Languages are prone to changes. Influenced by many factors, they never stay the same but always evolve at all levels. J. R. R. Tolkien was well-known for creating his own languages which became more than just different words in his works. His invented languages actually worked within Arda and turned into one of the most important elements of the narrative.
A recent article in The Telegraph on the possible disappearance of /th/ sound from English made me think of a similar change that occured in Quenya at a rather early stage of the language development. Presumably after the Noldor’s dwellings were separated from those of the Vanyar’s there happened a shift in pronunciation: in the Quenya spoken by the Noldor the sound /þ/ (which is similar to /th/ in English) was substituted with /s/. The difference between /þ/ and /s/ was distinct in both – written and spoken Quenya and thus the change affected written texts and colloquial speech. While the two languages cannot be compared and English cannot (and mustn’t) be used to explain Quenya, it struck me that it was an interdental sound that becomes affected in both.
So why was it /þ/, that the Noldor decided to drop from their speech? In «The Shibboleth of Fëanor» Tolkien states that the shift was deliberately carried out by them with the majority of the Noldor supporting the novelty:
The change was a general one, based primarily on phonetic «taste» and theory, but it had not yet become universal.
(Peoples of Middle-earth, p. 332)
However, there were those who disapproved of the substitution. First of all, loremasters claimed that it might do great harm to the language and cause confusion in stems and their derivatives. And then there was Fëanor. Being the chief linguist of the time, he was displeased with the change which in a way simplified the language. Fëanor «insisted that þ was the true pronunciation for those who cared for or fully understood their language» (ibid., p. 333). Apart from the matters of linguistic taste and desire to preserve the original Quenya, he had personal reasons too. Fëanor’s mother Miriel was a Noldorin Elf who died of her own will when he was very young. She, however, used /þ/ in her speech and Fëanor, who loved his mother dearly, wished to keep the memory of her in the way Quenya was spoken. Using this sound became for him a matter of respect for his mother on his and other Elves’ behalves. Thus, even when most Noldor had switched to /s/, Fëanor and his sons continued to use /þ/. This sound was also preserved by the Vanyar and the Teleri* in their speech and became widespread in Sindarin.
It’s hard to say why the majority of the Noldor decided in favour of the change, and the reasons are speculative. Being an interdental consonant, /þ/ adds a special charm to pronunciation, and the disappearance of such a distinct sound would instantly be marked by those listening to the Noldor speaking and their speech would be unmistakably recognised as the Noldorin Quenya by pronunciation alone. It might have been the Noldor’s desire to separate themselves from the Vanyar linguistically as well as territorially, or just an attempt to create their own variation of Quenya as both – the Vanyar and the Teleri had their own ways of speaking at that time. Whichever reason it was, it seems that by carrying out the shift, the Noldor aimed for linguistic distinction.
Reasons aside, the change taking place was significant in itself. By introducing this sound shift, Tolkien meant much more than just different pronunciation for certain Quenya words by some of the Elves. As languages mirror cultures and mindsets of those speaking them, they’re responsive to any changes happening within a people, so the elimination of /þ/ seems to stem from the depths of the Noldor’s hearts. On separating their dwellings from the Vanyar’s the Noldor must have felt a need for this change to mark them as a linguistically separate people, and erasing a distinct sound from their variation of Quenya could definitely make their speech stand out.
While the change from /þ/ to /s/ in the Noldorin Quenya became a linguistic phenomenon driven by the will of the Elves, the overall implication seemed more than a merely linguistic one: the way of pronouncing the words with the sounds in question also became a matter of attitude. Indis switched to the unusual for her /s/ sound on marrying Finwë because she wished to show respect to the people of her husband and speak the way they did. Fëanor kept /þ/ in his speech as a matter of personal importance and demanded the same from his sons, taking the usage of /s/ in his household as an insult and lack of respect. Even Galadriel adapted to /s/ (despite her father Finarfin’s sticking to /þ/ out of love for the Vanyar and the Teleri) in order to oppose Fëanor and not to speak the way he did thus highlighting her mistrust and dislike of him. The language, therefore, becomes a powerful tool in showing one’s attitude – a mission statement and a means of support, offence, respect or lack of such linked with such a seemingly small matter as opting for a single sound.
By introducing this shift, Tolkien showed the language alive and able to develop, just like real-world languages are. There’s always a factor that forces languages to change. The social factor is most often the key one in such developments. As a talented philologist, Tolkien knew it perfectly well and demonstrated that any language is a living being and it lives and evolves together with the people who speak it, be it in a real or a sub-created world. This is yet another stroke to how believable and well-thought Tolkien’s world is, isn’t it?
Changes inevitably happen in a language. But whether a change is a good thing or bad one, it’s hard to tell. Any language novelty is a product of their time or a necessity for speakers to introduce these changes. Being a living organism, a language never stands still, but evolves all the time and becomes a mirror of the culture and those people who speak it at a certain period in time. Tolkien showed that Quenya worked as any language does and is also prone to changes that reflect ever-evolving cultures, attitudes and preferences of those speaking it.
*The Vanyar spoke virtually the same language as the Noldor did and the Teleri spoke a slightly different, but still an intelligible to the Noldor language.
- J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – The Peoples of Middle-earth; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
Featured image – Creative Common Licence found at Pixabay.