Guide to Learning Elvish
by Gildor-Inglorion


Welcome to CoE and the guide to learning Elvish! This is a guide that will hopefully be of help to the prospective student of Elvish (either Sindarin or Quenya). In this guide I will discuss why people care about these languages, what the major divisions of the elvish tongues are, how to choose which to study, and lastly I will give some tips on learning Elvish from the onsite lessons.

So, the big question, why study Elvish? I am not going to walk down the street talking to people in Elvish, and I am certainly not going to bump into an elf anytime soon. Why then does anyone care? Why should anyone wish to study a language that a) is dead (not changing or growing), and b) Not complete enough to say much in? There are many answers to these questions, but for brevities sake I shall limit myself to a few. To begin with, language was the initial inspiration for Lord of the Rings and all the rest of Tolkien’s works. Tolkien was often known to say that the Eldarin (elvish) tongues were created first; the world of Middle Earth developed as a place where those languages could exist. His languages are the sole motivational drive that lead to one of the worlds greatest pieces of modern literature. This greatness is not some mere fluke; Tolkien’s greatness comes from his ability to understand languages, and through language, the culture, and eventually the world of Middle earth. These languages provide an emmense amount of depth to an already intricate story. I feel that it is impossible to fully appreciate Tolkien without at least a basic understanding of his languages. Secondly, I cannot think of more beautiful languages than those of Eldarin descent. Elvish, in its many varied forms, is immensly beautiful and moving. Thirdly, the study of Elvish endows the learner with a greater sense of how languages work (as will the study of most any foriegn language). It is then for this reason that we study Elvish. If you are still unconvinced as to why you should study the various Eldarin tongues, I suggest you go home, burn your copy of Lord of the Rings, and take up the hobby of watching TV for the rest of your life.

So far I have only spoken of Elvish as a single term: Elvish. However, do not be decieved! There are a multitude of elvish languages and each in turn posess their own unique technicalities. There are many sites on the internet that claim to teach “elvish”, but often times the authors do not even realize that more than one language exists, nor do they seem to care for the “proper” (ie. that which can be deduced from Tolkiens own notes and linguistic analysis) grammer. The net result is a haphazard jumble of elvish roots and words from multiple languages, strung together in various convoluted ways. These sites do not do Tolkien justice. I highly recommend that the prospective student stay as far away from them as possible, out of respect for Tolkien and for their own good. So then, what Eldarin languages do exist? At the time of Lord of the Rings there were only two dominant branches of Elvish. These are Sindarin and Quenya. Of all the Eldarin tongues, Quenya seems to be the most popular. This, I believe, is due to the greater readiness of material on Quenya whereas we have much less in respect to Sindarin. Some argue that Quenya is the more melodic language. I would have to disagree. Sindarin differs from Quenya in that it allows consonant clusters (groups of consonants) at the beginning and end of words. This would naturally tend to make the language bolder, and harder sounding. However, Sindarin seems to prefer fronted sounds and continuants, that is to say, sounds produced in the front of the mouth and sounds of long duration. These types of sounds, by their very nature, tend to produce a melodic language. Quenya tends to use shorter and harder sounds. Secondly, the hardness of Sindarin is quite nicely muted and controlled by what are known as “consonant mutations”. These mutations, or “assimilations”, cause Sindarin words to mutate when they are strung together into sentences. This mutation of sounds, produces a very beautiful and flowing language. Quenya posesses no such mutations relying instead upon precision control of consonant clusters This produces a nice melodic language that, due to its vowel plenty nature, flows quite nicely together. Lets take a look at some examples of each:

Sindarin:

A Elbereth Gilthoniel
silivren penna míriel
o menel aglar elenath!
Na-chaered palan-díriel
o galadhremmin ennorath,
Fanuilos le linnathon
nef aear, sí nef aearon

Quenya:

Ai! laurië lantar lassi súrinen,
yéni únótimë ve rámar aldaron!
Yéni ve lintë yuldar avánier
mi oromardi lissë-miruvóreva
Andúnë pella, Vardo tellumar
nu luini yassen tintilar i eleni
ómaryo airetári-lírinen.

The first text block is Sam’s cry to Elbereth in Sindarin taken directly from Lord of the Rings. The second is the first part of Galadriel’s farewell, also taken from Lord of the Rings. While these are not the same poem, they should give you an idea of the differing styles that each language posesses. Each is clearly Elvish and beautiful, but the languages differ in the way they create this beauty.

It should be noted at this point that Sindarin and Quenya are not the only Eldarin languages that professor Tolkien created. For him, the creation of languages was an ongoing process that never stopped, until the day he died. The amount of languages he created is staggering. Unfortunately, we have very little information on many of them. Thus we have scanty notes of them here and there, and a few attested examples of words, but hardly enough text to build a grammar for (we have enough trouble building a grammar for Sindarin!). The one language that we do have plenty of examples of (other than Quenya and Sindarin) is Noldorin. However, since Noldorin ended up changing into Sindarin, it is not often studied, except perhaps by those who wish to know more about the evolution of Sindarin. At the time of Lord of the Rings, all languages and dialects thereof, had boiled down into the two main branches of Sindarin and Quenya.

Now then the most often asked question of “which should I learn?” This is often followed closely by “Which language is easier?” To start, neither language is really “easier” than the other. Quenya is easy for some while others find that Sindarin is easiest for them. Speakers of Celtic languages like Irish, Welsh, or Gaelic will probably find Sindarin easiest, because it incorporates many of the same linguistic ideas. However, speakers of Finnish, or students of Latin, will most likely find Quenya to be easier. My recommendation is to go with which ever language really interests/sounds best to you. This will, in the long run, make learning all the much easier; not because the material is different, but because you are interested in it. With study and pracitice, a fair degree of capability in these languages can be developed in a short time. With that in mind, do not be afraid to choose the language that you like!

Some tips on learning Elvish from the workbook lessons:

1) Print out the lessons. This cannot be emphasized enough. Once you have a hard copy you will be able to look over the lesson when ever you have some spare time, as well as highlight the important points.

2) Do not try to memorize all of the Sindarin consonant mutations. Often students get bogged down about the 4th or 5th lesson. This is right in the middle of the consonant mutations. Its ok not to have them completely memorized. That’s what printing the lesson out was for. With time, and practice from the activities this memorization will slowely develop.

3) If you have ANY questions, ask in the forum! Too often many students when they become confused, rather than ask for help, give the language up! You will not understand everything at once. Take time to study and ask! There are plenty of helpful people who are more than willing to answer questions. It took Tolkien a lifetime to create these languages so don’t expect to absorb it all in one day.

4) Translate things. Poetry, friends names, articles, anything that will give you a chance to help this stuff stick. The truth of the matter is, the more you use it the more is stays.

5) Errors unfortunately DO happen. If you get confused by something and think a mistake may have been made bring it up in the forum!

6) Take breaks while studying. Your brains no good of you fry it =).

Have a tip or suggestion? Comments about the lessons? Send a PM to Fíriel (Sindarin) or Malinornë (Quenya), or visit the Elvish 101 Forum.