Sindarin Phonetic Development (Part 26)

Sindarin Phonetic Development (Part 26)


OS. [j] became [i] after vowels; [VjV|-Vj] > [ViV|-Vi]

It is well known that non-initial y ([j]) became vocalic [i] in both Sindarin and Noldorin. This is reflected in its spelling system, where i represented a vowel in the middle of words, but y at the beginning of words:

I initially before another vowel has the consonantal sound of y in you, yore in Sindarin only: as in Ioreth, Iarwain (LotR/1114).

This shift of [j] to [i] took place in two phases (or three phases if you include Primitive Elvish developments: see below). First, any y appearing between vowels became i ([VjV] > [ViV]), and later any remaining non-initial y became i. This is most obvious from Old Noldorin examples. Compare:


  • ᴹ√MIR > ON. mirya “precious” (EtyAC/MIR).
  • ᴹ√PHIN > ON. phinya “skillful” (Ety/PHIN).
  • ᴹ√SIR > ON. sirya- > N. sirio “to flow” (Ety/SIR).
  • (but note possible exception ON. skhalia- “to screen”, Ety/SKAL¹)

The only attested example of intervocalic y in Old Noldorin is Phayanṓr (N. Feanor), and this probably represents an older form. Also note that there would be no examples of pre-consonantal y [VjC] in Old Noldorin or Old Sindarin, since these had already become i in Primitive Elvish, and in fact were the main source of primitive i-diphthongs: [VjC] > [ViC]; this primitive sound change makes for “three phases” of y becoming i, as mentioned above.

The picture is less clear in Sindarin, but there is indirect evidence that intervocalic y became i in Old Sindarin, because of how the resulting diphthongs developed. In particular, the resulting i-diphthongs underwent the same development as original primitive i-diphthongs, indicating an early phonetic change. For example:

This indicates the change of [VjV] > [ViV] probably occurred at an ancient stage, since otherwise the resulting [ai] diphthong would have survived. Diphthongal developments in Noldorin also support such an ancient change, such as: ᴹ√GÁYAS > ON. gaia > N. gae “dread” and not **gai or **gei.

Finally, there is one Old Noldorin example that indicates that the sound change [-Vj] > [-Vi] (final y after a vowel becoming i) occurred only in Old Noldorin, and not in Primitive Elvish:

  • nāyǝ > noi > ON. nui “lament” (Ety/NAY).

Here the final indeterminate vowel [ǝ] (probably originally short [ă]) was lost primitively, but the result was not a primitive diphthong [āi] > [ai], which would have become [ae] or [oe] in Noldorin. Instead, it seems that the long [ā] became [ǭ], and then the resulting diphthong [ǭi] ultimately became [oi] > [ui]. This is only possible if the final [j] was preserved long enough for these Noldorin-only phonetic developments to occur.

It isn’t clear whether this preservation of primitive final [j] after a vowel applied to (Old) Sindarin’s phonetic history, but for now I am assuming it does until contrary evidence appears.

Submitted by Lokyt Mon, 12/17/2018 - 01:33

Two questions:

What do you imagine to be the actual phonetic nature of the change described here? What do you think was the difference in articulation between [j] and [i]?

And second, do you think that the change had any influence on syllabicity?

Submitted by Lokyt Mon, 12/17/2018 - 18:33

In reply to by Lokyt

Oh, no, don't get me wrong :), I really have nothing special to say. It's true that I am interested in this diphtong-semivowel-syllabicity area (which is why I asked), and I'd like to dig into it in Tolkien's languages if I ever have the time, but I've had almost no opportunity to do anything about it so far - apart from realising that it's not easy to tell diphtongs from disyllabic vowel clusters given Tolkien's spelling systems.

Submitted by Paul Strack Mon, 12/17/2018 - 21:16

In reply to by Lokyt

That much I understand, and can answer.

Every vowel pair ending in an i or u is diphthong, and most everything else is disyllabic, with the exception of some additional Gnomish/Noldorin/Sindarin diphthongs. In Sindarin the extra diphthongs are [ae] and [oe]. I don’t know all the diphthongs for earlier forms of the language off the top of my head.

So, the change of [j] to [i] in this rule results mainly in new diphthongs, which thereafter develop as original diphthongs.

E.g. waja > waia > gwaia > gwai > gwae

The change of [ai] > [ae] was late, occurring even for diphthongs that originated from vocalization of spirants.

Submitted by Lokyt Tue, 12/18/2018 - 02:16

@ Paul Strack:

Well, the first step would obviously have to be finding an agreement on a definition of "diphtong" :) To me (and to a great deal of linguists), any combination of a vowel and a semivowel is a diphtong too (as there is little difference in articulatory and acoustic properties between what IPA chart notes e.g. as [j] and []). So groupings like [-ja-], [-wa-] etc. are included. (And as a matter of fact, for many years I had no idea that Tolkien ever made a difference between semivowels and non-syllabic vowels, until just a few months ago...)

But apart from that, I must take your word for all this :), as all I have examined myself to at least a limited degree is Gnomish (which is more complicated then Sindarin when it comes to polyftongs).

And thus, the info you've given at least implies that in S., all words beginning on i̯a-, i̯e-, i̯o-, i̯u- get their beginnings reformed to iʲa-iʲe-, iʲo-, iʲu- when attached to another word to make a compound. Also all such suffixes (like the primitive verbalizing -jā-) must have undergone the same evolution (> -i̯ā- > -iʲa-). Is this correct?

Submitted by Paul Strack Tue, 12/18/2018 - 03:13

In reply to by Lokyt

I must admit in many cases it seems that Tolkien uses [j] and [i̯] interchangeably. There do seem to be some distinctions, though.

One example I examined recently was the development of [āj] vs. [āi] in Sindarin. The latter was a long diphthong, and presumably would shorten into [ai] and eventually become [ae]. In the case of [āj], however, it seems the [j] was sufficiently “consonantal” that the long [ā] underwent its normal development to [ǭ], producing [ǭj] > [ǭi] > [oi] > [oe]

It’s possible I’m misinterpreting the evidence, though. I don’t have a clear example of the development of [āi] so I could be wrong. I don’t have enough background knowledge to know the real-world mechanisms that produce such sound changes, so it’s hard for me to evaluate what is and isn’t plausible. It’s mostly an exercise in symbol-manipulation for me, so some of my theories are on a shaky phonological foundation.