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Throughout Tolkien's works, we frequently come across the terms "elvish" and "elven". Is there a difference between these terms? For example, does one refer to characteristics of the Elves themselves, and the other refer to characteristics of the things they make?

Bonus question: Are the words "elfish", "elfen", or "elfin" ever used?

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    Answer to bonus question; Absolutely not. :-) Per Tolkien's Letter #138 to his son; "But the printing is very good, as it ought to be from an almost faultless copy; except that the impertinent compositors have taken it upon themselves to correct, as they suppose, my spelling and grammar: altering throughout dwarves to dwarfs; elvish to elfish; further to farther; and worst of all, elven- to elfin. I let off my irritation in a snorter to A. and U. which produced a grovel." – Valorum May 27 '15 at 20:35
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    Elven = An elf. Elvish = relating to elves. – Valorum May 27 '15 at 20:38
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    Wasn't Elvish the big fat guy who sang "Love me Tender"? – Valorum May 27 '15 at 20:39
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    Elvish has left the building. – KutuluMike May 27 '15 at 20:56
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    Worst job ever: JRR Tolkien's grammar editor. – Nerrolken May 27 '15 at 22:01
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Yes, the two words both basically mean "related to the Elves", but Tolkien used them each in specific instances to mean something subtly different. As a general rule, "elvish" was used to describe things related to the various Elvish languages, and "elven" was used to as a general adjective to describe things with an Elf-like quality.

For example, Frodo says the marks on the ring as "some sort of Elvish". Similarly, a word would be Elvish, such as Appendix F claming that "Moria is an Elvish name". On the other hand, Galadriel gives the Fellowship "elven rope", and Sting is described as an "elven blade."

One exception seems to be when trying to use it as a compound adjective; specifically, I can't find any example where Tolkien uses the word "High-Elvish"; instead he describes Quenya as the "High-Elven" name of their language" (again, from Appendix F.)

Bonus Answer: No, Tolkien never used those spellings of either word, and was aghast at the idea that someone else might. This excerpt comes from Letters #236:

Elvish, elvish has been changed to Elfish, elfish 7 times but left unchanged 3 times. I view this procedure with dudgeon. The older and 'historical' form elvish is still recognized, and appears even in such popular dictionaries as the 'Pocket Oxford'. I suppose I should be grateful that Cox and Wyman have not inflicted the change from elven to elfin ...

As you can see above, Tolkien himself never used the alternatives 'elfish' or 'elfen' on purpose, and when his editors tried to, he objected rather strongly.

  • Excellent answer- +1. I remember reading one or two passages where Tolkien describes hobbits in general, and Frodo in particular, as having Elf-like qualities (particularly in regard to Frodo's appearance) - I have no idea where these passages occur, but I am curious as to which word(s) Tolkien used. – Wad Cheber May 27 '15 at 21:03
  • A bit of searching produced the following results: Faramir says that Frodo has an "elvish air" about him; Sam thinks Frodo's face looks "pale but beautiful with an elvish beauty". People's comments seem to suggest that there are other references as well, pertaining to both Frodo in particular and hobbits in general. – Wad Cheber May 27 '15 at 21:16
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    Just speculating about your exception: "High-Elven" could be related to the language because it's being used in a slightly different manner from "elvish." It might be that "Elvish is the High-Elven language," sort of like "English is the American language." In this case, "High-Elven" could be a description of the elvish language, rather than the word for the language itself. – Nerrolken May 27 '15 at 21:59
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    @Nerrolken - I think you're on to something. "High-Elven" might be like "Castilian Spanish", as opposed to "Mexican Spanish". Or like "English speaking" meaning the same thing as "Anglophone" – Wad Cheber May 27 '15 at 22:41
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    Ah-ha! I just read up to a passage in The Steward and the King where Faramir says Arwen is so beautiful that words cannot do her justice, even in the "Elven-tongue". This might support my idea that "Elven" can refer to the language if it prefaces a word describing it as such. – Wad Cheber May 28 '15 at 1:30
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From what I've gathered from Tolkien's writings, "elvish" almost always relates to the Elves' languages, and perhaps to the Elves' culture. As a parallel, "mannish" is used to refer to the languages of men, and likewise their culture.

"Elven" means the person is an Elf, such as Elron is called "Half-Elven". For men, the equivalent is "human".

An exception seems to be "High-Elven", referring to the language, as other people here commented.

It seems that "elven" applies to the persons themselves, while "elvish" applies to what they produce, or things associated with them: their languages/cultures/architecture/food/weapons, etc.

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"Elven" is an (optional) substitute for "elf" as the first element of a compound word

As Valorum mentions in a comment, in general "elven" seems to be used in contexts where the noun "elf" would also be possible. This seems to be because "elven" was originally a noun like elf, not an adjective like elvish. The Oxford English Dictionary says the -en of elven is not in origin an adjectival suffix, but actually comes from a Germanic feminine noun suffix. Despite this, the word came to be used as a noun for an elf of either gender. This use is now obsolete, but it seems to have been retained in poetry longer than elsewhere. Tolkien was surely aware of all of this information, being a philologist and English professor.

The use of elven in words like Elvenking or elven-tongue may be comparable to Tolkien's use of dwarrow (an alternative form of the noun dwarf) in the compound word Dwarrowdelf: he does not use either "elven" or "dwarrow" as an independent noun. However, Tolkien does sometimes use the noun "elf" attributively in compounds, such as "elf-cake" or "Elf-country"; I don't know if there is any significance to using "elf" vs. "elven" in this sort of context. Perhaps "elven", being archaic, creates more of a sense of dignity.

I don't know of any case where "elven" is unambiguously an adjective in Tolkien's work; I would appreciate any examples if someone is aware of them. It certainly seems to have an adjective-like meaning in some expressions, but as far as I know it is always used attributively before a noun, and this is a position where nouns can occur as well as adjectives (for example, one can say "orc-king" or "orc tongue" rather than "orcish king" or "orcish tongue"); in fact, "elven" often occurs as the first element of hyphenated or closed compound words, and I think noun-noun compounds are more common in English than adjective-noun compounds (consider the compound words "Entmoot", "ent-house", "ent-stride", "ent-maiden" used in Tolkien's work).

Note that in the segment of letter 138 quoted by Valorum,

But the printing is very good, as it ought to be from an almost faultless copy; except that the impertinent compositors have taken it upon themselves to correct, as they suppose, my spelling and grammar: altering throughout dwarves to dwarfs; elvish to elfish; further to farther; and worst of all, elven- to elfin. I let off my irritation in a snorter to A. and U. which produced a grovel.

"elvish" is written as an independent word, but "elven-" is written with a hyphen after it. I am copying this from Valorum's comment; I don't have direct access to the letter so I can't absolutely verify that this detail was in the original. But if it is present there, it seems somewhat significant to me.

I thought of another issue this brings up: does "dwarven" exist, either as a noun or as an adjective? If this site can be trusted (http://lotrproject.com/statistics/books/keywordsearch) then in fact there are no examples of "dwarven" in Tolkien's work. This contrasts with 5 examples of "dwarvish" in The Hobbit. The word "dwarven" definitely shows up as an adjective in more recent fantasy that is derivative of Tolkien's work, but it doesn't seem to have the same deep historical roots as elven (dwarven is not yet in the Oxford English Dictionary, in fact!).

"Elvish" is used as an adjective, and as a noun referring to the language

Elvish is generally an adjective, and is used in circumstances that require a word that is unambiguously an adjective. It has the usual broad range of meaning of an "-ish" adjective, and can mean either "of an elf/elves" or "like an elf/elves". It is also used as a noun meaning "the language(s) of the Elves", just like "Entish" is the language of the Ents.

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The languages are Elvish; Elven and Elvish are both adjectives

The following refers to how the terms are used in The Lord of the Rings. I haven't analysed Tolkien's other writings, but I don't remember him changing the way the terms were used.

"Elvish" is used as a noun to refer to any of the Elvish languages.

Both "Elvish" and "Elven" are used as adjectives meaning "associated with Elves".

  • Elvish is always used a separate word, as in Elvish blood or Elvish glass.
  • Elven is usually used in a hyphenated compound word, as in Elven-blood or Elven-glass.

There are a few exceptions to the use if "Elven" in hyphenated words.

  • There are a few non-hyphenated compound words: Elvendom, Elvenfolk and Elvenhome.
  • There are a few examples of Elven used as a single word adjective: Elven door, Elven folk, Elven people, Elven Tirion and Elven women.

In many cases, Tolkien used the adjectives interchangeably as you can see from the following lists.

  • "Elven" is used as an adjective with the following words: blade, blood, boat, bow, brooch, cake, cloak, eye, fair, finger, flower, folk, glass, grey, home, hood, kin, kind, king, lady, light, lord, lore, maid, mail, princeling, ring, river, rope, rune, script, sheath, ship, skill, smith, song, speech, star, strand, string, sword, tear, tongue, tower, voice, way, white, wise, work.
  • "Elvish" is used as an adjective with the following words: air, appetite, arrow, beauty, blood, character, country, dream, eye, face, fashion, folk, form, glass, influence, knife, lady, land, language, minstral, name, plot, power, robe, script, sheath, smiths, song, speech, tongue, tradition, trick, use, voice, warrior, way, waybread, wights, word, writing

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