Pronunciation of words in real and invented languages can be of various kinds: in some tongues words are pronounced in the same way they are spelt, but in others there are entire systems with reading rules of different degrees of complexity.  In some cases the way a word is spelt versus the way it is pronounced can be divided by a yawning gap. Some languages have special marks above or below letters to indicate certain peculiarities in their pronunciation. J. R. R. Tolkien’s invented languages Quenya and Sindarin are no exceptions.

The marks that can be seen to adorn some letters are called the diacritics. This term comes from the Greek word diakritikos, from diakrinein — ‘to distinguish’, from dia– — ‘through’ and krinein — ‘to separate’ [1]. Distinguishing is exactly the job these tiny markings perform: they help you tell the difference in pronunciation between marked and unmarked letters. In many cases not only the difference in pronunciation is involved, but also the difference in meaning. For example, in German the word schon means ‘already’, but add two dots above the o and you will get schön which means ‘beautiful’.

Some modern languages like French, German, Welsh, Finnish or Czech use a lot of diacritics of different kind. Most diacritical marks appear above vowels, but there are some that accompany consonants. I shall name a few of them for the purposes of the present reflection: the acute accent (é), the grave accent (è), the circumflex accent (ê), the macron (ē), the diaeresis (ë) for the vowels and the tilde (ñ), the cedilla (ç), the hachek (č) for the consonants.

Modern English does not make great use of the diacritics. They can appear in foreign words to show that they were borrowed from another language where diacritics are common. For example, such words or phrases like bête noire or crêpe which did not become anglicized must retain their diacritics. If the danger of ambiguity arises, like in resume and résumé, the diacritics are essential to avoid this equivocacy. Moreover, certain marks ought to be used to show that a vowel sound must be pronounced in those positions when normally it is either silent, or forms part of a diphthong (agéd, learnéd; Zoë, Chloë).

Tolkien was very particular about the usage of the diacritics. While he was editing Geoffrey Chaucer’s texts for Selections from Chaucer’s Poetry and Prose (also known as Clarendon Chaucer), he was very meticulous about the correct placement of these marks to try and show Chaucer’s authentic pronunciation in the way that the Professor believed was accurate. By doing so Tolkien also showed the correct metre in verse pieces and pointed out some words which, at that time, were new to English and kept their French pronunciation [2].

A lot of hard work was put by Tolkien into editing Chaucer’s texts and making them look (and, thus, sound) as authentic as possible. That kind of work was much to his taste: a great deal of Tolkien’s attention and time went into studying the smallest details in order to produce the final result which was as accurate as possible. As a professional and gifted philologist, Tolkien understood the importance of even the tiniest marks above letters — the marks which could make a big difference in rendering the meaning, metre and pronunciation. He “studied [Henry] Sweet’s History of English Sounds as an undergraduate and delivered a college talk on ‘Visible Speech’ in which he argued that writing should indicate exactly how to articulate sounds” (Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer, p, 84).

The same level of dedication and attention to detail was shown when the Professor was creating Quenya and Sindarin. The phonologies of both languages are carefully explained in Tolkien’s writings, including the glimpses into their evolution in the 12-volume History of Middle-earth. When spelt with Roman letters, Quenya and Sindarin use various diacritics to show the peculiarities of certain pronunciations, which also indicates that the words are foreign to the language of the text — English.

Quenya uses the acute accent and diaeresis. The acute accent denotes that the vowel marked with it is longer than the one without it. It can be seen in such words as Ilúvatar, Urulóki, lómë (dusk), yávë (fruit), Cuiviénen. This difference in spelling shows the difference in pronunciation, and, in Tolkien’s own words, such vowels as the long é and ó in Quenya sounded “tenser and ‘closer’ than the short vowels” (Return of the King, p. 490) when they were pronounced by the Eldar. The use of the diaeresis is vital for correct pronunciation, too, as this mark indicates that the letter must be pronounced in those positions where in English it is normally either silent or forms a diphthong. The final e is never silent in Quenya and the diaeresis shows it: Finwë, Manwë, Alqualondë, Ingwë, telpë (silver). The diphthongs in Quenya are ui, oi, ai and iu, eu, au. They should be pronounced in one syllable. Other pairs of vowels must be pronounced as two syllables, which is indicated by the diaeresis: Fëanáro, Eä, Eärendil, Eressëa, Eärrámë.

Sindarin shows its long vowels with the acute accent and the circumflex. However, there are some differences in the length implied: the vowels marked with the circumflex usually appear in stressed monosyllables and are especially prolonged in comparison to the ones with the acute accent, so the û in Barad-dûr is longer than the ú in Dúnadan. Other examples include Cúthalion, Ephel Dúath, Gwathló, Círdan, iâth (fence), rhûn (east), rûth (anger), Udûn, lhûn. The diphthongs of Sindarin are ae, ai, ei, oe, ui and au.

These features of pronunciation reflected in the spelling of Quenya and Sindarin words in the Roman script form a unique sonic pattern of each language, add up to their individual characters and personalities and present the phonaesthetics of each language in great diversity and beauty.

A knowledgeable philologist who understood languages, both real and invented, very well, Tolkien created his own Quenya and Sindarin as very believable tongues functioning in the same way as any real-world language does.  He used diacritical marks in some of his invented tongues to a great extent not only for adornment or a foreign (compared to English) look, but also for practical reasons to guide those reading his books in English, so their correct and proper usage seems very important to me. In the present reflection I have looked only at a very small portion of spellings with the diacritics in Quenya and Sindarin without considering the evolution of these tongues or other languages of Arda in which more marks were used. Language history is a topic for another reflection.


Further reading:

A Curious Case of Interdental Consonants



[1] Oxford English Dictionary

[2] Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer, p. 82

Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
  3. Oxford English Dictionary
  4. John M. Bowers – Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer; Oxford University Press; 2019.
  5. R. L. Task – The Penguin Guide to Punctuation; Penguin Books; 1997.

5 thoughts on “Dots and curls: on the diacritics in Quenya and Sindarin.

  1. Diacritical marks are démodé. I think of them as an affectation of the élite, devoid of élan, but perhaps I am naïve. If a preëminent blogger like yourself insists they are worthy of reëvaluation, I shall attempt to coöperate.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.