Quenya is probably the first Elvish language Tolkien worked on, and he worked on it throughout his life. Understanding how Tolkien’s ideas on Quenya evolved is critical to understanding the language itself. Students of Tolkien’s languages often distinguish the “Internal History” of the language (how the language evolved within Middle Earth) versus its “External History” (how Tolkien’s modified and refined the language within the scope of his lifetime). I prefer the terms “Conceptual History” or “Conceptual Development” as being more descriptive of the nature of this external evolution. I generally divide Quenya’s conceptual development into three broad stages:
- Early Qenya: 1910s to 1920s.
- Middle Quenya: 1930s to 1940s.
- Late Quenya: 1950s to 1972.
The names for these stages (especially Early Qenya) are fairly wide spread in the literature describing Quenya. In its earliest stage Tolkien generally spelled the name of the language as “Qenya” rather than “Quenya”, which is why the labels shift over time. Some people use the term “Mature Quenya” for the last stage, but I prefer “Late Quenya” as a more neutral term, since “Mature Quenya” implies the language reached some level of “completeness”, which was not the actually case. This terminology also has the advantage being distinct from the terms Tolkien generally used to describe the periods of the language’s evolution within its Internal History: Ancient Quenya, Old Quenya, Parmaquesta, Tarquesta, etc.
It is well known that the Quenya language was originally inspired by Finnish, but it drift far from these roots. As Tolkien described it in notes for a letter written in 1964:
The ingredients in Quenya are various, but worked out into a self-consistent character not precisely like any language that I know. Finnish, which I came across when I first began to construct a “mythology” was a dominant influence, but that has been much reduced. It survives in some features: such as the absence of any consonant combinations initially, the absence of the voiced stops b, d, g (except in mb, nd, ng, ld, rd which are favoured) and the fondness for the ending -inen, ainen, oinen; also in some points of grammar, such as the inflexional endings -sse (rest at or in), -nna (movement to, towards), and -llo (movement from); the personal possessives are also expressed by suffixes; there is no gender (PE17/135).
These traits all appear in the earliest form of Qenya that Tolkien recorded, though in the 1920s the allative suffix was -nta/-tta rather than -nna (PE14/46, 78). Early Qenya (1910-1930) is represented mainly in three documents: the Qenyaqetsa (PE12/1-28), the Qenya Lexicon (QL) and the Early Qenya Grammar (PE14/35-86), all composed in the late 1910s and early 1920s. The first document was a description of Qenya Phonology. The second document was a Qenya dictionary of sorts, with hints to the ancient origin (within the Internal History) of each word. The last document was a formal Qenya grammar appearing in both manuscript and typescript versions.
As Tolkien originally imagined it in the 1910s and 20s, Qenya was the native language of the first tribe of Elves, whereas the second tribe (the Noldor) spoke a different language, which Tolkien called Gnomish, Goldogrin, or [Early] Noldorin:
The Primitive Eldarin was divided at first by the migration of the Three Kindreds to Valinor into A. Kor-Eldarin; B. Ilkorin. From A. are descended:
I. Old Qenya with its slightly divergent modern descendants (a) Qenya; (b) Inwian, chiefly used as a written and elevated language, but actually locali[zed] in New Kor, or Kortirion; (c) Tol-Eressean, which has been much influenced by Telerin.
II. Telerin [the third tribe], now confined (a) to the dialects of the sea-coast of Valinor ... (b) to the Telerin of Western Tol-Eressea ... (c) to the fading Telerin of the Southern and Western shores of England and Wales.
III. Noldorin [the second tribe]. This apparently began in some points (e.g. treatment of p, ú) to be differentiated from Common Kor-Eldarin before the Gnomish migration and the Flight ... Owing to the early separation of Noldorin it followed a very individual development ... (PE14/60-61).
In its phonological development (internal history), Early Qenya was closer to the development of the Indo-European languages, in that the primitive form of the language had syllabic ḷ, ṛ, ṇ for vowels (both short and long). It also had more Finnish-like characteristics that Tolkien later abandoned, such as the sound-change whereby [ti] became [tsi]. Throughout the 1920s and into early 1930s, Tolkien refined Qenya’s grammar and vocabulary but did not make any drastic adjustments to phonological foundations.
Sometime in the mid-1930s Tolkien decided to undertake a major overhaul of his languages, and he drastically reworked the phonetic development of all of them. The nature of Primitive Elvish underwent the most radical change, and many common forms from the 1910s and 1920s (most notably vocalic ḷ, ṛ, ṇ) disappeared. I called this stage of Quenya’s conceptual development Middle Qenya or Middle Quenya (1930-1950). The major representative document of this stage is The Etymologies, probably composed around 1937-1938, with sporadic edits thereafter.
In the 1930s and 40s, Qenya still remained the native language of the first tribe, named the Lindar at this conceptual stage:
Qenya or more anciently Qendya. This is the language of the Lindar as it was anciently in Valinor in the days of Bliss. It is given this name for three reasons: because it is the common language of all the Qendi when they converse with elves of other speech; because the name Lindarin is now used for that changed form of their own ancient language (Qendya) which the Lindar speak among themselves in these later days; and because the Valar use Qenya always in conversing with any of the elf-race, and they call therefore this tongue so, meaning simply “Elvish” (PE18/25).
The Etymologies serves as a sort of “dictionary” for the Middle Qenya stage, but also includes other Elvish languages and is mainly concerned with the primitive origins of Elvish words. It is less comprehensive than the Qenya Lexicon of the 1910s, because the words it contains are frequently connected to names appearing in the contemporaneous narratives Tolkien was working on, notably The Silmarillion and (to a much lesser extent) early drafts of The Lord of the Rings.
The basic phonetic developments of The Etymologies appear in a set of Comparative Tables [CT] outlining the major sound changes of all the Elvish languages, also written around 1937 (PE19/18-28). Tolkien discussed the phonetic history of Qenya in more detail in a document titled Outline of Phonetic Development [OP1], written somewhat later but probably begun before 1940. There are other documents from this middle stage describing various grammatical features of Qenya, such as the Quenya Verbal System written in the 1940s (PE22/99-127). There is, however, no comprehensive Quenya Grammar from this time period.
The next major conceptual shift, leading to the stage I call Late Quenya (1950-1972), was Tolkien’s decision that Quenya was the native language of both the first and second tribe of Elves, not just the first. The language that Tolkien called Noldorin in the 1920s, 30s and 40s he renamed Sindarin, and it became the native language of the Elves of Beleriand. Perhaps the first mention of this shift appears in The Grey Annals, Tolkien’s chronology of events in Beleriand in the First Age, written around 1951. The initial drafts of this document described a scenario much like that of the 1930s (WJ/20-22), but Tolkien gradually changed his mind as he revised the document, eventually writing:
But it came to pass ere long that the Exiles took up the tongue of Beleriand, as the language of daily use, and their ancient tongue was retained only as a high speech and a language of lore, especially in the houses of the Noldorin lords and among the wise. Now this change of speech was made for many reasons. First, the Noldor were fewer in number than the Sindar, and, save in Doriath, the peoples soon became much mingled. Secondly, the Noldor learned the Sindarin tongue far more readily than the Sindar could learn the ancient speech; moreover, after the kinslaying became known, Thingol would hold no parley with any that spake in the tongue of the slayers at Alqualonde, and he forbade his folk to do so. Thus it was that the common speech of Beleriand after the Third Battle, Dagor Aglareb, was the speech of the Grey-elves, albeit somewhat enriched by words and devices drawn from Noldorin (save in Doriath where the language remained purer arid less changed by time). But the Noldor preserved ever the High-speech of the West as a language of lore, and in that language they would still give names to mighty men or to places of renown (WJ/26-27).
This “High-speech of the West” was Quenya. As his son Christopher Tolkien described it:
In this revised version, nothing is said about Sindarin and Noldorin “drawing together” again, and there is no suggestion that the later tongue of the Noldor came to be regarded as “debased”; spoken Noldorin endured (as the passage was originally written) in the wholly Noldorin city of Gondolin until its fall. The whole conception becomes in fact far simpler: the Noldor retained their own tongue as a High Speech, but Sindarin became their language of daily use (and this was because of the numerical inferiority of the Noldor and the mingling of the peoples outside Doriath, the difficulty that the Sindar found in acquiring the High Speech, and the ban imposed by Thingol). Sindarin received “loanwords” from Noldorin, but not in Doriath, where the language remained somewhat archaic (WJ/27).
This scenario is essentially the one presented in The Lord of the Rings appendix F: the Ñoldor abandoning their native language for daily speech and replacing it with Sindarin, but retaining Quenya for ritual and lore (LotR/1127-8). The new paradigm is reflected in Tolkien’s next revision of his description of Quenya phonology, the Outline of Phonology [OP2], begun in the early 1950s but with notes and emendations up through at least 1970 (PE19/67-107). Since Quenya was now the native language of both the first and second tribes, the two major dialects were now Vanyarin (first tribe) and Ñoldorin (second tribe). I generally denote this Ñoldorin dialect of Quenya using an Ñ as Tolkien did in OP2 to better distinguish it from the earlier Noldorin language of the 1920s, 30s and 40s which was actually the precursor to Sindarin rather than a dialect of Quenya.
Unfortunately, in this last stage of the language we have no dictionary like the early Qenya Lexicon, and not even an etymological word list like The Etymologies. The closest we come is a series of documents labeled Words, Phrases & Passages in the Lord of the Rings, which includes notes on the vocabulary and names appearing in the first edition of The Lord of the Rings. Since the notes in Words, Phrases & Passages are mainly concerned with the content of The Lord of the Rings, the vocabulary it contains is rather haphazard. Likewise, the published grammatical notes from this last conceptual stage are less comprehensive, and many of them focus on specialized topics rather than giving general overviews of grammar.
Figuring out how to use these six decades of linguistic material is rather difficult. The earliest versions of the language are in some respects the most “complete”, in that they include more comprehensive word lists and grammars, but the nature of Tolkien’s early ideas are rather different from the ones he held after finishing The Lord of the Rings. Early Qenya is different enough from Late Quenya that they seem like distinct but related languages, like Spanish and Italian. Putting everything together without introducing too many inconsistencies is a major challenge.
The grammatical discussions in the following entries focuses on our current understanding of Quenya grammar in its last stage, the Late Quenya of the 1950s and 60s. Where appropriate, these entries includes a discussion of the conceptual development of the grammar as well, with pointers to earlier grammatical structures that may or may not be compatible with Tolkien’s later ideas. This is especially true of grammatical constructs that only appear in Tolkien’s early writings.