David Salo: A Gateway to Sindarin


a critical discussion

Abbreviations used:
PE: Parma Eldalamberon
VT: Vinyar Tengwar
LR: The Lost Road and other Writings
WJ: The War of the Jewels
PM: The Peoples of Middle-Earth
MR: Morgoth's Ring
SD: Sauron Defeated

I. General remarks

Now David Salo, probably most famous for the creation of the Elvish dialogues in the Lord of the Rings movies has published his ideas on the grammar of Sindarin. The book has very much the flavour of a review published as a summary of long research, it aims to cover all aspects of Sindarin, from the internal history of the language in Tolkien's legendarium to the phonological development from the primitive Common Eldarin forms to the Sindarin of the 3rd age, from the grammatical and syntactical rules of the language to the way names and other compound words are formed. In addition, it contains several appendices providing wordlists Sindarin English and English Sindarin, a list of primitive roots, an analysis of all known texts in Sindarin and an annotated bibliography.

The book is written in a highly technical language (at times unnecessarily so), and although there is a glossary of linguistic terms, in order to actually read and understand the text the reader needs more than an elementary knowledge of grammar.

This, in combination with the scheme employed by Salo for distinguishing between attested and reconstructed forms, leads to the greatest flaw of the book - its false pretense of rigor. While the technical language and the presence of the signs ! 'reconstructed form in external history', * 'reconstructed form in internal history' and # 'form with regularized spelling' suggest that the book is a serious scholarly attempt to deduce the grammar of Tolkien's invented language by starting from Tolkien's own writings, a closer look reveals that this is actually not quite true. The book represents rather a grammar of Sindarin as Salo thinks it should be, sometimes regardless of what Tolkien wrote.

Therefore, although the book is written in the style of a comprehensive review, it lacks an important element which would be present in a scholarly work, i.e. citations to the underlying reasoning for the grammar given here. All we get to see is the end product, but we seldom get a glimpse at the logical deductions leading to the forms which are presented. This makes it very difficult to actually judge the value of a given idea. Richard Feynman characterized scientific method with the words: 'Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given if you know them. (...) If you make a theory (...) and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it. (...) In summary, the idea is to try to give all the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution, not just the information that leads to judgement in one particular direction or another.' (from: Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman). Clearly, that is not the approach David Salo has chosen.

In the following, I will try to give an overview over what I can see of Salo's methology in dealing with Tolkien's original texts, followed by comments on selected chapters of the book.

II. Standardizing Sindarin

David Salo tries to discuss the grammar of a fictive, 'classical' Sindarin which is supposed to be as a unified description of everything Tolkien wrote about the language.

However, the texts Salo refers range from early sources like the Etymologies (about 1937) to late sources like 'The Shibboleth of Feanor' (about 1968), and for all we know Tolkien's ideas about the phonology and the grammar of the language (and even it's role in his legendarium, initially it was 'Noldorin', the language of the exiles, before it became 'Sindarin', the language of the grey-elves) changed considerably. Thus, Tolkien's changing ideas clash frequently with Salo's attempt to find 'standard Sindarin'.

Consequently, Salo employs a variety of strategies to deal with 'irregular' pieces in Tolkien's writing. In the following, an example for each of them is provided:

1) Open dismissal:

On page 390, Salo discusses the phrase Sarch nia Hîn Húrin 'grave of the children of Húrin' stating The word nia is almost certainly wrong, though also seen in Glaer nia Chîn Húrin (WJ160,251). Perhaps for nia should be read ina, as in the early form Haudh-ina-Nengin (WJ:79). No reason is actually given why the form is 'almost certainly wrong' though it doesn't fit into the theory Salo developed earlier.

2) Silent dismissal:

On p.108, Salo makes a distinction between si 'now' and 'here'. On p.202 in the discussion of Lúthien's song he stresses this distinction again: si adverb 'now' (...): not to be confused with the related 'here'.

However, that doesn't go too well with Sam's cry le nallon sí di-nguruthos! and the translation given by Tolkien in Letters:278 'to thee I cry now in the shadow of death'. In Salo's discussion of the text, the translation reads 'I cry to you under the horror of death' and the form is conveniently ignored in the word by word analysis.

3) Dismissal on a fictional basis:

On p.118, Salo discusses the past tense formation car > agor. He acknowledges that Tolkien states that the formation is 'usual in Sindarin 'strong' or primary verbs' (WJ:415) but continues with the claim but in fact such examples are much rarer than those of the nasal past. One might expect such formations as *udul 'he/she/it came', *idir 'he/she/it watched', *egin 'he/she/it saw' but these are not in fact found.. He conveniently fails to mention that while these three forms are indeed unattested, his own suggestions *toll, *tirn and *cenn are not found anywhere either.

4) Possible updates

Discussing the conjunction 'and', Salo dismisses the form ar widely found in Sindarin texts with: Although this has not been emended in any of the texts cited in this book, it is clear that Tolkien intended to generally replace ar with a(h). The change appears to have taken place in the earyy 1950s prior to the publication of The Lord of the Rings.

For all I know, that could be true, although Salo doesn't really provide a compelling reason. The latest text including ar is the 'Ae Adar' which dates 'sometime during the 1950s' (VT44:21), and in late notes (1968) Tolkien gives a Common Eldarin form as and Sindarin ah (VT43:30), cf. also Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth (MR:303). However, it seems rather absurd to assume that Tolkien would have gone over his early texts some time around 1960 and changed just ar into ah everywhere and nothing else.

III. 'Proving' the theory

Especially in the discussion of the verbal system, Salo doesn't show a lot of hesitation to throw out a Tolkien-made example or to emend it to a form which goes along with his theory. Since most of the attested verbal forms are actually Noldorin, this is not so much trying to standardize and unify Sindarin and Noldorin, it is closer to fabricating evidence to 'confirm' a pre-existing theory. The strategies are pretty similar, though:

1) Silent 'correction'

Verbs which do not conform to the expected pattern are simply emended where needed - this is the fate of the infinitive garo (LR:360, VT45:14) which becomes ?geri in the paradigma shown on p.126, of the verb aphad- (WJ:387) which is changed into **aphada- (p.128), of the past tense degant (VT45:37) which is quoted as **dagant (p. 119) to 'confirm' a pattern, of the verb dant- (LR:354) which leads to the invention of the verb **danna- (p.135) and a lot of other forms which don't fit into a neat theory.

2) Silent dismissal

Sometimes forms which do not agree with the theory are left out of the discussion. On page 119, Salo states:There was also a past tense suffix that added -s, -ss- to the stem. This suffix is found attached to the -ta verbs. It is also found in the composite form -a-s, -a-ss with CVC root verbs which ended in the alveolar stops t and d (...). However, this past tense may have been preserved only in the Noldorin dialect of Sindarin, as we have teithant from the -ta verb teitha- but not teithas.

Of course that seems plausible - unless you include the past tense form erias from eria- (VT46:7) - that spoils not only the statement that it is a suffix for -ta verbs but also the relevance of teithant (the fact that VT46 appeared during the final preparation of the book is hardly relevant - erias was known from [1] published on Tengwestië shortly after VT45 appeared).

3) 'Exceptional' status

Forms which do not conform to the pattern but for some reason resist emendation are explained as 'exceptions', like on page 118 where we learn about what Salo terms 'Ablaut past tenses' Pasts of this form are rare and were probably replaced by analogical formations by the period of classical Sindarin..

The actual distribution of nasal infixion past tenses vs. ablaut past tenses in Noldorin is 12:4, i.e. about 25% of the attested forms show this variant (see [1]), that is not really negligible. As for the replacement by analogical formation, 2 of the ablaut past tenses show alternative weak past tenses using the ending -ant and 6 of the 12 nasal infixed past tenses show -ant/-as- the ratio is therefore pretty much the same, analogical past tenses did not specifically level ablaut past tenses but all 'strong' past tenses in the same way, be it n-infixion or ablaut.

4) Unresolved discrepancies

Occasionally a form which doesn't agree with the theory is allowed to stand in apparent contradicion to the grammar, though no explanation is given. For example, we find in the discussion of the preposition athar that it causes liquid mutation, followed by the example athar harthad 'beyind hope' where we ought to see ?athar charthad according to the liquid mutation table. No discussion of this phenomenon is provided.

IV. Marking (un)attested forms

In the preface, Salo introduces the following scheme to distinguish attested and reconstructed forms: A ! is used to mark a reconstruction, a * is used to mark a historic form in the fictional timeline of language development and a # is used to mark a form with regularized spelling.

This scheme has one disadvantage which is obvious a priori - Salo doesn't distinguish between a historic form found in Tolkien's writings and one reconstructed by himself - they are both listed using *. In addition, Salo occasionally lists forms he considers doubtful also marked with the *, cf. *udul or *idir on page 118.

Forms not found in Tolkien's writings are sometimes marked with a ! in the main grammar sections of the book, sometimes not, there is no clear scheme. In order to learn if a complete word is deduced somewhere one can usually refer to the Sindarin-English wordlist in the appendix where the scheme has been carried out more thoroughly, but which inflectional forms of a given word are actually attested and which are not is impossible to determine from the book.

To be fair, Salo discusses outright reconstructions in text passages (so e.g. for the pronouns or the verb 'to be') and the pattern of the four consonant mutations is marked very thoroughly according to what is attested and what is deduced. Nevertheless, this rigor is lacking in many other discussions of the grammar. Regularized spelling likewise is only indicated in the appendix, not in the main bulk of the text. This creates the (false) impressions that a lot of forms would be comparatively well known.

The translations given for Sindarin expressions and names are often different from those found in Tolkien's writings (and as such unattested). For example, for nad 'thing' (LR:374) we find on p.121 the additional translation 'being'. However, this translation isn't actually given anywhere by Tolkien; its purpose is evidently to provide support for Salo's idea that the form is a gerund of the verb 'to be'.

V. Sindarin phonology development

A large portion of the first part of the book deals with the sequence of sound changes from Common Eldarin to 'classical' Sindarin across the intermediate stages of Old Sindarin and Middle Sindarin. This is a highly detailed analysis involving a staggering amount of work and very fascinating to read, although it is difficult to see the complete picture due to the wealth of details.

The main problem here is that Salo did not introduce a scheme to make a distinction between forms by Tolkien and by himself. Thus, while the sequence of sound shifts may have been as Salo describes, it is very hard to see to what degree one can rely on the tables without re-doing the whole analysis. This is very sad, but as it is, I would hesitate to base a serious conclusion on the tables.

VI. The grammar and syntax of Sindarin

In the discussion of Sindarin grammar and syntax, David presents new observations and interesting insights alongside with forms pressed into a framework he thinks should be correct.

I found the observation that the first noun in a genitive sequence or adjective is often shortened (p.93, 103) very interesting and new, similarly the A-affection on p. 82 (the change from e.g. near-final i to e in the presence of an ending a in Old Sindarin, cf. the adjective ending -ina > -en) is a very good explanation of a phenomenon of which I had only noticed some particular instances. Likewise, the presentation of the ablaut phenomenon (p.90) is very clear and nicely done.

The presentation of the adjective employs a few unusual interpretations, which nevertheless are possible, so is Salo's assumption that menel-vîr síla díriel should be read as 'watchful sky-jewel shines' rather than 'sky-jewel shines watchful' (p.101), and the observation that if the adjective precedes the noun, the noun may be lenited (p.102) is very good indeed. On the other hand, it is odd to see fen hollen as an example for the lack of lenition (p.102) - since that is the only place where the word is attested, we don't know if it is lenited ?sollen or unlenited ?hollen.

The discussion of the pronomial system is as expected - since Tolkien changed this particular aspect of his languages over and over, it is hard to make certian statements, and this is a chapter in which Salo is very careful and honest in the distinction between attested and reconstructed forms.

A critical view on the presentation of the verbal system has already been given in some detail above: The presentation suffers strongly from the fact that Salo tries to force attested forms to conform to his ideas rather than let the attested forms guide the development of his theory.

The discussion of the definite article includes the old idea that it may become ?ir before nouns - while there is a possibility that this is so, there is i innas lin 'thy will' from the Ae Adar (VT44:21f) to show that this is not necessarily so and Qenya írë (LR:72) 'when' to provide a plausible alternative translation of the(untranslated) Ir Ithil ammen Eruchîn (Lays of Beleriand 354). Salo doesn't mention this possibility.

VII. Sindarin word formation

To be frank, Salo's chapter on word formation from Common Eldarin roots doesn't make much sense to me. On p. 158, he seems to assume that words like cam 'hand' or gamp 'hook' are derived from a nasalized root (as opposed to the derivation using a suffix described later), hence KAB > ?kamb > cam or GAP > ?gamp > gamp. That idea completely neglects the simple fact that a form in Common Eldarin is often not only relevant for Sindarin only but also for Quenya. Therefore we should be looking for a form which is able to yield both Sindarin gamp and Quenya ampa - and that rather suggests a derivational suffix like -na. It so happens that Tolkien himself describes the derivation gapna > gampa > gamp in VT47:20 where we also find the Common Eldarin form of cam - it is kambâ (VT47:7) and the result of kab-mâ (VT47:12), i.e. it also involves a derivational suffix.

The same is true for the nouns with doubled finals - Salo derives peth 'word' via a doubling of the final root consonant, not via a suffix - and yet we find under KWET the Common Eldarin form kwetta (LR:366) which evidently employs a derivational suffix -ta (and leads to Quenya quetta attested in WJ:391).

A similar lack of consistency with the formation of Quenya words flaws the whole chapter - Salo fails to recognize that Sindarin aegas 'mountain peak' is the cognate of Quenya aicasse (LR:349) - and the latter form gives a good clue as to the origin of -as in this case - it probably represents a fossilized locative aicasse '*on pointed place > mountain-peak' and probably is not the same suffix seen in e.g. galas 'growth' but rather in ennas 'there' (the latter form is interpreted by Salo as fossilized locative on p.109).

Likewise, the gerund ending are not really ?-ad (from ?-ata) and ?-ed (from ?-ita) as Salo claims (p.162f), they rather represent the same ending -ta which is seen in Quenya, for A-verbs directly attached to the stem, cf. *lindata > linnad, for stem verbs by means of a connecting vowel i just like any present tense ending, hence *karita > *cared with A-affection.

I cannot find much useful information in the word formation part, too much what could be learned by comparing parallel evolution of Sindarin and Quenya from the same Common Eldarin stem has simply been neglected.

The discussion of Sindarin compound words on the other hand is a different matter. Salo goes nicely into the different ideas behind compounding words and provides an impressive list of examples which show the rich variety of consonant and vowel changes which may occur according to the phonological environment. This piece of work goes far beyond the Ardalambion statement in [2] that when a word is used as the second element of a compound, it often undergoes changes similar to the effects of the soft mutation.

VIII. Discussion of attested texts

The discussion of the attested Sindarin samples is seriously flawed by Salo's unwillingness to accept what Tolkien wrote.

First of all, translations given by Salo seldom agree with Tolkien's own words (but there is no statement that the translations have in fact been altered), compare for example the translation of Sam's inspired cry given by Salo:

O Queen of the Stars, Kindler of the Stars, far-watching from heaven, I cry to thee under the horror of death! O watch over me, Ever-white Veil! (p.223)

and by Tolkien (Letters:278):

O Elbereth Starkindler, from heaven gazing-afar, to thee I cry now in the shadow of death. O look towards me, Everwhite!

I see no necessity not to provide Tolkien's own translations and to mark what is probably intended as a more literal translation not as such. But it doesn't stop here, Salo likewise shows no hesitation in altering the actual texts he quotes. While the original of the Ae Adar (VT4:21f) has i innas lin, Salo's version has a long i innas lín (I agree that it probably can be regularized, I don't agree that it can be done without a remark), while the original has bo Ceven, Salo alters this into bo Geven stating that bo Geven is expected here (p.232).

It certainly doesn't make too much sense to me to discuss the attested texts if they are altered in the process without notice to fit Salo's theory. In an appendix designed to discuss Tolkien's attested texts, Salo should be doing that rather than just pretending to.

IX. Annotated bibliography

If you are one of the people who wondered 'Where the hell do we find all the stuff these grammar texts refer to?' then the annotated bibliography is for you. In fact, it is an excellent idea. David Salo describes nicely where in Tolkien's writings what information can be found, so anyone looking for the original references can plan his trip to the bookstore accordingly. This is not unimportant, since there are books in which only a few names can be found whereas from other sources a wealth of grammar information can be extracted.

It seems a bit odd that Salo tries to provide Corrigenda to the Etymologies - while the published texts certainly contain misreadings, VT45 and VT46 edited by Carl F. Hostetter and Patrick H. Wynne, provide Addenda and Corrigenda to the Etymologies - unlike Salo's work, their work is based on a re-examination of the original manuscripts and not on theoretical considerations and therefore bound to be much more meaningful. While Salo contends that they still may contain mistakes, Vinyar Tengwar has a list of errata, so there is no need to make point out of it.

The book concludes with a review of previous works about Sindarin - Ruth S. Noel's 'The languages of Tolkien's Middle-Earth' and Jim Allen's 'An introduction to Elvish'. Since both books are way outdated, the result is predictable - Salo points out a lot of flaws in the identification of forms that were (at that time) rather mysterious.

X. Summary

Without a question, 'A Gateway to Sindarin' is currently the best English book available on Sindarin. However, given the fact that the only competitiors are Ruth S. Noel's 'The languages of Tolkien's Middle-Earth' and Jim Allen 'An Introduction to Elvish' which are both outdated and inaccurate simply due to a lack of published samples of Sindarin when they were written, that in itself is not much of an achievement.

Who will profit from the book? It is not for someone seeking to learn Sindarin and to use it for his own compositions - it is no language course, doesn't contain exercises and (apart from what Tolkien has written) no continuous texts in Sindarin which would show how the language could be used. Teaching is not Salo's aim.

It is probably not even an easy resource for someone who is looking for an introduction to Sindarin without the aim to learn it as a language due to the highly technical terms used by Salo - one has to know more than just basic knowledge of linguistic terminology in order to understand some passages.

It cannot be used as a reference for scholarly studies - Salo's many alterations of Tolkien's material, the lack of distinction between Tolkien-made and Salo-made historic forms and the inaccuracy in providing Tolkien's own translations make this impossible - which is a clear loss. With a little more effort, a valuable resource could have been produced - as it is, the only safe option (though time consuming) is to look up things scattered in Tolkien's original writings, lists of CE roots, names and words are useless for scholarly purposes if they do not reproduce the original sources faithfully.

Given all that, someone with an interest in technical studies of the language, be it phonology or grammar, will find a lot of interesting ideas in the book. Unfortunately, the reasoning behind these ideas is never explained, therefore one needs both a good knowledge of the underlying sources and of other secondary literature discussing Sindarin grammar with Tolkien's writings as startung point to get the most out of it.

With a pricetag of 50$, my counsel would be to think seriously if one would like to have the book. For lerning the grammar of Sindarin on a technical level, it is not better than what Ardalambion or other sources provide for free. For learning how to use the language it is not a suitable resource (there are likewise various internet resources available for free for that purpose), and for scholarly studies it cannot be used.

If you have read everything else about Sindarin already - then get it, it is interesting and brings some novel aspects.

[1] 'The Past-Tense Verb in the Noldorin of the Etymologies' by Carl F. Hostetter on Tengwestië

[2] 'Sindarin - the Noble Tongue' by Helge Fauskanger on Ardalambion


Thorsten Renk
thorsten@sindarin.de

Other opinions on the book:

Review by Bertrand Bellet on Lambengolmor

Some preliminary comments by Carl F. Hostetter on Lambengolmor

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