So you want to learn Elvish?

(a little bit of philosophy)

So, you made up your mind to learn Elvish? I absolutely love the Elvish languages, so I can understand that perfectly, and I wish you plenty of joy!

But there's a question which you might want to ask yourself early on - and maybe later as well - what do you mean by 'learning'?

Do you wish to speak the language, write Elvish poetry and read Elvish stories, use it in roleplaying games and write Elvish letters to your friends? Because all that is actually possible - well, kind of, and that's why I am asking the question. Because all these things require a kind of final form of Elvish, they assume that Tolkien at some point finished Sindarin or Quenya and that this finished language can then be used.

But that is not how Tolkien ever thought about the languages. So, learning Tolkien's thoughts about the languages is a vastly different task than learning to 'speak' one of the languages.

Tolkien never viewed his creations as finished - he was always revising and altering things - even for published things (which he couldn't really alter) he re-invented the underlying explanation - a good example is Gil-Galad - in Letters:279 he states

This variation g/k is not to be confused with the grammatical change or k, c > g in Grey-elven, seen in the initials of words in composition or after closely connected particles (like the article). So Gil-galad 'star-light'. .

But in fact, in Letters:426 a completely different explanation is brought forward:

In S. this absence of mutation is maintained (a) in compounds and (b) when a noun is actually virtually an adjective, as in Gil-galad Star (of) brilliance.

So, while he argues of galad being a lenited form and translates as 'star-light' in his first explanation, he insists that it is unlenited in the second one and means 'Star of brilliance'. My favourite example involves the Quenya word for 'yes/no'. Bill Welden quotes two sources in his essay 'Negation in Quenya' (VT42:32). In a 1960 essay, Tolkien had 'yes' - in a 1970 essay 'no'.

Vinyar Tengwar 43 features 6 different versions of the Lord's Prayer in Quenya which allow to trace how Tolkien, not satisfied with the previous versions, altered features of grammar and vocabulary to arrive at a version that would appeal more to him - till he decided to rewrite that one as well. Tolkien's own dictionaries usually contain several layers of entries - early pencilled ones, crossed out, replaced by ink entries, at times crossed out again and re-written, reflecting the constant alteration of the languages in vocabulary and derivation.

Why am I telling all this to you? Because, creating a speakable Sindarin or Quenya is not only about filling in the gaps with clever reconstructions - it involves at times heavy editorial decisions and throwing out Tolkien-made material on the basis of personal preferences.

You see, there's no way to have a language in which can be both 'yes' and 'no' - so if you want to speak Quenya, you have to decide for one of them. But there's no good guideline of doing so - should we go with Tolkien's latest decisions? Then means 'no' in Quenya, but then, a lot of the material in LOTR gets pretty awkward interpretations, as Tolkien's late ideas of the grammar are quite different from his ideas by the time he wrote Namárië. Or should we go with what's closest to LOTR? Then is 'yes' - but we know that Tolkien eventually dismissed that idea. So in the end, it boils down to an editor's choice which one to use.

I have written both a Sindarin and a Quenya course and hence made quite a few editorial decisions of that kind, just to offer an easier-to-learn version for beginners. That is, I feel, okay, because I clearly say so in the course and try to keep is as close as possible to Tolkien's ideas and only try to straighten out contradictions.

But you see, the problems start when you have leaned Sindarin from my or Helge Fauskanger's course and try to explain it to someone else. If you're not careful, that what Tolkien actually wrote gets lost in the process. Because there's something which may be called truth by repetition.

To give an example: Helge Fauskanger writes in Sindarin, the Noble Tongue:

In Sindarin, adjectives (including participles) following the noun they describe are usually lenited. (...) There are, however, quite a few attested cases where soft mutation fails to take place in such combination. (...) I would advise people writing in Sindarin to let adjectives lenit in this position, though, since this seems to be the main rule.

He actually phrases it carefully and mentiones exceptions. However, people quoting from him usually simplify the statement into Adjectives in Sindarin follow the noun and are lenited. (that's what I leaned when I started out). This has been repeated so frequently that you can frequently find people pointing out that leaving the adjective unlenited is wrong.

Now, if you turn to the actual evidence, I could find 8 examples without lenition, 9 examples with lenition, 1 example with nasal mutation and 10 examples where we can't tell (see Mutations in Sindarin ) So in fact, being the main rule is based on just a small 9:8 advantage.

Or, to turn to a different direction. You may be tempted to explain to someone that the 2nd person verb ending in Sindarin is -ch. I certainly wrote so in an earlier version of my Sindarin course. You may even be aware of the evidence (if you've studied Ardalambion) where Helge quotes:

Arphent Rían Tuorna, Man agorech?, probably meaning *"And Rían said to Tuor, What did you do?"

Now, Helge phrases this very carefully again, and the following truth by repetition is only partially his fault. But truth is - the sentence is not translated anywhere. If you think it through - Tuor was a newborn while Rían was still alive - what could he possibly have done? Soiled his blankets? Hardly an incident Tolkien would write about. In fact, the 'canonical' interpretation makes little sense. David Salo (who originally brought it forward) argued to save it that Tolkien may have meant a different Rían and Tuor. Well - while names at times occur, it is unlikely here. Carl Hostetter (who has access to the original manuscript) told in a dicusssion on I Lam Arth:

David is presenting the facts selectively here, neglecting to mention that the sentence he saw occurs in a context -- sc., a "cover sheet" as it were for Tolkien's continued work on the Narn -- and that the bit of dialogue it is part of continues after it; and thus it is not simply a random, isolated jotting by Tolkien having no connection to the well-known characters of his legendarium , and the question having no discernible connection to the same.

So, the actual evidence from the sentence that -ch means 'you' in that sentence is close to none. We are left with three bits of actual evidence: 1) a table of Noldorin pronoun forms showing -g and -ch as 2nd person endings (unpublished, mentioned in various discussions) 2) a table of Noldorin pronouns showing -ch as 1st person plural ending (unpublished, mentioned in various discussions) and 3) the apparent similarity of the Sindarin and the Quenya pronomial system, that if it holds permits to argue for -ch as a 2nd person ending (see Common Eldarin Views on the Sindarin Pronomial System for such an attempt). But as it turned out from a table of forms published in PE17, the pronominal ending Tolkien had in mind for the 2nd person singular in Sindarin close to the publication of LOTR is -g. As with other forms, there is no reason to assume that this would be the final form or the only form - but it seems to form we have which is closest to LOTR Sindarin, hence I recommend it in more recent versions of the course.

I hope you see now what's wrong with telling someone that -ch is the 2nd person ending in Sindarin, or even -g. In fact, even telling someone that I think -g is the 2nd person ending in Sindarin (and I did write so in my course and Tolkien certainly wrote it down in a table) is not entirely correct - because what I really think is that at some point Tolkien had in mind -g as a 2nd person sg. familiar ending - and that he revised that repeatedly. So, the actual reason that I recommend -g in my course is not that it is the correct form, but that it is a correct form which is best given the criteria by which I edit different conceptual stages into a coherent form of Sindarin.

And I hope you can understand that I feel really uncomfortable whenever I see someone telling that -ch or -g is the 2nd person ending in Sindarin just because I say so (or because Helge says so for that matter) - because it completely obscures what Tolkien has to say in that matter.

You see, the next difficulty when one 'standardizes' Sindarin is the following - I have a different idea about what is most likely correct than Ryszard Derdzinski or Helge Fauskanger - and for me it's easy to read their texts, because I know what Tolkien has written and what other possible conclusions can be drawn of that (because I rejected those when I made my editorial decisions - but I never forgot them) - but if you know Sindarin only from one secondary source you may wonder a lot about some unfamiliar grammar. So - eventually it pays off to know different interpretations even if you only want to use the language. (But here's a caveat - even if there are often different possible interpretations that does not imply 'anything goes' - we may often not know what is right, but we can boil it down to two or three possibilities, and anything else is still wrong).

What's the point of all this? I would like to ask you to be extremely careful how you present it when you're explaining Elvish to someone if you only know secondary sources yourself. In making statements like that is such and such you're very often twisting the truth in terms of what Tolkien actually had in mind - even if you have the best intentions of helping someone - just keep that distinction by arguing that Helge thinks that... and you're in much better shape, or throw in an occasional I think.... Look into what Tolkien has to say - and you're fine. But ultimately, you're not in a position to explain how Elvish grammar is unless you've studied Tolkien himself.

Just using the languages for fanfic is fine as well, and you can have a lot of fun doing so (I certainly had...) - and you don't have to study all the messy details and clashing interpretations for doing that. But if you really want to understand what Tolkien's thoughts are and how he viewed the Elvish grammar - then I'm afraid a secondary source will never be enough, and that is a lot more work.

So - it's up to you what you mean by learning Elvish - some people are happy just using the languages, others are content just to study them on a formal level without ever writing a bit of text - I have done and enjoyed both. But whatever you do, have fun (it's a hobby after all) and recognize the limits (I guess none of us really wants to spread all these false things).


Thorsten Renk
thorsten@sindarin.de

Back to the index