Today is the 65th anniversary of the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first part of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. To celebrate, we’re going to have a look at Elvish writing and its remarkably analytical structure: the Tengwar signs provide a very close fit for the sounds of the Elvish languages, which is unusual among the world’s ‘real’ writing systems.
The languages invented by JRR Tolkien are at the centre of his tales of Middle Earth, occasionally quoted directly but ever-present too in the names of places and people throughout his stories. Along with the languages, he created a number of writing systems to go with them, fleshing out the linguistic and cultural practices of the characters he had invented, and constructing a complex linguistic history for Middle Earth that was reflected also in script developments.
I won’t try to relay the whole of Tolkien’s invented history of language and writing in Middle Earth here, but you can find more on Wikipedia as a starting point, and I would also recommend reading Tolkien’s own descriptions. I remember reading The Lord of the Rings when I was young, and being enthralled by Appendix E at the end, which is entitled ‘Writing and Spelling’ and lays out what Elvish writing looks like and how to use it – that attention to detail was one of my favourite features of Tolkien’s writing.
It was very interesting to see recently (at an exhibition in Oxford) one of Tolkien’s notebooks, written when he was seventeen, where he had recorded a secret code (not Middle Earth related!) based on Esperanto. Tolkien later became an academic who specialised in the study of historical languages, serving as the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon and then Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford during the period when he was writing The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and other related stories.
In fact, Tolkien’s own scholarship and his academic approach had some interesting effects on his creations. He invented different groups of Elves and different languages associated with them. The early language of the Eldar (Eldarin) was the ancestor of different branches of Elvish speech, including most famously Quenya (with subdivisions into Vanyarin and Noldorin) and Sindarin (the language of the Elves of Beleriand, a sort-of sub-branch related most closely to Telerin and Nandorin). To cut a long story short, Sindarin was the most commonly spoken Elvish language by the time of the events of The Lord of the Rings, while Quenya was at its peak in an earlier age.
Tolkien based Quenya on a blend of languages, with particular influence from Finnish (e.g. in the frequent endings in -inen), from Greek and Latin (to smaller extents) and especially from Germanic languages including Old English and Old Norse. Sindarin, meanwhile, took considerable inspiration from Welsh, especially in its phonemic inventory (i.e. the individual sounds making up the language).
Although these are fictional languages, they were designed to look ‘real’: to have features known from real languages and to have complex histories. Their phonemic inventories are intelligently designed, but so too are their writing systems, so that there is an exact correspondence of sound to sign. For someone like me, who works on ancient writing, this feels either refreshing or artificial, depending on my mood! There’s not much sign of spelling confusion, ambiguous forms or attempts to render unfamiliar sounds (all things I grapple with in ancient inscriptions) in the written record of Middle Earth as we know it.
But what is especially unusual about the Tengwar (the set of signs used to write Elvish, tengwa in the singular) is that they are designed to reflect pronunciation in a visually systematic way. You will see what I mean if you look at the first six rows of the table below. For each sign, values are given for Quenya in yellow and Sindarin in pink and grey (two slightly different types). The signs are split into columns representing the point of articulation of the consonant:
– open bow to the right (Tincotéma) = dental (t, d, etc)
– closed bow to the right (Parmatéma) = labial (p, b, etc)
– open bow to the left (Calmatéma) = velar (k, g, etc)
– closed bow to the left (Quessetéma) = labiovelar (qu, gw, etc)
The length and direction of the stem and single or double use of the bow then tells you the manner of articulation, i.e. whether the sound is an unvoiced stop (row 1: long descender with single bow), a voiced prenasalised stop (row 2: long descender with double bow), an unvoiced fricative (row 3: long riser with single bow), an unvoiced prenasalised stop (row 4: long riser with double bow), a nasal (row 5: short stem with double bow) or an approximant (row 6: short stem with single bow).
NB What I describe above gives the values for Quenya, while for Sindarin there are some differences as a result of sound changes (Sindarin has lost labiovelars, for instance, and the unvoiced prenasalised stops have become voiced fricatives).
So for all these consonantal letters in the first six rows, the shape of the tengwa tells you how to pronounce it. The extra tengwar in the four rows at the bottom represent some extra sounds not covered by the rows above, and the final two signs are vowel carriers. Different modes of usage represent vowels in slightly different ways, for instance by putting a diacritical mark (known as a tehta) above the preceding or following consonant (in Quenya or Sindarin respectively); another common system was to use separate signs for vowels (the mode of Beleriand: see below for the vowel signs).
Now that you have seen how the system works, if you want to try it out then try transcribing the highlighted sequence below. It is in the mode of Beleriand, so you will need to use the pink values for the consonants in the big table, alongside the vowel letters in the small table above.
Did you manage to transcribe it? And for bonus points do you know what it means? (Watching the films or reading the books will help with this!)
For the answer, scroll to the very bottom of the post and highlight the white text to read it.
As I said, the analytical structure of Elvish writing is very unusual. But why is it so strange? Well, it suggests that the creators of the writing system were unusually linguistically aware and were able to break the sounds of their language down, not just into meaningful units but into the essential characteristics of each sound, both its point of articulation (i.e. where you put your tongue) and its manner of articulation (e.g. the amount of air passing through when you say it, or even whether the vocal folds are vibrating or not – the latter makes the difference between p and b for example).
Most writing systems are not like this! If you take something like the modern ‘Roman’ alphabet, you find that letters are assigned to individual sounds, more or less (English usage is a poor example of this…), but there is no obvious systematicity to the visual aspects of the letters. When the ancestor to this alphabet was first developed, probably in the earlier 2nd millennium BC in Egypt, it seems to have been based on an acrophonic principle (with inspiration from Egyptian writing), i.e. the sign took the form of a picture of an object or animal, and the first sound of its name was the value of the sign. The Proto-Sinaitic inscription on the sphinx pictured below includes a shape like an ox’s head, for example, and the name for an ox was something like ‘aleph, where the first sound is a glottal stop (‘), a bit like the sound when you drop a t between vowels. The glottal stop became the value of the ox head sign, and eventually that became our letter A.
We don’t have very much Proto-Sinaitic surviving, but from its descendant scripts (which include Phoenician and subsequently the Greek and Latin alphabets) we know that it never featured the level of phonological analysis characteristic of the Elvish scripts. Indeed, I cannot think of any writing system ancient or modern that comes close, with the possible exception of Korean Hangul (whose consonant signs seem to indicate the position of the tongue and so the point of articulation of the sound).
This raises some interesting questions, such as the degree to which the people who developed real writing systems were interested in the exact nature of speech sounds. Clearly they did not have the expertise, or even the interests, of modern linguists. Studying writing in the ancient world gives you a much messier picture, where a given writing system may have particular sounds assigned to its signs, but there can be variation in the shapes of those signs or their values, or writers can come across problems with how to spell a given word, especially if it contains an unfamiliar sound. When communities are multilingual, or writing passes between people who speak different languages, even more confusion (and so the need for adaptation) can result. Scripts were not and are not perfect representations of speech sounds, and they can change and adapt with each new writer and the circumstances in which they are writing.
While Tolkien’s invented writing systems might seem unrealistically scholarly, however, I don’t think we need to be too critical. For one thing, being confronted with such a ‘perfect’ writing system as the Tengwar is a very good way of thinking about ‘real’ writing systems and why they do or do not display particular features. And I have not even had time to talk about Tolkien’s other invented writing systems, like the Dwarvish runes that play a key role in The Hobbit.
It is clearly also not true to say that Tolkien had not thought about what might happen when languages change, or when a new language needed to be written in the pre-existing writing system. Take the Black Speech of Mordor, for instance, most famously found on the One Ring. This is in a version of the Tengwar adapted for the specific language, with different values for the tehtar (vowel diacritics) because the u vowel is unusually common in the Black Speech.
He also paid attention to writing practices to some extent. The Tengwar have features that make them look appropriate to being written in ink on paper or a similar material: flowing lines and curves, where the nature of those lines and curves makes a significant difference to the value of each sign (meaning it is important to reproduce them accurately) – as we have seen above. We could call it a typical cursive script. But that does not mean that we cannot find the script used in places other than on the page. The inscription above the doors of the Mines of Moria (where the exercise you tried earlier is found) is a good example of a more ‘monumental’ kind of writing.
I am very much reminded of Phoenician as it developed in the middle centuries of the first millennium BC, with characteristic long tails on many of the letters that suggest an ongoing tradition of writing in ink. However, these characteristics were retained even when Phoenician letters were carved on stone (no matter how difficult they might be to carve), as you can see in the image of the 4th C BC Idalion Bilingual from Cyprus, pictured below. Although Phoenician lacks the systematic structure of Elvish writing, by this time its visual aspect was nevertheless important.
I hope you have enjoyed this foray into the world of Elvish writing as much as I have enjoyed writing it! (Can you guess that I have spent some time as a bit of a Tolkien geek?) It is interesting how a fictional invention can make you reflect on what you are used to in your own work when trying to understanding writing systems and practices. Tolkien’s invention may be a little unrealistic in some ways, but it is a fascinating product of intellectual and linguistic curiosity.
~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)
Disclaimer: Many of the images used in this post are drawn from the film series The Lord of the Rings, directed by Peter Jackson. I believe the copyright to belong to New Line Cinema and WingNut Films. They are used here in homage to that film series, to illustrate a discussion of Tolkien’s invented writing systems, and no copyright infringement is intended nor profit gained. Tolkien’s work is his own intellectual property, for which the rights now belong to the Tolkien estate. Again no copyright infringement is intended nor profit gained.
Answer for the transcription exercise (in white text, highlight to read):
pedo mellon a minno
“Speak friend and enter”