Getting Started With Elvish

This document is aimed at readers who are relatively inexperienced with Tolkien’s Elvish languages. More knowledgeable readers who want to know about Eldamo may wish to start with the discussion in the Motivations and Methodology essay of this lexicon.

Although this lexicon contains a great deal of Elvish vocabulary, the lexicon itself is not intended to be a teaching tool for learning the Elvish languages. If this is something you are interested in, I suggest you look at the various Elvish courses available online, for example:

Tamas Ferencz’s and Fiona Jallings’ are fairly current in terms of their use of the latest publications in Tolkien linguistics. Helge Fauskanger’s and Thorsten Renk’s courses are considerably older and less current, but have the advantage of being published in languages other than English. For Quenya, I am biased towards my own course 😉. I am actively maintaining it and trying to keep it up to date with the latest research.

Of the two major Elvish languages, the “High Elvish” language of Quenya was more completely described by Tolkien, and I feel that it is more accessible to beginners. However, many students of Tolkien’s languages are more interested in learning Sindarin despite its added complexity, since it was the Elvish language more commonly spoken in Middle-earth and more prevalent (for example) in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies.

Once you have an understanding of the grammar of the Elvish languages, you can use the vocabulary in this lexicon as a source of words for new Elvish compositions:

There are a few things to consider when using Elvish vocabulary from these or other Elvish word lists. First, Tolkien worked on the Elvish languages throughout his life, and was constantly revising the grammar, vocabulary and linguistic history of the languages. This lexicon divides Tolkien’s languages into three conceptual periods: Early, Middle and Late. If you are concerned with consistency, you should take care when mixing vocabulary from different time periods, since Tolkien’s shifting conceptions of his languages could render words from earlier periods invalid according to the rules and phonology of later versions of the languages:

PeriodHigh ElvishCommon Elvish
Early (1910-1930) Early Qenya Gnomish
Middle (1930-1950) Middle Quenya Noldorin
Late (1950-1973) Late Quenya Sindarin

Second, Tolkien never finished working on the Elvish languages while he was alive, and much of what we know about the languages are drawn from unfinished documents published posthumously. Considerable guesswork is needed to piece together the various elements of Tolkien’s work into something that can be used for the purposes of communication. These extrapolations from Tolkien’s work are sometimes called Neo-Elvish (Neo-Quenya or Neo-Sindarin), and they include some fan-invented words called “neologisms”. Since Tolkien’s writing is sometimes contradictory, the Neo-Quenya and Neo-Sindarin vocabularies in this lexicon have a warning symbol (⚠️) indicating words I recommend against using. Those symbols represent the opinion of the author, and other scholars may disagree with my suggested usage.

Third, while this lexicon provides Elvish-to-English translations, it does not provide a reverse dictionary of English-to-Elvish. Given Tolkien’s shifting linguistic conceptions, it can be difficult to pin down an exact English translation of many of his Elvish words. Furthermore, given the sparsity of the available Elvish vocabulary, there are many English words for which there is no Elvish equivalent. Often you will need to search for Elvish words that are similar to your intended meaning if you cannot find an exact match. There are several ways you can look for the Elvish translation of an English word in this lexicon:

  1. Use the Search feature of the lexicon.
  2. Look at the semantic categorization of Elvish words, which group Elvish words with similar meanings together.

Fourth, you should bear in mind that Tolkien’s motivations for creating his Elvish languages were primarily artistic and aesthetic, and as such he never intended to “finish” the languages in a way that would allow them to be spoken. For a discussion of the incomplete nature of the Elvish languages, see Carl Hostetter’s article “Elvish as She Is Spoke” on the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship web site. See also my own take on this question: What is Neo-Elvish and Is It Good or Bad?

Finally, given the uncertain and ever-evolving nature of Elvish vocabulary and grammar, all interpretations of Tolkien’s languages are necessarily subjective, including those in this lexicon. For a more nuanced understanding of the Elvish languages, you may wish to compare the vocabulary appearing in this lexicon with those in other Elvish word lists:

Better yet, look at the original source material and formulate your own opinions on the meaning of Elvish words. Both this lexicon and the ones listed above have extensive references to Tolkien’s writings providing the contexts in which various Elvish words originally appeared.