How To Get By In Elvish

Picture via

Picture via

I was sitting in church behind a music stand waiting for the mass to begin when my daughter turned and spoke to me in Elvish.

I have little idea what she said, beyond the vague knowledge that it was some kind of salutation. It was not even the first time she has spoken to me in Elvish. But it took me by surprise because it was so utterly effortless.

It was as though we were all speaking Elvish all of the time and indeed, the congregation might pipe up in a hymn written in this tongue which is, when all is said and done, completely fictional.

Maddie is increasingly using Elvish. She has a compatriot in school, I believe, who is learning Elvish with her during lunchtimes. I can see the trend growing. And what if she began to write in Elvish? Would her stories catch on? Where would this Elvish tale end?

J.R.R.Tolkien has become rather a way of life these days. Even when I was small I had a map of Middle Earth up in the wall, which I would study solemnly as I read and re-read his work.  Had Elvish tutorials been readily available, needless to say I would have learnt the language too.

But the original language Tolkien created before the outbreak of the first world war had a different name: Quenya.

It is easy to forget that before the stories, came Tolkien’s love of language. The man was a philologist: a discipline which combines literary studies, linguistics and history. By the time Quenya came along, Tolkien was already familiar with Latin, Greek, Spanish, Norse, Old English and Gothic languages. He loved words and their provenance.

And then he met those magician storytellers, the Finns, and read their Kalevala. And the lilting beauty of their tongue birthed the possibility of a High Elvish for Tolkien.

He began with what the linguists call a proto-language, a root language from which others stem. He made it up, of course, but it provided root words on which he could build different outcomes.

And then he began to build the fictional tongue which hordes strive to learn and speak today. The language grew and evolved and it seemed to Tolkien that the words needed those to speak it, and they would need a back story. In a letter to a reader he wrote: “I find the construction and the interrelation of the languages an aesthetic pleasure in itself, quite apart from The Lord of the Rings, of which it was/is in fact independent.”

He never intended it to be used for communication, it is said. But by the 1970s people were creating new words and adding elements to make this something in which one could actually speak to other people. As of 2008 about 25,000 Elvish words were included in an encyclopaedia of Elvish.*

And now, surf the net and it’s all out there. the chance to find out what your Elvish name is. Phil is Dínendal Anwarünya. Macaulay the dog is Arminas Anwarünya. We have the opportunity to speak Elvish phrases and learn the way the author-philologist intended.

Or did he? Where does Tolkien’s language end and our wishful thinking begin?

Maybe, simply the groundswell of will to speak this piece of make-believe will take it where Klingon never ventured: to the creation of an Elvish state, and a new Rivendell.

*Kloczko, Edward (2008). L’Encyclopédie des Elfes (in French). Le Pré aux Clercs.


49 thoughts on “How To Get By In Elvish

  1. I have a hard enough time learning other modern languages. I do find it interesting that the Elvish vocabulary is being expanded. I am now wondering if languages other than Elvish and Klingon have been created from fictional sources.

    1. Ah, there are many: try Artemis Fowl’s Gnommish, of Orwell’s Newspeak; the Watership Down rabbits had their own language, Lapine, and there’s Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange.

      1. Do people speak these other languages? I was thinking of languages that are adopted by rabid fans of a book or show.

        Ha, maybe the fans of Watership Down are rabid fans?

    2. Game of Thrones (the tv show) purposefully created Dothraki for this purpose. Given the show’s popularity, I have no doubt it will catch on.

  2. Kate, my Elvish name is something I am sure Maddie could pronounce with ease, Eámanë Minyatur, but I am completely baffled as to how to say it. Milton’s is Orophin Calafalas. I don’t think I’m going to share his with him. It sounds too much like an orifice or a poisonous plant.

  3. Lenwë Fëfalas is apparently my Elvish name, although I am so sorely tempted to say this with an “Elvis” twang….thank yew very much and pass the peanut butter and jelly.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting today! The fact that the language began the whole Lord Of The Rings phenomenon is telling. Words romance us, don’t they?

      1. They most certainly do! Take a look at my about page. It’s a bit tongue in cheek, but does elude to my fascination with words. And you do have a great blog!

  4. So Tolkien said, ‘These roots are meant for talking,’?
    Hmmm. Not too sure whether I want to be Fëanáro. Sounds to me like an Italian opera singer.
    Tári is rather nice.

  5. Gosh, you’re dredging up an old memory Kate. My girlfriends and I spoke elvish on the playground back in the day. And when it wasn’t elvish, it was hieroglyphs and sign language. Séreméla Anwamanë

    1. She awes me too, but I think daughters often do that to their mothers. After seeing Felix’s first book on FB, though, I feel sure Felix will be headed the same way.

  6. Why, did i never know this.. How fantastic,.. and excellent info on tolkien.. I have read a little about him but obviously not enough! c

    1. He is an interesting sou, Celi: not my favourite of the Inklings, who met at the Eagle and Child in Oxford (Must check that out, incidentally!)

      CS Lewis always waltzes away with my heart. But Tolkien engenders the impulse to immerse oneself in his mythology.

    1. Cumbersome s a good word, Nancy. I suppose play-languages are sometimes cumbersome to match their backdrop. Difficult to speak, but then Elves can handle most things…

  7. I think it’s just delightful to hear that Maddie is speaking Elvish with any ease at all…I can’t imagine trying to learn such a complicated series of words I haven’t heard pronounced. Tolkien was such an amazing man. I can imagine you staring at the map of Middle Earth. It all seeps into our imaginations and at any age, I believe, we stop and get caught up in the fantastic. I also wonder what would happen if Maddie began to write in this lovely language. Keep us posted…blessings from Gilraen Vanimedlë. 🙂

  8. I still love Tolkein – wonder if my son will ever read the books or have the films stolen the magic? I guess time will tell. Anyway…

    Greetings from Amras, Gilraen and Elrond Ancalimë 🙂

  9. Much, too much, fun. I’ve been elvishing and the hobbiting and now my day is flitting by. I like my Hobbit name better, so, I will sign this Lara Hamwich of Buckleberry Fern.

  10. I think it is fantastic creating a new language with a vast vocabulary in so little time. And for the same reason it is terrible that every year, the last people speaking a unique language or dialect die and our world becomes poorer. Because each world carries more than a tranlat-able meaning. It carrier a hi-story, has an aesthetic value and a certain weight.
    And to thing that the King could be Elvis.

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