In discussing the languages Tolkien invented, it is necessary to consider two aspects: their "primary world" history, namely their literal development by Tolkien as a linguist, and their "secondary world" history, namely their imagined historical development in the history of Middle-earth.
Tolkien was a professional linguist and a specialist in the Old English language. He was also interested in many languages outside his field and developed a particular love for the Finnish language (he described the finding of a Finnish grammar book as "entering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before", The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, number 214).
Finnish morphology (particularly its rich system of inflection]) in part gave rise to Quenya. Another of Tolkien's favorites was Welsh — and features of Welsh phonology found their way to Sindarin. Numerous words were borrowed from existing languages, but less and less obviously as Tolkien progressed, so that attempts to match a source to a particular Elvish word or name in works published during his lifetime are often very dubious.
Language-making was Tolkien's hobby for most of his life. He is known to have constructed his first languages (Animalic and Nevbosh) at a little over thirteen and he continued to ponder upon his creations up until his death more than sixty-five years later. Language invention had always been tightly connected to the mythology that Tolkien developed, as he found that a language could not be complete without the history of the people who spoke it, just as these people could never be fully realistic if imagined only through the English and as speaking English. Tolkien therefore took the stance of a translator and adaptor rather than that of the original author of his works.
Although the Elvish languages Sindarin and Quenya are the most famous and the most mature languages of those that Tolkien invented for his mythology, they are by no means the only ones. They belong to a family of Elvish dialects, that originate in Common Eldarin, the language common to all Eldar, which in turn originates in Primitive Quendian, the common root of Eldarin and Avarin languages. In addition to that, there is a separate language family that is spoken by Men, the most prominent member of which was Westron (derived from the Númenórean speech Adûnaic) or the "Common speech" of the peoples of The Lord of the Rings. Most Mannish tongues showed influences by Elvish, as well as some Dwarvish influences. Several independent languages were drafted as well, for example the Khuzdul language of the Dwarves. Other languages are Valarin (the tongue of the Valar), and the Black Speech created by Sauron during the Second Age.
Although the study of Tolkien's languages is as a rule not taken seriously by mainstream linguistics, a number of serious scholars have worked on compiling all that can be recovered about their histories and grammars.
An early book dedicated to Eldarin is An Introduction to Elvish by Jim Allan (published by Bran's Head Books), written before the publication of The Silmarillion in 1977 and therefore mostly outdated.
There are several journals dedicated to the subject:
- Quettar, Bulletin of the Linguistic Fellowship of The Tolkien Society, edited by Julian C. Bradfield, the oldest Eldarin publication.
- Vinyar Tengwar and Parma Eldalamberon are published by the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship.
- Tyalie Tyelellieva is published by Lisa Star.
- Mythlore is published by the Mythopoeic Society.
- Beyond Bree is published by Nancy Martsch.
In the history of Middle-earth, the tongues of the Elves are separated as part of the speakers emigrate to Aman while others stay behind, leading to a split of Quenya (High-Elvish, or Elf-Latin) and Sindarin.
The invention of writing is attributed to Rúmil, who first invented an alphabet: the Sarati (literally "letters"). Fëanor later enhanced and further developed this alphabet into the Tengwar, which were spread to Middle-earth by the Ñoldor and remained in use ever after.
Daeron of Doriath indepently of Rúmil and Fëanor had invented the Cirth Runes, but these were only used for inscriptions, and otherwise replaced by the Tengwar, except among the Dwarves.
In Quenya, lambë is the term for spoken language or verbal communiation while tengwesta is a more abstract term for a system or a code of signs and may be translated as "grammar".
Writing and spelling
Sindarin and Quenya are often written in the Tengwar script, which Tolkien especially devised for them, or alternatively in the rune-like cirth. When Middle-earth languages are written with the Latin alphabet, either acute accents (á, é, í, ó, ú) or circumflex accents (â, ê, î, ô, û, ŷ) mark long vowels depending on language or other convention. The [diaeresis (ä, ë, ö) is normally used to mark that a short vowel is to be separately pronounced, that it is not silent or part of a diphthong. For example, the last four letters of Ainulindalë should be sounded as if spelled dah-leh in English rather than as dale and the first three letters of Eärendil represent something like eh-ahr rather than the English word ear. (But occasionally, especially when writing proto-Eldarin forms, Tolkien used the macron to indicate long vowels and the dieresis on ä, ö, and ü as in German to indicate i-modification or e-modification.)
In the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien adopted the literary device of claiming to have replaced the original Westron with English. This device of rendering an imaginary language with a real language he carried further, rendering Rohirric, related to an older form of Westron, by Old English, and names in the tongue of Dale in the north of Rhovanion by Old Norse forms, thus mapping the genetic relation of his fictional languages on the existing historical relations of the Germanic languages. A natural consequence of this is that the languages thus replaced were never worked out by Tolkien in any detail because they never appeared in the texts.
List of languages
- Mannish languages (all showed influence by Avarin tongues as well as Khuzdul):
- Languages of forefathers of the First and Third Houses of the Atanatári
- Language of forefathers of the Second House of the Atanatari
- Drûg languages
- Many Haradrim languages
- Many tongues of Easterlings
- Languages of Dwarves:
- Languages of the Ents
- Old Entish.
- "New" Entish
- Languages of the Ainur (Valar and Maiar)