J. R. R. Tolkien
c. 1915 to 1973
Setting and usage
The fictional world of Middle-earth
constructed languagesartistic languagesfictional languagesSindarin
Sindarin is a fictional language devised by J. R. R. Tolkien for use in his fantasy stories set in Arda (popularly called Middle-earth). Sindarin is one of the many languages spoken by the immortal Elves, called the Eledhrim [ɛˈlɛðrim] or Edhellim [ɛˈðɛllim] in Sindarin. The word Sindarin is itself a Quenya form. The only known Sindarin word for this language is Eglathrin, a word probably only used in the First Age (see Eglath).
- Two timelines
- Internal history
- North Sindarin
- Noldorin Sindarin
- In the Second and Third Age
- Plural forms
- Basic verbs
- Derived verbs
- In Tolkiens lifetime
Called in English "Grey-elvish" or "Grey-elven", it was the language of the Sindarin Elves of Beleriand. These were Elves of the Third Clan who remained behind in Beleriand after the Great Journey. Their language became estranged from that of their kin who sailed over sea. Sindarin derives from an earlier language called Common Telerin, which evolved from Common Eldarin, the tongue of the Eldar before their divisions, e.g., those Elves who decided to follow the Vala Oromë and undertook the Great March to Valinor. Even before that the Eldar Elves spoke the original speech of all Elves, or Primitive Quendian.
In the Third Age (the setting of The Lord of the Rings), Sindarin was the language most commonly spoken by most Elves in the Western part of Middle-earth. Sindarin is the language usually referred to as the elf-tongue or elven-tongue in The Lord of the Rings. When the Quenya-speaking Noldor returned to Middle-earth, they adopted the Sindarin language. Quenya and Sindarin were related, with many cognate words but differing greatly in grammar and structure. Sindarin is said to be more changeful than Quenya, and there were during the First Age a number of regional dialects. The tongue used in Doriath (home of Thingol King of the Sindar), known as Doriathrin, was said by many Grey-elves to be the highest and most noble form of the language.
In the Second Age, many Men of the island of Númenor spoke Sindarin fluently. Their descendants the Dúnedain of Gondor and Arnor continued to speak Sindarin in the Third Age. Within this fictional universe, Sindarin was first written using the cirth, an Elvish alphabet. Later, it was usually written in tengwar. Tolkien based the sound and some of the grammar of Sindarin on Welsh, and Sindarin displays some of the consonant mutations that characterize the Celtic languages. The language was also influenced by Old English and Old Norse.
For Tolkien's constructed languages we must distinguish two timelines of development:
"Sindarin (Grey-elven) is properly the name of the languages of the Elvish inhabitants of Beleriand, the later almost drowned land west of the Blue Mountains. Quenya was the language of the Exiled High-Elves returning to Middle-earth. The Exiles, being relatively few in number, eventually adopted a form of Sindarin: a southern dialect (of which the purest and most archaic variety was used in Doriath ruled by Thingol). This they used in daily speech, and even adapted their own personal names to its form. But the Sindarin of the High-elves was (naturally) somewhat affected by Quenya, and contained some Quenya elements. Sindarin is also loosely applied to the related languages of the Elves of the same origin as the Grey Elves of Beleriand, who lived in Eriador and further East."
Sindarin developed from Old Sindarin (preserved only in some Doriathrin records), itself from Common Telerin under the "shadow" of Middle-earth and not in the holy light of the Two Trees of Valinor. The Kingdom of Doriath became an isolated land after the return of the evil Vala Melkor (as Morgoth) to his stronghold of Angband. So from that time it remained conservative, and later resisted the Noldorin influence almost entirely. Until then, owing to the nomadic life of the Grey Elves, their tongue had remained practically uniform, with one notable exception. In the North-West region of Beleriand there were settlements of Elves who seldom went far abroad. Their language, although generally of Sindarin kind in many linguistic aspects, early diverged from that of the other Sindar. It was usually called Mithrimin.
The divergence of Sindarin (Old Sindarin) begun first into a Northern or Mithrimin group and a Southern group.
The Southern group had a much larger territory, and included Doriathrin or "Central Sindarin".
"Círdan was a Telerin Elf, one of the highest of those who were not transported to Valinor but became known as the Sindar, the Grey-elves; he was akin to Olwë, one of the two kings of the Teleri, and lord of those who departed over the Great Sea. He was thus also akin to Elwë, Olwë's elder brother, acknowledged as high-king of all the Teleri in Beleriand, even after he withdrew to the guarded realm of Doriath. But Círdan and his people remained in many ways distinct from the rest of the Sindar. They retained the old name Teleri (in later Sindarin form Telir, or Telerrim) and remained in many ways a separate folk, speaking even in later days a more archaic language."
So during the First Age, before the return of the Noldor, there were four dialects of Sindarin:
Doriathrin preserved many archaic features. Unlike the other dialects Doriathrin remained free from Quenya influences. The "accent" of Doriath was also quite recognisable, so that after Túrin had left Doriath he kept a Doriathrin accent until his death, which immediately pinpointed his origin to speakers of other dialects of Sindarin.
"The post-war 'Beleriandic' as lingua franca and as a language of Noldor was strongly influenced by Doriath."
Much about Doriathrin morphology, and how it contrasts with the other Sindarin dialects, has been set out by J.R.R. Tolkien in his linguistic writings:
"Doriathrin preserved in common use the dual of nouns, pronouns, and verbal personal inflexions, as well as a clear distinction between 'general' or 'collective' plurals (as elenath), and 'particular' plurals (as elin). (...) But it was none-the-less in a few but important points of phonology marked by changes not universal in Sindarin. Most notable among these was the spirantalizing of m > nasal ṽ, the nasality of which was, however, never lost in Doriathrin proper until after the dissolution of the "Hidden Realm". (...) The changes of mp, nt, ñk, also proceeded earlier and further than in the other dialects."
The language of the followers of the Elf Círdan, called Falathrin (Falassian in English), is the other dialect of the Southern Sindarin group. It remained close to the tongue of Doriath because there was great trade between the two groups up to the time of the Wars of Beleriand.
North Sindarin was spoken by the Mithrim, the northernmost group of the Grey-elves. It differed from the Central Sindarin of Beleriand in many aspects. Originally spoken in Dorthonion and Hithlum, it contained many unique words and was not fully intelligible to the other Elves. The Northern dialect was in many ways more conservative, and later divided itself into a North-Western dialect (Hithlum, Mithrim, Dor-lómin) and a North-Eastern dialect (Ard-galen before its ruin and the highlands of Taur-nu-Fuin). This language was at first adopted by the exiled Noldor after their return to Middle-earth at Losgar. Later Noldorin Sindarin changed, much due to the adoption of Quenya features, and partially due to the love of the Noldor for making linguistic changes. Beren's heritage was clear to Thingol of Doriath as he spoke the North Sindarin of his homeland.
"Chief characteristics (of North Sindarin was the) preservation of p, t, k after nasals and l. Intervocalic m remained. No u and o and i/e remained distinct - no a mutation of i. S was unlenited initially. H was preserved medially. tt, pp, kk > t, p, k medially."
With the exception of Doriathrin, Sindarin adopted some Quenya features after the return of the Noldor, as well as unique sound changes devised by the Noldor (who loved changing languages).
"It was the Noldor who in fact stabilized and made improvements to the "Common Sindarin" of the days of the Wars, and it was based on West Sindarin. The old North dialect practically died out except in place names as Dorlomin, Hithlum, etc. but for a few scattered and hidden clans of the old Northern group and except in so far as adopted by the Fëanorians, who had moved east.
So that in the days of the Wars, Sindarin was really divided into "West Sindarin" (including all the Noldor of Finrod and Fingon), "East Sindarin" (of the North dialect) was only preserved by the house of Feanor; and "Central" or Doriath."
In the hidden city of Gondolin, an isolated land, a peculiar dialect developed: "This differed from the standard (of Doriath) (a) in having Western and some Northern elements, and (b) in incorporating a good many Noldorin-Quenya words in more a less Sindarized forms. Thus the city was usually called Gondolin (from Q. Ondolin(dë)) with simple replacement of g-, not Goenlin or Goenglin [as it would have been in standard Sindarin]".
In the Second and Third Age
'Beleriandic' Sindarin as a lingua franca of all Elves, and many Men, and as the language of the Noldor in exile was based on Western Sindarin, but was strongly influenced by Doriathrin. During the Second Age Sindarin was a lingua franca for all Elves and their friends, until it was displaced for Men by Westron, which arose in the Third Age as a language heavily influenced by Sindarin.
In Gondor at the end of the Third Age, Sindarin was still spoken daily by a few noble Men in the city Minas Tirith. Aragorn, raised in Imladris, spoke it fluently.
Sindarin was designed with a Welsh-like phonology. It has most of the same sounds and a similar sound structure, or phonotactics. The phonologies of Old English, Old Norse and Icelandic are also fairly close to Sindarin and, along with Welsh, certainly did have an influence on some of the language's grammatical features, especially the plurals (see below).
- written ⟨th⟩ and ⟨dh⟩ respectively
- written ⟨lh⟩
- written ⟨c⟩
- written ⟨ng⟩
- written ⟨ch⟩
- written ⟨rh⟩
- written ⟨hw⟩
/f/ is voiced to [v] when final or before /n/.
Old Sindarin, like Irish formerly, also had a spirant m or nasal v (IPA: [ṽ]), which was transcribed as mh (though always pronounced [v] in later Sindarin).
An accent signifies a long vowel (á, é, etc.). In a monosyllabic word, a circumflex is used (â, ê, etc.). However, for practical reasons, users of the ISO Latin-1 character set often substitute ý for ŷ, as ISO Latin-1 does not have a character for ŷ, only ý and ÿ.
In Old Sindarin, there was a vowel similar to German ö (IPA: [œ]), which Tolkien mostly transcribed as œ. Although this was meant to be distinct from the diphthong oe, it was often simply printed oe in publications like The Silmarillion, e.g. Nírnaeth Arnoediad (read: Nírnaeth Arnœdiad), Goelydh (read: Gœlydh). This vowel later came to be pronounced [ɛ] and is therefore transcribed as such (e.g. Gelydh).
Diphthongs are ai (pronounced like aisle [ai]), ei (day [ɛi]), ), ui (too young) or (ruin) [ui]), and au (cow [au]), ). If the last diphthong finishes a word, it is spelt aw. There are also diphthongs ae and oe with no English counterparts, similar to pronouncing a or o respectively in the same syllable as one pronounces an e (as in pet); IPA [aɛ, ɔɛ]. Tolkien had described dialects (such as Doriathrin) and variations in pronunciations (such as that of Gondor), and other pronunciations of ae and oe undoubtedly existed.
It is almost impossible to extrapolate the morphological rules of the Sindarin tongue from published data because Sindarin is a fictional irregular language (closely modelled on a natural language, Welsh) and not an international auxiliary language with a regular morphology.
Unlike the largely agglutinative Quenya, Sindarin is mainly a fusional language with some analytic tendencies. It can be distinguished from Quenya by the rarity of vowel endings, and the use of voiced plosives b d g, absent from Quenya (except in intervocalic clusters mb, nd, ng, ld, rd). Early Sindarin formed plurals by the addition of -ī, which vanished but affected the preceding vowels (as in Welsh and Old English): S. Adan, pl. Edain, S. Orch, pl. Yrch.
Sindarin has also a 2nd plural of nouns formed with a suffix: S. êl 'star', 1st pl. elin 'stars', 2nd pl. elenath 'all the stars'; Ennor 'Middle-earth', 2nd pl. Ennorath '(all) the Middle-lands'.
While Sindarin does not have a grammatical gender, it has just like Welsh two systems of grammatical number. Singular/plural nouns correspond to the singular/plural number system just as of English. Sindarin noun plurals are unpredictable and formed in several ways. If Tolkien did not provide us with the plural form of a Sindarin (or Noldorin) noun we have no certain way of inferring it.
Some Sindarin (and Noldorin) nouns form the plural with an ending (usually -in), e.g. Drû, pl. Drúin "wild men, Woses, Púkel-Men". Others form the plural through vowel change, e.g. golodh and gelydh, "lore master, sage" (obsolete as a tribal name before the Noldor came back to Beleriand); Moredhel, pl. Moredhil, "Dark-Elves". Still others form their plurals through some combination of the two, and a few do not change in the plural: Belair, "Beleriandic-Elf/Elves" is singular and plural.
The other system of number was called by Tolkien 2nd plural or collective number. The nouns in this system form it usually by adding a suffix to the plural (as in Welsh); for example -ath, as in elenath, "all the stars (in the sky)", but not always as in Drúath. Another ending of the 2nd pl. is -rim, used especially to indicate a race-group: Nogothrim "the race of the Dwarves", from pl. Nogoth (sg. Nogon, "Dwarf"). There exist another such ending -lir, as in Nogothlir. The ending -hoth, a full Sindarin word meaning 'host', is added to a singular noun to form the 2nd plural. It has a strong unfriendly sense, e. g. Gaurhoth "the Werewolf-horde" from Gaur "Were-wolf"; or as in Gornhoth a derogative name for the Dwarves, the "Hard-host/people". Most nouns in this system are frequently found in groups.
Most Sindarin plurals are formed by apophony and are characterised by i-mutation. The Noldorin term for this is prestanneth "affection of vowels". In an earlier stage of the language, plurals were marked by the suffix -ī, to which the root vowel(s) assimilated, becoming fronted (and raised if low); later the final -ī was lost, leaving the changed root vowel(s) as the sole marker of the plural. (This process is very similar to the Germanic umlaut that produced the English forms man/men, goose/geese.) The resulting plural patterns are:
Sindarin has a complex series of mutations, which are not yet fully understood because no Sindarin Grammar written by J.R.R. Tolkien has been published. The corpus of published Sindarin sentences is yet very small, and Sindarin has many dialects each with its own set of mutation rules.
The only complete explanation is of the mutations of "early conceptual Noldorin" from Tolkien's Lam na Ngoluith, Early Noldorin Grammar.
Mutation is triggered in various ways:
Initial mutations must not be confused with assimilations that may occur in compound words (such as, for instance, in the Sindarin names Araphor, Arassuil and Caradhras).
The following table outlines how different consonants are affected by the three mutations.
The apostrophe ’ indicates elision.
Noldorin words beginning in b-, d-, or g-, which descend from older mb-, nd-, or ng- are affected differently by the mutations:
Noldorin words beginning in n, m, l, r, s are not affected by mutation.
For example, the deictic singular article i triggers soft mutation in Noldorin. When added to a word like tî, "line" it becomes i dî, "the line". In Noldorin's phonological history, t became d in the middle of a word. With the preposition no, 'to', tî becomes no thî, 'to the line'. With the plural article, i(n), tî becomes i thiath "the lines".
Many of the mutations of Noldorin appear to be taken into Sindarin a few years later. The Sindarin word gwath "shadow" becomes i 'wath, "the shadow".
One source is used for the Sindarin pronouns, another for the possessive suffixes.
These are subjective forms used in conjugation. Sindarin used objective detached forms, like dhe (2nd pers. formal/polite singular).
Sindarin pronouns, like those in English, still maintain some case distinction ammen (< an men, "for/to us"), annin "for/to me". But they are not well documented in the published Corpus.
While Tolkien wrote that Quenya inflections were pretty regular, he also wrote: "Sindarin verbal history is complicated." The number of attested verbs in Sindarin is actually small. The Sindarin verb system remains imperfectly known until the grammars and treatise of Sindarin conjugation that Tolkien wrote are published.
About -ant, the 3rd person past tense ending of Sindarin, he wrote: "it is rather like that of Medieval Welsh -as, or modern Welsh -odd." So with teith- "make marks of signs, write, inscribe", teithant is the 3rd person singular past tense. Cf. Welsh Chwaraeodd e, "he played".
Basic verbs, though fewer than derived verbs, have a complex conjugation that arises from Sindarin's phonological history.
Basic verbs form the infinitive by adding -i: giri from gir-. This ending causes an a or o in the stem to umlaut to e: blebi from blab-. Sindarin does not use infinitive forms very often, and rather uses the gerund to achieve the same meaning.
For all persons except the third person singular, the present tense is formed by the insertion of -i, and the proper enclitic pronominal ending: girin, girim, girir. As with the infinitive, -i causes an a or o in the stem to umlaut to e: pedin, pedim, pedir, from pad-. The third person singular, because it has a zero-ending, does not require the insertion of -i. This leaves the bare stem, which, because of Sindarin's phonological history, causes the vowel of the stem to become long: gîr, blâb, pâd.
The past tense of basic verbs is very complicated and poorly attested. One common reconstructed system is to use -n: darn. However, the only time this -n actually remains is after a stem in -r. After a stem ending in -l, -n becomes -ll: toll. After -b, -d, -g, -v, or -dh, it is metathesized and then assimilated to the same place of articulation as the consonant it now follows. The consonant then experiences what could be called a "backwards mutation": -b, -d, and -g become -p, -t, and -c, and -v and -dh become -m and -d. The matter is complicated even further when pronominal endings are added. Because -mp, -mb, -nt, -nd, and -nc did not survive medially, they become -mm-, -mm-, -nn-, -nn-, and -ng. In addition, past tense stems in -m would have -mm- before any pronominal endings. Because this all may seem rather overwhelming, look at these examples which show step-by-step transformations:
The future tense is formed by the addition of -tha. An -i is also inserted between the stem and -tha, which again causes a and o to umlaut to e. Endings for all persons except for the first person singular can be added without any further modification: giritham, blebithar. The first person singular ending -n causes the -a in -tha to become -o: girithon, blebithon, pedithon.
The imperative is formed with the addition of -o to the stem: giro!, pado!, blabo!.
Derived verbs have a much less complex conjugation, because they have a thematic vowel (usually a), which reduces the number of consonant combinations.
The infinitive is formed with -o, which replaces the -a of the stem, e. g. lacho from lacha-.
The present tense is formed without modification to the stem. Pronominal endings are added without any change, except with the first person singular enclintic -n, where the final vowel becomes an o, e.g. renion < renia - I wander.
The past tense is formed with the ending -nt, which becomes -nne with any pronominal endings, e. g. erthant, erthanner.
The future tense is formed with -tha. With the addition of the first person singular -n, this becomes -tho.
It is very difficult to know how many Elvish words J.R.R. Tolkien imagined, as much of his writings on Elvish languages are still unpublished. As of 2008, about 25 thousand Elvish words have been published.
The Lexicons of Gnomish, Noldorin and Sindarin (even if today all of it has not been published) lack modern vocabulary (television, motor, etc.).
According to Tolkien, the elves preferred duodecimal counting (base 12) to the decimal system (base 10: Quenya maquanotië, *quaistanótië), though both systems seem to have coexisted. The numbers 1–12 are presented below (reconstructed forms are marked with an asterisk *), as well as a few other known higher numbers.
The form *nelchaen (extracted from nelchaenen) appears in the King's Letter, but at the time the roots for ten were KAYAN and KAYAR, resulting in Sindarin *caen, caer. This was later changed to KWAYA, KWAY-AM, resulting in Sindarin pae, so that this older form must be updated. The word *meneg is extracted from the name Menegroth, "the Thousand Caves".
In Tolkien's lifetimeThe Hobbit (1937) and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (1962) contain a few elvish names (Elrond, Glamdring, Orcrist), but no texts or sentences.
See also Douglas A. Anderson, Carl F. Hostetter: A Checklist, Tolkien Studies 4 (2007).