Tengwar for Proto-Indoeuropean!

There was a time when I became fascinated by the Proto-Indoeuropean language (also known as PIE), the common ancestor of all Indoeuropean language, a massive linguistic family which includes the whole Germanic branch (languages such as English, German and Icelandic), Italic languages (Latin and Romance!), Greek, Sanskrit and Hindi, the Slavic branch (Russian and most languages of Eastern Europe) and even more. To sum up, it could be said that almost all languages which are currently spoken in Europe (as well as its former American and Oceanic colonies!), as well as in many parts of Asia (such as Iran, Pakistan and most of India) descend from PIE.

Taking into account the huge number of languages it has given rise to, it isn’t surprising that its study is very important to linguists! But, if it is so important, why does most people don’t know it exists? Why have Latin, Greek and Sanskrit gained the status of classical ancient languages, while their common ancestor has fallen from grace?

This is because Proto-Indoeuropean was spoken way before writing spread; we don’t really have a single PIE text. However, this doesn’t mean we don’t know anything about it! Using what’s known as comparative linguistics, linguists have been able to reconstruct most of it to a quite fair degree. It’s true that we can’t be completely sure that ancient PIE (which is also supported by some archaeological evidence!) was actually spoken that way, but it’s the best guess of hundreds of professional linguists.

The language itself is interesting; there’s not just book history there but also an interesting grammar (which is rendered much more interesting once we realize it was the basis for so many languages!) and a rather unusual phonology (which currently unclear (there are various hypothesis), all of them frankly unusual, at least when comparing to modern Indoeuropean languages). If you want to know more about this language and the history of its rediscovery and reconstruction, you should look at this Wikipedia’s article.

Apart from that, I was deep into Tolkien’s languages, especially the ones spoken by the Elves: Quenya and Sindarin. Many conlangers say that Tolkien is the conlanging Shakespeare, and it’s not difficult to understand why: his conlangs are considered by many people to be along the prettiest languages ever spoken, each with a working and thoroughly detailed grammar and history. However, one of its most attractive features lies not in its grammar nor phono-aesthetics, but in its writing system, the Tengwar, which appeals to almost everyone (it’s only drawback is that, as many letters are near mirror-images of each other, it would be very difficult for anyone which dyslexia!).

A Tengwar text (in Tolkien’s Quenya)

At some point, I realized something which proved to be quite interesting: the Tengwar fitted well the Proto-Indoeuropean. In fact, it was even more suitable for it than any other script I knew!

Note: this article may assume that the reader has at least some basic notions of Tengwar. If not, it would be useful to skim this page at Omniglot.

And so I decided to create a Tengwar mode for PIE. First of all, I read enough things about Tengwar to be familiar with the way it worked in many existing modes, which include the ones for Quenya, Sindarin (two variants, the Standard mode and Beleriand mode), English as well as a pair fan-made modes for Spanish. Then, I did some quick web research on Proto-Indoeuropean, focusing in its phonology, but also on some relevant parts of its grammar. Most PIE words are derived from roots which consist of some consonants (and semi-consonants) and a single vowel which changed (a feature known as ablaut) so as to mark tense, create word derivations, etc. That could be perfectly represented in Tengwar! Sometimes I wonder if Tolkien had made it in purpose. After all, as a prominent linguist, he was familiar with Proto-Indoeuropean. In fact, some Elvish words can be traced to ancient Indoeuropean roots. Even the word Tengwar itself (which literally means ‘letters’) seems to be related to dn̥ǵʰwéh₂s (I suppose you’re beginning to understand why I said it was unusual), the reconstructed word for ‘tongue’ and ‘language’ (in fact, the English word tongue as well as Latin lingua (which is also the source of ‘language‘) descend from it)!

The first thing I had to decide was how to map PIE phonemes to the tengwar (to the individual letters of Tengwar, singular tengwa). Just as with the Latin alphabet, the individual letters can have different values in a language or another. However, this variation is greater in Tengwar.

I soon realized I had to consider three kind of phonemes: obstruents (pure consonants, I mean, phonemes which are always pronounced as consonants), sonorants (phonemes which can behave either as a consonant (like the Y in yes) or a vowel (the Y in party)) and vowels. I decided that both obstruents and sonorants should be written with full letters, whereas pure vowels should be written with diacritics (usually called tehtar by Tolkienists). This enabled a word to be pretty recognizable even when its vowel underwent ablaut and changed from e to o, lengthened or completely disappeared (what’s known as zero-grade, it often forces a previously consonantal semi-vowel to become a vowel).

Pure consonants are represented by the most typical kind of tengwar, which consist of a (long) stem and one or more bows:

Note: As said above, there is still some uncertainty about the true phonetic value of many PIE consonants. Owning to this, two purposed phonemes will be given for some letters: one according to most traditional theories, and one corresponding to the markedly different Glottalic Theory.

On the other hand, sonorants or semi-vowels (the consonants which can be syllabic) are represented by tengwar which are not composed of a stems and a long bows; so as to easily distinguish them. There is also a non-sonorant with such a symbol: an alternative form of S to be used for S-mobile.

(Yet another) Note: some of these improperly labbeled ‘semi-vowels’ are actually consonants which can be syllabic nuclei in the same way as vowels (as the l in bottle in most English dialects). On the other hand, Y and W are true semivowels. They were (most likely) pronounced /j/ and /w/ when pronounced as consonants (and written as Y and W) whereas they were pronounced /i/ and /u/ (usually written I and U) otherwise.The letters which are usually written H₁, H₂ and H₃ are suspected to have been pronounced as fricatives when consonants and as actual vowels otherwise.

As I stated before, full vowels are written in this mode as diacritic marks, called tehtar (the name is unimportant, though). Most linguists seem to agree that Proto-Indoeuropean had only 2 different vowels: e and o (other vowels such as i, u and a (see note below) actually arose from semivowels such as Y, W and H₂), which can be either short (e and o) or long (ē and ō).

Sometimes, related words will have (more or less) the same consonants but completely different vowels (a hypothetical word “gyek” could be related to “gyok” or even to “gik” (where the I is just a vocalic y)). In those cases, the words would only be distinguished by the diacritic marks (or the absence of them); thus enabling us to recognize such related words.

(And still another) Note: There are also some linguists which claim that PIE also had a as a full vowel, and not barely as a vocalic form of H₂. That’s why I also included a tehta for ‘a’.

These diacritics also help determining whether a semi-vowel is to be pronounced as a vowel or a consonant: the semi-vowel will be a consonant as long as there is some vowel diacritic (tehta) above them. Otherwise, they will be vowels.

Proto Indoeuropean is also considered to have had stress accent. As a significant phonemic feature, it should be marked. I do this by placing a dot below the stressed letter (the one where the stressed vowel is placed). As a result, the consonants which already have two dots below will have three.

Finally, this is a Tengwar version of Schleicher’s fable; one of the first texts ever translated to (reconstructed) Proto-Indoeuropean. It was written by August Schleischer in 1868. Since then, lots of discoveries have been made, so I used a much more recent version by Adams, published in 1997.

This is the same in cursive Tengwar (as in the Ring inscription):

The Latin alphabet transcription, however, is not as elegant (Adam’s orthography differs a bit from the one I used above):

H2óu̯is h1ék̂u̯ōs-kʷe

Gʷr̥hxḗi h2óu̯is, kʷési̯o u̯lh2néh4 ne (h1é) est, h1ék̂u̯ons spék̂et, h1oinom ghe gʷr̥hxúm u̯óĝhom u̯éĝhontm̥ h1oinom-kʷe ĝ méĝham bhórom, h1oinom-kʷe ĝhménm̥ hxṓk̂u bhérontm̥. h2óu̯is tu h1ek̂u̯oibh(i̯)os u̯eukʷét: ‘k̂ḗr haeghnutór moi h1ék̂u̯ons haéĝontm̥ hanérm̥ u̯idn̥téi. h1ék̂u̯ōs tu u̯eukʷónt: ‘k̂ludhí, h2óu̯ei, k̂ḗr ghe haeghnutór n̥sméi u̯idn̥tbh(i̯)ós. hanḗr, pótis, h2éu̯i̯om r̥ u̯l̥h2néham sebhi kʷr̥néuti nu gʷhérmom u̯éstrom néĝhi h2éu̯i̯om u̯l̥h2néha h1ésti.’ Tód k̂ek̂luu̯ṓs h2óu̯is haéĝrom bhugét.

Which means:

The Sheep and the Horses

[On a hill,] a sheep that had no wool saw horses, one of them pulling a heavy wagon, one carrying a big load, and one carrying a man quickly. The sheep said to the horses: “My heart pains me, seeing a man driving horses”. The horses said: “Listen, sheep, our hearts pain us when we see this: a man, the master, makes the wool of the sheep into a warm garment for himself. And the sheep has no wool”. Having heard this, the sheep fled into the plain.

As usual, everyone who wants to is allowed to use this mode or any other thing in this blog. In fact, you’re encouraged to! I really doubt old good Tolkien would be anything but honored for the use of its nice alphabet.

[The last] Note: I used Tengwar Annatar font by Johan Winge for the images. You can download it freely at http://home.student.uu.se/jowi4905/fonts/annatar.html.

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Posted on 2011/08/28, in English, Proto-Indoeuropean, Scripts, Tolkien. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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