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Quenya Phonology: Comparative Tables, Outline of Phonetic Development, Outline of Phonology (review)

From: Tolkien Studies
Volume 8, 2011
pp. 107-114 | 10.1353/tks.2011.0013

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Tolkien first set out the phonology or sound laws governing his eldest Elvish language in 1915, in “The Sounds of Qenya” (Parma Eldalamberon XII 3–28); and during a second phase of work on the subject in Leeds in the early 1920s he produced another “Qenya Phonology” (Parma Eldalamberon XIV 60–70). The current Parma Eldalamberon covers two further phases of work on the topic: from 1937, a set of “Comparative Tables” and an “Outline of Phonetic Development”; and from about 1951, a revision and expansion of the latter, titled “Outline of Phonology.” In glorious technicality, these show Tolkien’s ideas on the sound laws of Quenya just before and just after the composition of The Lord of the Rings: at the point when he set aside his work on the Elder Days and at the point when he resumed it. There is a hint that in 1937, just as he hoped that the “Silmarillion” might be published in the wake of The Hobbit, Tolkien imagined that his Quenya phonology might also see the light of day as part of a full historical grammar of the Elvish tongues. Although that did not happen, he seems—despite his tendency to niggle with his creation—to have remained largely satisfied by the 1951 phonology for the rest of his life.

The “Comparative Tables” are dense charts showing the outcomes, in a dozen languages, of each of the range of permissible sounds or sound-combinations in Primitive Quendian, the original Elvish language derived (at this stage in Tolkien’s conceptions) from Valarin. The charts are accompanied by a cursory survey of some general trends in the individual languages, with a few comments on tengwar orthography and some broadbrush pointers towards chronology (“probably in the first century of the Sun”). Amid all the complexities and corrections that are to be expected in an edition of Tolkien’s unpublished writings on Eldarin, there is one note here that illuminates his creative processes briefly and brightly. This “torn half-slip of paper” compares each tongue of Beleriand (as imagined in c. 1937) with a real-world language. Most Tolkien readers with the remotest interest in Elvish know that Sindarin is inspired by Welsh and Quenya by Finnish. Here (22) we find Sindarin’s predecessor Noldorin compared to Welsh, but also Telerin compared to Latin, Danian to Germanic, Ossiriandic to Old English, and East Danian to Old Norse. The three languages imagined for the Avari are likened to Irish, Lithuanian and (curiously) Finnish again. Taliska, the Mannish language derived here from Elvish in Beleriand, is likened to Gothic—a source of creative inspiration for Tolkien since his schooldays, when he “reconstructed” words that might have existed in this East Germanic language but have not survived in the recorded corpus. It will be interesting to see how Taliska, of which more material remains to be published, reifies Tolkien’s love of Gothic. In the current publication, however, the evidence is typically tantalizing. Armed with the “Comparative Tables” and some examples of Primitive Quendian, you could generate plausible words in Taliska or any of the other tabulated languages. Tolkien perhaps used these tables to generate some of the vocabulary of the minor languages in the contemporary Etymologies (Lost Road 341–400, Vinyar Tengwar nos. 45 and 46), which conform to the fully revised sound-change charts.

Tolkien, as the ever-efficient C.S. Lewis observed, worked “like a coral insect” (Lewis 1579): painstakingly constructing vast complexes of information to form the foundation and background of his legendarium. It appears that he envisaged giving each of these many languages the depth of treatment that he tried to give Quenya: one set of pages is marked, “To be revised when the individual langs. are done.” In practice he could not “do” even Quenya fully to his satisfaction, and continued to work away at it for his entire life.

Yet Tolkien could also make swift and large-scale alterations, and while working on the “Comparative Tables,” he reassigned entire languages to different peoples. With remarkable acuity, Christopher Gilson notes that one string of reassignments may have arisen from a desire to make the invented languages conform to the styles of real ones...



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