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Select Primitive Elvish Roots: MA-MAK

ᴹ√MA “interrogative base; [ᴱ√] root of indef[inite]”

This root is the basis for Elvish question words. When it first appeared in the Gnomish Lexicon of the 1910s, Tolkien said ᴱ√MA was the “root of indef[inites]” (GL/55), and it served as the basis for the indefinitive suffix G. -(u)m and ᴱQ. -(u)ma (GL/55; PE14/42, 71). In the Gnomish Lexicon, question words were derived from the root ᴱ√DO instead: G. don “who”, G. dos “when”, G. dui “where”, etc. (GL/30). There are no signs of interrogative ᴱ√DO in Tolkien’s later writings, however.

Indeed, by the time Tolkien wrote the ᴱQ. Oilima Markirya poem around 1930, Quenya question words generally began with ma-: ᴱQ. man kiluva kirya ninqe? “Who shall see a white ship?” (MC/213). This remained true thereafter, and the same seems to be true of Sindarin as well, though we have far fewer examples: S. ar·phent Rían Tuor·na: man agorech?, untranslated but apparently: “*and said Rían to Tuor: what have we done?” (VT50/5). The “interrogative base” √MA is mentioned in Quenya Notes from 1957 (QN: PE17/162) and again in notes from around 1968 (VT47/19).

MA does not seem to be completely divorced from indefinites in Tolkien’s later writings, however, given his use of Q. ma for an indefinite neuter pronoun “(some)thing” as opposed to the indefinite personal pronoun Q. mo “(some)one” (PE22/154; VT42/34). Whether these indefinites are based on the same root or a similar but unrelated root isn’t clear.

ᴱ√MAɃA “something nice”

A root given as maƀ or mam in the Gnomish Lexicon of the 1910s glossed “something nice”, with derivatives like G. mab(a) “mother”, G. mam “grandmother”, G. mav- “like”, and G. mavri “appetite” (GL/57). There are no signs of this root in Tolkien’s later writing, but I think it is worth positing a Neo-Sindarin root ᴺ√MAB to salvage some of these early words.

ᴹ√MAD “*pale (yellow)”

A root in The Etymologies with derivatives ᴹQ. marya and N. maidh glossed “pale, fallow, fawn”(Ety/MAD), the last of these (fawn) probably referring to a light yellowish-tan color. In this entry it was the basis for the name N. Maidhros “Pale-glitter”, but this and related entries went through a number of revisions as Tolkien tried to sort out the origin of that name. Indeed in later writings Tolkien gave this name as S. Maedhros or Maedros along with completely different etymologies (PM/366; VT41/10). Nevertheless, I think it is worth retaining this root for purposes of Neo-Eldarin to refer to a pale yellow or tan color.

MAG “good (physically); to thrive, be in a good state; [ᴹ√] use, handle”

This root was intertwined with the root for “hand” words: √MAH or √MAƷ. Indeed, in The Etymologies of the 1930s the roots ᴹ√MAG and ᴹ√MAƷ were variants of one another, with ᴹ√MAƷ glossed “hand” and ᴹ√MAG glossed “use, handle”, the latter with the derivatives like ᴹQ. mára/N. maer “useful, fit, good (of things)” and N. maen “skilled, clever” (Ety/MAƷ|MAG).

In later writings, however, the sense of this root shifted more towards “good”. In etymological notes from the late 1950s Tolkien still gave both √MAG or √MAƷ as the basis for hand words (PE17/161-2), but in Definitive Linguistic Notes (DLN) from 1959, Tolkien gave √MAGA the gloss “good (physically)” (PE17/149) or “to thrive, be in a good state” (PE17/162). In notes on Eldarin Hands, Fingers and Numerals from the late 1960s, Tolkien said the root for “hand” was √MAƷA, and there was a distinct (but possibly related) root √MAG, described as follows:

MAGA, a stem meaning “good” — but without moral reference, except by implication: sc. it was not the opposite of “evil, wicked” but of “bad (damaged, imperfect, unfit, useless)”, and the adjectival stem derived, *magrā, meant “good for a purpose or function, as required or desired, useful, proper, fit” (VT47/6).

A similar distinction between √MAƷA “hand” and √MAGA “good, useful” appeared in 1968 notes (VT47/19). In Late Notes on Verb Structure (LVS) from 1969, Tolkien gave √MAGA the gloss “have, possess” to serve as the basis for the irregular verb Q. mai-, but this note was crossed through and I suspect it was a transient idea (PE22/148 and note #24). Thus, “good, useful” seems to be the best interpretation for the root √MAG.

MAH “handle, manage, control, wield; serve, be of use; [ᴹ√] hand; [ᴱ√] grasp”

This root was connected to hand words for all of Tolkien’s life. Its periodic shifts between √MAH and √MAƷ had more to do with Tolkien’s ongoing vacillation on the form of the ancient velar spirant (voiced vs. voiceless) in Primitive Elvish. The earliest appearance of this root was as ᴱ√MAHA “grasp” in the Qenya Lexicon of the 1910s, with derivatives like ᴱQ. “hand”, ᴱQ. maqa “handy, skilled”, and ᴱQ. māra “mighty, power, doughty; (of things) good, useful” (QL/57). In the contemporaneous Gnomish Lexicon the root was maχā with derivatives G. “hand” and G. manc “grip, grasp, hold” (GL/55); G. mora “good” may have also been related (GL/57).

In The Etymologies of the 1930s it appeared as ᴹ√MAƷ “hand” along with a related root ᴹ√MAG “use, handle”, with ᴹQ. mára “useful, fit, good (of things)” derived from the latter (Ety/MAƷ). In Tolkien’s later writings, the root √MAG was further differentiated from √MAƷ, becoming the basis for “good, useful”; see the entry on √MAG for further details. As for ᴹ√MAƷ “hand”, it was also mentioned in the Outline of Phonetic Development from the 1930s (OP1: PE19/48) and Outline of Phonology from the early 1950s (OP2: PE19/100 note #154).

In revisions to OP2, Tolkien decided the primitive velar spirant was unvoiced, a weak χ [x] rather than voiced ʒ [ɣ] (PE19/69 note #3; 72-73 note #22; 74 note #33). From this point forward, Tolkien sometimes rendered this root as √MAH (PE21/70; VT39/11), but it continued to appear often as √MAƷ even into the late 1960s (VT47/18-19) reflecting ongoing vacillation on the nature of the primitive velar spirant. As for its meaning in later writings, in Definitive Linguistic Notes (DLN) from 1959 Tolkien said it meant “serve, be of use” as opposed to words for “well” and “good” derived from √MAY or √MAG (PE17/162), and in another section of the same notes it was defined as “handle, manage, control, wield” (PE17/163).

For purposes of Neo-Eldarin, I think the last meaning is best for √MAH or √MAƷ. I think words for “good” and “useful” are better assigned to √MAG, and “excellence” to √MAY, though Tolkien often intermingled the meanings and derivatives of these three roots.

ᴹ√MAK “cut, hew with a sharp edge, [ᴹ√] cleave; sword, fight (with a sword); [√] kill, slay; forge metal”

This root was the basis for “sword” words throughout Tolkien’s life, but the meaning of the root itself shifted over time. The first appearance of this root was as ᴱ√MAKA¹ in the Qenya Lexicon of the 1910s, unglossed but with derivatives like ᴱQ. mak- “slay”, ᴱQ. makil “sword”, and ᴱQ. makka “slaughter” (QL/57-58). The root was also given the gloss “slay” in a section of the contemporaneous Gnomish Lexicon along with etymologies of names of the various Valar, but this section was deleted (GL/18). Derivatives of this root appeared elsewhere in the Gnomish Lexicon, however, such as G. mactha- “slay, kill” and G. magli “a great sword” (GL/55). Thus, the meaning of this root in the earliest period seems to be “slay”.

The root ᴹ√MAK appeared in The Etymologies of the 1930s, but the entry went through quite a few revisions. The gloss appearantly was “cleave” >> “kill, cleave with sword” >> “sword, or verbal [stem] fight with sword, cleave” >> “sword, or as verb-stem: fight (with sword), cleave” (EtyAC/MAK; Ety/MAK). Thus the 1930s root was more directly connected with swords and wielding swords, and its derivatives included ᴹQ. makil/N. magol “sword” and ᴹQ. mahta-/N. maetha- “fight” (Ety/MAK).

In Tolkien’s later writings, the words for “sword” remained nearly the same: Q. macil and S. megil (PE17/130, 147), but the meaning of the root √MAK varied considerably based on whatever linguistic puzzle Tolkien was trying to solve at that particular moment. In notes associated with the Quendi and Eldar essay from 1959-60, its gloss was very similar to that from The Etymologies: “cut, hew with a sharp edge” (VT39/11). In notes associated with The Shibboleth of Fëanor from 1968 Tolkien glossed {m(b)aka- >>} maka- as “forge metal” as part of a new etymology of the name S. Maglor as an adaptation Q. Makalaure “Forging Gold” (PM/353; VT41/10). In notes on Eldarin Hands, Fingers and Numerals from the late 1960s Tolkien gave √MAK “strike” as the basis for ✶makwā > S. mâb “hand”, but this idea was rejected immediately (VT47/19). This was part of Tolkien’s rather surprising decision to abandon the long-standing root √MAP (VT47/20 note #13); elsewhere in these notes he said √MAK meant “kill, slay” as it did in the 1910s (VT47/20).

Lokyt suggested in a Discord chat from 2018 that there may be a common underlying meaning for all these glosses, referring to “the movement one does when chopping with a tool”. Assuming this is true, the other associations of the root (“sword; slay; fight; forge”) may be the result of a narrowing of the meaning of the root in more specific contexts. While it is hard to know whether Tolkien himself interpretted the root this way, I think this is the best way to treat the root for purposes of Neo-Eldarin, as it allows us to retain the largest array of derivatives of the root.

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