- Tolkienian Linguistics:The First Fifty Years
First Stage—Readers and Correspondents
Tolkienian linguistics, defined broadly as the study of the languages invented by J.R.R. Tolkien, began no doubt almost immediately upon publication of The Fellowship of the Ring in July, 1954, at the moment that the first reader to notice the rows of tengwar (Quenya 'letters') and cirth (Sindarin 'runes') that border the title page wondered, "what does that say?" Which is indeed the way that most did and (at least until recently) still do enter into Tolkienian linguistics.1 And thus it is, or at any rate used to be, Tolkien himself who first introduces the reader to the linguistics of Middle-earth, for the diligent or curious reader will sooner or later discover Appendix E of The Lord of the Rings, with its two prominent charts of the tengwar and cirth, together with Tolkien's own explanations of the nature and values of these writing systems, with the aid of which a linguistically-minded reader can soon decipher those enigmatic characters.
It is noteworthy that Tolkien does not seek to make this decipherment too easy: he does not, for instance, choose simply to tell the reader what those border inscriptions say; nor in the case of the tengwar does he even provide a simple glyph-to-roman-value chart as he does for the cirth. This in part is due to the use of the tengwar in the book not only for the English on the title-page, but also for the Black-speech inscription on the One Ring and the Sindarin inscription on the West-gate of Moria, both of which are reproduced in the book, and in both of which the tengwar are adapted to different systems of values; so that, had Tolkien provided a chart of roman values for the tengwar as they are applied to English on the title-page, it would have confused the reader attempting to apply the same values to the two inscriptions given in the text.2 It is however mostly due to the inherently and deliberately non-alphabetic nature of the tengwar, the arrangement and shapes of which were devised (by Tolkien, and within the fiction as by Fëanor) to exhibit a systematic correspondence with the chief physical points (labial, dental, etc.) and modes (voiceless, voiced, etc.) of articulation, and the values of which were not fixed by their creator (real or fictive), but were determined for each language to which they were applied by the phonetic inventory of the language itself. It was this nature that Tolkien was chiefly concerned to convey in his notes accompanying the chart of the tengwar, and so it is that deciphering the tengwar on the title-page requires first mastering some basic concepts [End Page 1] of phonetics and articulation. Which is to say, that it requires familiarity with and application of some linguistic knowledge, and provides what will often be the first hint to the reader that there is something deeper and wider beyond the glimpses of unknown tongues that Tolkien provides in The Lord of the Rings.
Throughout the story itself the reader encounters numerous elements from and examples of Tolkien's invented languages. By far the greatest such element is the extensive Elvish nomenclature, drawn chiefly from Sindarin, but with a smaller presence of names in Quenya, these two being the chief Elvish languages and by far the most fully developed of Tolkien's inventions. A smaller but to the linguistically-minded reader perhaps more readily compelling element is the occurrence of actual Elvish dialogue, chiefly in the form of poems, songs, spells, and formal greetings and utterances in both Quenya and Sindarin: for example, and earliest, Frodo's Quenya greeting of Gildor and his company in Woody-end; the Sindarin hymn to Elbereth that Frodo hears on the eve of the Council of Elrond in Rivendell; the Sindarin inscription on the West-gate of Moria and Gandalf's spell of opening in that language; Galadriel's Quenya lament and farewell to Frodo at the Fellowship's departure from Lórien; Sam's Sindarin invocation of Elbereth at Cirith Ungol; the Quenya...