Languages of Middle-earth

The languages of Middle-earth are artificial languages invented by J. R. R. Tolkien and used in his books about Middle-earth, including The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. They are important as an inspiration for his imaginary world and as a method for giving a realistic linguistic depth to names and special words that is generally lacking in fantasy and science fiction stories.

In discussing the languages Tolkien invented, it is necessary to consider two aspects: their "primary world" history, namely their literal development by Tolkien as a linguist, and their "secondary world" history, namely their imagined historical development in the history of Middle-earth.


Primary-world history

Tolkien was a professional linguist and a specialist in the Old English language. He was also interested in many languages outside his field and developed a particular love for the Finnish language (he described the finding of a Finnish grammar book as "entering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before", The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, number 214).

Finnish morphology (particularly its rich system of inflection) in part gave rise to Quenya. Another of Tolkien's favorites was Welsh — and features of Welsh phonology found their way to Sindarin. Numerous words were borrowed from existing languages, but less and less obviously as Tolkien progressed, so that attempts to match a source to a particular Elvish word or name in works published during his lifetime are often very dubious.

Language-making was Tolkien's hobby for most of his life. He is known to have constructed his first languages (Animalic and Nevbosh) at a little over thirteen and he continued to ponder upon his creations up until his death more than sixty-five years later. Language invention had always been tightly connected to the mythology that Tolkien developed, as he found that a language could not be complete without the history of the people who spoke it, just as these people could never be fully realistic if imagined only through the English and as speaking English. Tolkien therefore took the stance of a translator and adaptor rather than that of the original author of his works.

Although the Elvish languages Sindarin and Quenya are the most famous and the most mature languages of those that Tolkien invented for his mythology, they are by no means the only ones. They belong to a family of Elvish dialects, that originate in Common Eldarin, the language common to all Eldar, which in turn originates in Primitive Quendian, the common root of Eldarin and Avarin languages. In addition to that, there is a separate language family that is spoken by Men, the most prominent member of which was Westron (derived from the Nmenorean speech Adnaic) or the "Common speech" of the peoples of The Lord of the Rings. Most Mannish tongues showed influences by Elvish, as well as some Dwarvish influences. Several independent languages were drafted as well, for example the Khuzdul language of the Dwarves. Other languages are Valarin (the tongue of the Valar), and the Black Speech created by Sauron during the Second Age.

Writing and spelling

Sindarin and Quenya are often written in the tengwar script, which Tolkien especially devised for them, or alternatively in the rune-like cirth. When Middle-earth languages are written with the Latin alphabet, either acute accents (, , , , ) or circumflex accents (, , , , , ŷ) mark long vowels depending on language or other convention. The diaeresis (, , ) is normally used to mark that a short vowel is to be separately pronounced, that it is not silent or part of a diphthong. For example, the last four letters of Ainulindal should be sounded as if spelled dah-leh in English rather than as dale and the first three letters of Erendil represent something like eh-ahr rather than the English word ear. (But occasionally, especially when writing proto-Eldarin forms, Tolkien used the macron to indicate long vowels and the dieresis on , , and as in German to indicate i-modification or e-modifcation.)

In the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien adopted the literary device of claiming to have replaced the original Westron with English. This device of rendering an imaginary language with a real language he carried further, rendering Rohirric, related to an older form of Westron, by Old English, and names in the tongue of Dale in the north of Rhovanion by Old Norse forms, thus mapping the genetic relation of his fictional languages on the existing historical relations of the Germanic languages. A natural consequence of this is that the languages thus replaced were never worked out by Tolkien in any detail because they never appeared in the texts.

Elvish scholarship

Although the study of Tolkien's languages is as a rule not taken seriously by mainstream linguistics, a number of serious scholars have worked on compiling all that can be recovered about their histories and grammars.

An early book dedicated to Eldarin is An Introduction to Elvish by Jim Allan (published by Bran's Head Books), written before the publication of The Silmarillion in 1977 and therefore mostly outdated.

There are several journals dedicated to the subject:

Tolklang, Elfling and Lambengolmor are mailing lists dedicated to Tolkien linguistics.

Secondary-world history

See also Lhammas, Elvish language.

In the fictitious history of Middle-earth, the tongues of the Elves are separated as part of the speakers emigrate to Aman while others stay behind, leading to a split of Quenya (High-Elvish, or Elf-Latin) and Sindarin.

Middle-earth linguistics

The invention of writing is attributed to Rmil, who first invented an alphabet: the Sarati (literally "letters"). Fanor later enhanced and further developed this alphabet into the Tengwar, which were spread to Middle-earth by the oldor and remained in use ever after.
Daeron of Doriath indepently of Rmil and Fanor had invented the Cirth runes, but these were only used for inscriptions, and otherwise replaced by the Tengwar, except among the Dwarves.

An important source of Middle-earth linguistic scholarship is Pengolodh of Gondolin who wrote in Quenya. He is the author of Quendi and Eldar, the Lhammas and Osanwe-kenta.

In Quenya, lamb is the term for spoken language or verbal communiation while tengwesta is a more abstract term for a system or a code of signs and may be translated as "grammar".

List of languages

  1. Elvish languages:
  2. Mannish languages (all showed influence by Avarin tongues as well as Khuzdul):
  3. Tongue of Dwarves:
  4. Languages of the Ents
    • Old Entish.
    • "New" Entish
  5. Languages of the Ainur (Valar and Maiar)

External links and references

hu:Középfölde_nyelvei it:Linguaggi di Arda


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