J. R. R. Tolkien was a gifted philologist: not only did he know his subject exceedingly well, but he also had an innate ability to understand and perceive tongues. Language matters are tightly interwoven into Tolkien’s tales, and they, as the Professor himself stated, were “fundamentally linguistic in inspiration” (Letters, № 165). Thus, it is only natural that Arda had its own talented linguists, and they were the Elves.
The Elves were the first to awaken in Middle-earth:
Long they dwelt in their first home by the water under stars, and they walked the Earth in wonder; and they began to make speech and to give names to all things that they perceived. Themselves they named the Quendi, signifying those that speak with voices; for as yet they had met no other living things that spoke or sang.
(Silmarillion, p. 45)
Thus from the very beginning the Elves closely identified themselves with words. As time went on, their original language changed, branched out and spread together with its speakers until it evolved into a whole system of languages, with various groups of the Firstborn having their own distinct tongues. Two most widely spoken languages of the Elves were Quenya and Sindarin. Quenya was spoken by the Elves dwelling in Aman (the Noldor and the Vanyar, with the exception of the Teleri), while Sindarin was generally used by the Elves of Middle-earth. The present reflection is mostly concerned with Quenya and its Noldorin speakers.
The Elves had a natural grasp of their language, its system and structure. This ability was especially increased through instruction in those who followed Oromë to Aman and became known as the Eldar. They spoke Quenya, also known as the High-Elven speech. In Aman the original language underwent certain changes, “and its altering had for the most part come in the making of new words (for things old and new) and in the softening and harmonizing of the sounds and patterns of the Quendian tongue to forms that seemed to the Noldor more beautiful” (War of the Jewels, p. 20). Being more than other Elves concerned with and gifted in linguistic matters, the Noldor always sought to improve their beloved language:
They were changeful in speech, for they had great love of words, and sought ever to find names more fit for all things that they knew or imagined.
(Silmarillion, p. 59-60)
As a spoken language, Quenya never stood still, and the reasons for any alterations stemmed from the changefulness of the world and, thus, the Elves themselves. While this process was very slow in Aman, it still took place, and so the Elves kept on modifying their language in accordance with their evolving tastes. Any innovations which occurred in the language were universal and never partial. That ability came from the Elves’ natural grasp of their language and their being able to see it as a whole. One of the most famous cases of a change, adopted by many but not by all of the Eldar, was the one from sound [þ] to [s]. It also became a matter of disagreement and controversy among the Elves of Valinor.
The Elves had considerable lore concerning their language, whether stored in written forms, or in the Elves’ minds. So the loremasters were aware of the changes that had been happening in Quenya over the long course of its existence and of the past forms that had fallen out of general use. The Elves did not apply any old forms once they ceased to be common in speech but only remembered them in lore. According to Pengoloð, spoken Quenya “is to our [Eldar’s] thought as the body to our spirit, growing and changing together in all the days of our being” (Peoples of Middle-earth, p. 399), and that is a poetic as well as an accurate description of what the language was to the Eldar.
When it came to other tongues, the Elves showed a similar gift in learning them. They mastered languages quickly and were slow to forget them. However, they mostly remembered those languages in their book forms and in the way they were initially learnt. The Elves did not change anything about their acquired tongues: changefulness was only characteristic of Quenya as it was spoken. The only exception to this was Sindarin.
When the Noldor returned to Middle-earth from Aman, they brought Quenya with them. However, Sindarin was spoken in Beleriand, and the Noldor had no difficulty learning it. The Sindar, on the other hand, found mastering Quenya more challenging. Thus, the Noldor started using Sindarin on a daily basis, so it is only natural that they might have introduced certain alterations as the years passed. The Noldor also changed their names to fit the style of Sindarin because they considered it bad taste to address someone in the fashion that was alien to the universally spoken language. Those alterations were artificial, with the main focus being on sound similarity, so the initial meanings of the names in Quenya were not always retained. However, Quenya was doomed to be only the language of lore in Middle-earth: as soon as King Thingol learnt about the Kinslaying at Alqualondë, he banned the High-Elven language from being openly uttered and learnt.
The Elves also learnt Common Speech which had become the main language spoken by most peoples in Middle-earth by the Third Age. For those who still retained their own tongues Common Speech was a second language, and it concerned the Elves, too. They used an older and more gracious form of Common Speech, more antique even than that of Gondor. That was due to their taste: while the Elves could switch between different styles and knew how to apply them, the Fair folk still opted for the mode more similar to their own tongue.
Still, even for such gifted linguists as the Eldar there were some languages that presented certain difficulties. Khuzdul, the speech of the Dwarves, was one of such tongues, “…which to their [the Elves’] ears was cumbrous and unlovely; and few ever of the Eldar have achieved the mastery of it” (Silmarillion, p. 100). Generally, the Dwarves were secretive about their tongue and reluctant to teach it to outsiders, but they were willing to learn the speech of the Elves and did so rather quickly and well.
Another such language was Valarin, the language of the Valar in Aman. For the Eldar it was difficult, not very pleasant to the ears and full of sounds they found hard to pronounce. Besides, the Valar mastered Quenya rather quickly and used it in daily converse with the Eldar and even among themselves, so speaking Valarin was not really necessary for the Elves to converse with them. It was believed that the only Noldo who had a good mastery of Valarin was Fëanor, but he was unwilling to share his knowledge because of his disagreement with the Valar. The Powers, in their turn, loved Quenya and always encouraged the Eldar to create their own words for it rather than borrow from Valarin. Still, a few words were adopted into Quenya from the language of the Valar, but they were adapted to reflect the style of the High-Elven tongue.
With the Elves having a very keen sense of beauty and being sensitive to linguistic matters, it seems that some of the reasons for this reluctance or inability to learn Khuzdul or Valarin stemmed from purely aesthetic motives: the Elves did not like the sound of these languages, and for them it presented a certain problem. Quenya, on the other hand, reflected the nature of the Eldar. Being beautiful, graceful, with its melodious sound and intricate structure, the language fitted its speakers perfectly, agreed with the Elvish aesthetics and their love of everything exquisite and delicate.
The Elves were the chief linguists of Middle-earth. They had an innate linguistic ability that made them very sensitive to language, very aware of the words they used and styles they applied. Language was something they really loved and delighted in, perceived on an intuitive level and could use with great mastery,”for to the Eldar the making of speech is the oldest of the arts and the most beloved” (Peoples of Middle-earth, p. 398).
This reflection marks the fourth birthday of my blog. It has been a fantastic journey so far, and I am incredibly grateful to all those amazing people who visit Middle-earth Reflections, read the essays and leave their feedback, share the website or are yet to discover it. Your support means the world to me and seeing that the blog is of interest to you is very rewarding. Thank you all so much, from the bottom of my heart!
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
- H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).
- J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – The War of the Jewels; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2002.
- J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – The Peoples of Middle-earth; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
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