Tolkien’s Elvish

Posted by Thorsten Renk on July 16, 2011

Thorsten Renk is a theoretical physicist working at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. He has written introductory courses for Sindarin and Quenya.


Elvish - Photo : Franck Escamilla (cc)

A whole family of languages with a single native speaker !

J.R.R.Tolkien is chiefly known as author of ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and the creator of Middle-Earth, but his ‘secret vice’ was the creation of languages. As he puts it himself:

The invention of languages is the foundation. The ‘stories’ were
made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse.
To me a name comes first and the story follows
. (Letters p219)

While there are relatively few names and Elvish sentences in his published novels, there exists a large body of notes describing the various Elvish languages in some detail which has been published chiefly in special-interest journals in recent years. But Tolkien did not only invent Quenya, Sindarin, Telerin and other Elvish, Dwarvish and Mannish languages – he invented a whole history to explain how all these languages arose from common roots, changed over time according to different rules giving the languages their individual flavours and later acquired loan-words.

How does one create a language?

To some degree, all these invented languages are influenced by real languages.
This has its origin in Tolkien’s ideas of aesthetics – he deliberately wanted to create, for example, a Welsh-themed language (which then became Sindarin), a Finnish-Latin themed language (Quenya) and experimented with a Hebrew-flavoured language (Adûnaic). But the similarity is more in grammar and phonetics than in the actual borrowing of words, and his languages are genuine inventions, rather than copies of existing languages.

A history in two-dimensional time

How many Elvish laguages are there all together? That’s difficult to say, because unlike real languages, Tolkien’s Elvish has a history in real and imaginary time.

In real time, we can trace how Tolkien’s ideas evolved from the earliest manuscripts around 1916 to his works more than 50 years later and can observe for example the Welsh-themed Elvish language change from Goldogrin (Gnomish) to Noldorin and finally Sindarin.

At the same time, along with Middle-Earth, the languages all have a history – there is an Old Sindarin that is the ancestor in imaginary time of the Sindarin used in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ just as Goldogrin is an ancestor in real time.

Can one speak Elvish?

No one was ever fluent in Elvish to the degree that he could hold a longer conversation in Elvish – not even Tolkien was a fluent speaker! Tolkien’s interest was the aesthetics of language creation and the use of them in his stories – thus, Elvish primarily exists as a written language.

The early languages are fairly well developed – Goldogrin has about 7000 words and we know a lot of its grammar for instance.

Of the languages used in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, Quenya with about 2000 words and Sindarin with perhaps 1200 words are the most developed and can be used to translate poetry or even prose texts, while Telerin with less than 300 known words is already marginally usable only. Some other forms of Elvish are known mostly on a theoretical level – for instance, of Avarin only six words are attested.

Scholars and inventors – the modern Elvish community

Especially sparked by the Elvish texts used in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies, there is a community of Elvish enthusiasts around the world which keeps the languages alive and in use. Somewhat unfortunately, the community is divided into people interested in a scholarly analysis of Tolkien’s manuscripts and others interested in making Elvish usable by inventing new words if needed, with very little overlap between the groups.

A small group of scholars (the so-called editorial team) is directly tasked by Christopher Tolkien to publish the remaining manuscripts over time.

Based on these commented and referenced publications in the journals Vinyar Tengwar and Parma Eldalamberon, a larger group of people works on a detailed understanding of Tolkien’s ideas and their change over time. These people write summaries and overview articles (and even language courses), which are then used by Middle-Earth enthusiasts, life roleplaying gamers or poets to learn and use the Elvish languages.

The people desiring to make Elvish a usable language contend that languages are living, changing things, not to be displayed as unchanging entities in a museum.

On the other hand, the proponents of the scholarly approach reply that things are not so simple – first, the usual rules of language change do not apply when the (fictional) native speakers are immortal. Second, all attempts to construct unified Elvish grammar or vocabulary in the past have been discovered to be characterized by an artificial regularity.
For Tolkien, the story is always linked with the languages, and Elvish reflects this essential link in almost every bit of vocabulary – a fact which possibly makes it quite unique among languages, but makes it very hard to extend and use without destroying its essential ‘Elvish-ness’.

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Esperanto: a language by choice !

Posted by Yevgeniya Amis on June 29, 2011

Yevgeniya (Ĵenja) Amis was born in Kiev, lived 5 years in Atlanta, and currently resides in Montreal. She was an editor of Kontakto, a socio-cultural Esperanto magazine read in over 90 countries, and is now actively involved in the work of the Esperantic Studies Foundation:

Yevgeniya Amis

When people learn that Esperanto is my family language, they very often ask why Esperanto rather than my first language (Russian), or that of my husband (English)? For me, as well as most other Esperanto speakers throughout the world, Esperanto is a language by choice, a language we decided to learn, and for some of us it happened to become a family language.

Why do people learn Esperanto ?

Every individual is unique and has their own reasons to learn Esperanto: some are idealists, and some tend to be more pragmatic, some enjoy the communication side, the others like to read original and translated literature in Esperanto.

I personally learned Esperanto out of linguistic curiosity, without knowing much of its cultural side. I then became really involved and inspired by the ideals of Esperanto after I participated in my first international seminar organized by the World Esperanto Youth Organization in Bulgaria about 10 years ago. There were about 30 people from a dozen countries. We all spoke Esperanto, and to my great joy, I was able to understand everything after only a few months of (not even intensive!) study.

Then there were other Esperanto seminars and more than five years working as an editor for an Esperanto magazine, which was a unique experience as it allowed me to collect articles from people all over the world and to give a unique perspective on social, political and cultural issues.

A different way to travel the world

Some Esperantists that I know decided to learn the language in order to travel. Actually, some of them even learned it before undertaking a world tour!

For example, I recently met Amanda Higley, a young American who participated in a 3-week intensive course, and right after that took off for Europe : she managed to visit over a dozen countries thanks to the Esperanto hosting/lodging service Pasporta Servo (

Also, a few years ago, during the world Esperanto congress in Poland, I met Bruno and Maryvonne Robineau, a French couple and authors of the book “Eight years around the world”: during their trip, they used Esperanto extensively and were able to experience cultures as they wouldn’t have, had they chosen a more conventional way to travel. They participated in everyday life in different parts of the world, doing all kinds of work, from planting rice in Korea to teaching Esperanto in China.

Esperanto Hotel in Fulda - Photo : "fahrradfritze" (cc)

The dream of a world without language discrimination
For many Esperantists today, idealism continues to be the number one reason for learning the International Language. They believe that a world without language discrimination, where communication on a global scale is accessible to rich and poor alike, is possible.

Obviously, speakers of dominant languages, such as English, have enormous advantages compared to those who have to learn them. International organizations do nothing to change this situation or, rather, do everything to keep status quo. To give just one example, an international organization such as the UN has almost 200 member countries but only six official languages! And when it comes to working languages, there is just English and French…

That is why we believe that Esperanto contributes to eliminating language discrimination.

As any other society, we are not perfect, but we have a lot of things to be proud of: during the nearly 125 years history of the International Language, the Esperanto community has created a culture of its own, with its own traditions, music, literature, magazines, radios, Wikipedia with almost 150,000 articles, countless websites, and both national and international organizations (and even, believe it or not, bureaucracy!).

To study Esperanto online for free, see the multi-lingual Esperanto learning portal that recently celebrated 100,000 registered users.

Learn more about Esperanto

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