TOLKIEN TUESDAY: Tengwar, the Elvish Alphabet

TOLKIEN TUESDAY: Tengwar, the Elvish Alphabet

Good morning Rebels, and welcome back to my life.

It’s Tolkien Tuesday, the day when we talk about Tolkien, the world of Middle-earth and any exciting happenings in the world of the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit, and today I wanted to talk about one of the most important parts of the entire Tolkien mythology—the Elvish language.

Now the language itself is pretty esoteric and can be hard to learn, because Tolkien didn’t really write an explicit guide to it. He wrote a few general principles, like what languages it was based on and then several passages in the language itself, and left it for his readers to figure out.

Things are complicated even more because there are actually THREE Elvish languages, Valarin, Quenya and Sindarin, and while they bear many similarities, they’re kind of like Spanish, Portuguese and Italian.

You might be able to tell what a speaker in another language is saying, but you can’t write a good book in Italian if you only speak Portuguese.

There is, however, one part of Elvish that is pretty well codified and explained with very exact rules in the Lord of the Rings appendices, and that’s the Elvish alphabet, known as Fëanorian script or the tengwar.

That alphabet is also all over the books and films—the inscription on the ring itself is in that alphabet.

Now Tolkien, as you probably know, was a professor of language, and he had some unkind words to say about the English alphabet.

Basically, there is NO reason for our alphabet to be in the order it is in. It makes no sense!

But not in Tolkien’s language. Oh no! He would have a perfectly organized alphabet where, by understanding a few basic principles, you could learn all the rest of it.

So first is the organization of the alphabet itself, which you can see here.

The first thing to recognize is that for the majority of letters, i.e. the 24 on top, there are two parts in common: a stem, the straight part, and then one or more bows, the curved parts.

On the first two lines the stems extend from the letter down below the baseline, on the next two lines the stems extend up from the letter, and on the final two lines the stems are the size of the letter itself.

The first two columns have their bows on the right, the second two columns have their bows on the left. The bows are doubled on every other row, and they are closed with that little horizontal line every other column.

So with that you’ve got a perfectly organized little alphabet—or at least twenty-four letters of one.

Deciphering it further, we have to go in with the understanding that the alphabet was used differently by different peoples of Middle-earth. Men used Fëanorian script differently than Elves, but Elves speaking Quenya used it differently than Elves speaking Sindarin.

For simplicity we’re going to try to use it the way we imagine the men of Gondor might have used it, okay?

So with that, the first or top row of letters were used for what we call “voiceless stops,” what linguists consider the very most basic consonants—these are T, P, CH, and K, or t-, p-, ch- and k-.

For the next line where you doubled the bow, you use those same consonants, in other words the same shape of the mouth, tongue and throat, but you add a voice to it. So T becomes D, P becomes B, CH becomes J, and K becomes G.

What’s important to remember is that because this is another alphabet, a direct translation doesn’t always work. For example, G is always G as in golden, never as in general. If you were spelling general with the tengwar you’d use a J.

Raising the stem on the third line means you don’t stop the breath with your mouth any more, what’s called a spirant, so T becomes TH or th-, P becomes PH or f-, CH becomes SH or sh-, and K becomes CH, but not CH as in choose, but CH as in the German name Bach.

Next line we double the bows, so we just add voices back into the spirants, which become TH as in those, V as in violet, the hard J sound as in soup du jour, and GH, which isn’t a very common sound in English but hey.

The next line is the nasal consonants like N and M, and the next line should have been voiceless nasal consonants but because those sounds are hardly ever used, they were substituted for a lot in both the languages in Middle-earth and when people use the tengwar today.

Now using the tengwar is a big topic, much bigger than I can hope to cover in a four-minute video—for example we haven’t even covered the vowels—so I’m going to give you some links in the description to go learn more, and if you’re up for it, read Appendix E in the back of The Lord of the Rings.

I hope you’ve geeked out about Tolkien’s language skills as much as I have, Rebels. As always, thank you for watching, and I will see you tomorrow. Maybe. Byyye.

Garrett Robinson

Over 100,000 readers have read and loved Garrett's books, like the fantasy hits Nightblade and Midrealm. He's also a film festival favorite with movies like Unsaid, and a tech guru who posts lots of helpful how-tos for writers and filmmakers over at garrettbrobinson.com.

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