List of Tolkien's Languages

List of Tolkien's Languages

by Lisa Star

Since many people ask how many languages Tolkien invented, I offer this tentative list, with a short description of each language. However, because of the complexity of the interrelationships between the languages and because of the limited information about some of them, it is difficult to provide an exact list, and it is especially difficult to come to a determination as to which languages should be considered dialects of other languages. Comments and criticisms would be appreciated.

I distinguish these languages based on phonological studies, that is, languages which apparently differ in their forms are distinguished, while those which do not are grouped together. My analysis is based on the studies of the languages, specifically on the attested words, rather than being entirely dependent on the published statements of J. R. R. Tolkien. This list is organized according the time period when the languages were used. While this has problems, it still seems like the most logical and useful arrangement.

I would also like to offer an explanation for two terms that I use for the levels of language use (the other terms being used and defined by Tolkien). A "house language" is a language which is used in a family or household but which is not the common speech of the larger community. A "private language" may well be the high speech of a certain people, but it is not used for public or everyday use.

Before the First Age

Common Elvish is the name used for the language spoken by the Elves when they first awoke in the Great Lands and before they reached Valinor. It is little attested but much can be inferred about it based on the information given. Proto-Elvish is a name for it as a reconstructed form. Note that Tolkien originally thought of Proto-Elvish as having been taught to the Elves by Orome, and thus a descendant of the language of the Valar; however, he eventually changed his mind about this and we can see that the earliest elvish is not a descendant of Valarin. In addition, a term Proto-Eldarin is sometimes used. This is identical with Proto-Elvish in most contexts, but Proto-Eldarin would exclude the Lemberin or Avarin dialects, about which we have almost no information. The abbreviations for Proto-Elvish and Proto-Eldarin are the same however, and are often confused.

Valarin is the language of the Valar in Valinor. In fact there may have been several forms of Valarin as it seems unlikely that words that are attested from Valarin are identical with the language which Mahal (Aule) taught to the Dwarves.

Eldarin includes several languages spoken by the Elves in Valinor such as Lindarin, Ingwiqendya, and Valinorean Quenya which differ from standard Quenya in some way (although technically the word Eldarin may be applied to any language spoken by the Eldar which would include Noldorin). It is not clear exactly what is meant by these names nor how these languages relate to each other, but there are at least a few words attested for each.

Quenya was spoken by the Elves of Valinor before the 1st Age and it has remained a language of high speech or a book language almost everywhere since then.

Telerin was spoken before the First Age by the Elves of Alqualonde in Valinor, and may continue to be spoken there and at the Grey Havens. I use this name for the Telerin language spoken in Aman, but the word is also applied to the quite different dialects of Beleriand, as these languages were spoken by Teleri elves.

Old Noldorin was presumably spoken before the First Age, either by the Noldor of Valinor, or by the Ilkorin Elves of Beleriand, and it apparently continued in use in Beleriand, at least during the First Age, since a cursive form of the Certhas Daeron was developed for writing it. It may have been spoken by both groups of elves until the Noldor adopted the language of the Vanyar while still in Aman. A distinction should be maintained between Old Noldorin as it is described by Tolkien in the Etymologies and such forms of Old Sindarin as anyone might wish to reconstruct--a necessary product of the study of the phonological history of Sindarin.

First Age

Quenya was spoken in Beleriand in the First Age, and even though banned by Thingol, remained as a house language of the Noldor, and the first language of some of the Edain. The particular form spoken in the First Age is exemplified by the entries in Etymologies.

The Ilkorin Dialects were spoken by the Ilkorin Elves in Beleriand in the First Age and include:

The Noldorin Dialects include several languages which are grouped together but may not be all that closely related. Noldorin was spoken by the Noldor of the First Age in Beleriand and is supposed to be closely related to the Ilkorin dialects. There are five dialects with little information to differentiate them phonologically but they are described:

See also Gnomish of the Second Age and Sindarin of the Third Age.

Dialects of the Lembi and other Dark Elves in Beleriand and eastwards are named but little attested.

Taliska is the usual language of the Edain in Beleriand in the First Age, but was superseded by Noldorin or Quenya among most of them. Taliska may be Tolkien's own (re-)formation of Gothic and its use by the Edain fits with Tolkien's original conception of the history of Middle-earth, when the Edain originally spoke a Germanic language. In addition Tolkien developed Mork and Hvendi. These three Germanic languages are described in historical grammars and wordlists still unpublished. The last two languages are probably related to Old English and Old Norse, respectively.

Later, Tolkien developed the idea of Semitic type languages for some of the Edain in Beleriand and so Haladin and Malachian are also attested from the First Age. Whatever the Edain were speaking, they may well have shared with the Dwarves of the time, at least for use as an "outer" language in the First Age.

Dwarvish of the Petty Dwarves is slightly attested in Beleriand in the First Age.

Orkish is attested in Beleriand in the First Age, although most Orcs carry Sindarin names, at least among the Elves.

Second Age

Qenya of the Second Age was spoken in Tol Eressea by the returning Noldor and continues in use. This early form of Quenya (note spelling difference) is exemplified by the Lexicons published in the Books of Lost Tales and in the Qenyaqetsa.

Quenya was used as a high speech of Numenor in the Second Age and the term Numenorean Quenya is used to distinguish it from other varieties of Quenya. Quenya also probably remained in use as a high speech of Gil-galad and other Noldorin Elves on the coast of Middle-earth; of Celebrimbor and of the Noldor of Eregion; of Elrond and his household at Rivendell; and of Galadriel in Lothlorien.

Gnomish or Goldogrin was spoken in the Second Age in Tol Eressea by the Noldor returning there. From the standpoint of Tolkien's life this was a very early form of Sindarin; from the phonological perspective, this langauge is more closely related to the Ilkorin dialects than to Noldorin or the Sindarin seen in the Lord of the Rings. It is well attested however, in the Lexicons in the Books of Lost Tales and in the Lam na-nGoldathon (the latter out of print).

Noldorin was spoken in the Second and Third Ages of Middle-earth. It was perhaps the usual language of the Noldor of Eregion, the folk of Elrond's house, and of the Dunedain both in Numenor before its fall and in their kingdoms in exile in the north and south of Middle-earth. Noldorin was also commonly spoken by Dwarves in the Second Age, especially in Moria, and it appears on the original text of Thror's Map, presumably made at Erebor.

Nandorin is the name of the language spoken in the Second Age by the Green-elves east of the Misty Mountains.

Adunaic was spoken in Numenor during the Second Age, especially among the less educated or the descendants of certain groups. It appears to have a number of dialects and variations. It was introduced back into Middle-earth before the destruction of Numenor (though speakers of a related language had remained in Middle-earth in the meantime). It is the source of the many dialects known as Westron and spoken at Umbar, Tharbad, Gondor and points in between.

The Black Speech was spoken by Sauron and may have been invented by him.

Third Age

Quenya of the Third Age was used as a high speech among Elves along the western coast and in Rivendell and Lorien, and remained in use among the Dunedain, and among certain educated Hobbits.

Entish Quenya, as it is spoken in the Third Age, (and presumably long before) may be considerd a dialect of Quenya, because it has so many words of Quenya in it. The Ents also had a language unique to them--Entish, which no one else could learn. Fangorn also knew Westron, and perhaps Sindarin or Ilkorin.

Sindarin continued to be spoken in the Third Age in Middle-earth. It was the usual speech of the folk of Elrond's house and of the Dunedain in both Gondor and the north of Middle-earth and it may be the house language of Thranduil of Mirkwood.

Silvan Dialects in the Third Age were spoken by the Elves of Lorien and Mirkwood; the speech of the Elves of Mirkwood is called a Woodland dialect.

Westron is the common speech of mortals in the Third Age and dialects are spoken among the folk of Gondor, Bree, and other places. It has a substantial grammar, not yet published, and a small vocabulary, most of which has been published. Specific dialects (usually given in Germanicized form) are:

Westron is also the common language of Dwarves in the Third Age and a particularly "harsh" dialect was spoken by Orcs when necessary. Here again, the (true) Westron, (true) Rohannish and (true) Hobbitish languages replaced the Germanic languages which Tolkien used for mortals in his original conception of Middle-earth. This occurred midway through the writing of the Lord of the Rings, leaving a few anachronisms behind, such as Orthanc.

Additional languages spoken by mortals ascribed to the Third Age which are but poorly attested include:

Dwarvish, also called Khūzdul, is not easy to date, but words are known from the First Age in Beleriand and from the Third Age by Dwarves of the Longbeards at many locations in Middle-earth. Khūzdul is a private language and is not thought to be known by anyone other than Dwarves, except for Gandalf, and amazingly enough, Galadriel.

Orkish or Debased Black Speech is attested from the Third Age among several groups of orcs including those of Moria, Isengard, and Mordor. It is said to have many mutually unintellible dialects, although they are not delineated.

Based on this list, it is still not possible to estimate how many languages Tolkien invented, partly because it is difficult to set a standard for how much must be known about a language before it can be said to be "invented." Such languages as Dunlending or the language of the Haradrim probably never consisted of more than a few words but certainly the languages Quenya and Sindarin were greatly developed though never in a final form. In addition, based on the same sorts of techniques which linguists normally use to study languages, and which Tolkien used to develop his languages, it is possible to determine the forms of unattested words in such languages as the Telerin of Aman and of the Ilkorin dialects. One could probably reconstruct Old Noldorin completely and, for that matter, Common Elvish. Of course, it is quite possible that yet more languages remain to be discovered in the vast quantities of Tolkien's unpublished linguistic material.

In the meantime, the study and use of Quenya and Sindarin continues, in what are thought to be the forms most in accord with examples given in the Lord of the Rings. The particular forms of these languages are referred to as "Classical" or "Modern" Quenya or Sindarin and students of these beautiful languages have made great progress in determining their grammar and vocabulary. At the present time they are used for communication in writing, and we hope to have an opportunity to learn to speak and understand them vocally with more practice.

Lisa Star

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Tyalie Tyelellieva / Lisa / July 2000

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