Quenya - External History

External History

J. R. R. Tolkien began to construct his first Elven tongue c. 1910–1911 while he was at the King Edward's School, Birmingham. He later called it Qenya (c. 1915), and even later wrote it Quenya. Tolkien was then already familiar with Latin, Greek, Spanish, and several ancient Germanic languages, Gothic, Old Norse and Old English. He had invented several cryptographic codes (one called Animalic), and two or three constructed languages (as Naffarin). But then he discovered Finnish, and was filled with joy. Tolkien wrote, many years later: "It was like discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me." He had started his study of the Finnish language to be able to read the Kalevala epic.

The ingredients in Quenya are various, but worked out into a self-consistent character not precisely like any language that I know. Finnish, which I came across when I had first begun to construct a 'mythology' was a dominant influence, but that has been much reduced . It survives in some features: such as the absence of any consonant combinations initially, the absence of the voiced stops b, d, g (except in mb, nd, ng, ld, rd, which are favoured) and the fondness for the ending -inen, -ainen, -oinen, also in some points of grammar, such as the inflexional endings -sse (rest at or in), -nna (movement to, towards), and -llo (movement from); the personal possessives are also expressed by suffixes; there is no gender.

Tolkien with his Quenya pursued a double aesthetic goal: "classical and inflected". This urge, in fact, was the motivation for his creation of a 'mythology'. While the language developed, he needed speakers, history for the speakers and all real dynamics, like war and migration: "It was primarily linguistic in inspiration and was begun in order to provide the necessary background of ‘history’ for Elvish tongues".

Quenya underwent about four major revisions in its grammar, mostly in conjugation and the pronominal system. The vocabulary was not subject to sudden or extreme change; except during the first conceptual stage, early Quenya c.1910-c.1920, the language was then called in English Elfin and in Qenya Eldarissa. Tolkien sometimes changed the meaning of a word, but he almost never disregarded it once invented, and he kept on refining its meaning, and countlessly forged new synonyms. Moreover Elven etymology was in a constant flux. Tolkien delighted in inventing new etymons for his Quenya vocabulary. But after the publication of "The Lord of the Rings" (1954–1955), the grammar rules of Quenya went through very few changes (this is late Quenya 1954–1973).

"Qenya" is used sometimes to distinguish between "early Quenya" and "late Quenya". However, early Quenya was also called Eldarissa by Tolkien. It differs fundamentally from late Quenya, having a different internal history, vocabulary and grammar rules described in the "Qenyaqetsa".

From the onset, Tolkien used comparative philology and the tree model as his major tools in his constructed languages. He usually started with the phonological system of the Proto-language and then proceeded in inventing for each daughter languages the many mechanisms of sound change needed.

I find the construction and the interrelation of the languages an aesthetic pleasure in itself, quite apart from The Lord of the Rings, of which it was/is in fact independent.

In the early 30s Tolkien decided that the proto-language of the Elves was Valarin, the tongue of the gods or Valar : "The language of the Elves derived in the beginning from the Valar, but they change it even in the learning, and moreover modified and enriched it constantly at all times by their own invention." In his Comparative Tables Tolkien describes the mechanisms of sound change in the following daughter languages: Qenya, Lindarin (a dialect of Qenya), Telerin, Old Noldorin (or Feanorian), Noldorin (or Gondolinian), Ilkorin (esp. of Doriath), Danian of Ossiriand, East Danian, Taliska, West Lemberin, North Lemberin, and East Lemberin.

In devising the protolanguage of the Elves, Tolkien appears to have borrowed the five-part plosive system of Proto-Indo-European, the ancestor of Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and others; namely, one labial, one coronal, and three velar plosives (palatal, plain, and labial). Below are some of the "Primary Initial Combinations" from the Comparative Tables:

Valarin Qenya Lindarin Telerin
mb m, umb m, umb m, emb
nd n, and n, and n, end
ŋgj ny, indy, iny ñ, ind g, ang
ŋg ŋ > n, ing n, ing ŋg, eng
ŋgw ŋw > nw, ungw m, ungw m, emb

About ten years later, Tolkien changed his mind about the origin of the proto-language of the Elves. He wrote in his Lambion Ontale: Descent of Tongues: "The Elves began to make in the beginning of their being and it is one with their being, since it was of their nature and the first of all their gift to devise names and words". Quenderin had become the proto-language of the Elven language family, but he kept intact the many roots he had invented for Valarin in the '30s, which became "Quenderin roots". The Eldarin family comprises Quenya, Telerin, Sindarin and Nandorin. The evolution in Quenya and Telerin of the nasalized initial groups of Quenderin is described thus in Tolkien's Outline of Phonology:

These groups in Quenya normally became simplified to nasals initially. (In Telerin they became b, d, g.)


  1. mb- > m, as in *mbar- > Q. már 'habitation'.
  2. nd- > n, as in *ndōrē > Q. nóre 'country'.
  3. ñg- > ñ, as in *ñgolodō > Q. Ñoldo 'Noldo, Gnome'.
  4. ñgy > ny, as in *ñgyar- > Q. nyare 'recites'.
  5. ñgw > ñw, as in *ñgwar- > Q. ñware (pronounced ) 'frets, wears away'.

The grammar of Quenya was influenced by Finnish, an agglutinative language, but much more by Latin, a synthetic and fusional language, and also Greek, from which he took probably the idea of the diglossia of Quenya with its highly codified variety: the Parmaquesta, only used in certain situations such as literature. The phonology of Quenya does not follow Finnish phonological rules, or even those of Latin or Greek. The Elvish languages are not a posteriori languages; many features for Quenya were invented according to Tolkien's taste. The phonology of Quenya ended up somewhat resembling that of Finnish and Italian, but not exactly fitting either of those, or any other language.

Tolkien almost never borrowed words directly from real languages into Quenya, the major exception is Earendel/Earendil. Yet the Finnish influence extended sometimes to vocabulary. A few Quenya words, such as tul- "come" and anta- "give", have clearly a Finnish origin. Other forms that appear to have been borrowed are actually coincidence, such as Finnish kirja 'book', and Quenya cirya 'ship'. Tolkien invented the Valarin/Quenderin root KIR- from which sprang his Quenya word cirya. Latin aure, "dawn" and Quenya aure "moment of special meaning, special day, festival day" are unrelated. Quenya aure comes from the Valarin/Quenderin root UR-. And Germanic influence can be seen more in grammar (the -r nominative plural ending is reminiscent of the Scandinavian languages) or phonology, than in words: Arda, the Quenya name for "region" (it has other meanings), just happened to resemble Germanic Erde, "earth". It comes from the Valarin/Quenderin root GAR-. According to Tom DuBois and Scott Mellor the name of Quenya itself may have been influenced by the name Kven, a language closely related to Finnish, but Tolkien never said so.

The most striking feature of Quenya for the English speaking readers is that it is an agglutinative language, meaning that multiple affixes are added to words to express grammatical functions. For example, the late Quenya equivalent of Eureka ("I have found (it)") is utúvienyes: utúvie "have found" + -nye subjective "I" + -s objective "it".

In his lifetime J.R.R. Tolkien never ceased to experiment on his constructed languages, and they were subjected to many revisions. Quenya had many grammars with substantial differences between different stages of development. Yet, the Elfin tongue of the 1920s illustrated by his poem "Narqelion" is not easily distinguished from late Quenya poem "Namárië" of the Lord of the Rings.

Important grammatical texts, alluded to by C. Tolkien in his History of Middle-earth series and described as almost unreadable or quite incomprehensible, have been published in Vinyar Tengwar and Parma Eldalamberon. The Early Qenya Grammar, written by J.R.R. Tolkien c. 1925, was successfully edited and published in Parma Eldalamberon 14.

Tolkien never intended Quenya, or any of his constructed languages, to be used in everyday life as an international auxiliary language.

A precise account, with drawings and other aids, of Dwarvish smith-practices, Hobbit-pottery, Numerorean medicine and philosophy, and so on would interfere with the narrative, or swell the Appendices. So too, would complete grammars and lexical collection of the languages. Any attempt at bogus 'completeness' would reduce the thing to a 'model', a kind of imaginary dolls house of pseudo-history. Much hidden and unexhibited work is needed to give the nomenclature a 'feel' of verisimilitude. But this story is not the place for technical phonology and grammatical history. I hope to leave these things firmly sketched and recorded .

The Quenya language was not a fragile construction, tossed from one side to another in the ever changing mind of Pr. Tolkien. He wrote many fine pieces in Quenya, like the poem Namárië. Tolkien struggled to give to his Elvish languages the feel and taste of natural languages. He wanted to infuse in them a kind of life, while modeling them after a very personal aesthetic taste. He wanted to build languages primarily to satisfy his personal urge and not because he had some universal design in mind.

Read more about this topic:  Quenya

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