Tolkien's Writing Systems

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Tolkien invented two writing systems for his world of Middle-earth:

  • The Tengwar, a rounded, flowing script suitable for use with an ink pen; often known as Elvish script
  • The Cirth, a set of angular letters which look similar to the runes of northern Europe and are usually referred to as runes or elf-runes.

In Tolkien's fictional universe, both of these were invented by the Elves - the Tengwar by the High Elves in Valinor across the ocean and the Cirth by the Grey Elves (Sindar) in Beleriand in the west of Middle-earth. When the High Elves returned to Middle-earth, their knowledge of phonetics was used to improve the Cirth system and make it more logical. These improved Cirth were known as Angerthas. In later years, the Angerthas became popular with the Dwarves while the Tengwar were used by Elves everywhere and by the men of the kingdoms of Numenor, Arnor and Gondor. (Some of the Dwarves used Tengwar as well - there are Tengwar inscriptions on the Dwarvish urns in the treasure hoard in the picture 'Conversation with Smaug', and one of the Dwarves who went to Moria wrote in 'Elvish letters'.)

Note that in The Hobbit, Tolkien used runes on his 'treasure map', the map of the Lonely Mountain, but because it was a book for children, he used genuine English runes rather than his invented Cirth alphabet. English runes had been used by Rudyard Kipling in his children's book Just So Stories (1902) and this may have inspired Tolkien to include them in his own children's story.

In The Lord of the Rings, it is clear that most hobbits could read. Bilbo sent out written invitations to his party, there were notices hung up around Bag End before the party, and when Frodo and his friends returned to the Shire near the end of the book, there were lists of rules posted at the borderpost at the entry to the Shire. The hobbits appear to have used the Tengwar - Tolkien says in the appendices to LR that hobbits had no special language of their own but spoke the Common Speech (Westron) that was used throughout Gondor and the lands that had been Arnor; elsewhere he says that the Tengwar were the normal script anywhere the Common Speech was spoken. An additional clue is that when Gandalf arrives in Hobbiton at the start of the book, his packages are 'each labelled with a large red G {Tengwar-symbol} and the elf-rune, {Cirth-symbol}'. The young hobbits flatter Gandalf, saying 'G is for Grand!' and clearly it is the Tengwar G they are reading.

Outside of the former kingdoms, such as in Wilderland/Rhovanion, men appear to have used runes - the Men of Dale used the Cirth - this makes sense as their main dealings would be with the dwarves of the Lonely Mountain. There's also a mention of the men of Rohan, who originally came from the northern valley of the Anduin, using Cirth although it's not clear whether they still did so when they lived in Rohan.

The Tengwar System

The Tengwar system was designed so that it could be used for writing down many different languages. The exact sounds assigned to the letters depended on the language. As a result there are a few different variations of it. There are two things worth stating here:

  • Tolkien himself didn't produce very many examples of Tengwar inscriptions - there are only about 90 examples in all his works, letters and notes, and many of these are duplicates - he was very fond of writing the Quenya phrase "A star shines upon the hour of our meeting", the standard Elvish greeting, in letters to his friends. The main Elvish language in use at the time of Lord of the Rings was Sindarin, both by the Elves and by the people of Gondor for personal and place name. But there are no examples of inscriptions in Sindarin as it was written at that time. The only examples are in the Mode of Beleriand, an archaic method writing dating from thousands of years before.

  • The Tengwar as designed by Tolkien are not a particularly good form of writing for many languages. They suit languages such as Italian or Japanese which have a small number of vowels and a fairly strict alternation of consonants and vowels. They're not so good for languages such as English with its many different vowels and diphthongs, for Russian with its many consonants or Polynesian languages with their long strings of vowels. It's arguably not even very good for writing Quenya, the language for which it was designed, because of Quenya's strings of vowels.

The Fictional History of the Writing Systems

After inventing the two writing systems, Tolkien tried to make up a version of history which accounted for both. Uncharacteristically, he is not completely consistent is his descriptions of the alphabets.

  • The Grey Elves (Sindar) living in Beleriand, the westernmost part of Middle-earth, invented the Cirth. The more sophisticated Tengwar were invented by the Noldor, the High Elves of Valinor. Both of these happened independently before the beginning of the First Age1. The High Elves spoke Quenya so the first use of the Tengwar was to write Quenya. The Sindar spoke Sindarin, so they would have written it down using the Cirth.

  • The original Tengwar used letters for consonants and accents above them for vowels.
  • The Dwarves are said to have learned the Cirth from the elves - since it was the elves of Beleriand that used them, this presumably was before the start of the First Age. There were dwarf cities in the Blue Mountains that formed the eastern border of Beleriand and the elves traded with these dwarves. The dwarves liked the straight lines of the Cirth because they were suitable for carving in stone.

  • The Noldor returned to Middle-earth at the beginning of the First Age. They introduced the Tengwar system to Beleriand. The people of Beleriand adopted it and presumably stopped using their Cirth system. Someone then modified the Tengwar system into a mode called the Mode of Beleriand, in which vowels were written as full letters rather than as accents on the consonantal letters. This was used for writing down Sindarin. Since Beleriand was destroyed at the end of the First Age, this must have happened some time during the approximately 500 years of the First Age.

  • After the destruction of Beleriand, the elves, both Sindar and Noldor, fled eastward, and set up a kingdom in Lindon, the only part of Beleriand to survive - this was the narrow land between the Blue Mountains and the sea, and also around the newly formed Gulf of Lhun which divided both Lindon and the Blue Mountains into two. They appear to have spoken a mixture of Sindarin and Quenya. Later, some of these elves went further east and founded the kingdom of Eregion, which was close to the dwarf city of Khazad dum. The inscription on the west gate of Khazad dum was written by one of these elves in Sindarin using the Mode of Beleriand, so at this time it is clear that this was still used for writing Sindarin.

  • After the destruction of Eregion by Sauron about midway through the Second Age, Elrond set up Rivendell with survivors from Eregion and with elves from Lindon. There's no further mention of the Mode of Beleriand being used, so presumably it died out at this stage. The Elves went back to using the accents for vowels - as far as I can see even when writing Sindarin.

Tolkien appears to be uncharacteristically inconsistent about the use of these alphabets:

    He said in the Appendices of LR that the Dwarves of Khazad-dum (Moria) learned the Cirth from the elves of Eregion who lived just to the west of their city. This is odd, because the Elves of Eregion use Tengwar, not Cirth - they even wrote using them on the Doors of Durin, the west gate of Khazad-dum.

    Sauron used the Tengwar to write the inscription on his Ring, writing in the Black Speech. He used the normal system of accents for vowels, rather than the Mode of Beleriand. Isildur described the inscription as being in 'an Elven-script of Eregion' (or something like that) and Gandalf, 3,000 years later, described it as 'an ancient mode', but in fact it is almost exactly the system used for writing all languages except Quenya both by Isildur and at the time Gandalf was speaking to Frodo, whereas the alphabet of Eregion seems to have been the Mode of Beleriand. The Ring Inscription appears to have been standard Elvish letters with one exception - the symbol normally used for "o" was used to represent the sound "u". The reason Frodo couldn't read the inscription was because it was in a language he hadn't ever encountered, not because the letters themselves were unfamiliar.

    Tolkien mentions in a few places that the Tengwar writing system had progressed as far as full alphabetic mode, that is, using separate letters for vowels, and seems to imply that that is the way it was used in the time of the hobbits, but the only example of such a use is the Mode of Beleriand dating from many thousand years before the time of the hobbits and described as 'archaic' and 'unreadable'.

A Flexible System

The Tengwar were designed as a flexible system where the use of the letters could be modified to suit the language. Tolkien mentions or gives examples of a number of different variations:

  1. The basic system used letters for consonants and accents above the letters for vowels. One mode, the Mode of Beleriand, used letters for both vowels and consonants.

  2. The accent could be written above the consonant that preceded the vowel sound, or on the one that followed the vowel sound. If for example you had a language in which most syllables were a consonant followed by a vowel, such as in Chinese or Japanese, it would make sense to put the accent on the preceding consonant. Tolkien's constructed languages were not as rigid as that, so he varied it. In Quenya it was usual to put the accent on the preceding consonant while in most other languages it was usual to put the accent on the following consonant.

  3. The exact sound assigned to the accents wasn't fixed - it depended on the language. The most common system was to use a cluster of three dots for 'a', a rising accent for 'e', a single dot for 'i', a curl to the right for 'o' and a curl to the left for 'u'. The three dots of 'a' were often written in one movement without lifting the pen resulting in a circumflex. The inscription on the Ring in the Black Speech used the curl to the right to the right as 'u', although it normally represented 'o'. This was because 'u' was common and 'o' rare in that language and the curl to the right is easier to write. Tolkien also mentioned that there was a language where the symbols for 'e' and 'i' were reversed, although he didn't say anything else about this language.

  4. If there was no consonant to write the accent on, for example a word with only vowels, or a sequence of more than one vowel, a special accent carrier symbol was used - this looked like a lowercase i or j. This had no sound of its own.

  5. The main 24 letters were divided into 4 series - the sounds attached to Series I and II were standard but the others depended on the language. Tolkien gives examples of Quenya using series 3 for k and its derivatives, while Westron and the Black Speech use Series 4 for the same sounds. This is discussed in more detail later on.

Some Details of the Tengwar System

There were four basic letters in the Tengwar system which were modified in a systematic way to produce phonetic variations. The four basic letters were:

Series ILooks like a normal lowercase p but the curved part (the 'bow') doesn't meet up with the vertical line (the 'stem') at the bottom of the bow.
Series IILooks like a normal lowercase p with an additional horizontal line at the bottom of the bow, from the stem to the right, so that the bow is closed.
Series IIILooks like a normal lowercase q but the curved part (the 'bow') doesn't meet up with the vertical line (the 'stem') at the top of the bow.
Series IVLooks like a normal lowercase q with an additional horizontal line at the top of the bow from the left side to the stem, so that the bow is closed.

The Series I letter always represented 't' and the series II always represented 'p'.

The systematic changes were are follows:

  • Doubling the bow added voice to the letter so the 't' became a 'd' and the 'p' became a 'b'.
  • Raising the stem instead of lowering it added a breathy sound, so 't' became 'th' as in 'thin' or like the Greek letter θ, 'd' became voiced 'th' as in 'these' or the δ of Modern Greek; 'p' became 'ph'/'f' and 'b' became 'v'.
  • Shortening the stem to the same height as the bow made the letter nasal. This should have meant that the 't' became an unvoiced nasal 'n', a sound written in Old English as 'hn', but this sound doesn't exist either in Modern English or in the languages Tolkien was writing down, so this letter is not used and therefore available to be used for something else. The equivalent with a doubled bow and a short stem is 'n', even though this looks like a Roman alphabet 'm'. The double-bowed, short stemmed series II letter is 'm'.

Gandalf said that the Ring Inscription was written in an ancient mode, but he appears to have been talking through his arse. In fact it appears to have been written in standard modern letters but with the normal 'o' accent used to represent 'u'.

Series III and Series IV

The series III and series IV did not always represent the same sounds. Tolkien says that some languages used III for k while others used IV. Of the languages Tolkien gave examples of, we have:

  • Quenya: k = III
  • Sindarin in the Mode of Beleriand (2nd Age): k = III
  • Westron, the Common Speech, as spoken throughout Eriador and Gondor (3rd Age): k = IV
  • English as written down by an educated Westron-speaking man of Gondor (3rd Age): k = IV
  • Sindarin placename as written by educated man of Gondor: k=IV
  • The Black Speech: k = IV

We don't have any examples of Sindarin as written by Sindarin-speaking Elves, other than examples in the Mode of Beleriand which was a Second-Age script described by Gandalf as archaic in LR. It seems reasonable to assume that Elves would use the same system for writing Quenya as Sindarin, and Elves had long memories, so they would use k=III for writing Sindarin even if the Men of Gondor used a different system.

When the series IV represented k, the series III was used for miscellaneous letters: tch, j, sh, zh. When the series III represented k, the series IV was used for something else. In the case of Quenya, it was used for the k sound with a 'w' after it. This is known as a labialised consonant. Instead of k, g, ch, gh, we have kw, gw, chw and ghw. Tolkien wrote qu rather than kw to make it look more like Latin, giving it a classical feel.

Other Letters

The systematic stem and bow system defined 24 sounds and assigned them to the 24 letters. But most languages did not contain all of these sounds, so these letters were available to be used for other sounds. Most commonly, the stem-less single bowed characters (row 6) all represented unused sounds, so they were used instead for sounds such as 'w' and the English untrilled 'r'.

The Tengwar had four basic symbols which were not part of the systematic stem + bow letters. These were:

  • a type of y used for a rolled r
  • An Irish T (a large C with a horizontal line on top) representing L
  • λ representing h
  • A hook representing S

There were a few variants of these representing other sounds. For example, a doubled hook was used for z. Minor variations of the l and r symbols represented the lh and rh sounds (unvoiced, breathy versions of l and r).

Writing English in Tengwar

  • In normal Tengwar script, consonants are written using letters and vowels using accents above the letters. If there aren't enough consonants to support the vowels, the carrier letters i and j can be used - they have no sound of their own.
  • The letter y in English is sometimes a vowel and sometimes a consonant. In "fly", "rhythm" and "bellyache" it is a vowel, but in "yellow" and "lanyard" it is a consonant. This must be taken into account when choosing the appropriate letter or accent.
  • The consonant letters in Tengwar don't necessarily correspond exactly to the English consonants. The SH at the start of SHIP is a single sound and is represented by a single letter in Tengwar. Similarly, TH, NG.
  • The combination CH can represent a few different sounds:

    Hard k sounds as in archaic.

    Soft sh sound as in words from French such as chaise longue.

    Normal English ch as in church.

    Scottish ch as in loch.

    Each one of these would have a separate single Tengwa to represent it.

  • The Tengwar system has only five vowel signs, but English has at least 12 vowels and at least 3 commonly used diphthongs. (pat pet pit pot put path pawl pate peat pole pool foot pile boil cowl). It's not clear how this should be handled in Tengwar. Tolkien tried out a few different systems but never gave any definitive method.

The Cirth

Runes have two features which make them distinctive - they use only straight lines, and there are no horizontal lines. The straight lines make them suitable for scratching on hard surfaces such as wood, bone and stone, and the lack of horizontal lines is specifically so that they can be scratched on wood - horizontal lines get lost in the grain of the wood.

Tolkien's Cirth are similar - they use only straight lines, and have vertical lines and ones at about 30° to the horizontal.

The Cirth were originally fairly random in their assignment of symbols to sounds, but when the High Elves returned from Valinor, the influence of their superior Tengwar system led to the Cirth being completely redesigned. There's no record of the original system. The documented Cirth system is grouped phonetically in a similar way to the Tengwar.

The four basic runes for the sounds t, p, ch and k are each a vertical line with something on the right. Adding an extra stroke on the right adds voice, giving d, b, j and g. Reversing the rune, with the thing to the left side, makes it breathy, giving th, f, sh and kh. Adding an extra stroke to the reversed version gives a voiced breathy sound: dh, v, zh and gh.

The Cirth also have a lot of extra letters, including ones for vowels and ones for sounds which occurred only in Dwarvish languages.

1The First Age began with the first rising of the Sun, just after the Noldor's return to Middle-earth from Valinor.

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