- "For 'completion', the achievement of a fixed Grammar and Lexicon, was not, in my belief, the over-riding aim. Delight lay in the creation itself, the creation of new linguistic forms evolving within the compass of an imagined time. 'Incompletion' and unceasing change, often frustrating to those who study these languages, was inherent in this art."
- ― Christopher Tolkien on his father's invented languages in his commentary to Lowdham's Report
According to Pengolodh, the sage of Gondolin, the making of a language is the chief character of an Incarnate. The speaking peoples used languages to communicate. The first of those races were the Dwarves who were taught by Aulë and then the Elves, who called themselves Kwendî, the "Speakers".
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". As Pengolodh noted, "The making of a lambe is the chief character of an Incarnate," including the Valar.
In Valinor, the Elves began to be interested in the nature of their languages. These loremasters were called lambengolmor. Usually they would compare Quenya proper against Telerin and point out the original Primitive Quendian.
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.
List of languages
- Primitive Quendian
- Mannish languages (all showed influence by Avarin tongues as well as Khuzdul):
- Languages of forefathers of the First and Third Houses of the Atanatári ("Northern Mannish")
- Language of forefathers of the Second House of the Atanatári ("Southern Mannish")
- Drûg languages
- Many Haradrim languages
- Many tongues of Easterlings
- Language of the Lossoth
- Languages of Dwarves:
- Languages of the Ents
- Languages of the Ainur (Valar and Maiar):
- Languages of Orcs:
- Many Orkish languages (influenced by many languages)
- Black Speech (constructed by Sauron, influenced by Valarin)
- Other languages:
Other versions of the legendarium
Tolkien's conceptions of the languages, like his mythology itself, changed through time. For older linguistic concepts see The Tree of Tongues, Oromean, Aulean, Goldogrin, Kornoldorin, Noldorin, Qenya, Ilkorin, Doriathrin, Nandorin and Taliska.
- "What I think is a primary 'fact' about my work, that it is all of a piece, and fundamentally linguistic in inspiration. [...] The invention of languages is the foundation. The 'stories' were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows [...] It is to me, anyway, largely an essay in 'linguistic aesthetic', as I sometimes say to people who ask me 'what is it all about'."
- ― J.R.R. Tolkien
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.
Tolkien was a professional philologist 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".
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. Words that are an exact match with existing Welsh words can be found in the early drafts of Tolkien’s manuscripts published as The History of Middle-earth, but attempts to match a source to a particular Elvish word or name in works published during his lifetime are often very dubious.
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.
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.
- "Indeed it would be the only fitting monument to a man who had to invent a whole world just to have a place where people could greet one another with the words Elen síla lúmenn' omentielvo."
- ― Helge Fauskanger, Tolkien's Not-So-Secret Vice
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 Tolkien's languages 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, was the Bulletin of the Linguistic Fellowship of The Tolkien Society, the oldest Eldarin publication.
- Vinyar Tengwar and Parma Eldalamberon are published by the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship.
- Tyalie Tyelellieva was published by Lisa Star.
- Mythlore is published by the Mythopoeic Society.
- Beyond Bree is published by Nancy Martsch.
- Tengwestië published via online by the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship.
With the rise of the Internet, mailing lists dedicated to Tolkien linguistics spread, being the most famous Tolklang, Elfling and Lambengolmor. Many scholars and editors were involved there, but they are currently dissolved. Spiritual heirs are the Discord server Vinyë Lambengolmor and websites like Parf Edhellen and Eldamo.
- Ardalambion A site containing much knowledge about Tolkien's languages and questions surrounding them.
- The Elvish Linguistic Fellowship
- the Tolkien language mailing list
- Tolkien information: Languages, Elves, the Ainur, and the Valar
- Fellowship of the Word-smiths With language courses, links, translations, and much more
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The War of the Jewels, "Part Four. Quendi and Eldar: Appendix D. *Kwen, Quenya, and the Elvish (especially Ñoldorin) words for 'Language': Note on the 'Language of the Valar'", p.397
- J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 165, (undated, written June 1955)
- J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 214, (undated, written late 1958 or early 1959)
- Mark T. Hooker, Tolkien and Welsh, p. viii