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Maximum Tolkien Nerd Alert!

My daughter’s teacher had to go home suddenly because she fell sick (some nasty thing is going around). The last-minute substitute, a fellow faculty member, delighted the kids by devoting a class period to giving them a lesson in Tengwar [1], an Elvish script and language invented by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Truly, I love this classical school. There really is no better place on earth for the children of our nerd family.

34 Comments (Open | Close)

34 Comments To "Maximum Tolkien Nerd Alert!"

#1 Comment By Franklin Evans On March 7, 2018 @ 4:07 pm

For your previewing before passing it on to Nora: [2], The Book of Elven Tongues. It has been around in print form since 1971, it started as the journal of [3].

#2 Comment By Caroline On March 7, 2018 @ 4:07 pm

I love it. A candle in the dark. Thanks for posting.

#3 Comment By Pogonip On March 7, 2018 @ 4:23 pm

I love it!

#4 Comment By tmatt On March 7, 2018 @ 5:07 pm

Gosh, my family would have no interest in that AT ALL.




#5 Comment By Bernie On March 7, 2018 @ 5:13 pm

A realm of magic enchantment.

#6 Comment By sigaliris On March 7, 2018 @ 5:16 pm

The Tengwar are part of The Tale of Mr. Sig and me. We met in a freshman class at the university. I was already seated near the back of the room when he entered. Noticing his handsome face and sunny demeanor, I immediately thought, “That’s the one for me! But no–a guy like that would never ask me out.” Much to my surprise, he found his way back to the row of seats where I was and sat down right next to me. I was far too shy to say anything, but he looked over my shoulder and saw that I was taking notes in Elvish script, with a fountain pen. This apparently convinced him that I was the one for him, too, and he began walking with me from class to class and taking every opportunity to converse.

On our mantel now we have a photo of ourselves on our wedding day, and a photo I found in a magazine and framed: Edith and Ronald Tolkien in the garden, in their old age. People ask–not recognizing them–if they’re our relatives. We tell them they’re our spiritual kin. Beren and Luthien! Tell Nora to keep practicing. The Tengwar can bring your true love to you–true story.

#7 Comment By scotch meg On March 7, 2018 @ 5:18 pm

A friend figured out how to use the Tengwar alphabet in the early 1970’s. She taught me, and one summer when we were in different places we exchanged letters for three months using Tengwar. What a joy! And, of course, for two 13 yo girls, the added benefit of knowing that our mothers couldn’t read them. I kept her letters until a basement flood destroyed them.

#8 Comment By Pat On March 7, 2018 @ 5:18 pm

Very cool! We once labeled our home-made jam in this script.

#9 Comment By stillaninterestedobserver On March 7, 2018 @ 5:54 pm

I approve. I figured mine out back when I was 15, and occasionally still break it out.

#10 Comment By sketches by boze On March 7, 2018 @ 6:07 pm

I love this. Imagine how much better the world would be if every child had a firm grounding in Tolkien and the other mythopoetic authors (Lewis, MacDonald, Rowling, and when they get a bit older Chesterton and Williams, among others).

#11 Comment By grumpy realist On March 7, 2018 @ 6:34 pm

Rod–have you been keeping an eye on the Wrinkle in Time movie?

It looks like it’s been homogenized into MTD pap with a sprinkle of diversity on top:


Gaaaah. I loved the book when I was growing up. Figures–Disney movie. I remember watching Disney’s The Black Hole and wondering whether to be more annoyed at the wrong physics or the heavy-handed (and getting the Christian theology wrong) religious symbolism.

#12 Comment By Jeremy On March 7, 2018 @ 7:59 pm

Brilliant! And your daughter has a knack for writing in that particular script.

#13 Comment By JonF On March 7, 2018 @ 7:59 pm

Aw, that’s so cute. There was a time in my own youth I knew those letters by heart.
Have a good trip to Hungary. I’m a bit surprised you’d be going since (I assume) you know nothing about the language and I recall you saying that was an issue for you whenever you thought about visiting Russia.

#14 Comment By Thoms On March 7, 2018 @ 9:03 pm

I am not going to lie my inner nerd wishes I could have been there for this lesson

#15 Comment By charles cosimano On March 7, 2018 @ 9:09 pm

I hear a hungry balrog in the distance.

#16 Comment By Jackson On March 7, 2018 @ 10:44 pm

Jeez, to think that I had to teach myself the Tengwar and practice when teachers weren’t looking…. kids these days have no idea how good they’ve got it.

#17 Comment By Stephen Walton On March 8, 2018 @ 2:07 am

Elen lumen silva omentielvo!

As I taught my daughter to say last week.

#18 Comment By sketches by boze On March 8, 2018 @ 3:56 am

I love this. Imagine how much better the world would be if every child had a firm grounding in the Christian mythopoetic writers – Lewis, Tolkien, Rowling, MacDonald, and when they get older, Chesterton and Charles Williams.

#19 Comment By Mark VA On March 8, 2018 @ 6:05 am

“Tengwar” as is “gwar” or “gwara”? (Polish for “din or hubbub” and “dialect”, respectively;

Could the Tolkienologists among us shed some light on the the processes Tolkien used to invent his languages?

#20 Comment By William Tighe On March 8, 2018 @ 8:55 am

Mark VA,

As a student, Tolkien “fell in love” with languages and words; in particular, he had a fondness, both grammatical and aesthetic, for Finnish, Gothic, and Welsh (and an analogous aversion to French and Gaelic). His Elvish (and other) languages reflect these predilections: Quenya is grammatically modeled on Finnish and Sindarin on Welsh (although they are both supposed to be descended from a common “Proto-Elvish” ancestor; naturally, as a linguist and philologist, Tolkien worked out the “laws” of linguistic change at work in this descent). Westron, or the “common tongue” of Middle Earth, is, of course, English (*), and so the Rohirrim, when we get glimpses of their language, speak Anglo-Saxon “Old English” of the Mercian dialect (with which Tolkien identified his English roots, although the name “Tolkien” [dull-keen] stems from an 18th-Century German immigrant ancestor); and the ancestors of the Rohirrim, the “Men of Rhovanion,” speak Gothic.

The “hidden” Dwarvish feels vaguely “Semitic” to me, but what do I know; and the “Black Tongue,” likewise, a bit “Turkic.”

(*) Somewhere in the notes appended to The Return of the King Tolkien states that in actuality Westron had a grammatico-linguistic structure like the Semitic languages. One can see this, obscurely, in they way that he presents the Numenorean language, their “mannish” language, and not the elvish languages which, for most of their history, they used for record-keeping and ceremonial purposes: Numenorian was, after all, in the history of Northwestern Arda, ancestral to the Westron “common tongue” (that, and the related languages of men inhabiting that part of Arda in the second Age); and the Numenorians and the Men of Rhovanion/Eotheod/Rohirrim are represented as long-sundered members of the same “race,” dating back to the First Age, so in point of “fact” the Numenorians could not have spoken a “Semitic-like” language, while their distant cousins of Rhovanion/the Eotheod/Rohan a wholly different “Germanic” one.

Tolkien tells us, somewhere, that the actual Westron name, or word, for “the Shire” is Suza with a circumflex over the vowel.

I hope this helps, rambling as it is.

#21 Comment By ESO On March 8, 2018 @ 10:18 am

We’re reading The Fellowship of the Ring our loud to our six children right now. Thanks for inspiring me to create a summer project for the older kids—they will LOVE writing each other notes! Also thanks for the idea for a fun class lesson. The kids’ teachers at their small classical school will love this, too!

#22 Comment By DRK On March 8, 2018 @ 10:46 am

Mark in VA, Tolkien had a special love for Finnish, Welsh and Greek, and his various Elvish languages had elements of all three, but by and large it is hard to point to any one word in any of his invented languages and say it was based on any word in this world’s languages. Some of his Shire place names definitely have an Anglo-Saxon feel, but in the appendices, he explained it is just to “give us the flavor”, of Westron, the common language of Middle-Earth.

As far as his process went, Tolkien felt that in order to have a consistent language you must have a history and mythology attached to it, thus, LOTR and all the other writings about Middle-Earth. Given that he served as as the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford and subsequently as the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature At Merton College, Oxford, he had more of a philology background than most of us for language construction — but evidently he was making up languages even as a kid.

Proudest nerd moment: when the Fellowship of the Rings movie came out, and my teenage (!) kids’ friends clamored for me to write out their names in Tengwar (which I’d taught myself to do while I was in high school). Truly I have raised my kids in the way of the nerd, and it has paid off.

In fact, gotta go, just realized I need to go see how my grand-daughter’s name looks in Elvish. ?

#23 Comment By hattio On March 8, 2018 @ 11:29 am

This is awesome.

#24 Comment By Erin M. On March 8, 2018 @ 12:13 pm

Now we *really* know why this blog draws such a polyglot group of folks with such different backgrounds: we’re all just big nerds at heart! <3

Thanks for the post!

#25 Comment By Logan52 On March 8, 2018 @ 12:33 pm

I feel no jealousy over your many travels, or your association with so many interesting people. I must admit to a little, though, when I read of this school.
Still, life on the farm taught many good lessons to my two daughters and I am so happy with how they have grown up despite public schools and universities.
We all need to take time for joy.

#26 Comment By JonFraz On March 8, 2018 @ 12:58 pm

Mark in VA,
By his own admission Tolkien patterned Sindarin on Welsh and Quenya on Finnish, however he was careful to maintain regular linguistic correspondences between them since they are presented as related languages (e.g., Quenya Num- = Sindarin Dun-, both meaning “west”)

#27 Comment By l’autre J On March 8, 2018 @ 1:28 pm

Could the Tolkienologists among us shed some light on the the processes Tolkien used to invent his languages?

He did it from European linguistics. One of the two ‘elven’ languages (‘Sindarin’) is largely based on Welsh, an Indoeuropean language. The other, more prestigious and melifluous, one (‘Quenya’) is based on Finnish, a Finno-Ugric language. Tolkien didn’t borrow either living language’s vocabulary, though. No Welsh or Finnish speaker could understand either one, though the way they sound and operate grammatically would feel familiar. Many names of things in Middle Earth seem taken from old languages or are phonetic games in English, though.

Tolkien probably created the TLOTR scripts from furthark (Nordic/Danish) or Ancient Greek scripts for ‘dwarvish’. The ‘elvish’ scripts look much like the monastic Latin letter scripts of the medieval Anglish and Saxon documents on parchment he read in the original as a scholar of Anglo-Saxon philology.

Youtube has quite a bit of material explaining and articulating Tolkien’s languages and his sources, e.g. Eliot’s grammar of Finnish. Search there and you’ll get a lot more than you asked for.

I think Nora’s writing is cute. But at her age, I was orally fluent in three languages and orthographically fluent in two (which is typical in Europe, where a lot of people learn four and five).

It’s a serious impoverishment of American children that they rarely learn more than their dialect and conventional English. It’s not a disablity (yet), by fortuitous circumstance. But to really understand and operate in a non-native cultural reference frame you have to learn its language.

If rural Europe is the place Benedict Optioners make their real homeland, it’s probably a good idea to learn Europe’s inofficial system of everyone competent in effect having to be fluent in three languages- in the local dialect, in the conventionalized national language, and in the European lingua franca (currently English).

Orthodox Jews already do this by retaining Yiddish as internal dialect, Hebrew as their national language de facto in which meaningful literature must be written, and English as the lingua franca. Medieval monasteries likewise operated with the local language and the ethnic language of the often far away secular rulers, while doing their Church and religious business in Latin or Greek.

#28 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On March 8, 2018 @ 4:52 pm

A Elbereth Gilthoniel!

#29 Comment By stephen cooper On March 8, 2018 @ 10:23 pm

Mark VA – I am not a Tolkienologist but …

Tolkien was a profoundly gifted linguist, but not uniquely so. By the age of 18 he had, thanks to a philological-based classical education, spent thousands of hours reading, writing, listening to, and speaking in Greek and Latin (and a couple modern European languages – Spanish was his favorite). That was a good start!

He spent a few years in the army, years where he had little leisure to learn foreign languages. After his war years, he had many long years in academia, which is hard work when done right, but which allows one some – not much, but some – freedom to follow one’s interests.

As far as I know, he never bothered to learn any language that was not Germanic (English of every age, German of every age, and equally important languages like Frisian and Gothic and Dutch, etc.), Celtic, Finnish, or in the Romance (Latin and its descendants) or Greek (he was familiar with several dialects) families of languages.

At some point, the young – or middle-aged – Tolkien – basically understood Language as such, and about as much as any mortal can (what I am trying to say is that he understood Language that way, as opposed to any given specific language – as a minor detail, he probably understood Anglo-Saxon better than all but nine or ten people of his century, but that is a trivial observation, in context). He completely understood how verbs sometimes are the floraison of nouns and sometimes the root of nouns, and vice versa (or versy vieca, as Fred Flintstone used to say), he understood how syllables change a little, like a field of grass under a changing sky, under the influence of how other syllables sound, and how (this is important) every language limits itself to a mere few tens of thousands of “language roots”, because languages too are finite things, and loved by God in part because they are finite. He understood that names of characters are often not quite the names of words but have a sibling relationship, and he understood how letters and vowels and consonants double or reflect or highlight each other in the same way a great musician understands how to make the basic 88 keys on a piano sing together.

In one of his letters, he remarks that he was saddened that he had never learned Russian. (One of his given names – Reuel – is Hebrew, and I am sure that, in a weekend, he could have prepared a lecture on the 8,000 distinct Hebrew words in the Bible – even if he did not have a sound knowledge of Hebrew … because he understood Words, as Words…., and was very clever, and so on). But of course, he must have, one day in his life, been happy to understand that he finally knew – after long years of devoted toil – enough about languages (peccatum felix, as he described the Tower of Babel – the day when the one Language all men shared became many languages) to compose new languages that reminded him of (first off, in the early 1920s or so) his favorite languages of Earth and that (afterwards, when he became the bard we all know and love, probably in his early 30s) reminded him of what he had first imagined (based – and I am guessing here – on mystical ‘Roman Catholic’ experiences, based on friendship with words and with beloved and long-lost people whom he remembered, in an intense way, through the words he remembered – in his genius way – that they had once said, and based on the insights of an artist whose chosen medium was friendship and the love of God but whose chosen task was to express those insights in words, and based on remembered lines of poetry and half-remembered names of bravely remembered brave friends, long dead, of course, but eternally alive, and the places and things they had loved).

#30 Comment By Mark VA On March 9, 2018 @ 6:08 am

A big thank you to all who responded!

I hope Mr. Dreher will take note of these remarkable replies, and at an opportune time revisit this subject. By the way, I do feel like we have a latent Fellowship of the Nerds here (I’ve always thought of myself as one);

Should there be a Benedict Option for the Hobbits of the Shire, if they’re ever taken over by renegade Elves hell bent on imposing their version of Utopia?

#31 Comment By JonF On March 9, 2018 @ 6:38 am

Re: The ‘elvish’ scripts look much like the monastic Latin letter scripts of the medieval Anglish and Saxon documents on parchment he read in the original as a scholar of Anglo-Saxon philology.

But the alphabet itself is a purely consonantly one, and uses the Semitic device of supplying diacritic marks to indicate vowels.

#32 Comment By Joseph Louden On March 9, 2018 @ 10:29 am

Why not Klingon? A far superior language.

#33 Comment By John B On March 9, 2018 @ 1:03 pm

This reminds me of a story told by an acquaintance of his college days in the late 60s, at the nadir of Tolkien mania on campus. He and his roomates had an apartment just off campus, in what was then a very WASPy neighborhood, and one day they hung a banner proclaiming “Frodo Lives” in Tengwar script. A few days later, they were approached by a neighborhood representative who asked them to remove the banner. It seems the neighbors thought it was Hebrew, and threatened the property values and character of the neighborhood!

#34 Comment By Egypt Steve On March 9, 2018 @ 4:40 pm

In my cesspool of liberal hate-mongering and LGBTQXYZ indoctrination, a student of mine translated an Elvish poem into Hieroglyphic Egyptian for a linguistics class a few years ago. Imagine that!