is, however, at least one (untranslated) Gnomish example where the copula seems to be omitted: G. i·weg fof “*the men [is] a fool” (GG/9). There is a similar zero copula example from Early Noldorin of the 1920s: ᴱN. weg i muint “man is the best thing” (PE13/124). There is a Noldorin phrase on a sketch of Thrór Map from 1936 that also seems to have an omitted copula: lheben teil brann i annon ar neledh neledhi gar godrebh “five foot high the door and three may walk abreast”, perhaps meaning “five foot high [is] the door” (TAI/150).

There is one published example in Tolkien’s later writing that might have the copula na-: the phrase inn đa v’im “I have a good mind (to do so), (lit.) there is an ‘inn’ in me” (PE22/165). Base on its gloss it seems đa means “is”, but it would have to be a very strange mutation of na. It might conceivably be connected to (difficult to read) deleted forms dôd, dád, hae Tolkien consider before settling on no “be” in the imperative phrase from Ae Adar Nín mentioned above (VT44/21-22). In a chat on the Vinyë Lambengolmor Discord from July 2020, Lokyt pointed out that đa in inn đa v’im is actually an existential statement = “there exists an ‘inn’ in me”, and so it may represent an entirely distinct verb da- “to exist”, equivalent to (but not a direct cognate of) Q. ëa-.

Neo-Sindarin: To summarize, not much can be said for certain about “to be” statement in Sindarin, but I recommend the following for Neo-Sindarin writing:

  • Omit the verb na- in almost all “to be” phrases: Elrond edhel “Elrond [is] an elf”.
  • Predicate nouns and adjectives are not mutated: i edhel bain “the Elf [is] beautiful”.
  • The predicate matches the subject in number: in edain belig “the men [are] mighty (beleg-plural)”.
  • Use independent pronouns as subjects for “to be” phrases: me edhil “we [are] Elves”.
  • Use past and future copulas *ne and tho for “was” and “will be”: Elrond ne ennas “Elrond was there”, Elrond tho hí “Elrond will be here”.
  • These past and future copulas are inflected with pronominal suffixes as appropriate: nen ennas “I was there”, thof hí “we will be here”.

The most of what I wrote in the first four items is widely accepted in Neo-Sindarin writing, but the use of past and future copulas *ne- and tho- are pure speculation on my part. We do know that the verb atha- “will” can be inflected with pronominal suffixes, but it apparently survives only as an answer to questions about the future:

aþa, aþon etc. could still be used with ellipse of the verb stem, as e.g. in linnathol? “will you sing (please)”, answer aþon “I will”. Apart from this athon “yes, I will” (or in plur. athof, athab) the verb atha- was no longer free (PE22/167).

However, this 1950s notion of tho as a future copula may not be compatible with Tolkien’s 1969 notes on the Sindarin future tense, where he said -ath indicated the intention to perform a future action rather than being the simple statement of the future (PE22/167). In those notes the simple future was instead formed with an auxliary verb tol- “to come” (PE22/168).

Alternately, it may be that the copula is simply omitted from past and future “to be” statements and the tense is deduced from context. This is the wide-spread assumption among Neo-Sindarin writers, with no contradictory evidence prior to the publication of the Túrin Wrapper. On the other hand, in his book Gateway to Sindarin David Salo suggested that na- might be a fully inflected verb with a past, present and future (GS/121-122), so just about every possible system has been suggested at one point or another (Salo’s system is no longer favored by Neo-Sindarin writers).

The above means the most common use of na- is in imperative statements beginning with no. It is also a common assumption that *naw is the word for “yes” in (Neo) Sindarin, cognate of Q. , originally meaning “it is so”. Finally, another way to avoid the question of whether or not the predicate adjective is mutated is to put the predicate adjective first, as in belig in edain “mighty are the men”. I believe this is legitimate syntax in (Neo) Sindarin, and may feel less unnatural than using this word order in English, but we don’t know for certain.

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