The Shibboleth of Fëanor
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The Shibboleth of Fëanor is the eleventh chapter of The Peoples of Middle-earth. It primarily concerns the titular essay by J.R.R. Tolkien, which discusses the shift from þ (as in English 'thing') to s in the spoken 'Exilic' dialect of Quenya, and how this phonological change was intimately connected to historical and political circumstances. Also included however are lengthy 'excursuses' from this essay regarding Elven 'mother-names', the parentage of Gil-galad, the westward migration of the Edain, and the names of various prominent Noldor. Additionally the main body of the essay also contains an interesting tangent on Galadriel.
The case of the Quenya change of þ > s
The basis of the essay is the 'anomolous' use of s: Tolkien reasons that since in Sindarin—the vernacular tongue of the Noldor after their exile—þ was common, the change þ > s must have become widespread before the Noldor left Valinor. And on the basis of the presence of þ in Vanyarin and Telerin, and its retention in written Exilic Quenya the Noldor must have been aware and capable of producing the sound. He therefore concludes that the þ > s shift was "conscious and deliberate" and after the birth of Míriel but before the birth of Fëanor.
Having pinpointed the origin of the change Tolkien goes on to discuss its adoption by the majority of Noldor and the historical context in which this occurred. Originally, he explains, the change was criticised by loremasters "who pointed out that the damage this merging would do in confusing stems and their derivatives that had been distinct in sound and sense had not yet been sufficiently considered". Chief among these 'reactionaries' was Fëanor, who in addition to scholarly reasons opposed þ > s because had become attached to the þ sound due to its presence in the mother-name of his mother Míriel, Þerindë ('Needlewoman'). Following the voluntary death of Míriel, and the animosity this produced between Fëanor and Finwë's children by Indis, this formerly scholarly debate became politicised. The use of þ by Fëanor and his followers became entrenched, and he saw the growing adoption of s by the Noldor, and especially now by Finwë and Indis themselves, as a deliberate insult to his mother and a plot by the Valar to weaken his influence amongst the Noldor. In this way Fëanor made þ > s a political shibboleth; he styled himself the 'Son of the Þerindë' and would say to his children:
We speak as is right, and as King Finwë himself did before he was led astray. We are his heirs by right and the elder house. Let them sá-sí, if they can speak no better.
Finally, Finarfin and his house are discussed as exceptions to this division. They used Þ, not because of Fëanor's arguments, but because of their fondness for and kinship with the Vanyar and Teleri, whose dialects retained it. Eventually however Finarfin's daughter Galadriel, out of her intense dislike of Fëanor and its near-universal use amongst the Noldor of Beleriand, came to favour s (e.g. in her lament).
About the text
The Shibboleth of Fëanor was drawn from a single unfinished typescript, with handwritten notes interspersed, composed sometime after 1968. According to Christopher Tolkien it is typical of his father's latest work on the legendarium in that the production of new material resulted largely from discursive attempts to explain anomalies and unanswered questions in his earlier work, usually philological in nature, which often led to treatments of widely varying subjects.
Some notes (with advanced linguistic content) from the manuscript papers were excluded from the version presented in The Peoples of Middle-earth. These were later published as "From The Shibboleth of Fëanor" in Vinyar Tengwar, Number 41, edited and commented by Carl F. Hostetter.
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Peoples of Middle-earth, "The Shibboleth of Fëanor", p. 336.
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Peoples of Middle-earth, Introduction to "Part Two: Late Writings".
- J.R.R. Tolkien, "From The Shibboleth of Fëanor" (edited by Carl F. Hostetter), in Vinyar Tengwar, Number 41, July 2000, p. 7.