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Primitive Elvish - Where It All Began

Primitive Elvish - Where It All Began

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Primitive Elvish - where it all began
1 of 42
22.09.2004 11:34
Primitive Elvish - where it all began


The sounds
Initial clusters



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...

By making a language, the Firstborn of Il\u00favatar identified themselves as Incarnates, children of the One:
"The making of alambe [language] is the chief character of an Incarnate," Pengolodh the sage of Gondolin
observed (WJ:397). Indeed "the newly-waked devised many new and beautiful words, and many cunning
artifices of speech" (WJ:422). The language made by the first Elves at Cuivi\u00e9nen was to have an immense
impact on the linguistic history of Middle-earth. Usually calledPrimitive Quendian, it was the ultimate
ancestor of all Elvish languages, including Quenya and Sindarin. Even languages not directly descended from
PQ had borrowed words from Elvish, as documented in the articles about Ad\u00fbnaic, Mannish, Dwarvish and
even Orkish and the Black Speech. WR:159 and PM:63 quote Faramir as saying that "all speech of men in
this world is Elvish in descent". The sole language of Arda that may have been wholly free from Elvish
influence may be Valarin. In practice, Valarin would also be the only language older than Primitive
Quendian. True, Aul\u00eb had inventedKhuzdul for the Dwarves long before the coming of the Elves, but since
Il\u00favatar did not want the Dwarves to come before his own Firstborn, the Dwarves were still sleeping when
the Quendi awoke.

What was it like, the tongue that the Elves formed in those first years of innocence by the starlit waters
of Cuivi\u00e9nen? We know much of its phonology and methods of derivation; we know less of its precise
grammatical structure. Judging from the daughter-languages that are commonly held to be least changed from
the original, namely Quenya and Telerin, PQ was a case language; an allative ending -da is explicitly
mentioned by Tolkien (WJ:366). Concerning the general style of the primitive language, the vast majority of
words had two or three syllables and ended in a vowel. In VT39:6, Tolkien states that in Quenya, "all final
consonants had probably lost a vowel, if remote Quendian origins were considered". (Some of Tolkien's
"reconstructed" forms nevertheless end in a consonant, but they are not many, and not all the asterisked forms
necessarily describe the oldest stage of the language.) Very characteristic of primitive Elvish are the frequent

long final vowels, e.g. inlind\u00e2 "sweet-sounding" orndor\u00ea "land". In three-syllable words, the first and the

second vowel are usually identical (e.g.karani "red"), and in a number of cases the final vowel is also the
same, but long (e.g.ered\u00ea "seed",galad\u00e2 "tree",kyelep\u00ea "silver",\u00f1golod\u00f4 "Noldo"). According to VT39:6,
vowels inhiatus probably did not occur medially in the primitive language; where they occur in Quenya an
intervening consonant has been lost. Tolkien's reconstructed forms nonetheless include at least one hiatic
combination,ie,i\u00ea; in light of his later concept we may assume that this represents even earlier *ihe or *i\u00f1e

Primitive Elvish - where it all began
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22.09.2004 11:34
with a middle consonant that was later lost.

In the Silmarillion Index, Christopher Tolkien refers to Quenya as "the ancient tongue, common to all
Elves, in the form that it took in Valinor". However, the style of "the ancient tongue" in many respects
differed markedly from later Quenya, and generally the word Quenya should not be applied to it at all. True,
the sound-changes that separate Primitive Quendian from classical High-Elven are so tidy and
straightforward that a speaker of Quenya might, with a little training, have been able to understand the
primitive language without actually "learning" it as a foreign tongue. But even so, the primitive language
would sound pretty outlandish to him, and he would hardly recognize it as a mere variant of his own tongue.
Still, the fact remains that the Noldor held that Quenya was the language "most nearly preserving the ancient
character of Elvish speech" (WJ:374). Actually the most conservative language seems to be the Telerin of
Aman, as least as far as phonology is concerned - but then Telerin was sometimes thought of as a dialect of
Quenya, though the Teleri themselves held it to be a separate language.

Tolkien distinguished two stages of primitive Elvish. The very first stage, as noted above, was
Primitive Quendian. This was the ancestor of all Elvish tongues in the world (except, possibly, any products

of wholesale a priori language construction, if the Elves engaged in such sports...as we know, some humans
do! However, it is said in theSilmarillion, chapter 17, that "all the languages of the Quendi were of one
origin"). In theEtymologies, only a few of the asterisked forms are explicitly identified as Primitive

Quendian (atar,at\u00fb,d\u00ear/der-,khalatirn\u00f4,m\u00e23/ma3-, andtaur\u00e2; see the entriesATA,NI1,N\u00caR,TIR,MA3,
T\u00c2/TA3). Nonetheless, most of the asterisked forms must be assumed to represent the most primitive stage of

the language. The next stage was Common Eldarin, the ancestor of all the Eldarin (as opposed to Avarin)
tongues, including Quenya and Sindarin. Common Eldarin would be the language spoken by the Elves that
followed Orom\u00eb and embarked on the March from Cuivi\u00e9nen to the Sea, or rather the language they
developed during the March. In theEtymologies, only three words are explicitly identified as (Common)

Eldarin (maht\u00e2-,nd\u00e6^r,wa, see MA3, NDER, W\u00d4...unfortunately the computer can't place a circumflex
above\u00e6). However, a number of Common Eldarin forms are given in WJ and PM.

It might be helpful to know approximately how muchtime the periods involved represent. In WJ:5-6, a
chronology in Valian years is set out. In WJ:20 we are told that 365 "long years of the Valar" equal "well
nigh...three thousand and five hundred years of the Sun", sc. one Valian year is about nine and a half solar
year. Using this figure, we get the following result: After the Elves awoke by the mere of Cuivi\u00e9nen, they
dwelt in peace for about 280 solar years (Valian Years 1050 to ca. 1080). Then they were found by the spies
of Melkor and afflicted by them. About fifty more solar years passed, after which the Elves were found by
Orom\u00eb in the Valian year 1085. The Separation of the Quendi into Eldar and Avari eventually followed,
apparently in the year 1105, about 190 solar years later. (The impression one might get from theSilmarillion
text, that the Separation occurred within weeks or months after Orom\u00eb's finding the Elves, turns out to be
wholly wrong.) So from the Elves awoke until the Separation, well over five hundred solar years elapsed,
ample time for developing a complete language - but still not very long by Elvish standards. (Cf. Legolas'
words in LotR2/III ch. 6: "Five hundred times have the red leaves fallen in Mirkwood in my home since [the
Meduseld was built], and but a little while does that seem to us." Half a millennium was not perceived as a
very long time by the Elves.)

The March from Cuivi\u00e9nen to the Sea lasted well over two and a half century of solar years (Valian
Years 1105-1132). During this time, the Marchers turned Primitive Quendian into Common Eldarin. Then the
Vanyar and Noldor went over the sea, and about this point Common Eldarin evidently became Old Quenya,
as the pre-record period in the evolution of Elvish was nearing its end. In Beleriand, Common Eldarin (or the
Common Telerin dialect of it) started to evolve towards Sindarin.

Millennia later, it was also in Beleriand that the exiled Noldor started to study comparative linguistics
and reconstruct the primitive language: "It was...the contact with Sindarin and the enlargement of their
experience with linguistic change (especially the much swifter and more uncontrolled shifts observable in
Middle-earth) that stimulated the studies of the linguistic loremasters, and it was in Beleriand that theories
concerning Primitive Eldarin and the interrelation of its known descendants were developed." - PM:342.

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There seems to have been no point where Tolkien's Elvish languages existed in a historical vacuum, with no
history of change and evolution behind them. Notes Christopher Tolkien, "Those languages were conceived,
of course, from the very beginning in a deeply 'historical' way... Every element in the languages, every
element in every word, is in principle historically 'explicable' - as are the elements in languages that are not
'invented' - and the successive phases of their intricate evolution were the delight of their creator... They
image language not as 'pure structure', without 'before' and 'after', but as growth, in time." (LR:341) The
diachronic aspect wasvery important to Tolkien; he seems to have been immensely attracted by the grand
vision of an entire language family growing, changing, evolving, branching out in various directions. When
discussing Elvish words, he very often introduces primitive stems and asterisked "ancestral" forms; he clearly
felt that a word needs ahistory! (See for instance Letters:382-383.) Of course, this necessitated the
construction (or at least sketching) of aprimitive language, an ultimate ancestor for all the successive stages,
since Tolkien could not well extend the history of the Elvish languages indefinitely into the past - especially
when he thought of Elvish history as having one definite beginning in time and space, the awakening of the
Quendi by the mere of Cuivi\u00e9nen. All forms of Elvish had to be descendants of "Cuivi\u00e9nenian".

Already in the very first Elvish wordlist, the "Qenya Lexicon" of 1915, the words were derived from
"primitive roots" (as in theEtymologies). These stems provide glimpses of a proto-language that seems
somewhat inspired by the proposed reconstructions of Indo-European, the hypothetical tongue that most
European and some Oriental languages descend from. For instance, Tolkien included stems involving
syllabic N and L, such asSNKN andFLKL (LT2:341, where there are dots under the N's and L's to indicate
that they are syllabic). Apparently starting from the same primitive stems, Tolkien two years later derived a
new Elvish language, cognate with "Qenya" -Gnomish, a Celtic-sounding Elvish language that after thirty
years of revisions and changing conceptions "ultimately became that of the type called Sindarin" (PM:379).

The syllabic consonants of the "Proto-Elfin" of 1915 were gone twenty years later, when the
Etymologies was written. Nevertheless, some ideas about the primitive language go back to the very
beginning. For instance, there is the notion that many words originally began with nasalized explosivesnd,
mb, ng (that are reflected in the form that word has following the definite article in the Celtic-sounding
language: GnomishGolda "Gnome, Noldo", i Ngolda "the Gnome"; similarly SindarinGolodh "Noldo",i
Ngolodh "the Noldo"). In the Etymologies, quite a few "reconstructed" primitive words are given, allowing us
to get a relatively good impression of the primitive language as Tolkien had now come to think of it.

Of course, Tolkien's prime interest lay in the later Elvish languages, especially Quenya and (Noldorin
>) Sindarin. Even in theEtymologies, primitive Elvish remains a somewhat shadowy entity whose prime
function is to clarify the relationship between the various branches of Elvish and serve as the historical basis
of them all, rather than being an "art-language" in itself. Like everything else, Tolkien's ideas about the
ultimate derivation of certain words were subject to revision. For instance, both SD:419 and theEtymologies
(stemTYUL) agree that the Quenya word for "mast" istyulma. But according to theEtymologies,tyulma
comes from primitivetyulm\u00e2, while SD:419 has it thattyulma descends from primitivekyulum\u00e2. Both of
these would yieldtyulma in Quenya, so there is no discrepancy concerning the sound-changes - but Tolkien's
ideas about the ancestral form changed over time. A similar case is Quenyafind\u00eb "tress, braid of hair": does it
come from primitivespind\u00ea (TheEtymologies, stemSPIN) or fromphind\u00ea (PM:362)? Such indecision goes
back to the very beginning: Discussing the earliest "Lexicons", Christopher Tolkien notes that "in some cases
it seems clear that the word was 'there', so to speak, but its etymology remained to be certainly defined, and
not vice versa" (LT1:246). But Tolkien'sgeneral ideas about the primitive language, as exemplified in the

Etymologies, seem to have gotten into shape in the 1930s and did not undergo substantial revisions later. For

instance, in what Christopher Tolkien calls "a very late note" - evidently meaning that it dates from the
seventies - the primitive form of Aul\u00eb's title "world-artificer" is given asmbartan\u00f4 (LT1:266). This seems to
be the same kind of Primitive Elvish as the reconstructed forms in theEtymologies, written forty years
earlier. In any case, the historical development of Quenya and Sindarin had become "minutely refined" in the
last years of Tolkien's life, so he must then have held in mind a quite clear image of their common ancestral

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