Sindarin Phonetic Development (Part 1)

Sindarin Phonetic Development (Part 1)


I’m working on creating detailed analysis of Sindarin phonetic development, and have decided to post preliminary work here, for these interested in early reviews and possibly giving me feedback. Here is the first such post, on the following phonetic change:

AT. short unstressed vowels vanished before [l], [r] to produce favored initial clusters; [{ptkpʰkʰbdgm}V₁{rl}V́₁-] > [{ptkpʰkʰbdgm}ø{rl}V́₁-]

In the Telerin language branch, unstressed initial syllables frequently lost their vowel before another stressed syllable in cases where the result was as “favored initial cluster”. The clearest description of this change comes from Tolkien’s notes in the second version of Tengwesta Qenderinwa:

Thus in {Lemberin >>} Sindarin [Beleriandic] derivatives of the form ✶kalā́t-, ✶kalánt- (that is those that show a stressed and long medial syllable and a short unstressed initial) were normally converted into ✶k’lā́t-, ✶k’lánt- where the resulting initial consonant group was tolerated, e.g. especially where the medial consonant of the kanta was l or r. A similar development is also seen in Noldorin, but its frequency was much increased in Exhilic, doubtless by Sindarin [Beleriandic] influence where the forms are not actual loans from Sindarin [Beleriandic] (PE18/87).

This note dates from around 1950, just before Tolkien changed Noldorin to Sindarin, and thus straddles the transition period between the two languages (the “Sindarin” mentioned in this note is actually a remnant of earlier Ilkorin). However, this reduction of unstressed initial syllables to clusters was a part of the Sindarin line of conceptual development from the very beginning, appearing even in the earliest forms of Gnomish. It is one of the major causes of initial clusters in Sindarin such as cr- and pl-. As indicated above, the circumstances causing this change are as follows:

  1. An unstressed initial syllable preceeds another stressed syllable.
  2. Both syllables have vowels of the same quality.
  3. The second syllable begins with r or l.
  4. The initial syllable begins with a stop, aspirate or (possibly) a nasal.

The quote above also indicates that the second syllable must be “long”, that is having a long vowel or followed by a pair of consonants. There are, however, some examples where the initial syllable reduction occurred even where the second syllable was merely short and stressed, for example ✶palátā > S. plad (VT47/09).

The clearest and most numerous examples of this change involved voiced and voiceless stops. Examples of voiced stops include √BARAS [barásse] > S. brass (PE17/23), ᴹ√DARÁM [darámba] > N. dram (Ety/DARÁM), and ᴹ√GOLÓS [golósse] > N. gloss (Ety/GOLÓS). Examples of voiceless stops include ✶palátā > S. plad (VT47/09), ✶kirissi > criss (PE21/81), and ✶turunko > S. trunc (PE21/80).

There is evidence this change applied to clusters beginning with aspirates as well, such as ✶philinkĭ > phlinke > flinc (PE21/56, 72, 81) and ᴹ√KHARÁS > khrassē > rhass (Ety/KHARÁS). There are no clear examples involving [tʰ]: while thl-/thr- were valid initial clusters in Noldorin, this seems not to be the case in Sindarin, so it seems like such combinations were abandoned in the later conceptual stages of the language, assuming they existed at all.

The case for reducing of initial nasal clusters is more ambiguous. In Gnomish there are examples of reduced n-clusters like ✶norokā́ > G. drog (GL/31) and ✶n’reu̯ > G. drio (GL/30). There are several Noldorin examples where mVr- > mr- > br-, such as ✶morókō > N. brôg (Ety/MORÓK) and [deleted] ᴹ√MERÉK > N. bregol (Ety/MERÉK). The only ml- > bl- examples date back to Gnomish, such as ✶mol- > G. bloss (GL/23) and ✶m(b)elek > G. blectha (GL/22). There is even one Noldorin example of a reduced initial syllable beginning with a nasalized stop: ✶ngalámbe > N. glamm (Ety/ÑGAL). Whether these changes remained valid in Sindarin is an open question, however. Since both [ml] and [mr] > [bl] and [br] in Welsh, it seems possible that at least the reduced m-clusters could occur Sindarin, but the other nasal clusters seem unlikely.

Determining the exact timing of this change is tricky. Part of the problem is that this phenomenom was not the only one that could produce these initial clusters in Sindarin. For example, the initial combinations dl-, dr-, gl-, gr- date back to Common Eldarin period as strengthening of initial l-, r-, and these combinations appear in a number of roots such as √GLIM (WJ/337) and ᴹ√DRING (Ety/DRING). Furthermore, such clusters also occurred as spontaneous strengthenings during later Sindarin periods (WJ/411, Note #13). However, similar unrelated initial clusters also occur in Telerin: ✶palátā > T. plata (VT47/8) and ᴹ√BARÁD > b’randā > ᴹT. branda (Ety/BARÁD). As Tolkien said:

There thus arose [in Common Eldarin] dr-, dl- beside r-, l-. An early variation of dl- was gl-. From this variation gr- was also developed analogically as a strengthening of r-. Beyond this point the development in CE did not proceed, and in Vanyarin [Quenya] appears not to have possessed any other combinations with l, r, other than more ancient sl, sr. In Noldorin and Telerin, however, the development proceeded, aided as it was by the development of new combinations after the loss of unstressed ă, ĕ, ŏ before r, l in certain formations (PE18/94).

This supports the idea that this change occurred in both Sindarin and Telerin and therefore could have happened in Ancient Telerin before the languages split. It is also supports the idea that change was not in Primitive Elvish itself, and occurred only after the Telerin line split from Quenya. However, since this note was written before the reorganization of Noldorin into Sindarin was complete, other scenarios are possible. Perhaps there were parallel changes in Sindarin and Amanya Telerin after they split, with only a subset of the changes (e.g. for stops only) in Telerin. This is how David Salo modeled this phonetic development in Gateway to Sindarin (GS/§4.34-35).

Conceptual Development: As noted above, this idea dates back to Gnomish and was therefore well established, though in the very earliest period it must have occurred with initial voiceless spirants rather than aspirates. In early conceptual periods, Noldorin and Telerin were not related, so these reductions must have been parallel changes rather than occurring at a (non-existant) common stage. In fact, in the 1930s and 40s it seems that Tolkien imagined that the Noldorin changes were at least partially the result of influence from similar changes in the Telerin child-language Ilkorin (aka. Beleriandic). From the quote above:

A similar development is also seen in Noldorin, but its frequency was much increased in Exhilic, doubtless by Sindarin [Beleriandic] influence where the forms are not actual loans from Sindarin [Beleriandic] (PE18/87).

Its possible that at various points, Tolkien imagined some of these cluster reductions occurred in the Common Eldarin period. In the Comparative Tables of the 1930s, Tolkien listed most of the above initial clusters as “Later Combinations” of Primitive Elvish (all but the nasal combinations), and explored their developments in all languages, including Quenya dialects (PE19/21). At this stage, these earlier clusters were not inconsistent with Quenya development, since:

In Q. all these newer groups were again simplified (as dr > r) or made syllabic (as pr- > par´) (PE18/45).

This quote is also from the 1930s, from the first version of Tengwesta Qenderinwa. Thus, even if these changes had occurred in Common Eldarin, the reduced clusters would in many cases have been restored in Quenya. This is, in fact, the development in the Comparative Tables of the 1930s for such initial clusters in the Quenya dialects. From a data modeling perspective, however, it is much easier to assume these reductions occurred later, in the Telerin branch only, and not in Quenya at all.

Submitted by Atwe Fri, 11/30/2018 - 08:15

Thank you for sharing it, Paul! I have promoted the essay to the front page so that it is more evident for visitors.

Submitted by Atwe Sat, 12/01/2018 - 13:15

Since both [ml] and [mr] > [bl] and [br] in Welsh, it seems possible that at least the reduced m-clusters could occur Sindarin, but the other nasal clusters seem unlikely.


Is your argument that since bl and br exist in Welsh and they come from ml and mr respectively, it suggests that the latter clusters are also possible in Sindarin?

Submitted by Paul Strack Sat, 12/01/2018 - 17:29

In reply to by Lokyt

I'm not sure that's a certain example, since cenedril might simply be from *cenet+ril instead. Alternately, Tolkien could have revised the root from MBIRIL to BIRIL between the 1930s and 1960. It is, however, additional evidence in favor of the survival of mr- > br- into Sindarin and I will note it when I talk about that particular phonetic rule.

Submitted by Paul Strack Sat, 12/01/2018 - 17:34

In reply to by Lokyt

Actually, upon further reflection, the cenedril example is significant enough to mention in the discussion of cluster reduction as well, so I will add it. The whole point of me posting these drafts is to get feedback, so it would be rude of me to ignore such feedback :)