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Tolkien, being a linguist, designed his fictional languages rather carefully. Quenya and Sindarin were closely related, having both descended from the primordial speech of the elves. Tolkien, of course, knew about how languages change and split in the real world, but there is a key difference between humans and elves: Elves are immortal.

This got me thinking about how elvish language would change if many of the first generation of speakers is still around. In the real world, the speech of individuals changes of their lifetimes, somewhat following the changes in the language around them, but immortality would probably suppress linguistic evolution to a significant extent. Thingol banned the speech of the Noldor in Doriath, but what language did Thingol himself speak? Modern Sindarin? The Proto-Elf of the first generation that awoke in the East?

What I'm wondering is whether there's any evidence that Tolkien thought about this, or whether he assumed that linguistic evolution for elves would be just like that in the real world.

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    I'm still alive (more or less) and the language has been changing around me. I haven't been able to "suppress linguistic evolution", much as I'd like to. If I live another 100 years, I expect that I won't understand anyone and no one will understand me. – user14111 Dec 3 '15 at 4:41
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    @user14111 yes, but that's not the same. Even if you were to grow to be very old, other speakers wouldn't so the normal mechanism of linguistic evolution apples. The question is about linguistic evolution of the languages spoken by immortal beings. – terdon Dec 3 '15 at 16:54
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    Perhaps there are actual Elves among us, and that is why we're moving back to hieroglyphs. – krillgar Dec 3 '15 at 18:45
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    Part of how language changes is simply fashion. We change how a word is pronounced because it sounds 'cool' or use a different word in a new way. Sometimes when we come in contact with a different language and borrow words or phrases. During Viet Nam, it was common for soldiers to say "di di mau" which meant "let's get out of here". Immortals would likely change their language as time passed, unless they were intelligently stultified. – Howard Miller Mar 22 '16 at 2:38
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Tolkien wrote an essay on this subject in 1960, called "Dangweth Pengolod." The essay is rather long, so I'm not going to quote the whole thing, but the highlight for me is this passage:

[T]o the changefulness of Ea, to weariness of the unchanged, to the renewing of the union: to these three, which are one, the Eldar also are subject in their degree. In this, however, they differ from Men, that they are ever more aware of the words that they speak.

[...]

A man may indeed change his spoon or his cup at his will, and need ask none to advise him or to follow his choice. It is other indeed with words or the modes and devices of speech. Let him bethink him of a new word, be it to his heart howsoever fresh and fair, it will avail him little in converse, until other men are of like mind or will receive his invention. But among the Eldar there are many quick ears and subtle minds to hear and appraise such inventions, and though many be the patterns and devices so made that prove in the end only pleasing to a few, or to one alone, many others are welcomed and pass swiftly from mouth to mouth, with laughter or delight or with solemn thought - as maybe a new jest or new-found saying of wisdom will pass among men of brighter wit. For to the Eldar the making of speech is the oldest of the arts and the most beloved.

History of Middle-earth XII The Peoples of Middle-earth PArt 3: "The Teachings of Pengolod" Chapter 14: "Dangweth Pengolod"

Thus, the Elvish languages evolve similarly to how mortal languages do, but in a more deliberate, guided way.

There's also evidence that Quenya borrowed from Valarin, the language of the Valar and Maiar:

The Eldar took few words from the Valar, for they were rich in words and ready in invention at need.

History of Middle-earth XI The War of the Jewels Part 4: "Quendi and Eldar" Appendix D: "*Kwen, Quenya, and the Elvish (especially Noldorin) words for 'Language'"

What effect that would have had on Sindarin is unknown, especially since Thingol banned its use, but it is evidence that the Elves were willing to borrow from other languages, when it suited them.

There's further discussion on this subject in The Peoples of Middle-earth, where Tolkien remarks that the Elvish tongues in Middle-earth did indeed diverge from those in the Undying Lands:

All things changed in Arda, even in the Blessed Realm of the Valar; but there the change was so slow that it could not be observed (save maybe by the Valar) in great ages of time. The change in the language of the Eldar would thus have been halted in Valinor; but in their early days the Eldar continued to enlarge and refine their language, and to change it, even in structure and sounds. Such change, however, to remain uniform required that the speakers should remain in communication. Thus it came about that the languages of the Eldar that remained in Middle-earth diverged from the language of the High Eldar of Valinor so greatly that neither could be understood by speakers of the other; for they had been separated for a great age of time, during which even the Sindarin, the best preserved of those in Middle-earth, had been subject to the heedless changes of passing years, changes which the Teleri were far less concerned to restrain or to direct by design than the Noldor.

History of Middle-earth XII The Peoples of Middle-earth Chapter X: "Of Dwarves and men" Relations of the Longbeard Dwarves and Men

  • Yes, I know. That wasn't my question. It seems to me that Tolkien may have made the opposite of the usual mistake made if fiction (the usual mistake being assuming that languages do not change much over extended periods). Instead, it seems that he may have treated elvish language evolution like real-world language evolution. (That is, he may have forgotten to take into account the fact that the original speakers of the elvish languages are still around.) – Buzz Dec 3 '15 at 2:26
  • @Buzz Okay, now we're on the same page. He did talk about this, but I'm going to have to do some digging to find the evidence – Jason Baker Dec 3 '15 at 2:31
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    @Buzz See update. I'm still improving, but that's a good start – Jason Baker Dec 3 '15 at 2:48
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    Elves talk in memes! – Matt Gutting Dec 3 '15 at 2:49
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I'd say their languages did not evolve at all.

Think about it. You are immortal, about the only thing that is going to save you from going batshit insane is the dependability of the things you have named and created -- to stay the same. I think that's where the prejudice against elves in their high halls comes from. They are aloof, because to become mired in the changing world is to loose who and what they are. That is the arrogance you see, in their actions.

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    Your first statement is demonstrably untrue – Jason Baker Dec 7 '15 at 15:56
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    What arrogance? The way I see it Elves were more bitter towards men because they couldn't die, where men could. So any arrogance is probably just the Elves holding on to what little they have over men. "Look! I can make a shiny thing better than you because I've been here for 1000 times longer than you, but secretly I'm so envious of you because you have a gift not even the Valar have". – John Bell Dec 7 '15 at 16:42
  • @JohnBell I agree, but only in that its the other side of the same coin. The Elves have been around for thousands of years - but they do nothing "new". They are stodgy, repressed, and formal - because they are so old. They envy men and the young races because of the younger races youth and vitality. Though lacking in longevity, the younger races are superior. This doesn't mean that the younger races "realize" this ;) That's what a 1000 year life span will give you --- an excellent poker face. – cod3fr3ak Sep 29 '16 at 6:13
  • @JasonBaker I stand corrected - tho I would point out that such an occurrence is highly suspect. However seeing as how the book was written by a mortal, I don't expect he'd think of it in any other way. – cod3fr3ak Sep 29 '16 at 6:24
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    The Elves aren't arrogant, although it may appear that way to men. Elves behave in line with the nature that they were created with, like all incarnate beings. A few elves were bitter towards men because of the Gift of Men and some, at later times, came to realize the sorrow that was associated the gift (such as Arwen in RotK) and came to rue their bitterness. Men, at the beginning of the Gift, rejoiced for their lives were beutiful on Arda and as the time came they would peacfully slip away and go to places not even wisest of Elves know. In later days, Man came to rue the Gift as hinderence. – Oubliette Jan 13 '17 at 19:40

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