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Reviewed by:
  • Gateway to Sindarin
  • Sandra Ballif Straubhaar
Gateway to Sindarin, by David Salo . Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2004. xvi, 438 pp. $49.95 (hardcover) ISBN 0874808006.

This ambitious and helpful book pits itself against numerous predetermined and fundamental disadvantages. Through no fault of its own, the book is handicapped in that it attempts to generate a clear snapshot of an elusive entity that is, in more than one way, a moving target. The author's choice of the word "Gateway" [Sindarin Annon] for the title, and for the cover graphic, shows a keen awareness of the necessary limitations on the project: it must constitute a beginning only.

First, it can be convincingly argued that, considering the development of Tolkien's languages throughout Tolkien's own life, there is not, was not, nor ever has there been, such a fixed entity as what Salo, in this book, calls Classical Sindarin, or what general readers of Lord of the Rings might call Third-Age Sindarin—namely, the Sindarin of the story which many readers perceive as the central one of Tolkien's legendarium. Sindarin (or Gnomish, or Noldorin) maintained a protean elusiveness both (a) throughout its author's life (as he tinkered, or Niggled if you will, with it), as well as (b) within the secondary, imagined world of Middle-earth, where it is presumed to have developed through time after the manner of languages in our primary world – although unlike, say, Tolkien's Quenya or historical Latin, both of which are relatively easier to document and study, because of fixed preservation within ritual contexts, as well as survival in more numerous texts. (See page 14 of Salo's book for a boldly conceived chart guessing at the mutual development, through time, of the various branches on the Eldarin-language family tree, including Quenya and various postulated incarnations of Sindarin, set within the frame of Tolkien's narrative.) Nonetheless, it has not been the more-easily-documented Quenya that many linguistically-minded Tolkien enthusiasts (this reviewer included) have been instinctively, even emotionally, drawn to find out more about through the decades; instead, it has been specifically Third-Age Sindarin—as spoken, say, in Denethor's Minas Tirith, or in Elrond's Rivendell; in other words, David Salo's "Classical Sindarin"—which has proven to be the elusive object of desire.

Presumably because of this unique appeal, Sindarin was one language that Iron Crown Enterprises, representing the designers of paper-based RPG scenarios under the MERP rubric (Middle-earth Role Playing, 1980s-1990s), specifically wanted available for use in the game. Accordingly, additional !Sindarin.1 phrases were generated for this purpose, using extrapolated vocabulary and paradigms beyond those already extant.2 More recently, and exponentially more noticeably in the world at large, Peter Jackson's film production company expressed a need in the late nineties for "Elvish" (and other) texts for its Lord of the Rings movie [End Page 166] scripts, resulting in the creation of a similarly tentative corpus of text for film dialogue. These texts had to be produced against a deadline, and therefore had to include invented or extrapolated elements where there were lacunae in what was currently known. Whether one calls the "language" thus generated (negatively) MovieElvish or (neutrally) Neo-Sindarin betrays one's attitude toward such texts.3 David Salo, an academically-trained Indo-European linguist and the author of the book at hand, was, as this reviewer understands, a chief consultant on both of these necessarily tentative projects.

The second major difficulty, then, with Salo's "snapshot" approach as found in the Gateway book lies in the necessary effects of deadlines like these, however routine as such time parameters might be in the development of commercial cultural products. Tolkien-related projects with planned dates of issue, such as RPG instruction and scenario manuals; feature films; commentary books; or any other commercial entertainment product, are by their very nature incompatible with the non-deadline-based, authorized release of Tolkien's posthumous language papers by a team of scholars authorized by the Tolkien Estate in Vinyar Tengwar and related venues, which release is still in process and far from finished at this present time...


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