Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Alpha-Bytes: Tolkien's Elvish

I'm starting a new mini-series on the blog, wherein I gush geekily about my favorite alphabets, ciphers, and alternate writing systems.  It's sort of related to the theme of my 2012 April A-Z posts on signs and symbols.  In January I unofficially started this series with a post about the Alphabet of Neptune.

Today is all about the granddaddy of all fictional "conlangs" (constructed languages).  In his novels of Middle Earth, J. R. R. Tolkien invented dozens of new languages to convey a sense of otherness about this fantasy world.  In some places, he claimed the languages came first and the world and stories came second -- merely as fulfillment of the desire to "see" people speak the languages!  Most well-known of them, I think, are his "Elvish" languages.  Although the Elves had several different writing systems, the one you may see the most often is Tengwar.  Isn't it gorgeous...?

Source:  TeX Stack Exchange
Source:  Vinyar Tengwar masthead

The letters remind me a bit of the Georgian Nuskhuri script, with maybe a hint of Devanagari (Sanskrit) in places.  Tolkien included many examples of Tengwar in illustrations throughout the books, including an "Easter Egg" containing his own name in the title pages of The Lord of the Rings.

The actors in the Peter Jackson movies got in on the Tengwar love, too.  Eight of the main nine actors all got tattoos of the Tengwar transcription of the English word "nine," to honor their hard work and Fellowship.  John Rhys-Davies (Gimli) may have been a spoil-sport, but Peter Jackson ended up getting one too, and even the awesome Ian McKellen (Gandalf) was up for it...

Tolkien's Elvish scripts may be impressive, but the actual languages he devised may be even more so.  The one I've always loved the most is Quenya, which you can see from its Wikipedia entry has been quite fleshed out and developed by fans.  I don't know how many fluent Quenya speakers there are in the world, but the enthusiasts surely number in the thousands.  Here's an example of some Quenya poetry you can listen to.

To further convey the fey and mellifluous nature of Quenya, let me quote the first part of a famous poem called Namárië ("Farewell"), included in Book II of Lord of the Rings, transcribed and linguistically analyzed by Helge Fauskanger:

        Ai! laurië lantar lassi súrinen,
Ah! like gold fall the leaves in the wind,
yéni únótimë ve rámar aldaron!
long years numberless as the wings of trees!
Yéni ve lintë yuldar avánier
The long years have passed like swift draughts
mi oromardi lissë-miruvóreva
of the sweet mead in lofty halls
Andúnë pella, Vardo tellumar
beyond the West, beneath the blue vaults of Varda
nu luini yassen tintilar i eleni
wherein the stars tremble
ómaryo airetári-lírinen.
in the voice of her song, holy and queenly.

In the 20th century, there were several attempts to create new languages to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  Put simply, this is the idea that the language you speak affects the way you think, and the way you see the world.  Tolkien may not have been thinking about this when he created Quenya and the Tengwar, but I've got to believe that if you had such harmonious sounds (and such flowing letters) swirling around in your brain, it's got to lead to at least slightly more bliss and grace.

Even more:  Could Quenya be the best language to use when attempting to induce ASMR... or trance... or nirvana...?


  1. 'Eight of the main nine actors all got tattoos of the Tengwar transcription of the English word "nine," to honor their hard work and Fellowship.'

    Can you imagine such satisfying camaraderie??

    1. They were off in remote New Zealand filming all 3 movies at once... and with their length, that's like 5 or 6 normal movies! :-)

  2. I thought you might be amused by the title of this episode of The New Disruptors podcast, "The Glass Bead Game" -

    1. Thanks for pointing me to this, Laoch! I've been on the lookout for some new podcasts since the few that I'd followed have either closed shop or slowed their output to a trickle...

  3. Ditto on what Suze said. But with alphabets that gorgeous it would certainly be tempting. Tengwar reminds me of Thai.

    1. It is reminiscent of Thai... I should add the latter to my list of future Alpha-Bytes post ideas, too. I've yet to be seriously tempted to consider tattooing anything on myself, but I haven't ruled it out on principle.

  4. A. Tattoos. There are direct links between low intelligence, low self esteem and getting your one and only body scribbled over with ink--this is doubly so if you only do it to be "in" or "cool."
    B. Just goes to show how UN-invested the actors were in their parts, in the story and in the liberality Tolkien put into all his work.
    C. Re Peter Jackson. The poor sod managed the unusual feat of taking one of the most beloved pf the worlds authors, who's work is extant in 50 languages and about whom entire libraries, including my own, have been written (and wherein nearly any question one would have on the man and his work could be answered) and mangled to get virtually 110% wrong (insofar as Peter Jackson took it upon himself to rewrite portions of the original text and, for no apparent good reason, invented additional Elvin speech and folly upon folly, created his own Ork language) making a shambles of a great mans life work. Very nice.
    I suppose there is no accounting for what having people throw millions of dollars at you (despite the literal fact you have no idea what you are doing) will do to mess up a persons Ego. I learned Elvish from Tolkien himself and I can only say that I'm glad Peter Jackson et al waited until the great man was dead befor producing this monumental travesty. Hopefully in ten or twenty years someone with an IQ will come alone and re-do Tolkien properly--as it should have been done in the first place.

    1. Thanks for the thoughts. If I was making the movies, I'm sure I would have done lots different than Jackson, but overall I wasn't too offended by the LOTR movies. The Hobbit movies, on the other hand... :-)