Neo-Elvish is a term that can refer to Neo-Quenya and/or Neo-Sindarin. Neo-Elvish encompasses attempts to productively standardize, regularize and even reconstruct J.R.R. Tolkien's languages with the intent to be taught, studied and be used in fanon compositions. The terms Neo-Quenya, Neo-Sindarin etc arose so as to distinguish those attempts from Tolkien's own creations.
Overview of the problem
Tolkien did not leave behind a definite, canonical set of rules for his languages, and did not intend to create them in order to be useable. As a result, the information gathered posthumously from his notes might seem like fluid and fragmentary to someone who seeks to see a possible 'whole picture'. The absence of a final, canonical Quenya or Sindarin has the consequence that anyone attempting to compose an e.g. Quenya grammar, would eventually create a conventional, Neo-Quenya grammar.
In order to 'fill the gaps', such a person would rely on speculation, personal instinct and widely subjective interpretation; coping with Tolkien's continuous mutually exclusive revisions, the student would choose to reject Tolkien's older, temporary or 'anomalous' creations in order to keep the most plausibly canonical.
For example, Helge Fauskanger's grammar of Quenya, being such an attempt, is described as a: "synthetic and regularized form of Quenya formed by the selective piecing-together of evidences from across decades of Tolkien's successive versions and elaborations of Quenya".
Attempts to study or write in Elvish date back to at least the 1970s. An example composition of that era is Valinorenna by Björn Fromén, published in the fanzine Palantíren 3 in 1973, using vocabulary only from words found in The Lord of the Rings. Attempts continued the following decades, thanks to the publication of more of Tolkien's works, including the History of Middle-earth series, with most importantly, The Etymologies (1987), and the work of the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship.
Such publications made possible to infer some grammar rules from Tolkien's writings, and also made known the etymological-derivational system in which the Elvish languages work. It was thus made possible to create Sindarin words from Quenya cognates or artificially derive them from Proto-Quendian roots.
Attempts to write in Tolkien's languages include fanon literature, Tengwar tattoos, translations of Tolkien's works into Elvish, translation of pre-existing literature such as Biblical passages, original short poems and stories etc. Linguistic plays included the composition of (Neo-)Quenya poems without containing the very frequent vowel a or the translation of Namárië to (Neo-)Telerin or (Neo-)Sindarin
Of course, the resulting 'literature' by no means represents a universal homogeneous convention of Neo-Elvish. Each work reflects the personal understanding and preferences of its author at the time of writing and can be mutually exclusive.
Similar attempts were made to reconstruct Elvish grammar rules, such as inferring a full working pronominal system or the Sindarin verb system or how to use the Noldorin language of The Etymologies to create Sindarin forms. Such interpretations were partially obsoleted by later publications of Tolkien's papers.
The most prominent appearance of Neo-Elvish was in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, which made use of linguist David Salo's reconstructions. The movie also featured original lyrics in (Neo-)Elvish, (Neo-)Khuzdul, (Neo-)Black Speech and other languages. However the scarcity of information on Khuzdul etc necessitated wholly original creation of vocabulary and grammar rules.
The release of the movies also boosted a temporary interest in studying and using Elvish.
Critics say that Tolkien's intention did not move much further than simple creativity and experimentation and his languages are fluid in their very nature; standardizing or enriching them would only result in new original creations. Those claim that after uncovering the full range of variation in Tolkien's conception of his languages will frustrate rather than point towards a final, definite form.
Critics furthermore speak about the "problematic and illusory nature of [Neo-Elvish] as anything other than an approximation and introduction to the study of Tolkien's own linguistic inventions". Common criticism is about the subjective conventions which eventually are reproduced and passed over and eventually adopted as facts by newcomers to the field.
- Elvish.org FAQ — Article by Carl F. Hostetter. Presents a succinct counterpoint citing Tolkien's own views of the purpose, completeness and usability of his languages.
- "Elvish as She Is Spoke" — Article by Carl F. Hostetter. A thorough examination of Tolkien's purposes in inventing his Elvish languages and his practices in describing them, their consequent nature, and the inherent pitfalls in any attempt to "speak Elvish". Republished with permission from The Lord of the Rings 1954–2004: Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Blackwelder (Marquette, 2006), ed. Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull.
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