Neo-Eldarin is a term that may be employed to describe the language of texts attempting to actually use the "Elven" tongues invented by British author and philologist J.R.R. Tolkien for his Middle-earth legendarium. (The word Eldarin means "High-Elvish" in Quenya, one of the languages of Middle-earth.) While Tolkien sketched an Elvish language family with many branches, such efforts primarily focus on the two main Elven-tongues of the legendarium, namely Quenya (High-elven, the language of the Elves of Valinor) and Sindarin (Grey-elven, the daily speech of the Elves in Middle-earth).

Neo-Quenya and Neo-Sindarin[]

Most texts produced to date are in Neo-Quenya, since Quenya is by far the most well-attested language in published Tolkien material. The first substantial post-Tolkien attempt to write an Eldarin text may be Björn Fromén's Neo-Quenya poem Valinorenna, appearing in the pioneering Tolkien-linguistic work An Introduction to Elvish (1978, edited by Jim Allan). One version of the poem was in existence already by 1973, Tolkien's year of death.

The most widely-published examples of Neo-Sindarin are unquestionably the Elvish dialogue developed by David Salo for Peter Jackson's movie trilogy based on Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings novel. Except for the samples of Sindarin taken directly from the book (such as Gandalf's invocation before the doors of Moria), Salo put together these lines based on his own understanding of Sindarin grammar, extrapolating where Tolkienian material available to him was insufficient. This particular dialect of Neo-Sindarin is sometimes called Movie Sindarin.

Contemporary writers may cite various motivations for writing Neo-Eldarin texts. Tolkien himself wrote that The Lord of the Rings was "largely an essay in 'linguistic aesthetic'" (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 220), and writers may want to celebrate the peculiar aesthetic of Tolkien's Elvish, an aesthetic found by many to be very beautiful. To some it will be an attempt to immerse themselves in the world of Middle-earth. Others will be interested primarily in the languages as such, and try to learn them for the intellectual challenge.

As for the movies, Peter Jackson apparently wanted to include Elvish dialogues for effect, and David Salo set out to produce an approximation of Tolkien's Elvish as well as it could be reconstructed within the bounds of the available source material and his own conception of the language's structure.

Especially after the appearance of the Jackson movies, many people wanted brief Elvish inscriptions for rings (often wedding-rings), tattoos and the like. These people rarely take the time to study Eldarin in depth for themselves; rather they may request help on Tolkien-linguistic mailing-lists, or contact individual Tolkien-linguists directly. Typically such inquirers also want the Elvish message to be written in the "original" Tengwar script devised by Tolkien for his languages. They feel attracted to the magical aura and aesthetic qualities of Elvish, but may not have a deeper scholarly interest in Tolkien's work. Writers intending to compose longer texts must by necessity penetrate far deeper into the linguistic "lore" relating to Tolkien's languages.

Neo-Eldarin vs. Tolkien's Original Work[]

The exact relationship between Neo-Eldarin and Tolkien's original Quenya and Sindarin is difficult to define. First of all, it should be understood that none of these languages mentioned exist as monolithic, fixed entities that can readily be compared to one another. Neo-Quenya and Neo-Sindarin texts necessarily reflect the understanding (and to some extent, the preferences) of the individual authors. Various individuals may interpret certain grammatical details in different ways, and the understanding of an individual author may also change over time.

In particular, the occasional publication of hitherto unknown Tolkien material may cause Neo-Eldarin writers to revise the conventions they have been using: Since Eldarin grammar is reconstructed from a very limited corpus, the appearance of even a few new lines of Tolkien-made Eldarin text may sometimes significantly shift the balance of the evidence.

If the linguistic conventions used by Neo-Eldarin writers may change, this is even more true of Tolkien's original work on the languages. He worked on them for half a century, but never achieved definite Eldarin grammars (which is why there is still room for personal interpretation when samples of Elvish are to be analyzed). While most of his linguistic manuscripts remain unpublished, it is already clear from published material that they contain layer upon layer of changing ideas rather than a single, unified vision of what Eldarin was "really" like. The language generally referred to as Sindarin even had its name and internal history revised immediately before the publication of the last volume of The Lord of the Rings in 1955: When Tolkien actually wrote the book, he thought of this language as "Noldorin" instead, ascribing its origin to the Noldor elves rather than the Sindar.

Since Tolkien himself revised the languages so often, it can be difficult to directly compare "Tolkien's Elvish" to the Neo-Eldarin conventions employed by any post-Tolkien writer. It is out of the question that any substantial Neo-Eldarin text can be written that agrees with all of Tolkien's linguistic writings, since these writings very often contradict themselves.

Neo-Eldarin Methodology[]

In principle, Neo-Eldarin texts could be based on any of the numerous conceptual phases observed in Tolkien's writings. In practice, writers almost invariably try to emulate Quenya and Sindarin as exemplified in The Lord of the Rings (LotR), though many rely on secondary sources rather than carrying out their own research. (No statistics are available for where various writers acquired their knowledge of Tolkienian linguistics. Many may seem to use web-based resources, the quality of which is disputed by some scholars. Other writers do own and study various primary sources, or a mixture of both.)

To work around the fact that Tolkien often changed his mind about many details, writers may try to establish a canon of particular authority. Christopher Tolkien notes that his father "felt bound by" such Elvish names that had appeared in print (The Peoples of Middle-earth, p. 367). This is illustrated by a substantial philological essay, "The Problem of Ros", which Tolkien abandoned when he discovered that it contradicted a short statement regarding that element of nomenclature which had appeared in the published novel (ibid, p. 371). Nonetheless, some of the Elvish texts occurring in The Lord of the Rings were revised in the second edition of the novel, including changes to stems, pronominal endings, and tense formations. Only a few letters were actually altered or added, but it may be suspected that this reflects more substantial revisions going on behind the scenes.

Despite these potential complications, material published by Tolkien himself during his lifetime is regarded as being as close to "definite" or "canonical" Eldarin as one can get. Therefore, Neo-Eldarin efforts are typically based on these texts as the primary normative authority. As for the LotR samples, the Second Edition forms are preferred where they differ from the First Edition.

Obviously the information that can be extracted from these few samples is in no way sufficient to reconstruct a grammar that could support even a semi-functional language. Other Tolkien material, never published in his lifetime, is therefore considered as well. The fact that this material often contradicts itself is problematic from the viewpoint of researchers trying to formulate definite grammatical rules. The normal approach is to adopt forms and details of grammar that these researchers hold to be compatible with the samples of Elvish contained in the LotR.

Most writers would also want to keep the language largely compatible with other widely-published samples of Tolkien's languages, notably those occurring in the Silmarillion (though this book was edited and published posthumously and may not be considered strictly "canonical" in all respects).

Since the "canonical" samples of Elvish are relatively brief, they do not provide a complete guide to how Tolkien's linguistic material could be edited into a unified grammar. It is assumed that Tolkien's post-LotR writings on his languages were intended to be compatible with the samples he had already published in the novel (irrespective of the revisions in the second edition); yet these writings still contradict themselves on many details. An editor trying to produce a unified grammar could in theory come up with a string of different "Quenya" and "Sindarin" dialects that would be equally Tolkienian and equally compatible with the LotR samples. While these languages would probably not be radically different from one another, certain pronominal endings and the like would differ.

An oft-cited editorial strategy would be to approximate Tolkien's final intentions, Quenya and Sindarin as he saw them near the end of his life. Referring to his work in the languages, Tolkien wrote that he "improved in theory, and probably in craft" as time went on (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 143). Christopher Tolkien refers to the "minutely refined historical development of Quenya and Sindarin" that his father had achieved in his later years (The Peoples of Middle-earth, p. 367.) Thus it could be argued that Tolkien's latest material should be regarded as the "best" or most highly developed vision of Eldarin.

Some still feel that this would be a quite arbitrary approach, since these late incarnations of Elvish may not be objectively "better" or more consistent than Tolkien's earlier ideas; he was not necessarily in the process of settling on definite versions of Quenya/Sindarin when he died. Indeed, as late as 1967 Tolkien stressed that conceptual change in his languages, in accordance with his changing linguistic tastes, was not only a desirable feature of the languages but then still fundamental to their very purpose: "It must be emphasized that this process of invention was/is a private enterprise undertaken to give pleasure to myself by giving expression to my personal linguistic 'aesthetic' or taste and its fluctuations" (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 380).

Some suggest that an editor should consider primarily Tolkien's conception of the languages as it was when he actually wrote The Lord of the Rings, though most would also agree that this material should be "calibrated" against Tolkien's post-LotR ideas as reflected in the Second Edition.

As for current attempts to write in Eldarin (especially Quenya), most writers would probably agree that the results should not be taken overly seriously, and hardly anyone would claim to have reconstructed Tolkien's intentions with absolute certainty or accuracy. (After all, he could not even agree with himself on many details.) Still, many Neo-Quenya writers would argue that the inflection of the noun is fairly well understood: During his lifetime, Tolkien sent an overview of the relevant endings to Richard Plotz, and it mostly agrees well with published samples of Quenya from the 1950s on. Some relatively trivial variations occur, as when the ending for plural ablative appears as -llon in Plotz, but as -llor in other late texts.

The main outlines of the verb system has been reconstructed to the satisfaction of some, though there is an ongoing debate about a number of features. (For instance, the past tense of car- "do, make" is variously given as carne and cáre in Tolkien's writings, and it is not obvious which is the best option for a Neo-Quenya writer. An early wordlist actually cites the forms side by side, so maybe both should be considered valid.) There are a few "missing" tenses, such as the pluperfect (in published material only attested in a form of Quenya that far predates the LotR, and the form it had in that early incarnation of the language does not seem compatible with Tolkien's later ideas).

Quenya adjectives and adverbs are perceived as relatively unproblematic, though certain commonly held assumptions so far cannot be proved. (For instance, it is often held that adverbs can readily be derived from adjectives by adding the ending -ve; this is based on one single example from the LotR. Lacking any explicit Tolkienian statements either way, we cannot know if the author meant this ending to be as freely applicable as the English adverbial ending -ly.) For certain important conjunctions and other particles, writers still have to fall back on Tolkien's earliest writings; many would like to base such vital vocabulary on the later conceptual phases instead.

Parts of the pronoun table are problematic due to frequent revisions and changing concepts, though material published in recent years seemingly allows a fairly plausible reconstruction of a near-complete system. For certain syntactical relationships there are still no good Tolkien examples that could guide writers. The counting system is uncertain from 20 onwards, though reasonably plausible extrapolations are not difficult to make. More information about numbers is known to exist, awaiting publication.

Sindarin is altogether more poorly attested and also has its own complexities (phonology and grammar being intertwined in intricate ways). The "quality" of Neo-Sindarin texts is often difficult to assess: Most writers rely on assumptions that are generally compatible with the Tolkenian samples, but these samples would frequently allow other interpretations as well. Hence various writers may base their own Neo-Sindarin texts on differing interpretations. For instance, the word ir occurring in one untranslated Sindarin poem is treated as a variant of the definite article i in David Salo's works. Others see in this ir a possible cognate of Quenya íre;, "when" introducing a temporal clause (The Lost Road p. 72). This would also allow for a sensible (though necessarily unconfirmed) translation of Tolkien's Sindarin poem. Some writers have therefore used ir for "when" in their Neo-Sindarin compositions. Others, following Salo, might use the same word as a definite article.

In the case of Sindarin, matters are further complicated by the fact that material from the pre-LotR period is strictly "Noldorin" instead, and some scholars object to including Noldorin in the Sindarin corpus. Its exclusion would however leave Neo-Sindarin writers with a vocabulary so small that actually composing in the language would be quite impossible. Quenya was at least always called Quenya (though in the pre-LotR period, Tolkien employed the spelling "Qenya"), and even though Tolkien often revised the grammar, the general style of the language remained reasonably stable over the decades. Therefore, many Neo-Quenya writers do not hesitate to use early "Qenya" vocabulary in their compositions, next to words Tolkien devised decades later. Generally, though, Neo-Eldarin writers treat Tolkien's early material as something to "fall back on" when his later material does not suffice for their needs.

Obviously many Neo-Eldarin enthusiasts hope and expect that the eventual publication of more of Tolkien's linguistic material will fill many of the current gaps in our knowledge about the languages (and also allow writers to substitute "late" ideas where only "early" solutions are currently available).

Normalized "Useable" Eldarin?[]

However, it is not to be expected that even the complete publication of the entire collection (supposedly thousands of pages) will allow anyone to simply lift ready-made "complete" languages directly from Tolkien's linguistic manuscripts. If the manuscripts are eventually made available, they will at best provide an editor with options rather than definite solutions.

To some, the ultimate goal is to develop and lovingly cultivate Quenya and Sindarin to the point where they would become at least semi-usable tongues, capable of sustaining everyday conversation. Some, indeed, use the terms "Neo-Quenya" and "Neo-Sindarin" to refer to such hypothetical future entities, which could be studied and used just like other highly-developed invented languages (like Esperanto, or at least like Klingon language). This must be distinguished from the current usage (the term "Neo-Quenya/Sindarin" rather referring to any post-Tolkien attempt to compose in his languages, as opposed to yet-to-be-developed normalized versions of them).

Current projects to develop "normalized Elvish" are tentative and preliminary, due to the incomplete state of the publication project aiming to present all of Tolkien's linguistic manuscripts. Editors trying to establish a normalized grammar should obviously be able to consider the entire collection before suggesting what a representative cross-section of Tolkien's most developed ideas could look like.

The initial stage of the editing process would center on the establishing of a "canon", a selection of Tolkienian ideas that are internally consistent and compatible with the samples of Elvish occurring in the LotR. The editors would not necessarily try to eliminate minor, unimportant variations (as when the Quenya word for "8" variously appears as tolto and toldo). A comprehensive wordlist would be worked out, to determine what concepts Tolkien's vocabulary covers (and what words are "missing"). Tolkien's own decisions and revisions would almost invariably be respected (as when he at one point rejected cainen as the Quenya word for "10", replacing it with quain, though he had been using cainen for decades).

Once a "canon" had been established, material incompatible with it would either be edited to agree with it, or (for this particular purpose) ignored. The editing in question would often only involve straightforward phonological "updating"; this is particularly relevant in the case of "Noldorin" as the earlier version of Sindarin. For instance, many examples from Sindarin and Noldorin show that the former has r- where the latter had rh- (unvoiced R); also, the diphthong oe in Noldorin is seen to correspond to Sindarin ae. Therefore, some editors feel free to transform a Noldorin form like rhoeg ("wrong") into Sindarin *raeg: Wholesale phonological "updating" of Noldorin material already occurs in David Salo's works, and many feel that this is a reasonable approach. (Most Noldorin words seem to fit the structure of Sindarin with no changes whatsoever.)

The "core" of normalized Neo-Eldarin would thus consist of a primary selection of Tolkien material that is accorded canonical (or normative) status, supplemented with material that can be made to agree with the "canon" after being subjected to a minimum of editing. Material that would have to be so heavily edited that its Tolkienian status would be compromised, would rather be ignored altogether.

Neo-Eldarin enthusiasts tend to assume that the sum total of Tolkien's linguistic manuscripts would provide options sufficient to compile a fairly "complete" grammar. Tolkien noted that he had developed these languages "in some completeness" (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 175), though it remains to be seen what this really meant from his own perspective.

In any case, Eldarin vocabulary is likely to remain deficient. While thousands of words are readily available, Christopher Tolkien notes as surprising the fact that his father "was so little concerned to make comprehensive vocabularies of the Elvish tongues" (The Lost Road p. 342). Many animals, tools, substances etc. never received any Tolkien-made Eldarin designations. The author developed these tongues for his own pleasure, not as means of communication, so he did not need a "complete" vocabulary.

Even after establishing a "normative core" of Tolkienian material (edited or not), would-be cultivators of Eldarin would therefore have to supplement it with newly-coined words. As presently envisioned and to some extent already practiced, this does not involve completely random invention with no basis whatsoever in Tolkien's original work. Tolkien's Elvish language family is logically derived from a "Primitive Quendian" tongue supposed to have been spoken in the pre-historic period of his invented world. He listed a great number of primitive "roots" belonging to this language, used such roots as the basis for "primitive words", and then derived their form in the later tongues by implementing systematic sound-changes: By simulating the effects of thousands of years of linguistic development in his notes, he could work out the different branches of the "Elvish" language family.

The Eldarin system of derivation can be reconstructed from thousands of examples, and scholars also believe they have figured out the sets of sound-changes that are used to "produce" Quenya and Sindarin. Some researchers therefore feel able to copy Tolkien's method for deriving new words. The primitive "roots" listed by Tolkien are so numerous and so varied in meaning that it will normally be possible to coin some plausible "primitive" word for a missing concept, and then apply the established sound-laws to derive the forms this word would assume in Quenya and Sindarin. The result is a word that "could have" existed within Tolkien's linguistic framework. If one regards the Elven-tongues only as features of his invented world, such post-Tolkien additions are the equivalent of fan fiction. Many Neo-Eldarin cultivators would rather say they are trying to develop the languages as such, irrespective of the fictional context that only Tolkien could rightly define.

Other methods have also been employed to extend available Eldarin vocabulary without losing touch with Tolkien's original work. Currently, no Quenya verb "to choose" is attested, but cilme occurs as the noun "choice". Noting that -me is an ending used to derive abstract nouns, scholars may isolate *cil- as a very likely candidate for the verb "to choose". (Compare such an attested couple as melme and mel-: "love" as noun and verb, respectively.) Lacking a verb "to think", writers may isolate the probable verbal stem *sana- from Tolkien's noun sanar "thinker" (since -r is an ending used to derive agent nouns).

These would be examples of words that are "deconstructed"; conversely, Tolkien's mechanisms of derivation may also be actively employed to construct new words. There is, for instance, no attested Quenya adjective meaning "visible", but there is the verb cen- "to see" and the derivational ending -ima, usually combined with lengthening of the stem-vowel of the root it is added to. This pattern corresponds to English "-able"; hence some would derive cénima as a possible word for "seeable" = "visible".

Sometimes a certain word is attested in one of Tolkien's two main Elvish languages, but not in the other. Since the Elvish languages are meant to be related, being derived from a single primitive tongue, it is possible to extrapolate the likely cognate in the other language. For instance, in Quenya the verb "to dance" is attested as lilta-, derived from a root lilt- (The Lost Road p. 369). No Sindarin verb "to dance" is attested, but the cognate of the Quenya form would be *liltha-.

Such extrapolation is of course not an exact science; not all Quenya and Sindarin words are direct cognates of one another. Prior to 2002, no Sindarin noun "name" was attested in published material; the best guess of Neo-Eldarin writers would have been *ess as the cognate of Quenya esse. As it turns out, Tolkien in one Sindarin text used the word eneth for "name"; this seems to reflect another root altogether.

Despite the uncertainties, Neo-Sindarin writers typically feel that using such extrapolated forms is infinitely better than simply coining "missing" words out of thin air, since there would then be no connection whatsoever to Tolkien's original work.

External links[]

  • FAQ — Article by Carl F. Hostetter. The author presents his interpretation of Tolkien's views of the purpose, completeness and usability of the Elvish languages.
  • "Elvish as She Is Spoke" — Article by Carl F. Hostetter. A thorough examination of Tolkien's purposes in inventing his Elvish languages and his practices in describing them, their consequent nature. Hostetter argues that there are inherent pitfalls in any attempt to "speak Elvish". Republished with permission from The Lord of the Rings 1954–2004: Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Blackwelder (Marquette, 2006), ed. Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull.