As regular readers of this blog will by now know, the focus of much of my work for the CREWS project has been on the notation of vowels. In this post, to coincide the 65th anniversary of the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring, I’m going to have a look at how vowels are notated in some of Tolkien’s invented languages.
Pippa has already given a great introduction to Elven writing in general here, in the first of today’s celebratory posts. As she points out, studying fictional writing systems can be of great value in the study of real-world ones. This is because fictional writing systems provide the possibility of studying their real-world counterparts ‘from a distance’, so to speak. A fictional writing system provides a canvas on which the inventor (in this case Tolkien) asks the question, “How could a writing system be designed?” When we then compare these with real-world writing systems, we can ask, “Why is it not that way?” This is analogous to the role that fantasy and fairy tale in general have in providing an external perspective on the world in which we live. It enables us to shed the cultural assumptions by which we run our lives, and to consider alternative ways of thinking.
As Pippa mentions, there are several ‘modes’ in which Elven languages can be written. The different modes of writing in Middle Earth correspond to what we would refer to as different ‘orthographies’. An orthography is the set of rules one uses to write with the signs available in the script you are using, e.g. in English rules like ‘i before e, except after c’ etc.
In written English, and many other languages in the present day, vowels are treated in many ways just like any other letter, and, unless you are texting, they have to be written. However, the systems used for writing Quenya and Sindarin (and other languages of Tolkien’s creation) are in origin consonantal. This is to say that only consonants receive what might be called ‘full letters’. When vowels are written, this is not initially done with ‘full letters’, as is the case in the Roman alphabet, but with strokes, tehtar, above the consonantal letters (what we might call ‘diacritics’).
We can see how this works in the Ring Inscription, which is written in the Black Speech of Mordor (see here):
The first full letter is sh is written like this:
However, you will notice that it has three lines written above it (in other versions of the script, this would be three dots arranged in a triangle):
These three lines notate a (in this mode of writing, the vowel diacritic is added to the consonant that follows it, so this is pronounced ash).
A bit further along you will see some loopy lines curling over letters, e.g.:
This represents ur, with the loop representing the vowel u, and the full letter underneath representing r.
This way of structuring a script and writing system may be familiar to some of the readers of the blog: scripts in the West Semitic family are primarily consonantal, and often use diacritics to notate vowels, such as Hebrew. In fact, before the medieval period, Hebrew was written without vowels being obligatory. This is a section of the Great Isaiah Scroll from the Dead Sea, where vowels are to a considerable degree not written. Where they are written, it is with consonant letters playing a dual role (known as matres lectionis):
In the early medieval period, however, a system of diacritics was devised for representing vowels in all cases where they occur. Consider the following examples of the participle ‘writing’ in Biblical Hebrew (e.g. Jeremiah 36:18):
The ‘full letters’ here, כתב, notate the consonants of the root, that is k-t-b. The vowels o and e are then written above and below the first and second consonants respectively.
The astute among you will notice that, while the two writing systems, viz. for writing the Ring inscription and Hebrew respectively, are similar, they are not identical. This is because in the Ring inscription, the vowels are written above the consonant that follows, while in Hebrew they are written above (or below) the preceding consonant, which the vowel follows.
The orthography of the Ring inscription is the same in this respect as Sindarin. Tolkien explains (Appendix E of the Lord of the Rings) that the tehtar are written above the consonant that follows in Sindarin because in that language “most words ended in a consonant”. From the transcription of the ring inscription, we can see that the same is true of the Black Speech of Mordor. In fact, on the ring inscription all but one of the words ends in a consonant.
Here we see the properties of the language(s) being written affecting the properties of the writing system(s) used to represent them. This is something that we see in real-world writing systems too. It is often suggested that a key reason for consonantal writing being effective for writing Semitic languages is that the language is built on (mostly three-letter) lexical roots. So by writing the consonants, you effectively write all the lexical items. People who know the language are then able to superimpose the vowels, because these are largely predictable (so the theory goes) based on the context and the arrangement of the consonants on the page.
By the Third Age, vowels had come to be written on the line with separate vowel letters, as we saw in the West-gate Inscription in Pippa’s post, and according to Tolkien, “They had reached the stage of full alphabetic development” (Appendix E II). This statement seems to imply that writing systems tend towards alphabets, a notion that has become somewhat controversial in recent years. In a future post, I hope to explore how the development of Elven scripts can perhaps shed light on the question of writing system development, especially in terms of the origins of vowel writing.
~ Robert Crellin (researcher on the CREWS project)
References and further reading
Björkman, Måns. 2007. The scripts of Aman. Arda Philology 1: 104–123. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=SOF7m2m3AXcC&lpg=PP1&dq=arda%201%20philology&pg=PA104#v=onepage&q&f=false
Martínez, Helios de Rosario. 2011. A methodolical study of the Elvish writing systems. Arda Philology 3: 1–25. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=cq2QRcYySHIC&lpg=PP1&dq=arda%203%20philology&pg=PA1#v=onepage&q=arda%203%20philology&f=false
Fonts and typesetting
For typesetting the Black Speech in this inscription, I used Ignacio Fernández Galván’s TengwarScript package in LaTeX (https://ctan.org/pkg/tengwarscript?lang=en). The font is Tengwar Annatar type family, designed by Johan Winge.
4 thoughts on “Elven Vowels”
You may care to note that the alphabet was invented for a West Semitic (Canaanite) language on the acrophonic principle, but no words in WSem. languages begin with vowels, so no signs could be created for them.
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Thank you very much for this observation! That’s a very good point, which had not occurred to me before. That would certainly fit very well with writing systems being developed with particular language(s) in mind. I wonder if aleph had quiesced earlier, whether the story might then have been quite different!