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Conceptual History of Mae Govannen “Well Met”

The phrase mae govannen “well met” is the best known Sindarin greeting, used by Glorfindel when greeting Aragorn west of Rivendell. For the meaning of the elements of this name, see the discussion below.

Conceptual Development: This phrase appeared in Lord of the Rings drafts as N. mai govannen “well met” (RS/194, 198 note #5), with the only difference from the published version being N. mai “well” rather than S. mae. The element govannen “met” is certainly a past/passive participle, but it is not entirely clear what the verb was intended to be when Tolkien coined the phrase. One likely possibility is N. *govad- “to meet, (lit.) together tread”, a combination of the prefix N. go- “together” and the verbal root ᴹ√BAT “tread”, analogous to N. trevad- “traverse, (lit.) *through tread” from The Etymologies of the 1930s (Ety/BAT). Another possibility is the root ᴹ√BA “go, proceed” from the Quenya Verbal System of 1940s (PE22/112), perhaps with a verb form N. *govan- “together go”.

Either way, it seems likely that in the original phrase, govannen “met” was not mutated. In Words, Phrases and Passages from The Lord of the Rings from the late 1950s, Tolkien revisited this notion, deciding the verb should be mutated following the adverb mae. At first he wrote:

go-vannen “met”: past participle from go- “together” (cf. Q o- above) + past participle form of stem ba(n)- [from footnote: connected with Quenya ABA/BA, go (away), as in vanwa “gone, departed”], a Sindarin stem not related to but having similar sense as Q men-, forming Sindarin verb govan-, to come to same place, meet, in past participle form govannen (PE17/16).

He struck this through and devised a new etymology that would allow the verb to be a mutated form, as suggested by Christopher Gilson:

go-vannen “met”: past participle from S covad- “collect”, transitive or intransitive, “assemble, bring together” (√KOB-) past tense covant, past participle covannen “art brought together” (PE17/16).

He then partially reversed himself, saying:

This won’t really do. The explanation of the word as containing Sindarin √BAN “meet”, come up against, prefixed by go (< Common Eldarin WĀ, WO) is obviously right (PE17/16).

This new form and gloss for the root indicates this was not a full restoration of ba(n)- “go”, but a refinement of the meaning of the root: ba(n)- “go” >> √KOB “assemble” >> √BAN “meet”.

Tolkien then squeezed a new analysis of the phrase into the margin as mae “well” + g(ī)’ovannen “thou met”, where the second element of the phrase was derived from the ancient pronoun “thou” [2nd person familiar] + gwā-ƀandina (PE17/17). By introducing the pronoun ki between “well” and “met”, Tolkien was able to explain the initial g- as a mutated remnant of this pronoun, combined with ’ovannen after its initial consonant g- was lost. Of interest is the d in ƀandina, which seems to hint yet another shift in the root (to √BAD or √BAT) for the base verb form; see the section on Alternate Explanations below for more details on this variant root.

The reason an alternate root was of interest is that the root √BA(N) “go” was on shaky grounds, having been in competion with √ABA/BĀ “refuse” dating all the way back to the 1930s. In Definitive Linguistic Notes (DLN) from 1959, Tolkien firmly rejected this root:

Delete √BA(N) “go.” (For this sense Quenya, Sindarin stem is √MEN.) … √ABA, BĀ [root of refusal and negative command] distinct from AWA, WĀ “away” (PE17/143).

Hereafter, any remaining derivatives of √BA(N) “go” were reassigned to other roots, such as Q. vanwa “lost, gone” < √ “away” (WJ/366). In the same bundle of 1959 notes, Tolkien again mentioned the root √KOB. In a page of roots having to do with “flower” and “snow” Tolkien gave:

√KOB, KOM- gather, collect. bring to same place / point. S cova-, weak intransitive. gather, assemble, come to same place, meet. mae-govannen, well met! (PE17/157).

This note was marked through and, according to Christopher Gilson, presumably replaced by a new note in a different page of roots having to do with “beautiful”:

√KOB/KOM. gather, collect (bring or come into same place). {S cova(d) “bring” >>} S cova “come together, meet”, covad “bring together, make meet” (covannen, late Sindarin for covan(n) in mae-govannen “well-met”) (PE17/158).

If this analysis of the order of changes is correct, it seems the last thing Tolkien said on the topic was that the base verb in mae govannen was S. cova- “come together, meet”.

Alternate Theory: One challenge with the above analysis is that the order of composition for these various 1959 notes is not at all clear. Tolkien seems to have committed to the rejection of √BA(N) “go”, since the root √ABA/BĀ “refuse” was mentioned regularly in notes from 1959 forward. However, it is not entirely clear whether √KOB/KOM was actually restored. Christopher Gilson only said that “presumably” the note on PE17/157 was replaced by the note on PE17/158; it is possible that the order was reversed. One argument in favor of this ordering are the variations on the verb cova(d)-: on PE17/16 covad- was both transitive and intransitive, on PE17/158 Tolkien first wrote cova(d) “bring” before splitting it into intransitive cova- and transitive covad- and on PE17/157, it was intransitive only cova-. If the order was PE17/16 >> PE17/158 >> PE17/157, then √KOB/KOM may have been ultimately rejected.

If this is the case, then the explanation kī + gwā-ƀandina > g(ī)’ovannen “thou met” from PE17/17 may have been restored or perhaps was even added as a marginal note after the rejection of √KOB/KOM. As noted above, the d in ƀandina hints that the verbal root may also have changed from √BAN to √BAD or √BAT. Based on the form only, √BAD would seem to be most likely, but there is no appropriate meaning assigned to the root √BAD: in The Etymologies, it seems ᴹ√BAD = “judge” (Ety/BAD). However, as noted above, ᴹ√BAT “tread” would work fine, and ƀandina may be an Old Sindarin passive participle of govad- < *wo-BAT, perhaps even a restoration of the Noldorin form of the verb from the 1940s. The ƀ hints that it is an Old Sindarin form, and ƀandina may be a reformed passive participle after wo-bat > OS. gwa-ƀad.

Neo-Eldarin: For purpose of Neo-Eldarin, I prefer to stick with S. cova- “meet” as the basis for the second element of mae govannen “well met”. I think the alternate theory is a bit of a stretch. While I think it is possible that PE17/16 >> PE17/158 >> PE17/157 was the order of composition, I think Christopher Gilson’s suggested order of PE17/157 >> PE17/158 is equally likely. Furthermore, it requires some fancy guesswork to determine the root for ƀandina given the firm rejection of √BA(N) “go”, and some phonological gymnastics to justify the initial g- in govannen as the passive participle of govad-. All in all, sticking with S. cova- “meet” seems like the simpler scenario to me.

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