Please read, enjoy, learn, print out and make your neighborhood Mary Sue writers read it, but don’t steal. If you want to post it on your page, e-mail me. If you want to link it, feel free, but it would be nice to let me know so I can come and take a look at your page. I suffer from fatal curiosity :-)
I would like to thank Helge K. Fauskanger, Carl F. Hostetter, Ryszard Derdzinski, and all the wonderful people from www.elvish.org who do so much to help us, mere mortals, learn Elven languages. Without the resources they provide, this essay would not be possible.
Virtually everyone who writes Middle-earth fanfic writes about Elves, whether almost exclusively (as your humble servant), or barely touching the subject. However, writing about Elves requires knowing something about them. Today we will talk about Elven languages, the most victimized fruit of Tolkien’s imagination.
A typical fangirl response is, “Why do I care?” A good answer surely must exist somewhere, but I do not know it. If this question is white-hot in your mind now, please stop reading, go directly to jail, do not pass GO, do not collect 200 reviews. I am not writing for typical fangirls, for they won’t read this anyway. I am writing for the authors who are not sure whether what they are writing is correct and want to check. I am writing for Mary Sue writers who realized the evil of their ways and want to reform. I am writing for people who want to quickly check their writing without spending hours digging through the books.
I am not Helge Fauskanger, whose excellent materials about Elven languages can be found at his Ardalambion site. I am not a professional linguist. I am merely a person who loves Elves enough to find time and energy to learn what I can about Elven languages and try to describe them in easy, “lay” language.
It was the Valian year 2050 (or approximately 19,600 in sun years, which are equivalent to our modern years – see essay on time (my page -> time) for more information) from the creation of Arda, and first Elves started crafting a new speech on the shores of Cuiviénen. Or, rather Koivië-néni, as those who awoke near its waters called it.
That language, long lost by the time any events in the Silmarillion take place, is named ‘Pra-Eldarin” by some people, “Primitive Elvish” by others. It is the ancestor of all the other Elven languages, and languages of other speaking peoples borrowed from it as well. Examples can be found in languages as diverse as Adûnaic, Khuzdul, and Black Speech. It was not for nothing that Elves called themselves “kwendî” – “speakers”. They were the only creatures in Middle-earth who could start creating speech by themselves. Humans and Dwarves had to be taught, by Elves and Aule respectively. The only language that developed completely independently of Elvish is Valarin. So if you are writing about the first days of Elves in Middle-earth, those 65 Valian years (~620 Sun years) before they were separated for the first time into Eldar and Avari, this is the language you should be using for whatever inclusions of Elvish you want to insert.
Excellent materials related to that language can be found here.
If I were you, however, I wouldn’t try to build sentences in it. We know too little about the grammar, and even less about stylistics. I would just play with the words. If you really really want to build sentences try to get good feel for the grammar from those fragments we know, and construct something, with grammar based on Quenya, Quenya Telerin in particular, rather than Sindarin.
Not all Elves wanted to go to the light of Valinor, and in 1105 the Elves separated into Eldar, whose deeds Silmarillion follows, and Avari, those who stayed on the shores of Kuiviénen. Unfortunately, all the chronicles are concerned with those who left, so all we know about the languages of the Unwilling is six words, from six different languages of Avari. Surprisingly (or not), all these words mean “the people” and are modifications of Kwendî. The full list with some background explanation by Helge Fauskanger can be found here.
I would like to warn those who think that lack of knowledge about Avarin languages, their variety, and their differences from Quenya and Sindarin give writers a license to create something off the top of their head. If you read Helge’s article (and it is very short, and worth reading by any person with even slightest interest in how languages develop), you will see that in each case there are clear and specific mutation that turned “kwendî” into “kindi”, “cuind”, etc. Can you mutate all pra-Eldarin words you want to use similarly? Can you build the clear system of mutations? If yes, you are a great linguist and I admire you. If not, leave Avarin languages alone. Write in a language you do know (such as English).
Green Elves are a diverse group, combining all the Elves who didn’t reach Beleriand, either ever (Elves of Mirkwood and Lórien), or as a part of the original big waves (Elves of Ossiriand, who came later). While we can safely assume that after death of Denethor the Laiquendi of Ossiriand adopted Sindarin of Doriathrin variety as their colloquial language, Elves of Mirkwood and Lorien would speak only or mostly Nandorin, be it in the First Age, Second Age, or Fourth Age. This means also that Elves who came with Legolas to Ithilien during King Elessar’s reign would speak that language. And it was the mothertongue of Legolas (Legolas is a Nandorin name, and means “green leaves” rather “green leaf” as Sindarin suggests – see quote from Letter # 211).
Strict purism demands that this be used as THE language when any story about Legolas is being written. However, this crystal dream breaks on the iron ass of reality. All we know of Nandorin are roughly 30 words. Helge Fauskanger analyzes what little we have here.
Due to our lack of knowledge, Sindarin should be used for words or phrases in Elvish in a story that deals with Legolas, Haldir, Mirkwood or Lorien. We are limited to Sindarin and Quenya, which are the languages best developed by Tolkien, and Sindarin works better. Why? Read further.
Now that we took care of all those who never reached Beleriand, we can start talking about those who did. And liked it so much, they stayed forever. There were two major Sindarin dialects spoken in Beleriand in the First Age. Doriathrin and so-called Northern, spoken by the Sindar of Mithrim and many others (read the section “The Land of Mists”). As far as what language did Falathrim of Cirdan speak, most linguists do not discuss this point. Judging from the names of their cities, and their political alliances, I would assume their language would be the same as that of Doriath.
Another point I should make, I do not discuss Old Sindarin, details of which you can find here. This essays is intended primarily for fanfiction writers, and since it is not clear which group would speak Old Sindarin and during which period of time (if at all, since “old” denotes the time during which Tolkien developed it, rather than anything else), this language is of no interest. If you have purely academic interest in it, go to Helge’s page (linked above) and check it out.
In its own language known as Doriath. The mothertongue of Luthien, Mablung, Beleg. The language on the stone which marked the final resting place of Túrin. A very noble language, suitable for the grandest court of the First Age of Middle Earth. It would actually be one of the dialects of Sindarin, but it is sufficiently different from Third-Age Sindarin which we know and usually call “Sindarin”. However, as with Nandorin, our knowledge of it is very, very limited. All we know fits on this one page. Therefore, however painful it is to accept that fact, we have to resort to using conventional Sindarin for conversations taking place in Doriath or by those who dwelt there.
Not all Elves chose safety of Doriath. Some preferred the mountains of Hithlum. Some simply had no choice. However, centuries of isolation led to divergence of dialects. Since Elves are living creatures, and delight in creating new words and playing with sounds to get the most melodious combinations possible, their language changes with time, even though slower than human languages do. Therefore the Northern Dialect of Sindarin was quite different from Doriathrin. It even led to some problems – for example, one of the reasons Thingol did not like Beren was the fact that Beren spoke Northern dialect, and Elves of the North were considered weaklings and slaves of Morgoth by the proud court of Menegroth. Same added to his dislike of Noldor and humans, both of which spoke Northern dialect during their time in Beleriand. It is hard to say which dialect they would choose if they ever had a choice, but Northern Sindarin would be the conversational language of Sindar of Hithlum, one of the mothertongues of Beren, the language Fingolfin’s people would normally use. That would also be the colloquial of Gondolin, where only King Turgon’s court used predominantly Quenya Noldorinwa.
Unfortunately, we don’t know too much about Northern dialect. I subscribe to Edward Kloczko’s theory that Ilkorin described in Etymologies can be considered equivalent to Northern Sindarin. You can find the materials on it here, but it is not enough for a functional language. If you want more than a few words in it, use Third Age conventional Sindarin.
The Blessed Realm, also known as Aman, was home to three different kinds of Elves. The Vanyar, who spoke a Quenya dialect that incorporated Valarin words. The Noldor, who spoke another dialect of Quenya, which changed quicker and deeper than the speech of Vanyar. And finally, the Teleri who spoke a distinct language, standing in between Quenya and Sindarin. The three were distinct races of Elves, and while there was a certain degree of interaction and intermarriage, it is better to remember that they had their differences. The other thing to keep in mind is, Quenya was a living language, growing, changing, adapting. The Quenya spoken by Finwe and Ingwe when they were building Tirion would not be the same language in which Galadriel refused to give Fëanor a strand of her hair. This part of the essay will also discuss usage of Quenya in stories set in Beleriand during the First Age. For use of Quenya during the Third Age, see the part on “The Third Age and Beyond.”