Gandalf in the Library of Minas Tirith
Copyright ©1990 Patrick Wynne
Used with permission
E.L.F. Home > Tolkienian Linguistics FAQ
The Tolkienian Linguistics FAQ
and Frequently Needed Answers
A compendium of answers to questions and issues concerning the study of the invented art-languages of J.R.R. Tolkien.
The purpose of this FAQ is to provide sorely needed answers, both to questions frequently asked and to questions that ought to be far more frequently asked and considered, concerning the study of the invented art-languages of J.R.R. Tolkien. In particular, this FAQ is intended to address facts concerning the nature of Tolkien's languages that are usually ignored and/or widely misunderstood by enthusiasts, due to the misrepresentation of same by a few influential, self-proclaimed "experts". Inconvenient though these facts may be for some, they are nonetheless inescapably true, and no scholar must ever fear, ignore, or misrepresent the truth.
Is it possible to speak Quenya and Sindarin?
No. The vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of Tolkien's invented languages, even of Quenya and Sindarin, are far too incomplete to allow its casual, conversational, or quotidian use. As Tolkien himself stated, "It should be obvious that if it is possible to compose fragments of verse in Quenya and Sindarin, those languages (and their relations one to another) must have reached a fairly high degree of organization — though of course, far from completeness, either in vocabulary, or in idiom" (Letters p. 380). (What's more, it is plain that nearly every occasion upon which Tolkien set about to compose in one of his invented languages resulted in a flurry of new invention, reconsideration, and change; so that the fact that he could compose something at one time did not mean that either the result or its bases were fixed, either at that time or at any time thereafter.) Indeed, it was never Tolkien's intent to make Quenya, Sindarin, or any of his languages into spoken, written, auxiliary, or otherwise "useful" forms; rather, they were done for purely personal enjoyment. As Tolkien wrote, "It must be emphasized that this process of invention was/is a private enterprise undertaken to give pleasure to myself by giving expression to my personal linguistic 'aesthetic' or taste and its fluctuations" (ibid.)
The inescapable fact is that no one can learn to speak a language without a corrective speaker or model against which to gauge grammaticality and comprehensibility (be it an already fluent speaker or speech community, or a comprehensive, fully descriptive grammar and pedagogical course). Since Tolkien never fixed his languages firmly or described them completely enough to provide any such comprehensive and corrective model (that never being his goal), and since thus even Tolkien himself was never able to speak Quenya or Sindarin fluently or casually (that too never being his goal), it is consequently a further inescapable fact that no one has or ever will be able to speak Quenya and Sindarin, any more than anyone will ever (again) be able to speak, say, Etruscan or any other fragmentarily-attested non-living language. This is not to say that it is impossible or meaningless to compose sentences that so far as anyone now can tell conform to the exemplars and statements that Tolkien did make to a very high degree (for example, by relying only upon attested elements and derivational mechanisms, attested grammatical devices, and attested syntactic patterns that can reasonably be thought to belong to the same conceptual phase), but that is a far cry from being able to speak these languages, and cannot even justify a claim of "authenticity", since for any but the most trivial compositions it will remain exceedingly unlikely that Tolkien himself would have produced or countenanced the result himself.
For a more thorough examination of the problems inherent in any effort to "speak Elvish", see the article "Elvish as She Is Spoke".
How do I learn Quenya and Sindarin?
That depends on what you mean by "learn". If you mean "learn" in the sense in which one can "learn German" or "learn Japanese", then the short answer is that you can't; see the previous question. If you mean "learn" in the sense of "learn Gothic" or "learn" any other fragmentarily-preserved, non-living language, then one answer is to read well-researched, thoroughly documented, purely descriptive articles and discussions about the languages, based upon Tolkien's writings and free from artificial, utilitarian agendas; and to do so in conjunction with an independent examination of the data cited to verify claims. But the best way to engage with Tolkien's art-languages is to simply study this evidence for yourself, to read and ponder Tolkien's own compositions and commentaries. It must be remembered that Tolkien is the sole and final authority on his languages; anything not written by Tolkien is strictly speaking not Quenya or Sindarin, but is simply more or less reasonable conjecture based on a selective set of data and supposed facts derived from them.
This is not to say that the artificial, homogenized Quenya presented on Helge Fauskanger's Ardalambion site, or the pseudo-Sindarin inventions of David Salo for Peter Jackson's films, are without interest or merit (but neither are they without serious problems); but rather that meaningful study of Tolkien's languages cannot be achieved simply by mastering the artificial, simplified, patch-work systems of these popularizers. Instead, the study must be always and primarily based and centered on reading, pondering, and understanding the exemplars and statements that Tolkien himself made, in their context and in relation to one another, across the decades of his life and the millennia of internal development they were created by Tolkien to exhibit.
See the accompanying list of Resources for a guide to the chief primary and secondary resources for the study of Tolkien's languages.
Is there such a thing as "mature" Quenya and Sindarin?
No. As Tolkien himself wrote, his "process of invention" was undertaken to give "expression to my personal linguistic 'aesthetic' or taste and its fluctuations" (Letters p. 380, emphasis mine). At no time were Tolkien's languages fixed or finalized or free from even fundamental change or reconsideration; achieving such a state was explicitly not Tolkien's purpose.
What is referred to by some as "mature" Quenya and "mature" Sindarin "of the Lord of the Rings era" are in fact artificially selected and dubiously homogenized sets of data spanning decades of "fluctuations", which are nonetheless asserted to be essentially uniform in nature and conception. But in fact, most of what is claimed to be true of "mature" Quenya and "mature" Sindarin is actually silently asserted on the basis of evidence for the Qenya and Noldorin of The Etymologies. The "reasoning" underlying this representation is circular: Qenya and Noldorin of The Etymologies are more or less the same as Quenya and Sindarin of The Lord of the Rings, because they largely conform to our claims about the phonology and grammar of Quenya and Sindarin; and our claims about the phonology and grammar of Quenya and Sindarin can be based largely and silently on the data from Etymologies, because they are more or less the same.
The fact is that, to the extent that we can speak accurately of Quenya and Sindarin as single entities at all, it is only as continuities of change over time, i.e. as processes; all else is simply individual snapshots of (most often only small parts of) this process, any detail of which may have persisted from the beginning to the end of that process, or have had no more extent in that process than the sheet it was written on; and in some cases there may be no way to tell which of these two extremes is true of any given detail. But every detail in turn defined Quenya and Sindarin at the point it was written (at least), and so reflects an aspect of Tolkien's linguistic Art, which ought to be the common and proper object of interest pursued by all scholars of Tolkien's languages.
So, is it pointless to try to compose in Quenya and Sindarin?
No, there is nothing wrong with it per se, and it can certainly be both fun and instructive (even this editor has done so on occasion; see for example this "Quenya" version of the Lord's Prayer). But it must always be borne in mind by composers and readers alike that such compositions are not authentic, and that there is virtually no chance that Tolkien himself would have produced anything like the results of such exercises (thus, compare the previously mentioned translation with Tolkien's own Quenya translation of the Lord's Prayer published in Vinyar Tengwar 43).
Such compositions are, essentially, a form of fan fiction. Many people enjoy fan fiction, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that (well, aside from copyright issues, specifically pertaining to the right to create derivative works, but we'll leave that aside for now). But a scholar of Tolkien's languages has no more inherent use for fan compositions than a scholar of Tolkien's writings does for fan fiction; the two endeavors are orthogonal. (Yet I note that, curiously, we don't see anyone criticizing scholars of Tolkien's writings for not being interested in fan fiction the way we see scholars of Tolkien's languages criticized for not being interested in fan compositions.) Above all, it should be recognized that the goal of Tolkienian linguistics, the scholarly study of Tolkien's art-languages, is no more to be able to "speak" Quenya or Sindarin or any such utilitarian purpose, than the goal of the scholarly study of Tolkien's writings is to be able to write new fictions set in Middle-earth.
Where problems arise in both the literary and linguistic field is when the distinction between fan fiction/composition and Tolkien own writings is blurred (deliberately or not), so that the composers insinuate themselves between Tolkien and their fellow enthusiasts. When that happens — as it most definitely has with the discussion of Tolkien's languages as conducted on the Internet — you start to have people making claims and believing things to be true based on the fan compositions, without regard for Tolkien's own writings, which is really not doing anyone any favors. In the fan realm, of course, such effects have little consequence: except that when the fannish activities predominate, it tends to mislead the newcomer that might have a more scholarly bent, and also misrepresents Tolkien himself and his artistry to outside observers, like reporters. I doubt that there's much that can done about this, though, except to encourage everyone to distinguish where possible between what is authentic and what is not, or to at least make a few prominent disclaimers here and there, and now and then, to point out that there is a difference.
The following rules of thumb are offered to help one assess the worth of any work on Tolkien's languages:
Since they're "just" languages, aren't Quenya and Sindarin in the public domain?
No. Unlike Esperanto (which was explicitly placed into the public domain by its creator), Tolkien's languages are not in the public domain. As the artistic creations of J.R.R. Tolkien, they enjoy the same copyright protections as his literary works, including but not limited to restrictions on the amount of quotation, purpose of use, and creation of derivative works.
Klingon can provide a helpful example illustrating the point from a different but precisely parallel perspective. The creator of Klingon, Marc Okrand, has created a substantial vocabulary for his language. Not all of this vocabulary has been collected and published in a single compendium; various words and their definitions have been published in, for example, various books, in the Star Trek television shows and movies, and in the journal HolQeD. But no one would seriously suppose that it would be Fair Use to compile a complete lexicon of Klingon from these disparate sources and publish it, even for free and for purely scholarly purposes, without the permission of Marc Okrand and/or Paramount Enterprises.
And yet, there are those who insist that it is perfectly acceptable to do exactly that with Tolkien's lexicons. Such insistence rests universally on the claim that Tolkien's lexicons constitute simple "information", having no more artistic or creative content, and therefore no more protection, than other compilations of information such as telephone directories. This analogy, however, is clearly false. The information presented in telephone directories has an existence independent of its compilation and publication, and independent of any creative or artistic effort; the listing of the set of independent, non-created, and non-creative facts constituting telephone directories is wholly unlike Tolkien's languages and their lexicons, which have exactly no independent existence apart from Tolkien's artistic creations, and are thus nothing but artistic and creative content.
Put another way: had no phone book ever been published, there would still be a set of telephone service subscribers and their associated addresses and phone numbers, discoverable and compilable by any researcher. But had Tolkien's writings never existed, there would be precisely zero information concerning his languages and their lexicons discoverable by anyone or by any means. Compilations of Tolkien's lexicons therefore constitute wholesale copying of Tolkien's unique creative and artistic expressions, namely the wholly original and creative pairing of invented words with artistically and aesthetically selected meanings.
Indeed, it seems supremely hypocritical and self-serving to, on the one hand, celebrate the keen and unique beauty of the artistic and aesthetic properties of Tolkien's art-languages and their lexicons that attract enthusiasts and scholars to them; but on the other hand to utterly deny that they have such properties in order to rationalize the unauthorized republication of Tolkien's lexicons and other writings concerning his languages as mere "information". It is further a misrepresentation of the artistic nature of Tolkien's languages, a devaluation of Tolkien and his art, and wholly without merit.
Because of the way this issue is repeatedly misrepresented, I must point out the obvious fact that none of this means that it is necessary to receive anyone's permission to write about or even in Tolkien's invented languages, so long, of course, as the limits of Fair Use and/or other applicable copyright law as regards the amount and proportionality of quotation, the nature of its use, etc., are observed. Falsely asserting that this editor believes otherwise has been a long-standing lie, cynically and condescendingly used to construct self-serving strawman arguments encouraging the belief that Tolkien's linguistic creations and writings are in the public domain and rationalizing any use or publication imaginable.
Can you tell me how to say/write X in Y?
No. What time I have to spend on Tolkien's languages is fully occupied by my work for Vinyar Tengwar, Tengwestië, Parma Eldalamberon, the Lambengolmor list, and this web site. Please see the various groups and mailing lists given on the Resources page for places to seek assistance with your questions.