Although the dialects of the Silvan Elves, when they again met their long separated kindred, had so far diverged from Sindarin as to be hardly intelligible, little study was needed to reveal their kinship as Eldarin tongues. Though the comparison of the Silvan dialects with their own speech greatly interested the loremasters, especially those of Noldorin origin, little is now known of Silvan Elvish. The Silvan Elves had invented no forms of writing … By the end of the Third Age the Silvan tongues had probably ceased t o be spoken in the two regions that had importance at the time of the War of the Ring: Lórien and … northern Mirkwood. All that survived of them in the records was a few words and several names of persons and places.
— J. R. R. Tolkien (as quoted by Christopher Tolkien in Unfinished Tales)
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Nandorin (also called Silvan Elvish, Green-Elven, or Wood-Elven) is a delicious problem among the languages of Middle-earth. Tolkien’s most fully ‘worked out’ languages were: Quenya, or High-Elven, which was spoken primarily in the realm of the Valar across the sea (though Galadriel’s lament Namárië is one of the most extensive Quenya texts published); and Sindarin, or Grey-Elven, the vernacular of the Elves of Middle-earth from the First Age (which ended six thousand years before the events of The Lord of the Rings) down to the War of the Ring. Most of the Elvish words and phrases which appear in LotR are Sindarin. Nandorin does not appear in Tolkien’s best-known works at all, though at one point Frodo does mistake the local dialect of Lothlórien for the distinct tongue of the Wood-Elves.
What we do have, thanks in no small part to Helge K. Fauskanger’s encyclopædic site Ardalambion, is a tantalizing word-list. It’s quite short. Some Tolkien scholars believe that the corpus is too small and too problematic to allow further extrapolation; I’m more optimistic. My knowledge of linguistics is amateur, but all the same, I’d like to lay some pet theories before you. They are strictly speculative, but I think there are good reasons for them—and anyway, they’re fun.
Before embarking, a quick run-down on the principles of Elven linguistics is in order. There are two major splits within Elvish languages, though they all form a macro-family, and these splits correspond to divisions among the Elves as a race.
The first split was that between the Avari and the Eldar. When the Elves first awoke, they were a single people; but when Morgoth (the original master of Sauron) began to prey on them, the other Valar, god-like powers, invited the Elves to live in safety in their land. Most of the Elves accepted: these became the Eldar, the ‘People of the Stars.’ Those who refused were the Avari, the ‘Naysayers.’ The Avarin languages, though hinted at in a few places, play no important role in Tolkienian linguistics as a whole; our concern is with Eldarin tongues.
The second split was among the Eldar. The Great Journey from their first dwelling-place in Middle-earth to the land of the Valar took many hundreds of years (for reasons that need not detain us). Many reached their destination during the First Age, and in the land of the Valar they developed their Eldarin tongue into the beautiful and ordered language of Quenya. Some, however, were lost along the way. The largest community of these were some Elves who lingered in Beleriand (in the extreme west of Middle-earth)1, who became the Sindar or Grey-Elves, and whose language became Sindarin; but some abandoned the Great Journey earlier. One of these communities, called the Nandor, were those who were terrified by the Misty Mountains and refused to cross them, choosing instead to live permanently in the forested areas around the River Anduin, which much later became the realms of Mirkwood and Lórien. It is their Nandorin tongue we’re discussing here. (One of the salient differences between Quenya and Sindarin was how they handled the primitive sound kw: Quenya preserved it, as qu, while Sindarin turned it into a p. This will matter later.)
Now then, the word-list.2 I’ve placed the Nandorin word first, marked N., with its translation; I’ve also included any Quenya or Sindarin cognates (or equivalents) that are known to exist, marked Q. and S. respectively, and the primitive form and/or root, if any are known, in small capitals. Particularly doubtful or difficult words are marked with an asterisk. (Keep in mind that the word-list that follows is nearly everything we actually know about Nandorin. Further than this, any student of Tolkien operates in guesswork.)
*N. alm, ‘elm tree’; Q. alalmë, S. lalf; ALMĀ, ÁLAM
N. beorn, ‘man’; BESNŌ, BERNŌ, BER
N. caras, ‘moated fortress’; Q. car ‘building, house,’ S. caras ‘city [built above ground]’; KAR
N. cogn, ‘bow’; S. cú; KU3NĀ, KU3
N. Cwenda, ‘Elf’; Q. Quendë; KWENDE, KWEN, KWEN
*N. Danas, ‘Wood-Elves, Green-Elves [lit. those who go back, forsworn ones]’; Q. Nandor; NDAN
*N. dóri-, ‘land’; Q. -ndorë, S. dor; NDORĒ, DORO
N. dunna, ‘black’; DUNNĀ, DUN
N. ealc, ‘swan’; Q. alqua, S. alph; ALKWĀ, ÁLAK
N. Edel, ‘Elf [of the Great Journey]’; Q. Elda, S. Edhel; ELDĀ, ÉLED
N. enel, ‘between’; S. ened; ÉNED
N. galad, ‘tree’; Q. alda, S. galadh; GALADĀ, GAL
N. Golda, ‘Deep-Elf’; Q. Noldo/Ñoldo, S. Golodh; ÑGOLODŌ, ÑGOL
N. hrassa, ‘precipice’; KHRASSĒ, KHARÁS
N. Lindi, ‘Green-Elves [lit. Singers]’; Q. Lindar; LINDĀ, LIN
N. Lindon, ‘Ossiriand [a part of Beleriand; lit. Singers-land]’; LINDĀNĀ
N. Lindórinand, ‘Lothlórien [lit. Vale of the Land of the Singers]’
*N. lóri-, ‘golden [color]’; Q. laurë, S. laur; LÁWAR
N. Lórinand, ‘Lothlórien [lit. Vale of Golden Light]’; Q. Laurenandë, S. Glornan, Nan Laur
N. lygn, ‘blue’; Q. luinë, S. luin; LUGNI, LUG
N. meord, ‘mist, fine rain’; MIZDĒ, MIZD
N. nand, ‘vale, valley’; Q. nanda, ‘watered plain,’ S. nan; NANDĀ
N. scella/sciella, ‘shade, screen’; SKALNĀ, SKAL
N. snǣs, ‘gore, spearhead, point, triangle’; S. naith; SNAS, SNAT, NAS
N. spenna, ‘cloud’; Q. fanya, S. faun; SPANNĀ, SPAN
N. swarn, ‘stubborn, obstinate’; SKWARNĀ, SKWAR
N. Urc, ‘Orc,’ plural Yrc, ‘Orcs’; Q. urco, orco, S. orch; URUKU, URKU, RUKU
N. Utum, ‘Utumno [lit. the Deep Place]’; Q. Utumno, S. Udûn; UTUBNU, TUB
(Of the dubious words, dóri- and lóri- have been isolated from compounds, and may therefore not be reliable indicators of standard Nandorin, while alm is questionable for phonetic reasons, explained below. Danas is the most plausible, but, due to its meaning, it’s unlikely the Wood-Elves would refer to themselves by such a name.)
Going off this, we can deduce a few things about the phonetics of Nandorin, and guess a few more. The guessing comes in through the real-world model of Nandorin. Tolkien stated that Quenya owed a great deal to Finnish, his favorite language, and Sindarin to Welsh. My pet theory is that Anglo-Saxon, which he not only liked but taught at Oxford, was the model for Nandorin. The sound and even the appearance of the Nandorin word-list is very consonant with Anglo-Saxon, and (as we’ll see) it allows us to make some rather interesting extrapolations.
First, some to-my-knowledge undisputed observations:
- Primitive final ā is dropped, except when preceded by a double consonant (e.g. cogn, dunna, ealc, scella);
- Primitive final ō and ē become a (e.g. Golda, hrassa), and short e may do the same (e.g. Cwenda);
- Final short i and u are dropped (e.g. lygn, Urc, Utum);
- Final i (long or short) provokes umlaut in the preceding syllable (e.g. lygn, Yrc);
- Earlier au becomes long ó, and non-final ā becomes short o (e.g. Lórinand, Lindon);
- When a primitive vowel-final word has two identical vowels in the first two syllables, the second is dropped, unless a final ā was already lost (e.g. galad, Golda).
- The back-spirant 3 (also written gh in Orkish, as in ghâsh)3 becomes g, rather than vanishing as in other Eldarin tongues (e.g. cogn, lygn);
- Nasal explosives (like nd and mb) become simple plosives (like d and b) at the beginning of words (e.g. Golda);
- Primitive sp is preserved (unlike other Eldarin languages, which change it to f), but skw becomes sw (e.g. spenna, swarn);
There are some possibilities I’d add to this:
1. Consonant clusters that start with a liquid (l or r) cause a preceding vowel to dissimilate into a diphthong—a tends to become ea (perhaps pronounced like ea in English bear), while e and i tend to become eo (probably pronounced like the e of egg and the o of role run together); e.g. beorn, ealc, meord. The only clear problem with this theory is that, in that case, we should have expected ealm rather than alm; that being said, given how different the Quenya and Sindarin forms of the word are, we don’t know exactly what primitive form the root ÁLAM took. If, for example, it was turned into something like alamu in Proto-Nandorin, then both the second a and the u would be dropped, but perhaps dropped later than the a > ea period of Nandorin’s development, thus yielding alm.
Alternatively, the specific cluster lm may not provoke this change, or the change may simply not be regular; Anglo-Saxon phonology sometimes shows apparent irregularities of this kind—e.g., when r was followed by a short vowel, the vowel and the r would often swap places, but only before s, n, and d, and even then this swapping did not occur consistently or yield a regular pattern in later English (for example, bird instead of brid is a result of this change, but the word grass is unaltered, even though the form gars was once used!).
2. A number of hypothetical vowel mutations may be hinted by this list. The best case can be made for the theory that, in monosyllables, the vowel a when not followed by a consonant cluster turns into æ (called ‘ash’ and pronounced like the a in cat); snǣs attests the change in one case, while nand and swarn show that it was not universal, and both end in clusters. Dóri- and lóri- suggest that, although long ē becomes short a at the end of words, in the middle of words it becomes short i—rather the same way that ā is dropped finally, but shifts to o medially, as in Lindon. Cogn, lygn, and Urc between them suggest that, in monosyllables, u is raised to o before 3/g, unless it’s been umlauted to y by a final i. It’s also possible, though entirely unattested, that, as the diphthong au is shifted in Nandorin to long ó (e.g. lóri-), the similar primitive diphthong ai may be turned into long é. (A in general seems to be downright disliked in Nandorin: they want to change it to practically any other vowel!)
3. The Teleri, the clan of Elves from which both the Grey-Elves and the Wood-Elves derived, are known for turning the ancient kw into p. However, we don’t know exactly when this happened. H. K. Fauskanger has labeled Cwenda and ealc as dubious since, as words in a Telerin language, we might have predicted something more like Penda and ealp (ignoring any other difficulties about the words). However, considering the ways in which Nandorin phonology is often surprising conservative (e.g. preserving primitive sp-, which even Quenya doesn’t do), I’m inclined to think that Tolkien may have designed Nandorin to be a rare branch of Telerin that preserved kw, writing it as cw, though at the end of words it would turn into a simple c.
4. We have few if any Nandorin names, but we do have a very few names of Silvan Elves that have probably been adapted to Sindarin: Amdír, Amroth, and Nimrodel. (The first two were ancient kings of Lothlórien, and the third was the beloved of Amroth.) Sindarin has few phonological constraints, but we may possibly divine from these names that Nandorin permits nasals (m, n, and ng) to keep their own character before other consonants, since all three contain m + consonant and Sindarin would have no reason to introduce this pattern where it did not exist. Sindarin, by contrast, not infrequently changes nasals before consonants: the word lembas is a contraction of lenn-mbas, with n assimilated to m to make it easier to pronounce before the b, while the mountain name Caradhras is a contraction of caran-rass, ‘red horn.’
5. Nandorin grammar may have made use of substantive adjectives, i.e. adjectives used as nouns (kind of like referring to political partisans by color associations, like Reds for socialists and Greens for environmentalists). Several words, like cogn, dunna, and spenna, are nouns in Nandorin but must, for phonological reasons, have descended from primitive adjectives. If Nandorin favored substantives, this tendency would be quite natural.
6. This language may also have preserved more inflection than Sindarin. In The Lord of the Rings, we’re told the name of the citadel of Lothlórien, Caras Galadhon; Tolkien states that the name is probably of Silvan origin but adapted to Sindarin. Now, in Sindarin it either doesn’t mean anything (fat chance—it’s Tolkien), or it should mean ‘City of the Great Tree’: the suffix -on in Sindarin just means ‘large, great,’ and except in extremely archaic Sindarin there is no genitive case (the ‘of’ case, expressed in English by putting -’s on the end of a word). Yet it is glossed as ‘City of the Trees’ in the indexes of both LotR and Unfinished Tales, which in Sindarin should rather be Caras-in-Gelaidh.4 But if this was originally Nandorin, the name would have been Caras Galadon or something similar, because Nandorin preserved the ancient d, instead of shifting it to dh as Sindarin did.
We don’t know directly whether -on means anything in Nandorin, but we do know what it means in Quenya: it’s the genitive plural ending. If Nandorin too preserved the ending -on for genitive plural, we would get exactly Caras Galadon for ‘Fortress of Trees’—and Sindarin speakers, easily recognizing the equivalence between galad and galadh, would simply change the d to a dh, and ignore the rest because the sound is still harmonious with Sindarin. (Changing the d to a dh would matter, though, because galad in Sindarin means light.) All this is, at most, evidence for one case, the genitive, and even then only in the plural. Still, the conservative traits of Nandorin make me suspect that this reconstruction is correct, and it’s possible other cases were preserved too.
If these reconstructions are correct—and it’s a big, fat, morbidly obese if—then we can project a few more hypothetical words of Nandorin. I’ve selected some names of prominent places and people, and a handful of phrases, as samples.
Galadriel (‘Maiden Wreathed in Light’): Galatrigella
Taur e-Ndaedelos (‘Forest of the Great Fear, Mirkwood’): Tór Dédelosto
Valinor (‘Realm of the Valar’): Bælondora
Númenor (‘Westernesse’): Dodora
Sauron (‘Abhorred’): Thór
Hithaeglir (‘Misty Peaks, Misty Mountains’): Hithíc
Elessar (‘Elfstone, Aragorn’): Edelsearn
Laurië lantar lassi súrinen (‘The leaves fall golden in the wind’): Lóriless lanar sýrnen.5
Elen síla lumenn’ omentielvo (‘A star shines on the hour of our meeting’): Él síla loda waminto.5
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1Those of you who have read The Lord of the Rings or looked up maps of Middle-earth may notice that Beleriand is conspicuous by its absence. At the end of the First Age, when the alliance of Elves and Men against Morgoth had been utterly defeated, the Valar themselves arose and sent emissaries and an army to Beleriand, where they made war against Morgoth and his forces of Orcs, Dragons, Balrogs, and other corrupt creatures—including Sauron, who at that time was in Morgoth’s service. Morgoth was defeated, and imprisoned beyond the confines of the world; but Beleriand, already for the most part laid waste by Orcs, was trampled down and completely ruined in the War of Wrath, and almost all of it sank into the Sea of Belegaer: only two small islands (Himring or Himling, and Tol Morwen) and the broken country of Lindon, immediately west of the Blue Mountains, remained. As late as the events of LotR, Elves still lived there (Mithlond, the Grey Havens, being one of their chief cities), being unwilling to desert what was left of the country for which they had fought and suffered, but Beleriand as such was lost. The history of Beleriand in the First Age is related in the bulk of The Silmarillion.
2Pronunciation of the Elvish languages in Tolkien’s world is rather different from that of English, mostly because English is a rotten language (or at any rate an orthographer’s nightmare: to spell English even sort of phonetically, you’d need a script with about forty characters, as opposed to the twenty-six we make do with). It’s too extensive to deal with in detail here, but a quick-and-dirty summary is: vowels like in Spanish or Italian; no silent letters; c is always hard like k, and g is always hard like in give; f at the end of words makes the v sound, like in English of; th is always like in thin, and dh represents our th in this; y as a vowel is like the German ü; and s is always as in sing, never as in was, shin, or treasure. A fuller treatment can be found at this link.
3This (called yogh) is a tough sound for English-speakers, as it doesn’t appear in the modern form of the language (though it did in Anglo-Saxon, and its disappearance has bequeathed to us the bizarre behavior of the digraph gh, which can be an f-sound or a vowel mutator or both at once, as in the Seussian title The Tough Coughs as He Ploughs the Dough). The languages where it does appear, such as Modern Greek, Arabic, or Vietnamese, are not as a rule well-known to English speakers, apart from Spanish; and when 3 is present, it is usually mistaken by English speakers for g. It could be described as a sort of buzzing g-like sound, in the same way that v and b in Spanish are both often given a ‘blurred’ pronunciation that hovers between the two sounds.
4In archaic Sindarin or Doriathrin, the genitive was expressed by the ending -a, descending from a primitive -3ō which also gave rise to the Quenya genitive -o, -on, and by placing the genitive word after the primary word; so, e.g., ‘Slayer of Glaurung’ (a Dragon) translates Dagnir Glaurunga. As Sindarin developed, however, this genitive indicator was dropped while the word order was retained, so that in standard Sindarin the same phrase would simply be Dagnir Glaurung, and it would be understood that the name being placed second implied that it was a genitive. The reconstruction Caras-in-Gelaidh has a definite precedent in the attested name Annon-in-Gelydh, ‘The Gate of the Noldor,’ i.e. the West-gate of Moria (in here is the plural form of the definite article).
5Even granted the hypothetical nature of the reconstructions, for either of these phrases to be correct according to Tolkien’s concept of the language would border on the miraculous. Even to come up with it requires assumptions about the grammar of nouns, verbs, and gerunds in Nandorin that we simply don’t possess, and we can only deduce even the primitive forms from Quenya and Telerin, let alone how those forms would have taken shape among the Wood-Elves. I guessed anyway, because it’s fun and nobody can stop me. But, if you start using this and are visited by the ghost of Tolkien, don’t say I didn’t warn you.