Quenya Grammar P10.5: Definiteness and the Genitive/Possessive

Quenya Grammar P10.5: Definiteness and the Genitive/Possessive

Posted out of order; should be after the entry on the definite article


Quenya is less inclined to use the definite article than English. It seems the definite article is only required if the definiteness of the noun must be emphasized or is not otherwise specified. One interesting example is the phrase:

Note how the definite article “the” is present in English but absent from the Elvish phrase. Tolkien explained this in a “Words Published” list from the late 1950s (PE17/13):

lúme, time (a period of time however long, if limited); lúmenna “allative” = to, on, upon, towards (note article = “the” is usually not used when noun is defined by a possessive or genitive).

According to Tolkien, lúme “time” does not require a definite article i in this phrase because it is already specified by the genitive qualifier omentielvo “of our meeting”. This is less strange than it appears at first: the English possessive behaves similarly. If you were to say “John’s book”, then “the” is not required to indicate that you are discussing a specific book. In fact saying “John’s the book” would be ungrammatical. You might say that the possessive “John’s” fills the determiner slot that might otherwise be occupied by “the”, so that “the” cannot be used.

In English, the possessive “John’s” always precedes the noun, but in Quenya the genitive and possessive may either precede or follow the noun, and they follow more often than they precede (as in the example above). Based on the note above, it seems the genitive can fill the determiner slot even when it follows the noun. Another interesting set of examples appears in Common Eldarin: Noun Structure from the early 1950s:

NB. as noted above, though Ulmóva can mean “Ulmo’s, of Ulmo (a person),” ... In some cases the meanings of singular -o coalesced with -va: as e.g. in kirya tyulma “a ship-mast, ship’s mast, mast of an unspecified or any ship”; tyulma kiryo “the mast from some ship, of some ship”; tyulma i kiryo “the mast of the ship” or i tyulma kiryáva (PE22/80).

Note how in tyulma kiryo = “the mast of some ship”, the mast is determined even though there is no article (“the mast”) but the ship is not (“some ship”). In this note the definiteness of the qualified noun behaves exactly like the example lúme omentielvo ”the hour of our meeting”. However, when the article is added, both the qualifier and qualified become definite:

  • tyulma i kiryo “the mast of the ship”.
  • i tyulma kiryáva “the mast of the ship”.

Note how the article appears immediately before the genitive (tyulma i kiryo) but the article appears at the beginning of the phrase for the possessive (i tyulma kiryáva). This may be because the possessive functions as an adjective, and Quenya does not allow the article to intervene between an adjective and the noun it modifies. In English “I see the blue horn” is grammatical but “I see blue the horn” is not. Likewise cenin luine i róma and cenin róma i luine are probably ungrammatical in Quenya; these would need to be cenin i luine róma or cenin i róma luine. There are only two attested examples of an article intervening between a possessive form and the possessed item:

  • ómo i·aire táríva “of the voice of the holy queen” (PE17/76).
  • i sorasta i kiryava “the ship’s (particular on[e]) equipment” (PE21/69).

In the first example, the possessive is applied an noun modified by an adjective, aire tári “holy queen”, and it thus behaving more like an inflection and less like adjective; this may be why the article is allowed in this circumstance. The second example is from the 1940s and is part of earlier conceptual paradigm (see “Conceptual Development” below).

If the use of a genitive or possessive always makes the qualified noun definite, then this begs the question: how do you qualify an indefinite noun? One possibility given in the quote above (PE21/80) it to use a “loose compound”: kirya tyulma “a ship-mast, ship’s mast, mast of an unspecified or any ship”. Here, it seems, the unqualified combination is indefinite, as opposed to *i kirya tulma “the ship-mast”. There is a similar example from the Quendi and Eldar essay written around 1960:

Thus “Orome’s horn” was róma Oroméva (if it remained in his possession); Orome róma would mean “an Orome horn”, sc. one of Orome’s horns (if he had more than one) ... (WJ/368).

Note how the possessive form seems to be definite (Orome’s specific horn) whereas the loose compound is indefinite (a horn, not the horn). Unfortunately, the remainder of this quote seems to contradict this neat system:

... but róma Oromëo meant “a horn coming from Orome”, e.g. as a gift, in circumstances where the recipient, showing the gift with pride, might say “this is Orome’s horn” (WJ/368).

Here róma Oromëo is glossed as indefinite, even though it is qualified with a genitive. Looking at genitives in the rest of the corpus, there are a large number of examples where the mere presence of the genitive seems to make the qualified noun definite:

  • rámar aldaron “the wings of trees” (LotR/377).
  • lírinen ómo “by the song of the voice” (PE17/76).
  • lúmissen tengwiesto “at the times of your reading” (VT49/47).
  • cantar valaron ar maiaron “the ... shapes of the Valar and Maiar” (PE17/175).

However, there are also many examples where the qualified form remains indefinite, or where an article is added even though it doesn’t seem necessary:

  • aran Ondóreo “a King of Gondor” (PE22/158).
  • vanimálion nostari “parents of beautiful children” (Let/448).
  • i·coimas eldaron “the ‘coimas’ of the Eldar” (PM/395).
  • i yave mónalyo “*the fruit of thy womb” (VT43/31).

It is hard to say what these variations may mean. They may represent some subtle restrictions on article usage or they may represent conceptual vacillations on Tolkien’s part. Perhaps it is simplest to assume that while Quenya allows definite article in this position, but it does not require it, and “definiteness” vs. “indefiniteness” are less of a concern for Quenya than it is for English.

Conceptual Development: Here is one final set of examples from Notes for Qenya Declensions written in the 1940s:

Apart from the power of forming “loose-compound” genitives, which remained in restricted use, Q. developed a [?movable] genitive particle (not used partitively) -va (uva) which went at the end of a noun or genitive phrase — [?this] usually following the defined noun if it had more than one element. So (i) kirya sorasta “(the) ship(’s)-equipment”, i sorasta kiryava, “the equipment of a ship”, but i kiryo sorasta, “the ship’s (a particular on[e]) equipment”, also i sorasta i kiryava (PE21/69).

These examples seem to represent an earlier, more English-like paradigm, where the definite article is required to mark definiteness. Compare i sorasta kiryava, “the equipment of a ship” (1940s) vs. i tyulma kiryáva “the mast of the ship” (1950s). It also seems that in the 1940s, the article is required if the qualifier follows but not allowed if the qualifier precedes: i sorasta i kiryava = “the equipment of the ship” vs. i kiryo sorasta “the ship’s equipment”; again this behavior matches that of the English possessive.

Neo-Quenya: For the purposes Neo-Quenya, I would use the following system:

  • As a general rule, where the definite article carries little to no semantic meaning, it is optional in Quenya.
  • When a genitive or possessive precedes the noun it qualifies, the article cannot intervene between the qualifier and qualified, much like how in English, “John’s the book” is not grammatical. Neither **ciryo i tyulma nor **ciryava i tyulma “ship’s the mast” is allowed.
  • When a genitive follows the noun it qualifies, an article may precede the genitive, and specifies the definiteness of the genitive: tyulma i ciryo “(the) mast of the ship” vs. tyulma ciryo “(the) mast of (some) ship”.
  • When a simple possessive follows the noun it qualifies, no article may intervene between them: **tyulma i ciryava is not allowed. The article must precede the entire phrase, and specifies the definiteness of the entire phrase: i tyluma ciryava “the ship’s mast”. This is because the possessive is functioning more like an adjective in these cases.
  • However, when the possessive itself has a qualifier like another adjective, then a definite article may intervene: tyulma i alta ciryava “(the) mast of the large ship”.

In cases where the article is omitted, the definiteness of the phrase is unspecified. It may or may not refer to a specific thing, depending on context. Unlike English (which frequently requires an article of some kind), Quenya often omits the article in cases where it isn’t semantically important.

To put things another way, the fact that Quenya does not have an indefinite article like English “a, an” is a strong indication that “indefiniteness” is not semantically important in that language, especially when compared to English and other European languages. The absence of the definite article in Quenya does not necessarily mean the noun in question is indefinite. It simply means it is not specifically marked for definiteness, and could be either definite or indefinite depending on context. In English if you were to say “king of Gondor” with no article (as in “Aragorn, king of Gondor”), you could mean “a king of Gondor” or “the king of Gondor” depending on how the phrase was being used.

It may be that Tolkien imagined a more complex system than the one described here, but we can’t readily determine how it worked given the contradictory examples from the corpus, so I think the system described above is a reasonable compromise.