Tolkien’s genius is hard to squeeze into one article. Apart from his profession, philologist, he is a famous author of fantasy books and tales, by which he showed himself to be a great inventor, illustrator and story-teller. The following article will introduce the background and the main features of one part of his work, a writing system known as the Tengwar.
Keywords: Tengwar, writing system, transcription, phonemes, Quenya
The Tengwar, Tolkien’s Writing System
A short introduction to Tolkien’s scripts
In his books The Hobbit or There and Back Again (Tolkien, 1937) and The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien, 1954-1955) Tolkien introduced two writing systems, the Tengwar and the Cirth (Runes). People often mistake the Tengwar for a language, and so ask for text in English to be “translated” into Tengwar, usually for a tattoo. But the Tengwar is in fact a transcription system, like Cyrillic or Sanskrit.
Inspiration and the birth of the Tengwar
As a student at King Edward’s College, Tolkien came across texts in Old and Middle English, Gothic and Finnish, and he also learnt about Sanskrit. All these sources inspired him in his inventions. He first used his own alphabet in 1919. As Arden S. Smith (Smith, 2001) mentions, the first version of his script was invented as “a code-alphabet for the representation of English”. It was later known as the Sarati or the Alphabet of Rúmil. Tolkien continued revising it up until around the mid-1920s, when it was replaced by the Tengwar, another writing system where the origins of the Sarati were easily recognizable. His continuous revisions of the script went hand in hand with the history of Middle-earth, as described in The Silmarillion (Tolkien, 1977). There the Sarati, having been created by an Elf called Rúmil, inspired a very gifted Elf called Fëanor, who later transformed it into the Tengwar.
Tolkien primarily devised the Tengwar as a writing system for English, but he soon related it to his Elven tongue, Quenya, which was strongly inspired by Finnish. He never stopped revising and modifying it, so many variations on and alterations to it have been found since his death in 1973. Scholars and the general public alike have been interested in his work ever since the first book was published.
The main features
Texts in the Tengwar are written as Latin is written, i.e. in lines from the top left of the page toward the right bottom. There are many modes (orthographic variations) but all of them have this direction in common.
The word “tengwar” (sg. tengwa) is Quenya and according to Tolkien (Tolkien, Ch. 1987) it means “(list of) letters, i.e. alphabet”. Quenya, unlike English, is a synthetic language where words are pronounced in the same way as they are written. However, the system is not a mere alphabet, i.e. a list of randomly organized letters for sounds. The main table includes consonants, which are always written down as individual tengwar. When it comes to vowels, we distinguish different modes (types of transcription). There are two main modes, the first where vowels are also represented by tengwar, the second where vowels are expressed by “diacritics” over the tengwar. These vowel symbols are called “tehtar” (sg. tehta). Diphthongs are transcribed as combinations of a tengwa and a tehta.
The tengwar are not only organized in a clever way but if you know the key to the layout, you can easily decipher the specific type of a phoneme.
A detailed composition of the Tengwar can be found in the so-called Red Book (Tolkien, 1955).
Recognition of the Tengwar in the world
J. R. R. Tolkien is a famous author of fantasy books. He is considered one of the top British authors of the 20th century, so it is no wonder that thousands of fans and scholars are interested in his creations.
The Tengwar became even more popular with Peter Jackson’s films, beginning back in 2001. The internet offers a lot of sources for study, although very few of them are of high quality and faithful to Tolkien’s work. Enthusiasts are advised to read The Appendix E: Writing and Spelling of the The Return of the King (Tolkien, 1955) and the works of Christopher Tolkien, Arden R. Smith, Christopher Gilson, Bill Welden, Carl F. Hostetter and Patrick Wynne.
Sources and Citations
Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel (1937). The Hobbit or There and Back Again. Location: George Allen and Unwin, London.
Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel (1954). The Fellowship of the Ring. Location: George Allen and Unwin, London.
Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel (1955). The Return of the King. Location: George Allen and Unwin, London.
Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel, edited by Tolkien, Christopher (1978). The Silmarillion. Location: George Allen and Unwin, London.
Smith, Arden R. (2001). The Alphabet of Rúmil. Publication: Parma Eldalamberon No. 13. Location: The Tolkien Trust.
Allan, Jim and collective (1978). An Introduction to Elvish and to Other Tongues and Proper Names and Writing Systems of the Third Age of the Western Lands of Middle-Earth as Set Forth in the Published Writings of Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Location: Bran’s Head Books, Bath.
Tolkien, Christopher (1987). The Lost Road and Other Writings. Location: HarperCollinsPublishers, London.
Carpenter H., Tolkien, C. (1995). Letters of J R R Tolkien. Location: HarperCollinsPublishers, London.
Sandbrook, Dominic (2015, December 17). Did Tolkien write ‘juvenile trash’? BBC.com Retrieved from: