Are Goldogrin and Qenya “primitive”?

In a very late essay — probably composed during the last year of his life — J.R.R. Tolkien wrote of the name Glorfindel (XII:379):

This name is in fact derived from the earliest work on the mythology: The Fall of Gondolin, composed in 1916–17, in which the Elvish language that ultimately became that of the type called Sindarin was in a primitive and unorganized form, and its relation with the High-elven type (itself very primitive) was still haphazard.

The Elvish language that ultimately became that of the type called Sindarin is, of course, Goldogrin, and the High-elven type is Qenya. Although the word primitive in a linguistic context can mean simply ancient, earliest, original — as in Primitive Quendian, Tolkien’s later term for the primeval language originally common to all Elves — it seems probable that in this passage Tolkien was using the word to describe the languages of the Lost Tales in a pejorative sense: crude, unsophisticated, undeveloped.

If so, this sort of self-deprecation of his invented languages would not be out-of-character for Tolkien, who once called Qenya my nonsense fairy language in a 1916 letter to Edith Bratt (Letters, p. 8). In the 1931 essay A Secret Vice, Tolkien refers to the sharing of his own over-pretty Elvish poems as a shame-faced revelation, calling the phonologies on which they were based the source of what little I know in the matter of phonetic construction (MC:212–13); and in 1955 Tolkien wrote to Houghton Mifflin, But, of course, such a work as The Lord of the Rings has been edited and only as much ‘language’ has been left in as I thought would be stomached by readers (Letters, pp. 219–20), to which he added ruefully, (I now find that many would have liked more.)

Tolkien’s somewhat dismissive assessment of the languages of the Lost Tales, made at the age of eighty-one, is perhaps to be expected then, being the sort of disdain that many successful, mature artists have expressed for the work of their youth (Tolkien was barely in his mid-twenties when he invented Qenya and Goldogrin). But is such an assessment of Tolkien’s early languages truly justified? Are Goldogrin and Qenya in fact primitive in the sense crude and unsophisticated? Fortunately, this is a question we are now in a position to answer for ourselves, since almost all of Tolkien’s earliest linguistic writings on Qenya and Goldogrin have been published — and the answer seems clearly to be no.

One does not have to spend much time examining the Qenya and Gnomish Lexicons, the Qenya Phonology, and the Gnomish Grammar to reach the same conclusion expressed by Christopher Tolkien in his introduction to the Appendix on names in The Book of Lost Tales, Part I: It is immediately obvious that an already extremely sophisticated and phonetically intricate historical structure lies behind the languages at this stage (I:247). This is particularly evident in the Qenya Phonology, in which the sound-system of ancient Eldarin appears to be far more complex than it would become in Tolkien’s later writings — in this respect it seems more realistic, more evocative of the complexity one finds in reconstructions of Proto-Indo-European phonology, for example, than the simpler, more streamlined historical phonology of Primitive Quendian as evidenced in the Etymologies and later writings.

Moreover, both Qenya and Goldogrin appear to have achieved a high degree of grammatical sophistication and organization. In A Secret Vice Tolkien states that the chief criterion by which one can measure the success of an art language is the ability to use it to write poetry; and as Carl Hostetter and I note in our essay Three Elvish Verse Modes in Tolkien’s Legendarium, by this criterion the Qenya of the Lost Tales was undoubtedly a success, for as early as 1915–16 Qenya had been elaborated and polished to the point where Tolkien could use it to write Narqelion, a twenty-line meditation on Autumn in rhyming verse (p. 113). Tolkien echoes the same sentiment in his 1967 letter to Mr. Rang, in which he says, 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). The detailed charts of Qenya verb forms tucked inside the front cover of the Qenya Lexicon (and now published in Parma 14) bear further witness to the grammatical development achieved by the early language.

Much the same can be said for Goldogrin, for although Tolkien wrote no Goldogrin poetry, he did write an unfinished Goldogrin Grammar, which presents an elegant and self-consistent system of declensions for nouns, adjectives, and the definite article, as well as a system of grammatical mutation of initial consonants, including several illustrative sentences, phrases, and proverbs in Goldogrin. And analysis of the Gnomish Lexicon (which also contains numerous Goldogrin phrases and proverbs) demonstrates that other facets of the language not covered in the Gnomish Grammar were also highly developed. My article The Goldogrin Past Tense, for example, shows that in GL Tolkien had developed a rich and cohesive system for expressing the Goldogrin preterite, with two classes of strong preterites, three classes of weak preterites, and a class of apparent ablaut preterites in sonant verbs (each class with further subdivisions), this system made all the more realistic by the inclusion of a variety of analogical formations and irregular forms, most often demonstrably consistent with (and explicable by) the imagined internal history of the language.

However, much research remains to be done before we can truly understand what Tolkien might have meant by his reference to the primitive and unorganized form of Goldogrin, and its haphazard relation with Qenya. Certainly the description of Goldogrin being unorganized might refer more to the original manuscript of the Gnomish Lexicon, which is highly chaotic indeed, than to the actual language itself; even the greatly improved organization of the edited text in Parma 11 lacks the immediate clarity of the Qenya Lexicon, with its root-followed-by-derivatives mode of presentation.

And herein lies part of the problem: for despite the fact that the Gnomish Lexicon was published in 1995 and the Qenya Lexicon in 1998, little or no serious linguistic analyses and comparisons of these languages have been made in the years since their publication. My article on the Goldogrin preterite is very much an anomaly in Tolkienian linguistics today, at least so far as it is practiced online. It seems to me that the phrase primitive and unorganized might better be applied to Tolkienian linguistics itself, since online it is still for the most part pointlessly spinning its wheels in a juvenile obsession with speaking languages that were never meant to have a life outside of Tolkien’s mythology, while myopically focussing solely on late material that comprises less than a third of the linguistic legacy Tolkien left behind. And in the meantime, the magnificent and beautiful creations that are the Qenya and Goldogrin of the Lost Tales lie neglected and unstudied, save for occasional forays to mine them for usable vocabulary.

Will Tolkienian linguistics, online and off, ever grow up and put away childish things, abandoning its current fascination with tattoos, wedding-band inscriptions, translated newspaper headlines, and blockbuster movies in which Hollywood heartthrobs declaim lugubriously in faux Sindarin? Will Tolkienian linguistics ever become mature and organized? Only time will tell.

— Patrick H. Wynne
April 4, 2004

Copyright ©2004 Patrick H. Wynne

Quotations from the works of J.R.R. or Christopher Tolkien are the copyright of their publishers and/or the Tolkien Estate, and are used here with their kind permission. The word TOLKIEN is a registered trademark of The J.R.R. Tolkien Estate Limited. The characters and scripts of Tolkien’s invented languages and works in those languages are the copyright of the Tolkien Estate.


First published on April 4th, 2004

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