Tolkien's Alphabets

I was working on my fonts for my conlang again and I starting thinking about alphabets in general, and I thought it would be fun to do a post on Tolkien's Middle Earth alphabets, Cirth and Tengwar.

First, let's take a look at Cirth, which was used to write Khuzdul, the dwarvish language, as well as Quenya and Sindarin, the elvish languages. It was based on the Norse & Anglo-Saxon Futhark runes. There's nothing very fancy about this alphabet, it functions much the same as our own; each glyph represent one character. But note that the different letters correspond to each other in certain ways: letters that are phonetically close to each other look similar.

P and B, for example. B is pretty much the "voiced" form of P (voiced means that your vocal chords are engaged and vibrating). B looks just like P but its got that extra little stroke sticking out there, making it look like an R. Same thing for T and D, and K and G. And those are just the plosives; look at F and V, S and Z, and Sh and Zh. But it goes even further than this. Some consonants are combinations of sounds, especially ch and j (t and sh make ch and d and zh, the voiced versions of t and sh, make j), and you can see the relation between these letters too. Ch looks like a combination of T and Sh, and J looks like a voiced version of Ch, having an extra stroke. Another thing I like about the alphabet is that the vowels look different from the consonants; they have different angles or combinations of strokes. I don't understand why M and N are not similar, but I don't care that much. The alphabet works as a runic, archaic form of writing. By the way, the sample at the bottom of the picture says "Balin, son of Fundin, Lord of Moria."

A few more notes about how this alphabet relates to language: its written the same as English, written left to right, AND the phonetic values of the letters vary for different languages in Middle Earth, just as English does, to the frustration of many people struggling to learn and speak it! Also, although it is not shown this way in the sample, words are often separated with dots.

Now, moving on to Tengwar! The first thing that I love about Tengwar is that it has different "modes." Just as the phonetic values of Cirth vary for different languages, the same thing happens in Tengwar's different modes. But the biggest difference between the modes is how the vowels are written, and here's the kicker: the vowels are indicated with diacritic marks. Look here:
No, those marks above the letters aren't just to be flashy, those are the vowels! Now the difference between Quenya and Sindarin is where the vowels are written; in Quenya, the vowel coming BEFORE the consonant is marked above the consonant. In Sindarin, the vowel coming AFTER the consonant is marked above the consonant, and here's an example of that:

Here's the alphabet:

First off, let me say MUCH PRETTIER than Cirth, with all the swirls and curves. But again, notice how letters are related to each other phonetically: p, t, and k look very similar, and mb, nd, and ng (the Quenya equivalents of b, d, and g) look just like them with an extra mark showing that they're voiced. M and n look similar this time, and h and y look very different from the rest because they are sounds made in a different way from the others. Notice another interesting difference between Quenya and Sindarin (alphabet shown below):

Sindarin does not have as many of the funky consonant cluster letters that Quenya has; there's actual b, d, and g sounds, for instance.
The letter names are the same, they just have a different "phonetic value."

Take all this in, digest it, and start thinking about your conlang, and how you want it to look on a page, computer screen, carved in wood or stone, or whatever. It can be a good idea to have a proto-language or an archaic form of your language, to give it some history and make it feel more natural, since the language you speak certainly has history! If you're making up a con-culture or con-world, along with your conlang, different people might use different modes of the language, or write the letters differently, or assign different phonetic values to the letters. Maybe some people use diacritics, and another people use new letters to represent vowels. Let your imagination roam and don't be afraid to take inspiration from the great conlangers that have come before you. :)


Anonymous said...

I love Tolkein's languages. I have used them as inspiration on my own. Tengwar is beautiful! I love it!

Thanks for the awesome post!

MaxThenkilö said...

And that... is how Tolkien tricked his children to learn efficient study tool for linguistics: because it now seemed to be writing in language of elves, dwarves, and even of Mordor.

Next: How Tolkien tricked his children to learn about how circles of power effect different folks, and especially the most dangerous form of power, the invisible unaccountable power can twist and mangle the lowest fellow or highest of lords.

Tricky fellow... but in a good way.