David Salo: _A Gateway to Sindarin_
a discussion by Thorsten Renk
I. General remarks
Now David Salo, probably most famous for the creation of the Elvish
dialogues in the "Lord of the Rings" movies, has published his ideas on the
grammar of Sindarin. The book has very much the flavour of a review
published as a summary of long research. It aims to cover all aspects of
Sindarin, from the internal history of the language in Tolkien's
legendarium to the phonological development from the primitive Common
Eldarin forms to the Sindarin of the 3rd age, from the grammatical and
syntactical rules of the language to the way names and other compound
words are formed. In addition, it contains several appendices providing
Sindarin-English and English-Sindarin wordlists, a list of primitive
roots, an analysis of all known texts in Sindarin, and an annotated
The book is written in a highly technical language (at times unnecessarily
so), and although there is a glossary of linguistic terms, in order to
actually read and understand the text the reader needs more than an
elementary knowledge of grammar.
This, in combination with the scheme employed by Salo for distinguishing
between attested and reconstructed forms, leads to the greatest flaw of
the book -- its false pretense of rigor. While the technical language and
the presence of the signs ! "reconstructed form in external history",
* "reconstructed form in internal history", and # "form with regularized
spelling" suggest that the book is a serious scholarly attempt to deduce
the grammar of Tolkien's invented language by starting from Tolkien's own
writings, a closer look reveals that this is actually not quite true. The
book represents rather a grammar of Sindarin as Salo thinks it should be,
sometimes regardless of what Tolkien wrote.
Therefore, although the book is written in the style of a comprehensive
review, it lacks an important element which would be present in a
scholarly work, i.e., citations to the underlying reasoning for the grammar
given here. All we get to see is the end product, but we seldom get a
glimpse at the logical deductions leading to the forms which are
presented. This makes it very difficult to actually judge the value of a
given idea. Richard Feynman characterized scientific method with the
words: "Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be
given if you know them. [...] If you make a theory [...] and advertise it,
or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree
with it. [...] In summary, the idea is to try to give all the information
to help others to judge the value of your contribution, not just the
information that leads to judgement in one particular direction or
another" (from _"Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!": Adventures of
a Curious Character_). Clearly, that is not the approach David Salo
In the following, I will try to give an overview of what I can see of
Salo's methology in dealing with Tolkien's original texts, followed by
comments on selected chapters of the book.
II. Standardizing Sindarin
David Salo tries to discuss the grammar of a fictive, "classical" Sindarin
that is supposed to be a unified description of everything Tolkien
wrote about the language.
However, the texts Salo refers to range from early sources like the
_Etymologies_ (c. 1937) to late sources like _The Shibboleth of Feanor_
(c. 1968), and for all we know Tolkien's ideas about the phonology and
the grammar of the language (and even its role in his legendarium --
initially it was "Noldorin", the language of the Exiles, before it became
"Sindarin", the language of the Grey-elves) changed considerably. Thus,
Tolkien's changing ideas clash frequently with Salo's attempt to find
Consequently, Salo employs a variety of strategies to deal with
"irregular" pieces in Tolkien's writing. In the following, an example for
each of them is provided:
1) Open dismissal:
On p. 390, Salo discusses the phrase _Sarch nia Hîn Húrin_ 'grave of the
children of Húrin' stating "The word _nia_ is almost certainly wrong,
though also seen in _Glaer nia Chîn Húrin_ WJ:160, 251. Perhaps for _nia_
should be read _ina_, as in the early form _Haudh-ina-Nengin_ WJ:79". No
reason is actually given why the form is "almost certainly wrong", though
it doesn't fit into the theory Salo developed earlier.
2) Silent dismissal:
On p. 108, Salo makes a distinction between _si_ 'now' and _sí_ 'here'. On
p. 212 in the discussion of Lúthien's song he stresses this distinction
again: "_si_: adverb, 'now' [...] not to be confused with the related _sí_
However, that doesn't go too well with Sam's cry _le nallon sí
di-nguruthos!_ and the translation given by Tolkien in L:278: 'to
thee I cry now in the shadow of (the fear of) death'. In Salo's discussion
of the text, the translation reads 'I cry to you under the horror of death',
and the form _sí_ is conveniently ignored in the word-by-word analysis.
3) Dismissal on a fictional basis:
On p. 118, Salo discusses the past tense formation _car-_ > _agor_. He
acknowledges that Tolkien states that the formation is "usual in Sindarin
'strong' or primary verbs" (XI:415) but continues with the claim "but in
fact examples are much rarer than those of the nasal past. One might
expect such formations as *_udul_ 'he/she/it came', *_idir_ 'he/she/it
watched', *_egin_ 'he/she/it saw', etc., but these are not in fact found."
He conveniently fails to mention that while these three forms are indeed
unattested, his own suggestions *_toll_, *_tirn_, and *_cenn_ are not found
4) Possible updates
Discussing the conjunction 'and', Salo dismisses the form _ar_ widely
found in Sindarin texts with: "Although this has not been emended in any
of the texts cited in this book, it is clear that Tolkien intended to
generally replace _ar_ with _a(h)_. The change appears to have taken place
in the early 1950s, prior to the publication of _The Lord of the Rings_."
For all I know, that could be true, although Salo doesn't really provide a
compelling reason. The latest text including _ar_ is the 'Ae Adar', which
dates to "sometime during the 1950s" (VT44:21), and in late notes (1968)
Tolkien gives a Common Eldarin form _as_ and Sindarin _ah_ (VT43:30); cf.
also _Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth_ (X:303). However, it seems rather
absurd to assume that Tolkien would have gone over his early texts some
time around 1960 and changed just _ar_ into _ah_ everywhere and nothing
III. "Proving" the theory
Especially in the discussion of the verbal system, Salo doesn't show a lot
of hesitation to throw out a Tolkien-made example or to emend it to a form
which goes along with his theory. Since most of the attested verbal forms
are actually Noldorin, this is not so much trying to standardize and unify
Sindarin and Noldorin, it is closer to fabricating evidence to "confirm" a
pre-existing theory. The strategies are pretty similar, though:
1) Silent "correction"
Verbs that do not conform to the expected pattern are simply emended
where needed -- this is the fate of the infinitive _garo_ (V:360, VT45:14),
which becomes ?_geri_ in the paradigm shown on p. 126; of the verb
_aphad-_ (XI:387), which is changed into **_aphada-_ (p. 128); of the past
tense _degant_ (VT45:37), which is quoted as **_dagant_ (p. 119) to
"confirm" a pattern; of the verb _dant-_ (V:354), which leads to the
invention of the verb **_danna-_ (p. 135); and a lot of other forms which
don't fit into a neat theory.
2) Silent dismissal
Sometimes forms which do not agree with the theory are left out of the
discussion. On p. 119, Salo states: "There was also a past tense suffix
that added _-s, -ss-_ to the stem. This suffix is found attached to the
_-ta_ verbs. It is also found in the composite form _-a-s, -a-ss-_ with CVC
root verbs that originally ended in the alveolar stops _t_ and _d_ [...] However,
this past tense may have been preserved only in the Noldorin dialect of
Sindarin, as we have _teithant_ from the _-ta_ verb _teitha-_ but not
Of course that seems plausible -- unless you include the past tense form
_erias_ from _eria-_ (VT46:7), which spoils not only the statement that it
is a suffix for _-ta_ verbs but also the relevance of _teithant_ (the fact
that VT46 appeared during the final preparation of the book is hardly
relevant -- _erias_ was known from  published on _Tengwestië_ shortly
after VT 45 appeared).
3) "Exceptional" status
Forms that do not conform to the pattern but for some reason resist
emendation are explained as "exceptions", like on p. 118 where we learn
about what Salo terms "Ablaut" past tenses: "Pasts of this form are rare
and were probably replaced by analogical formations by the period of
The actual distribution of nasal infixion past tenses vs. ablaut past
tenses in Noldorin is 12:4, i.e. about 25% of the attested forms show this
variant (see ). That is not really negligible. As for the replacement
by analogical formation, 2 of the ablaut past tenses show alternative weak
past tenses using the ending _-ant_ and 6 of the 12 nasal infixed past
tenses show _-ant/-as_ -- the ratio is therefore pretty much the same,
analogical past tenses did not specifically level ablaut past tenses but
all "strong" past tenses in the same way, be it n-infixion or ablaut.
4) Unresolved discrepancies
Occasionally a form that doesn't agree with the theory is allowed to
stand in apparent contradiction to the grammar, though no explanation is
given. For example, we find in the discussion of the preposition _athar_
that it causes liquid mutation, followed by the example _athar harthad_
'beyond hope', where we might expect to see ?_athar charthad_ according to
Salo's liquid mutation table. No discussion of this phenomenon is provided.
IV. Marking (un)attested forms
In the preface, Salo introduces the following scheme to distinguish
attested and reconstructed forms: A ! is used to mark a reconstruction, a
* is used to mark an historic form in the fictional timeline of language
development, and a # is used to mark a form with regularized spelling.
This scheme has one disadvantage which is obvious a priori -- Salo doesn't
distinguish between a historic form found in Tolkien's writings and one
reconstructed by himself: they are both listed using *. In addition, Salo
occasionally lists forms he considers doubtful also marked with the *, cf.
*_udul_ or *_idir_ on p. 118.
Forms not found in Tolkien's writings are sometimes marked with a ! in the
main grammar sections of the book, sometimes not; there is no clear
scheme. In order to learn if a complete word is deduced somewhere one can
usually refer to the Sindarin-English wordlist in the appendix where the
scheme has been carried out more thoroughly, but which inflectional forms
of a given word are actually attested and which are not is impossible to
determine from the book.
To be fair, Salo discusses outright reconstructions in text passages (so
e.g. for the pronouns or the verb 'to be'), and the pattern of the four
consonant mutations is marked very thoroughly according to what is
attested and what is deduced. Nevertheless, this rigor is lacking in many
other discussions of the grammar. Regularized spelling likewise is only
indicated in the appendix, not in the main bulk of the text. This creates
the (false) impressions that a lot of forms would be comparatively well
The translations given for Sindarin expressions and names are often
different from those found in Tolkien's writings (and as such unattested).
For example, for _nad_ 'thing' (V:374) we find on p. 121 the additional
translation 'being'. However, this translation isn't actually given
anywhere by Tolkien; its purpose is evidently to provide support for
Salo's idea that the form is a gerund of the verb 'to be'.
V. Sindarin phonology development
A large portion of the first part of the book deals with the sequence of
sound changes from Common Eldarin to "classical" Sindarin across the
intermediate stages of Old Sindarin and Middle Sindarin. This is a highly
detailed analysis involving a staggering amount of work and is very
fascinating to read, although it is difficult to see the complete picture
due to the wealth of details.
The main problem here is that Salo did not introduce a scheme to make a
distinction between forms by Tolkien and by himself. Thus, while the
sequence of sound shifts may have been as Salo describes, it is very hard
to see to what degree one can rely on the tables without re-doing the
whole analysis. This is very sad, but as it is, I would hesitate to base a
serious conclusion on the tables.
VI. The grammar and syntax of Sindarin
In the discussion of Sindarin grammar and syntax, David Salo presents new
observations and interesting insights alongside forms pressed into a
framework he thinks should be correct.
I found the observation that the first noun in a genitive sequence or
adjective is often shortened (p. 93, 103) very interesting and new.
Similarly the A-affection on p. 82 (the change from e.g. near-final _i_ to
_e_ in the presence of an ending _a_ in Old Sindarin, cf. the adjective
ending _-ina_ > _-en_) is a very good explanation of a phenomenon of which
I had only noticed some particular instances. Likewise, the presentation of
the ablaut phenomenon (p. 90) is very clear and nicely done.
The presentation of the adjective employs a few unusual interpretations,
which nevertheless are possible. So is Salo's assumption that _menel-vîr
síla díriel_ should be read as 'watchful sky-jewel shines' rather than
'sky-jewel shines watchful' (p. 101), and the observation that if the
adjective precedes the noun, the noun may be lenited (p. 102) is very good
indeed. On the other hand, it is odd to see _fen hollen_ as an example for
the lack of lenition (p. 102) -- since that is the only place where the word
is attested, we don't know if it is lenited ?_sollen_ or unlenited ?_hollen_.
The discussion of the pronominal system is as expected -- since Tolkien
changed this particular aspect of his languages over and over, it is hard
to make certain statements, and this is a chapter in which Salo is very
careful and honest in the distinction between attested and reconstructed
A critical view on the presentation of the verbal system has already been
given in some detail above: The presentation suffers strongly from the
fact that Salo tries to force attested forms to conform to his ideas
rather than let the attested forms guide the development of his theory.
The discussion of the definite article includes the old idea that it may
become ?_ir_ before nouns beginning with _i-_ -- while there is a
possibility that this is so, there is _i innas lin_ 'thy will' from the Ae Adar
(VT44:21f) to show that this is not necessarily so, and Qenya _írë_ (V:72)
'when' to provide a plausible alternative translation of the (untranslated)
_Ir Ithil ammen Eruchîn _ (III:354). Salo doesn't mention this possibility.
VII. Sindarin word formation
To be frank, Salo's chapter on word formation from Common Eldarin roots
doesn't make much sense to me. On p. 158, he seems to assume that words
like _cam_ 'hand' or _gamp_ 'hook' are derived from a nasalized root (as
opposed to the derivation using a suffix described later), hence KAB >
?_kamb_ > _cam_ or GAP > ?_gamp_ > _gamp_. That idea completely neglects
the simple fact that a form in Common Eldarin is often not only relevant for
Sindarin only but also for Quenya. Therefore we should be looking for a
form which is able to yield both Sindarin _gamp_ and Quenya _ampa_ -- and
that rather suggests a derivational suffix like _-na_. It so happens that
Tolkien himself describes the derivation _gapna_ > _gampa_ > _gamp_ in
VT47:20, where we also find the Common Eldarin form of _cam_ -- it is
_kambâ_ (VT47:7), which is the result of _kab-mâ_ (VT47:12), i.e. it also
involves a derivational suffix.
The same is true for the nouns with doubled finals -- Salo derives _peth_
'word' via a doubling of the final root consonant, not via a suffix -- and
yet we find under KWET the Common Eldarin form _kwetta_ (V:366), which
evidently employs a derivational suffix _-ta_ (and leads to Quenya
_quetta_ attested in XI:391).
A similar lack of consistency with the formation of Quenya words flaws the
whole chapter -- Salo fails to recognize that Sindarin _aegas_ 'mountain
peak' is the cognate of Quenya _aikasse_ (V:349), and the latter form
gives a good clue as to the origin of _-as_ in this case: it probably
represents a fossilized locative _aikasse_ *'on pointed place' >
'mountain-peak' and probably is not the same suffix seen in e.g. _galas_
'growth' but rather in _ennas_ 'there' (the latter form is interpreted by
Salo as fossilized locative on p. 109).
Likewise, the gerund endings are not really ?_-ad_ (from ?_-ata_) and
?_-ed_ (from ?_-ita_) as Salo claims (p. 162f), they rather represent the
same ending _-ta_ which is seen in Quenya, for A-verbs directly attached
to the stem, cf. _*lindata_ > _linnad_, for stem verbs by means of a
connecting vowel _i_ just like any present tense ending, hence _*karita_ >
*_cared _ with A-affection.
I cannot find much useful information in the word formation part, too much
of what could be learned by comparing parallel evolution of Sindarin and
Quenya from the same Common Eldarin stem has simply been neglected.
The discussion of Sindarin compound words on the other hand is a different
matter. Salo goes nicely into the different ideas behind compounding words
and provides an impressive list of examples which show the rich variety of
consonant and vowel changes which may occur according to the phonological
environment. This piece of work goes far beyond the Ardalambion statement
in  that "when a word is used as the second element of a compound, it
often undergoes changes similar to the effects of the soft mutation."
VIII. Discussion of attested texts
The discussion of the attested Sindarin samples is seriously flawed by
Salo's unwillingness to accept what Tolkien wrote.
First of all, translations given by Salo seldom agree with Tolkien's own
words (but there is no statement that the translations have in fact been
altered). Compare, for example, the translation of Sam's inspired cry given
'O Queen of the Stars, Kindler of the Stars, far-watching from heaven, I
cry to you under the horror of death! O watch over me, Ever-white Veil!'
and by Tolkien (L:278):
'O Elbereth Starkindler, from heaven gazing-afar, to thee I cry now in the
shadow of (the fear of) death. O look towards me, Everwhite!'
I see no necessity not to provide Tolkien's own translations and not to
mark what is probably intended as a more literal translation as such. But
it doesn't stop here: Salo likewise shows no hesitation in altering the
actual texts he quotes. While the original of the Ae Adar (VT4:21f) has _i
innas lin_, Salo's version has a long _i innas lín_ (I agree that it
probably can be regularized, but I don't agree that it can be done without
a remark); and while the original has _bo Ceven_, Salo alters this into _bo
Geven_, stating that _bo Geven_ "is expected here" (p. 232).
It certainly doesn't make too much sense to me to discuss the attested
texts if they are altered in the process without notice to fit Salo's
theory. In an appendix designed to discuss Tolkien's attested texts, Salo
should be doing that rather than just pretending to.
IX. Annotated bibliography
If you are one of the people who wondered "Where the hell do we find all
the stuff these grammar texts refer to?", then the annotated bibliography
is for you. In fact, it is an excellent idea. David Salo describes nicely
where in Tolkien's writings what information can be found, so anyone
looking for the original references can plan his trip to the bookstore
accordingly. This is not unimportant, since there are books in which only
a few names can be found whereas from other sources a wealth of grammar
information can be extracted.
It seems a bit odd that Salo tries to provide corrigenda to the
_Etymologies_ -- while the published texts certainly contain misreadings,
VT 45 and VT 46, edited by Carl F. Hostetter and Patrick H. Wynne, provide
"Addenda and Corrigenda to the _Etymologies_" -- unlike Salo's work, their
work is based on a re-examination of the original manuscripts and not on
theoretical considerations, and therefore is bound to be much more
meaningful. While Salo contends that they still may contain mistakes,
_Vinyar Tengwar_ has a list of errata, so there is no need to make point
out of it.
The book concludes with a review of previous works about Sindarin --
Ruth S. Noel's _The Languages of Tolkien's Middle-Earth_ and Jim Allan's
_An Introduction to Elvish_. Since both books are very outdated, the result
is predictable -- Salo points out a lot of flaws in the identification of
forms that were (at that time) rather mysterious.
Without question, _A Gateway to Sindarin_ is currently the best English
book available on Sindarin. However, given the fact that the only
competitors are Ruth S. Noel's _The Languages of Tolkien's Middle-Earth_
and Jim Allan's _An Introduction to Elvish_, which are both outdated and
inaccurate simply due to a lack of published samples of Sindarin when they
were written, that in itself is not much of an achievement.
Who will profit from the book? It is not for someone seeking to learn
Sindarin and to use it for his own compositions -- it is no language
course, doesn't contain exercises, and (apart from what Tolkien has
written) no continuous texts in Sindarin that would show how the language
could be used. Teaching is not Salo's aim.
It is probably not even an easy resource for someone who is looking for an
introduction to Sindarin without the aim to learn it as a language, due to
the highly technical terms used by Salo -- one has to have more than just
a basic knowledge of linguistic terminology in order to understand some
It cannot be used as a reference for scholarly studies -- Salo's many
alterations of Tolkien's material, the lack of distinction between
Tolkien-made and Salo-made historic forms, and the inaccuracy in providing
Tolkien's own translations make this impossible -- which is a clear loss.
With a little more effort, a valuable resource could have been produced.
As it is, the only safe option (though time consuming) is to look up
things scattered in Tolkien's original writings -- lists of CE roots, names
and words are useless for scholarly purposes if they do not reproduce the
original sources faithfully.
Given all that, someone with an interest in technical studies of the
language, be it phonology or grammar, will find a lot of interesting ideas
in the book. Unfortunately, the reasoning behind these ideas is never
explained; therefore to get the most out of it one needs both a good
knowledge of the underlying sources and of other secondary literature
discussing Sindarin grammar with Tolkien's writings as starting point.
With a pricetag of $50, my counsel would be to think seriously if one
would like to have the book. For learning the grammar of Sindarin on a
technical level, it is not better than what Ardalambion or other sources
provide for free. For learning how to use the language it is not a
suitable resource (there are likewise various internet resources available
for free for that purpose), and for scholarly studies it cannot be used.
If you have read everything else about Sindarin already -- then get it, it
is interesting and brings some novel aspects.
 'The Past-Tense Verb in the Noldorin of the _Etymologies_' by Carl F.
Hostetter on http://www.elvish.org/Tengwestie
 'Sindarin -- the Noble Tongue' by Helge Fauskanger on