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Reviewed by:
  • The Alphabet of Rúmil & Early Noldorin Fragments, and: Early Qenya & Valmaric
  • John Garth
The Alphabet of Rúmil & Early Noldorin Fragments, by J. R. R. Tolkien ; including The Alphabet of Rúmil, edited by Arden R. Smith ; and Early Noldorin Fragments, edited by Christopher Gilson, Bill Welden, Carl F. Hostetter and Patrick Wynne . Cupertino, CA: Parma Eldalamberon, 2001. 166 pp. $25.00 (oversize paperback) [no ISBN]. Parma Eldalamberon XIII.
Early Qenya & Valmaric, by J. R. R. Tolkien ; including Early Qenya Fragments, edited by Patrick Wynne and Christopher Gilson ; Early Qenya Grammar, edited by Carl F. Hostetter and Bill Welden ; and The Valmaric Script, edited by Arden R. Smith . Cupertino, CA: Parma Eldalamberon, 2003. 136 pp. $25.00 (oversize paperback) [no ISBN]. Parma Eldalamberon XIV.

For Tolkien, the word came before the world. Yet his claim that he created Middle-earth to house his invented languages has served mainly to raise skeptical eyebrows. The on-going publication of his writings on the languages and scripts of his sub-created world must remedy this. Parma Eldalamberon, originally a linguistic fanzine, has become the chief vehicle for this more-or-less chronological project (allied to the smaller and more frequent Vinyar Tengwar, edited by Carl F. Hostetter, which tends to carry substantial items of linguistic interest from later in Tolkien's life). This material was deemed too complex for inclusion in Christopher Tolkien's History of Middle-earth.

The first two installments of this project presented vocabularies of the two principal interrelated languages as Tolkien originally conceived them: a Gnomish lexicon begun by 1917, and its Qenya counterpart begun in 1915 (Tolkien 1995 and 1998). From these he developed the mythos of the Lost Tales; the stories in turn found their reflection in the lexicons. In the two issues under consideration here, we see how Tolkien developed these languages during the 1920s, while he was turning the original "Book of Lost Tales" into the long "Lays of Beleriand" and the synoptic "Silmarillion."

The work Tolkien produced on each language was dictated by the different ways in which he refined them during these years. Tolkien's Qenya papers reflect his desire to develop a large, elegant system of inflections after the manner of Finnish, the original inspiration for the language. His new grammars complement his earlier Qenya lexicon, and were not replaced until the 1930s. However, in Gnomish or Noldorin (the language he later called Sindarin), Tolkien effected a phonological revolution. He made the consonantal system susceptible to lenition, the "softening" or [End Page 249] voicing of sounds; and the vowel system susceptible to umlaut, that is, mutation under the influence of vowels in ensuing syllables (that often later disappeared, as in amon "hill," pl. emyn). It meant that much of the vocabulary he had laid down in the Gnomish lexicon required updating.

The effect of such "niggling," as Tolkien characterized it, was much the same in his linguistic creations as it was in his fiction or poetry. None of the items in these journals can be considered finished. Grammars begin confidently with phonology but stop abruptly somewhere en route to syntax; it is fortunate indeed that the early Qenya grammar in manuscript reaches the conjugation of verbs (XIV 56-9). Vocabularies begin as updated collations of earlier vocabularies, but peter out as the alphabet proceeds. To compound the problem, some new phonological innovation would transfix Tolkien part-way through, making redundant many of the forms he had just recorded and prompting him to start afresh with a new word-list: thus we see the arrival of the historical sound-change that yielded p from kw, a phenomenon borrowed from Welsh that swept aside, among others, cweth "word" in favor of peth (XIII 152). Or Tolkien would begin recording cognate words from a new-coined tongue: Old Noldorin and Ilkorin emerge in this way.

The effect is less like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis than a (rather beautiful) snake shedding its skin over and over again. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien's triumph was to give the illusion of a complete world that, even in a thousand pages, we barely glimpse. On one hand we now see what...