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Appendix E, II - Writing (descriptive)


Nov 25 2011, 8:42am

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Appendix E, II - Writing (descriptive) Can't Post

'I cannot read the fiery letters,' said Frodo in a quavering voice.
'No,' said Gandalf, 'but I can. The letters are Elvish, of an ancient mode, but the language is that of Mordor, which I will not utter here.

- The Shadow of the Past.
When a philologist is also an artist, he is bound to delve into the graphic aspects of human communication as well as the phonetics, and study how and by whom the languages which interest him were preserved in durable matter – by setting them in stone, by drawing them on canvass, by writing them down on paper. And if the said philologist is also highly imaginative and creative, he is likely to dabble in inventing scripts, codes and even partial or complete alphabets.
Tolkien was all three, and he invented two alphabets: the Tengwar or letters, the High-Elvish script developed by Fëanor; and the Cirth or runes, ascribed to the Sinda Daeron (a lover, and in early versions of the tale a brother, of Lúthien) but later adapted by the Dwarves into the slightly different Angerthas Moria. The Tengwar were for writing with a brush or pen, while the Cirth were for scratched or incised inscription.
Tolkien discusses the history of each of these separately, before describing them; we will start with the descriptions.
Once again, I make no pretension of having fully understood how the alphabets are constructed; I refer you to squire's thorough analysis, especially of Tengwar (check especially the thread which begins with a quote from Pink Floyd).

* * *

Tengwar has thirty-six letters: graphically, there is a matrix of 6*4 and twelve extra letters. Within the matrix, every column (or series, as Tolkien calls it) indicated the position of the 'bow', and whether it was open or closed; and each row (or grade, as Tolkien calls it) indicates the length and position of the 'stem'.
Phonetically, the matrix is supposed to express how the letters are formed; in fact, as squire observed, it was not so much an alphabet as a system of arranging consonants.
However, only four of the grades fit into this pattern. The fifth grade is basically variations on n and m (nasals), and the sixth is semi-vocal weak consonants – our friends w and y, and the untrilled r; but as these have become merged with the weak grade four, there was 'room' for vowels.
Has Tolkien ever explained which vowel fitted where? Which of the five basic vowels was left without a letter?

The last twelve letters are arguably the least important; but we find here three surprising letters: l, the full r and (perhaps most surprisingly) s.
Why these three? Aren't they important enough?

This reduction in the importance of s, reminds me of the very curious remark in the essay regarding pronunciation, in the entry for TH:


This has become s in Quenya spoken, though still written with a different letter; as in Q. Isil, S. Ithil, 'moon'.

Hmm. So first, it appears that there was a much more important letter (no. 9, in addition to no. 29) which was pronounced in spoken Quenya as s; the differentiation in writing was probably kept as a matter of grammatical curiosity, to remind if the word's etymological origin. Anyone who regularly reads English will encounter many such examples. How many letters do you need to write 'laugh'?
But it is interesting that while in Quenya, the 'Elf-Latin' of the opening remarks of appendix E, the th sound morphed into s, in Sindarin it was retained.
Readers of The Silmarillion – have you ever realized that the Sindarin Elu Thingol was probably more 'correct' than the Quenya Elwë Singollo? I note that in Splintered Light, Verlyn Fleiger argued the opposite, that the Singollo->Thingol morph was actually a sign of his receding further away from the light.

If even I have noticed this weird case, it surely had not escaped Tolkien. And during the last period of his work, he composed an elaborate work, The Shibboleth of Fëanor, which represents Fëanor as one of the last of the 'old guard' which insisted upon preserving the th sound when most of the Noldor have reverted to using an s (This essay was discussed here). The long, 'double' s did exist, and was connected to the rare consonant z; but many of the uses of s were actually reduced forms of th.
Did Fëanor relegate the silma (the letter denoting s) to the lower part of the table as a part of the struggle for the 'purity' of the Noldor's speech, or is the s sound really not a natural part of the system?
If I may quote squire's conclusion:


I’ve had a very strong feeling throughout this technical description that Tolkien is straightforwardly describing his invention of the Tengwar and Quenya; you could practically substitute “I” for “the Elves” throughout, and it would be the autobiography of this particular word-artist.
The “First Age”/ Valinorean language and lettering stuff dates from the late ‘teens and the ‘twenties. Things didn’t work out as he expected. Quenya evolved, with new sounds and spellings. He tinkered with other ways to use Tengwar to write Quenya. New and later “rules” and “usages” occurred throughout the ‘thirties. And the “Third Age” and Westron stuff dates from the 1940s, when The Lord of the Rings came into being.

It appears that Tolkien carried on with this tinkering process to his very last years, does it not?

A last thing to note is the Tehtar, or vowel diacritics (not unlike the Hebrew nikkud I've mentioned on the previous time). Once again, the vowels break into three subgroups: i and e are denoted by acute accents (with several different traditions regarding the direction of the accent – i is an accent pointing in one direction and e in the other); a is a circumflex; o and u are curl (one again, one opening towards the left and the other towards the right),
I love this idea – if in the Hebrew nikkud, the names of the diacritics explain how they are sound – in the Fëanorean alphabet they look as the way they sound – the balanced circumflex for the natural wide mouth, the acute for the sharper i and e, and the curl for the longer o and u. Is there any precedent for this type of abstraction? It makes onomatopoea seem crude and unsophisticated.

* * *

Now the Cirth of Daeron is another matter altogether. It has no less than sixty letters, with more complicated patterns than Tengwar. I think N. E. Brigand summarized them very ably in two paragraphs.
Only very recently I've recognized the pattern (and that, after re-reading NEB's summary). I suspect that I was confused by the diacritic-like dots above the letters signifying t, ch, k, kw, r (j by the dwarves), s (h) and so on.
In short, I took these as a part of the letters; while in fact they were contrived by Tolkien to break the list into separate series, so that the reader could understand.
Am I the only such dummkopf? Or have you also been confused?
I also note that NEB combined the t-series and the ch-series as 'dentals', which means that Tolkien made a finer distinction than is normally used.

One thing the Cirth is abundant in, is vowels – no less than fourteen of them! It is true that two of them were added by the Dwarves, and appear only in the Angerthas Moria; but still this is a striking difference compared to the Tengwar.
What do you make of this? Was Sindarin simply a more complex language than Quenya, or is it more necessary when engraving runes to clearly express the vowel, while one who reads letters naturally and fluidly gets the slight variations correctly? Was it common for runic alphabets to have more symbols than the letter-based systems?

I am also puzzled by the order of vowels in the Cirth. It is not a-e-i-o-u as in English, nor is it i-e-a-o-u as in Tengwar (which I've argued above was logical). Instead, it is i-u-e-a-o, which does not even make sense graphically!
Just to make sure – am I correct in my feeling that visually, the symbols are arranged more naturally as i-e-a-o-u?

Perhaps it might be suggested that the order reflects the existence of to associated consonants among the runes denoting i and u. But while y is represented by the same symbol as the vowel i, w is distinct from u. In fact, w seems the more intuitive one (think of it as a y with a circle on top – doesn't this resemble Tengwar's acute and curl?), will u is the easier to engrave, having less lines to draw.
Does this imply that w was the original rune?

Another curious thing regarding vowels, is what Tolkien wrote: "Nos. 39, 42, 46, 50 were vowels and remained so in all later developments". These are the symbols for i, u, e and o. No a – the most simple and natural vowel!
Is this simply a major blooper? Or was there originally no letter for a, seeing how simple and intuitive it was? 48 is indeed missing from the list of original cirth. Was it denoted simply by a string of consonants, and the a-sound assumed to be naturally inserted whenever necessary?
Could this explain the curious order of vowels I've asked about? Was the rune for a simply a hybrid between e and o, added once the need for an a-rune was felt (perhaps because two different variations of it were recognised)?
Does this answer the question I've asked above, regarding the four vowels which 'received' letters of the sixth grade in Tengwar?

I see that this post is becoming long, so I will postpone the discussion of the history of writing for a separate one.

"The Appendices (and Prologue) gave Tolkien an outlet for explanations he couldn't fit into the text, and therefore made the text that much simpler and free of burdensome explanations. It's very hard for someone who creates a world from the ground up to refrain from overexplaining what he or she has created; the Appendices, and what is more the promise that someday The Silmarillion might be published, may have helped Tolkien exercise ruthless restraint."
- Curious

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