The idea that there exists one “true” language with special, even magical, properties, is a widely used trope in fantasy writing. We encountered it in class in “A Wizard of Earthsea,” but I had also seen it before in “Eragon.” As we discussed in class, Tolkien did not use this trope. Characters go by many different names, for example, and no one name is ever thought to be more “real” than another. Although there is one primal language, Valarin, it does not have any special or magical power. Any one language is as good as the next (except in terms of beauty) etc. This is something that Tolkien’s legendarium seems to share with the real world.
(Note: I read on a Tolkien wiki that the elves did not bother learning Valarin, and that they were displeased by the sound of it, but cannot confirm.)
But I think that there actually are “true” languages that, in a way, unlock the secrets of the universe. Why? When you have a family of languages, learning the root reveals hidden information about the daughter languages. I can’t tell you how it blew my mind when it was explained to me that “Jupiter” is just “Deus Pater” (in Indo-European), and that the storm deities in numerous other cultures are just variants of the same words in I.E. Learning about this deep connection between so many cultures, across enormous distances (Ireland to India), over thousands of years, is like an epiphany. It is like being initiated into a deeper knowledge about the world–kind of like magic.
The first question I had when reading about Tolkien’s languages was if they worked as linguistics tell us languages work. In particular, I wanted to see if the languages had regular sound changes over time, as languages work in the real world. For anyone without a background in linguistic paleontology, languages change over time in regular, predictable ways. According to Grimm’s Law, for example, the “p” sound in I.E. (as in “*pods,” or “foot”) changed to a “f” sound in proto-Germanic. This is true throughout the language. That is why, to this day, the word for the body-part that touches the floor in languages descended from proto-Germanic (English, German, etc.) begins with “f” whereas it begins with “p” (like “pied” in French) in other I.E. languages. This is enormously important in the study of language families, since this allows us to relate two languages according to regular, consistent sound correspondences. Let’s take the previous example of “foot.” Since “p” changed to “f” in proto-Germanic but stayed “p” in Romance, there is a p = f correspondence between, for example, English and French. Thus, we can identify “pied” and “foot” as cognates even though they sound dissimilar.
Can we do this kind of analysis for Tolkien’s languages, Quenya and Sindarin, for example? This is not just a test of the internal consistency of Tolkien’s languages, but also incredibly useful for understanding Eldarin, the parent language. Comparative philology allows us to reconstruct words in Eldarin by comparing cognates in the daughter languages. Let’s give it a try.
[NOTE: I am not actually a trained philologist. I just took a class on it once. Take everything with a grain of salt.]
Let’s take the Quenya word “andune,” which means “sunset,” and the Sindarin cognate “annun.” A few things are immediately clear. Based on the similarity of the words, the Eldarin is obviously "an __ un __" Let's take the ending first. If we look at another set of cognates, Q. "anda" and S. "and," "long," its clear that Sindarin omits vowel endings that are present in Sindarin. But what did the original Eldarin have? One rule of linguistic reconstruction is parsimony: you should posit the least number of changes necessary to explain the differences between the daughter languages languages. If Eldarin did not have vowel endings, you need to posit numerous morphological changes to explain the presence of such endings in Quenya. On the other hand, if Eldarin did have these endings, Sindarin must have dropped those endings. That is a comparatively more parsimonious explanation of the difference. For that reason, I think that Eldarin probably did have vowel endings. Thus, the Eldarin for sunset is "an __une." What about the d -> n correspondence? Again, take Q. "anda" and S. "and" "long." If Eldarin had "d" and Sindarin omitted the "d" sound (thus giving us annun rather than andune) you would expect the "d" sound to be omitted from "anda," giving "an" rather than "and." Thus, it is more likely that Eldarin did not have the "d" sound we see in Quenya, and that this was an innovation in the language. Thus, I think the reconstructed Eldarin word for sunset is *annune.
Let's do some more! Before I go on, however, I should note that its especially difficult to reconstruct Eldarin in this case because we only have two daughter languages. In linguistic reconstruction, if there is a sound correspondence, the sound in the proto-language is likely to be the sound exhibited in a majority of the cognates. That is why it is important to assemble all the cognates you can. We can't do this, however, because we are only working with two languages.
Take Q. periando and S. perian "halfling". Already, we see that the rules I noted earlier is repeated again here: (1) Quenya innovated by placing "d"s after "n", and (2) Sindarin lost the original Eldarin vowel endings. Thus, the Eldarin word is probably *periano.
MORE: Q. elda and S. edhel "elf." Both begin with "e," have a central "d" sound and nearly end with a non-rounded vowel. There is a final consonant in Sindarin. As I said earlier, Sindarin drops Eldarin final vowels, so I think that the Eldarin word probably ends in "-a", like the Quenya. Next, there is the order of the consonants, l - d or d - l. I'll deal with that in a second. The final difference is the presence of the "e" in between the consonants. The Sindarin has this vowel, and the Quenya does not. As is often the case with vowels, its easy to imagine the vowel being elided over time (like the "a" sound in "comfortable"). Thus, I think the "e" sound in the middle of the word present in the Sindarin has probably been preserved from the Eldarin, and was elided over time by the Quenya-speaking elves. The final difference between the Quenya and Sindarin is the order of the consonants, l - d, or d - l. In the absence of any other information, I don't think that we can determine the order in Eldarin. Therefore, the Eldarin word is either *edela or *eleda.