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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Quenya Lesson 1 -- Letters and Writing

Lihan Taifun (teaching)
AelKennyr Rhiano
Shawn Daysleeper
Squeak Barzane
Siwan Sandalwood

This is the first time I have taught this class, so I really appreciate all the students who asked lots of questions and insisted I explain things clearly.

All of this week's material is taken from Return of the King, Appendix E.

My favorite website for all Tolkien languages is Ardalambion: .
They have their own Quenya course there: . That one is presented for serious language students, taking the material straight through in a very businesslike, textbook order.

You will want to download at least one dictionary: . I won't be reading the dictionary to you in this class.


Quenya is the original language of Tolkien's Elves. A second language, Sindarin, broke off from Quenya and evolved separately. But Quenya remained in use from the time of the First Awakening until at least the end of the Third Age. That means is was in use on three continents (Middle Earth, the Blessed Lands, and Númenor) for thousands of years. In the Blessed Lands it was the ordinary spoken language. But in Middle Earth and Númenor it was mainly a scholarly language, which helped slow the changes to the language.


This week's lesson is basically about the Elvish writing system – reading and writing. You have probably all seen examples. (sample) (pretty pictures)

First we consider the sounds and letters in Quenya. It's not that anyone really cares whether your Quenya pronunciation is accurate, but this gives you an idea what letters exist in the language. Look over this quickly.

C – ALWAYS pronounced “k”. (Tolkien preferred writing “c” because it looks more like Latin. Some editors prefer to write Quenya with “k” to make the pronunciation clearer.)
LH – In archaic (Aman) Quenya, represents a voiceless “l”. In Third Age Middle-Earth Quenya it is pronounced (and sometimes written) as ordinary “l”.
NG -- In Third Age Middle-Earth Quenya, when this letter occurs at the beginning of a word, it is pronounced (and usually transcribed into English) as “n”.
QU – The same as “cw” or “kw”. Tolkien (and most editors) use “qu” or “q” because it looks better.
R – Always a “strong” or trilled “r”.
HR -- “Weak” or “voiceless” (that is, ordinary English) “r”.
S – Always voiceless. The “z” sound does not occur in Quenya.
TH – Voiceless, as in English “thin”. In spoken Quenya, it is pronounced “s”, although it is considered a different letter from the other “s”. (Ithil/Isil)
HW – Voiceless “w”, as in English “white”.
X – The same as “cs” or “ks”. Tolkien (and some editors) use “x” because it looks better. In Quenya this sound is two letters, a consonant cluster.
Y – is a consonant in Quenya.

Native speakers of Westron (“Common”) sometimes pronounce Quenya “TY” as “ch”, and Quanya “HY” as “sh”. Go figure.

Consonants usually occur singly, rather than in clusters.
However, “b” occurs only in “mb” and “lb”;
d” occurs only in “nd”, “ld” and “rd”;
g” occurs only in “ng”.

A word will not start with a consonant cluster, unless you count “qu” (= cw), “nw”, “ng”, “ty”, “hy”, “ny”.
Normally a word will not end with a consonant cluster.

A – as in English “father”
AI -- as in English “rye”
AU -- as in English “loud”, “how”
E – as in English “were”. Final “e” is NEVER silent; it is often written “ë” as a reminder that it is pronounced.
EU – diphthong (one syllable), no close English equivalent
ER -- as in English “air”
I – as in English “machine”
IU -- diphthong (one syllable), no close English equivalent
IR -- as in English “eer”
O – as in English “for”
OI -- as in English “boy”
U – as in English “brute”
UI -- diphthong (one syllable), as in English “ruin” {That's what Appendix E says!}
UR -- as in English “oor”

Other vowel combinations are two syllables. They are often written with ¨ mark as a reminder (ëo, ëa, etc.).

Long” vowels are marked with an accent ´. I think that, in general, “long” refers to prolonged duration (not a change in sound like English “long” and “short” vowels). However, Professor Tolkien says: “In Quenya long é and ó were, when correctly pronounced, as by the Eldar, tenser and 'closer' than the short vowels.”
As far as I can tell, the main effect of “long” vowels is changing which syllable is stressed.

A long (accented) vowel cannot occur before a consonant cluster. A vowel in that position will remain short (unaccented).

{The class is gratified that Quenya pronunciation is predictable, unlike English.}

A few point to notice:
Ë” is the same letter as “E”. The only function of the dots ¨ is to remind English-speakers that E at the end of a word is pronounced (or sometimes to remind you that some vowel combinations, such as “Ëo” and “Ëa” are two syllables). (These are sometimes written “Eö” and “Eä”. It doesn't matter, since the dots are only a reminder.)

B”, “D”, and “G” never occur by themselves. So, as we will see in a moment, there are no separate letters for “B”, “D” and “G”.


In class, we skipped over the stressed syllables in words:

In two-syllable words, the first syllable is nearly always the stressed syllable.
In longer words,
if (as is common) the second-to-last syllable contains a short vowel followed by one (or no) consonant, the stress does NOT fall on it, but rather on the third-from-last syllable.
Otherwise, the stress falls on the second-to-last syllable. (A long vowel in the second-to-last syllable will always attract the stress.)

ORomë, erESSëa, FËanor, ancALima, elentÁRi, andÚne

Just keep in the back of your mind that long (accented) vowels exist, and that they affect the pronunciation as far as which syllable is stressed.


Now for the good stuff: writing!

"Tengwa" is the Quenya word for "letter", so "tengwar" means "letters", and is what people usually call this alphabet.

{Digression about plurals: yes, ordinary plurals are formed by adding -r to the end of a word that ends in a vowel (Ainu → Ainur) or adding -i to the end of a word that ends in a consonant (Atan → Atani). But that is in next week's lesson.}

Basic Letter (Tengwar) for Quenya
Notice how much more systematic these letters are, compared to the alphabet we are used to. The shapes of the letters all follow a pattern, and there are relationships between the shapes of the letters and the sounds they represent.

Many of the letters represent what we would call a “consonant cluster” -- a combination of sounds. That is the case with I-2 (“ND” -- remember “D” sound never occurs by itself). The name of the Elf King Ingwë is represented by three symbols: I, Ngw, and E. (And yes, in Quenya there are words starting with “Ngw”, even though it is a mouthful.)

“QU” is the same as “KW”. The “U” in “QU” isn't really a separate letter/sound. It is just put in because English-speaking readers can't stand to see “Alqalondë.

Some other letters have two pronunciations separated by a comma. These represent variations in pronunciation over the millenia. (I-3 “Th” or “S”)

Different Elvish languages use this same set of letters, but change which sound is associated with certain letters, depending on which sounds exist in that language. (That happens with English/European letters, too. The letter “J” is pronounced differently in different languages.) Sometimes the tengwar were used for other languages, such as Sauron writing the Ring Inscription in his language of Mordor, or the Title Page to Lord of the Rings, which is supposed to represent hobbits attempting to write Common in tengwar.

(Why do the numbers for rows 5 and 6 seem to be reversed? In the Appendix E in Return of the King, Tolkien put the double-loops in row 5 and the single loops in row 6. I don't know why. I have retained his numbers (which are now standard in the Tolkien community), but switched the display of the rows to match the rest of the pattern.)

Extra Letters (Tengwar) for Quenya
 These are all the other symbols that don't fit neatly onto the first chart.

Remember “D” sound only occurs in “ND”, “LD”, and “RD”? We saw “ND” on the Basic Letters page. Now we have “LD” and “RD”.

B” sound only occurs in “MB” and “LB”. We saw “MB”. For some mysterious reason there is no letter for “LB”, so you have to write it as shown.

Vowels are the tricky part of writing Quenya! Vowels aren't written as a separate letter; they are marks, written above the consonant that came before. 
(To write “calima”, you would write
     C with A above it,
     L with I above it,
     and M with A above it.)

What if there is no consonant before, such as when a word starts with a vowel? Then you use the “short carrier” or “long carrier”. These are marks that are not pronounced. Their only function is to give something to stick the vowel onto. Use the “short carrier” if the vowel is short, or “long carrier” if the vowel is long (accented). 
(In the earlier example, “Ingwë would be written:
     short carrier with I above it
     NGW (tengwa IV-2) with E above it)

     short carrier with A above it,
     QU (tengwa IV-1) with A above it,
     L with O above it,
     ND (tengwa I-2) with E above it.

{aha (double triple dots over the h) ;) And more triple dots over the long carrier out front.}

How to write the long vowels: The marks for E, O and U can be written double, side by side, squished both onto the consonant. Long A always has to be put onto a long carrier, even if there is a consonant available. I am not sure whether long I would use double dots, or a long carrier.

The letters S and SS each have two mirror-image versions. You will only use one. Use the pointy-end-up version if there will be no vowel above. Use the round-end-up version if there will be a vowel.

We did not have time to mention the three symbols in the lower right corner of Extra Letters.
I am not sure “following S” ever occurs in Quenya. If it did, you could use that little curl attached at ground level to the previous consonant.

The little squiggle under a letter (consonant) marks it as a double letter. So you don't have to write the letter twice.

The double dots under a letter mark a following Y. This occurs a lot, especially in the Teleri dialect.
“Tyelpë”, Teleri dialect for “silver”:
     T with double dots below and E above
     P with E above.

The serifs on the letters are just decorative. You don't need to put them in if you are writing in pencil.

Here are some samples (mostly names) to practice reading written Quenya.

Some Names, for practice reading Tengwar

We did not have time to mention that all the letters have “names”, which is how Elvish children learning their tengwar would refer to them. These “names” are simple words, usually starting with the appropriate letter.

Letter Names:
tinco (metal)          parma (book)     calma (lamp)          quesse (feather)
ando (gate)             umbar (fate)       anga (iron)              ungwe (spider's web)
thúle/súle (spirit) formen (north)   {harma (treasure) hwesta (breeze)
                                                                {aha (rage)
anto (mouth)         ampa (hook)       anca (jaws)             unque (a hollow)
óre (inner mind)   Vala                      anna (gift)               vilya/wilya (air, sky)
númen (west)        malta (gold)        Ngoldo/Noldo        ngwalme/nwalme (torment)

rómen (east)
arda (region)
lambe (tongue)
alda (tree)
silme (starlight)
silme nuquerna (s reversed)
esse (name)
hyarmen (south)
hwesta sindarinwa (Grey-Elven hw)
yanta (bridge)
úre (heat) (refers to a circle-shaped mark, which I did not include because I am not sure what sound it represents)

Middle-Earth maps generally showed West at the top of the page.
Thus hyarmen (south) also means “left-hand side” and formen (north) also means “right-hand-side”.


As soon as Shawn tried to write his own name in Tengwar, we ran into a major problem. The “Sh” sound does not exist in Quenya.

So, for a bonus (you know you want it!), I include the system for writing “foreign” words (such as English) in Tengwar. This is based on the Title Page of Lord of the Rings, and is closely related to the system for writing Sindarin. (Ditch the combinations like “NGW”, and add in sounds like “Sh”, “Ch”, “Th” and “J”.) Like Sindarin, the Title Page puts vowels over the following consonant (which is rather hard to write).

Basic Letters for writing "Foreign" Languages (such as English)

Extra Letters for writing "Foreign" Languages (such as English)

I am sure someone has worked out how to write French in Tengwar, but you might have to do some web-searching to find it.   
Web archive bonus: Download some Tengwar fonts
     Tengwar Quenya is the font I used for the class pages.
     I think I used Tengwar Sindarin for the Examples.
     Tencele Latinwa is my favorite “fake Elvish”.
Notice that some of these fonts arrange the tengwar by the keyboard letters closest to their value. (I-1 “T” goes with keyboard “T”)
Others use the rows of the keyboard to correspond to the chart of the Tengwar.
   Top keyboard row (1 2 3 4 ...) corresponds to I-1 “T”, I-2 “NT” ...
   Second row (q w e r t ...) corresponds to II-1 “P”, II-2 “MB” ...
   Vowels are in the capital letters, arranged by keyboard columns:
      # E D C (find them on your keyboard right now) are various placements of A mark.
      $ R F V are various placements of E mark, etc.
> Lesson 2    


  1. I am opening the Comments for some of the consistently popular posts.

  2. I'm developing my own language. I simpflied phonetics to 10 letters. But this is good.