In a previous post for the CREWS blog, I explored the way in which vowel signs are used in the Tengwar to write various Elven languages. In this post, I want to focus on the question of the way in which vowel writing develops, as envisaged in Tolkien’s Legendarium.
According to Tolkien, by the Third Age, that is, the period described in The Lord of the Rings, the Elven scripts “had reached the stage of full alphabetic development, but older modes in which only the consonants were denoted by full letters were still in use” (Appendix E II). In other words, in the universe of The Lord of the Rings, contemporary scripts write vowels like any other letter, but archaic scripts continued to write vowels above and below the consonantal letters, using marks known as tehtar. We see the former approach in use in the inscription on the West-gate of Moria, while we see the latter on the ring inscription. The difference is plainly visible in the relative lack of markings above the letters in the West-gate inscription.
pedo mellon a minno
“Speak friend and enter”
Section of West-gate inscription (Typeset using the TengwarScript package in LaTeX, https://ctan.org/pkg/tengwarscript?lang=en, using the Tengwar Annatar font designed by Johan Winge)
Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.
“One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them. One ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”
Ring Inscription (image from here).
Tolkien’s observation, that the Elven scripts “had reached the stage of full alphabetic development”, implies that there is a general tendency for writing systems to develop towards alphabets, that is, to write vowels obligatorily and with full letters just like consonants. To many of us, this may seem an uncontroversial statement. After all, since vowels are important sounds, why would one not write them as letters just like consonants? This way of writing vowels is also familiar to us from Western European languages.
Conversely, electing to write vowels with marks above or below the consonant letters, or even not at all, may seem to us counterintuitive. However, many writing systems in the world today do precisely this, including Hebrew and Arabic (you can read more about this in my previous post on Elven vowels).
So is there such a tendency in the world’s writing systems, for non-alphabets to become alphabets? As it happens, precisely this pattern of development has been suggested. In 1963 I. J. Gelb published his seminar work, A study of writing. In this work, he promoted the idea of unidirectional development in writing. According to this theory, writing systems like those used in Hebrew and Arabic, will over time, tend to develop towards alphabets. Intriguingly, Gelb’s work was published eight years after the first publication of the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, which were first released in 1955 as part of the third volume of the trilogy, The Return of the King.
Gelb’s suggestion appears to find superficial support from a very well known example of writing system development in the real world, namely that of the Greek alphabet. As many of you who read this blog regularly will know, the Greek alphabet is likely derived from a Phoenician archetype. One of the principal distinguishing features of the Greek alphabet with respect to its Phoenician predecessor is that the former had letters for vowels, whereas the latter did not. This would appear, then, to be a case of the development of a full alphabet from a consonantal writing system.
However, the parallel between Greek and alphabetic Elvish is not exact. The Greek alphabet was adopted and adapted from the Phoenician script. Many sounds in Phoenician had no equivalent in Greek, chief among them being the so-called ‘gutturals’. It is the letters for these ‘guttural’ sounds that were in the main adopted for representing vowels in Greek. The process by which this took place is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. However, it is not impossible to imagine that the fact that the letters for gutturals existed in the Phoenician alphabet, but were unused when Greek was written, was not lost on the first users of the Phoenician script for writing Greek, and that these people felt that it would be useful to use them to denote a series of important sounds for Greek, namely the vowels.
This situation is different from that described for Elvish. For in the latter case Tolkien states that certain consonants “ceased to have a clear function in the Eldarin languages; and it was from these letters that the letters expressing vowels were largely derived” (Appendix E II.i). This is to say that the transition to writing vowels did not take place when an Elven script, used to write an Elven tongue, was adopted for writing a language with different sounds (cf. the situation in Greek), but rather took place internally within the writing tradition of Elvish for writing Elvish: Elvish languages gradually lost certain sounds, and the letters that were used to write these sounds were eventually adopted for writing vowels.
As it happens, there is a closer parallel to this Elvish situation among real-world writing systems, namely Phoenician-Punic. I have discussed this language in connection with vowel writing previously in another post. There we saw that certain sounds, again, as it happens, the so-called ‘gutturals’, had ceased to be pronounced in Punic. The letters that had formerly written these sounds were subsequently used to write vowels. Importantly, however, the loss of the guttural sounds took place within the history of the Phoenician-Punic language, and the adoption of these sounds for writing vowels took place within the writing tradition of Phoenician-Punic. This is the same situation as that which Tolkien describes for Elvish.
l’dn b`l mn z`b’ m-
ylk`ton bn blytn bm-
lk ’zrm hyš wš`
m’ ’t qwl’
Representation of Neopunic inscription from Guelma (N19) with vowels written with full letters. (For transcription see here)
Gelb’s theory of unidirectional development in writing systems has been criticised (on which, see Philip and Pippa’s introduction to the new CREWS publication Understanding Relations Between Scripts II: Early Alphabets), and indeed it is hard to see a priori why writing systems should necessarily develop towards alphabets over time. Furthermore, there is more than a whiff of cultural imperialism about the notion that the alphabet is necessarily the ‘best’ writing system. One can think of significant advantages of not writing vowels if one does not need to, not least of which is the possibility of saving significant amounts of space if writing materials are scarce or expensive. Indeed, although Tolkien would appear to espouse a similar framework of development to that which Gelb would later elucidate, if you dig a bit deeper into the Legendarium, a more nuanced position emerges.
Although Tolkien states that the scripts of the Third Age had reached “the stage of full alphabetic development”, he also notes that older modes where vowels were written using tehtar, or indeed not at all, continued to be used. Such a state of affairs would imply that in the Third Age there were still deemed to be contexts in which older modes of writing were deemed more suitable.
Furthermore, although Tolkien implies that full vowel writing is the norm in the Third Age, only one such system is well known, the ‘mode of Beleriand’. This is the system used for the inscription on the West-gate of Moria.
The doors of the Mines of Moria, with inscription in Sindarin, as shown in the film ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’.
What is interesting is that Beleriand was a region of Middle Earth in the First Age. However, during the First Age, most of it sank into the sea. The rest of Beleriand was completely destroyed in the Second Age (see here). Although the precise history of the mode of Beleriand isn’t known, it is likely that it developed in Beleriand in the First Age (here). This is to say that full alphabetic writing developed at a comparatively early point in the history of Middle Earth, and must have coexisted with other modes for many many years before it was adopted more broadly. It seems, then, that even if alphabetic writing serves as some kind of destination, it may take a very long time for it to be adopted universally. Indeed, the fact that even in the Third Age non-alphabetic writing was still current suggests that, at least for Tolkien, this development need never take place.
Beleriand is noteworthy for another reason in the history of writing in Middle Earth: it is here that the other major writing system in use in Middle Earth was devised, namely the Cirth, or Certar ‘runes’ (see Appendix E II). These, as with the Tengwar, were devised for writing Elvish, specifically Sindarin. Unlike the Tengwar, however, in the Cirth vowel letters appear to have been present from the beginning.
Cirth in the inscription on Balin’s tomb (from here).
Although it is unknown why vowels are written with full letters in the mode of Beleriand, the fact that this is also where the Cirth were devised, where vowels were written from the outset, suggests that the two developments may be related. This is to say, it is possible that users of Tengwar ‘borrowed’ the idea of writing vowels with full letters from the Cirth, and applied it to the Tengwar for writing Sindarin in Beleriand.
It is here that we see another parallel with Punic situation in North Africa: Punic orthographies writing vowels with full letters appear mostly after the conquest of Carthage by the Romans in 146 bce. The Romans, of course, wrote in Latin, and Latin writes vowels with full letters. It is therefore tempting think that the writing of vowels with full letters in Punic might have been at least in part inspired by vowel writing in Latin, to which users of Punic would have been exposed to a much greater degree after 146.
Bilingual inscription in Latin and Neopunic (image from here).
It may not seem obvious a priori to turn to fictional languages and writing systems for help in understanding the context of real-world writing systems. However, the case of the Elven scripts does I think show the value of fictional scenarios in presenting possible contexts and motivations for the development of writing.
~ Robert Crellin (Research Associate on the CREWS project)