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780_A Gateway to Sindarin_ by David Salo: a review

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  • BertrandBellet75@aol.com
    Mar 1, 2005
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      _A Gateway to Sindarin_: a grammar of an Elvish language from J.R.R. Tolkien's
      Lord of the Rings / David Salo. - Salt Lake City: The University of Utah
      Press, 2004. - 24 cm: ill. cov., xvi-438 p.
      Bibliogr. p. 416-435. - ISBN 0-87480-800-6

      I received my copy of David Salo's book about Sindarin a bit more than a
      week ago. This was a week of holiday for me, so I was able to browse though it
      quite a lot (though naturally not in every detail). I think a review might be
      of interest.

      1. Presentation of the book

      It is a very nice volume, well printed on alkaline paper, with a silvery
      cover illustrated in blue with an arch inspired by the one on the Moria gate. It
      bears a tengwar inscription in the mode of Beleriand, reading _Annon na
      Edhellen_, i.e. of course a rendering of "A Gateway to Sindarin" in the language

      The plan is quite classical for a linguistic monograph. It begins with a
      brief internal history of the language, before a description of the sounds and
      the various writing systems used to transcribe it, and then a lengthy
      phonological history, which reconstructs a list of all the sound changes that
      occurred during the development from primitive Elvish to Sindarin. Then we have a
      morphophonology, presenting consonant mutation and vowel affection. An
      analysis of the various parts of speech and their inflection follows: nouns,
      adjectives, pronouns, verbs, adverbs / prefixes / prepositions, conjunctions,
      articles, interjections. Then we have a detailed analysis of the various processes
      of word creation - derivation, composition and borrowing from other languages -
      and to end this grammar a syntax. There are also copious appendices: the
      extant texts analysed, a double glossary accompanied with a classification of
      words by roots (attested and deduced), an index of Sindarin proper names, an
      account of the Sindarin names for the Valar and Maiar, a study of the numerals,
      and a list of the names for months and days. Finally, there are more
      peripheral tools: a linguistic glossary, a much annotated bibliography, and an
      addendum following the publication of the second part of the "Addenda and
      Corrigenda to the _Etymologies_" in VT46 last July (evidently the book had been
      completed before).

      2. Choice, treatment and presentation of the data

      David Salo announces and justifies in a preface his options for the book. He
      chose to treat together all the material from the _Etymologies_ onwards, which
      includes the externally late stage of Noldorin as well as the whole of the
      conceptually later Sindarin. He dates back the starting point of the stage he
      studies to 1939. To explain this choice, he says "the change in name from
      Noldorin to Sindarin did not coincide with a change in structure or vocabulary.
      We will therefore call this language Sindarin, even though some of the words
      and specimens referred to were called 'Noldorin' at the time of their
      invention" (p. xiv). Taken literally, this is very questionable, and even quite
      wrong. There are differences in the grammar: some plural patterns, the
      infinitives in _-i_ and _-o_ which are not attested in Sindarin, some uses of lenition,
      the genitive construction with _na_ which is more specifically Noldorin
      (though not completely given _Orod-na-Th�n in LR book III ch. 4). As for the
      lexicon, comparison is not easy (as we know, we have much more Noldorin than
      Sindarin because of the Etym), many a Sindarin word was already extant in
      Noldorin but there are sometimes slight shifts in meaning, e.g. _iant_ "yoke" in the
      Etym (V:400) and "bridge" in the Silm. Appendix or _c�_ "arch, crescent" in
      the Etym and "bow" in the Silm Appendix. It is true however that much of the
      divergence lies in a series of well-established phonological differences,
      which are regular enough to allow reliable revision, and to "update" Noldorin
      into Sindarin if wanted (notably for composition). David Salo's statement is
      much more acceptable if one understands that the two stages are in continuity,
      that there is no abrupt break between the two. No doubt he wrote it in this
      sense, but it is slightly misleading to newcomers I think.

      This sense of continuity explains the treatment of Noldorin in the book.
      David Salo chose a very internist point of view and regarded Noldorin as a
      special dialect of Sindarin, possibly the one spoken by the population of Gondolin
      during the First Age. So he can reconcile contradictory facts: the specific
      traits of Noldorin are just to be seen as dialectal. Since the Gondolindrim
      were cut off from the other inhabitants of Beleriand, they were bound to
      develop linguistic peculiarities; indeed in Tuor's story a mention is made of
      their somewhat strange Sindarin (UT:44). If Noldorin and Sindarin did coexist in
      our primary world, they would probably be seen as dialects of the same
      language: at least on a phonetic basis, their differences would probably be small
      enough to allow them to be mutually comprehensible (they are not greater than
      between BBC English and American AFAIK). So on an internal point of view this
      interpretation can be sustained to reconcile our various data; as a matter of
      fact it has been employed for a long time on Ardalambion's page about

      Nonetheless, there is a great disadvantage in this: it leads to viewing
      everything through the prism of *one* interpretation, one very peculiar at
      that, not sustained by Tolkien's texts. David Salo treats Sindarin like any
      other ancient language, and is clearly successful; but he does not consider
      another side, which is the personal dimension of Tolkien's languages, the fact
      that they have an author and bear the mark of it. More generally, it can be said
      that most of the external side is crushed in this approach. Only a facet of
      Sindarin is therefore represented in the book. This is not a problem actually
      as long as it is borne in mind, but I am afraid it could not be for beginners.
      There are other problems in this lack of consideration for the external
      point of view. It deprives the author of the possibility to explain some
      discrepancies which can be understood only as different stages of external development.
      Sometimes one really gets the impression that David Salo wants to explain too
      much and forces the facts into his theoretical frame. Some conclusions are
      not expressed with enough caution, so the image of Sindarin the book gives is
      in my opinion clearer than it really is. It is not said enough how dubious
      some points are - e.g. the liquid mutation, the status of the Noldorin
      infinitives in Sindarin, what _aen_ is. In some instances things really become
      strongly objectionable: for instance, since the absence of mutation cannot be
      accounted for in _bo Ceven_ "on Earth" in the Sindarin Lord's Prayer, the
      author boldly asserts that it is a transcription error for _* bo Geven_ because
      of Tolkien's famously difficult handwriting (pp. 230-1). This is too hasty an
      explanation, and not corroborated by the source (VT44), but much worse is the
      fact that this "corrected" form **_bo Geven_ is quoted everywhere else in the
      book! Being very severe, one cannot help thinking that if facts do not match
      the theory, well, facts are wrong.

      Besides, as he wishes to keep Sindarin distinct as a study subject, he
      strongly criticizes the search for analogies with primary world languages and
      inspirations (p. 427). He is right to emphasize that Sindarin is not a
      distortion of extant languages and has its own logic, but possibly goes too far. Take
      for instance the aforementioned _bo Ceven_: _Ceven_ is capitalised, lacks an
      article, might be a proper noun. Now some of these are susceptible to resisting
      mutation in some registers of Welsh; is it not possible that we have something
      similar here? To be fair I must say that David Salo nonetheless uses a Greek
      parallel at least once to explain the contrast _diheno / gohenam_ in the
      Lord's Prayer in a very interesting manner.

      The presentation is sometimes a bit annoying. For instance it is quite
      difficult to get at the first glance what is attested and what is not. True, the
      asterisk is duly used in (internal) diachronic study to mark reconstructions.
      Other signs are used in the glossaries to mark deduced and altered forms, but
      unfortunately they are not used in the main text, so one constantly has to
      search in the glossary to know. Certainly it can be done, but quickly becomes
      tedious. I understand that the author did not want to clutter his text with
      stars (it necessarily contains a large amount of reconstructions) but why did
      he not choose another more pleasant sign, like putting all attested instances
      in bold? This bit of additional rigour would have been really helpful to the
      reader. The book also lacks an index (even if the list of contents is
      detailed, it cannot be used in the same way); true, this tool is very long and
      tiresome to finalize.

      3. Interest of the content

      Concerning the internal history, the major texts must have been published
      now, so we cannot expect major surprises. Well-known elements are given again,
      except that Noldorin is treated in a very special way, as I said above;
      according to the general outline of the book, this is the reconstruction of a
      possible history rather than a thorough analysis of the possibilities Tolkien
      examined. It is based on the later scenario (after Sindarin became a native tongue
      of Beleriand and Thingol's ban was introduced), the old one from the time of
      the _Etymologies_ is not a part of it.

      No surprise either in the section about the sounds and the writing, it simply
      summarizes our current knowledge. Tables would have been helpful for the
      _tengwar_ and runes, a question of space perhaps - but as they can be found back in
      the appendices of LR, it is not a problem. The use of the IPA is welcome for
      the description of the sounds, it helps much to make it clear.

      The historical phonology is a very strong point of the book. We have been in
      great need of a global reconstruction of how Sindarin evolved from
      Primitive Quendian, and the forty pages of this chapter fulfill it very largely. The
      presentation is more or less chronological, quite abstract and synthetic. The
      author uses a featural notation based on the Jakobsonian distinctive traits
      of phonemes, happily completed by a paraphrase for the readers to which it
      would be opaque, and accompanied with examples. An introduction discusses the
      advantages and limits of the presentation. I have been especially engrossed in
      that aspect of Sindarin for some time, and find this essay superb indeed. It
      will be interesting to compare it with the etymologies propounded in Didier
      Willis' Sindarin Dictionary.

      The morphophonology discusses consonant mutation and vowel affection, both
      as diachronic and synchronic processes. The account of mutations looks
      quite like the one on Ardalambion, but with more details on the historical
      processes involved. Some of its conclusions are rather tentative. There are more
      new elements in the presentation of the various kinds of vowel affection.
      There is finally a very original section on apophony (ablaut), its importance in
      Common Eldarin and its inheritance in Sindarin - both Tolkien's and Salo's
      interest in Indo-European linguistics clearly surface here.

      The study of the various parts of speech is also reminiscent of Ardalambion,
      but there are more details and it is intended for a readership more
      familiar with grammar and linguistics. Not surprisingly, there is a lot of
      reconstruction in some areas, especially the pronouns and the verbal system. The latter
      is much like the one already known from Ardalambion; it takes however the new
      data of VT45 into account and treats the new forms revealed in it, notably
      the past tenses formed by apophony or by the ending _-as_. Again, as there is
      a fair deal of uncertainty in the domain of verbs, I would have liked to
      see the actually attested forms marked in some manner.

      The detailed study of word formation is a second brilliant part of the book.
      Every aspect is treated: the inheritance of old Eldarin processes,
      suffixion, prefixion, the various kinds of compounds with the phonological
      alterations their elements undergo, in all their complexity. As far as I know this
      topic had never been treated so extensively till now, and it was much needed.
      No doubt it will be very useful for the analysis of words (especially the
      ones which will appear in the publications to come), and for their creation for
      people who try to compose in Elvish. This part is completed by a brief
      account of the lexical influences Sindarin underwent from foreign languages, mostly

      The syntax is small (twenty-five pages) if compared with the whole length of
      the book, partly because the data are not many anyway - Tolkien himself
      visibly worked much more on morphology and lexicology, following the
      Neogrammarian trend of his time (though there is an noticeable inclination towards
      more syntax in later texts, especially _Quendi and Eldar_). The presentation is
      traditional: a substantial part of the syntax is actually treated in the study of the
      parts of speech, which sometimes compels one to browse through to find the
      information on one particular topic (the use of the articles for instance) - but it
      is also a matter of becoming familiar with the book. I would have expected a
      more modern treatment, on the other hand people used to traditional grammars
      will not be confused. There is a quite detailed account of noun phrases and
      then a discussion of the various kinds of sentences. David Salo considers a
      basic VS(O) structure for the verbal sentence with many possibilities of
      topicalisation. I must say I was a bit disappointed not to find discussion of much
      debated points like the lenition in _guren b�d enni_ (VT41:11) or the famous
      _i sennui Panthael estathar aen_ and its many interpretations (with
      interesting possibilities to express modality or passive). On the other hand I realise
      that such points are perhaps not best placed in a book intended to stand as a

      This is the end of the grammar, but there are many interesting elements in
      the appendices. First we have a full analysis of the Sindarin corpus; it
      interestingly includes examples found in the drafts of LR (though they are
      difficult to interpret). Then we have a long Sindarin-English glossary, a shorter
      English-Sindarin back glossary, and between an etymological classification of
      words by roots, naturally mostly based on the _Etymologies_ but more
      compressed, and altered to fit Tolkien's later conceptions; for instance the roots GAL
      and GIL of the Etym are replaced by �AL and �IL found in later writings
      (respectively XII:347 and X:388); a number of roots are reconstructed. Especially
      interesting is the list of Sindarin proper names that follows; it intends to
      list all names from _The Lord of the Rings_ and afterwards, with the source
      and an interpretation. This is again a welcome work that will be much used.
      Of the other tools I will mention the annotated bibliography, in which primary
      sources are given with a summary of their linguistic interest. The author
      also lists two known secondary works, namely Jim Allan's _An Introduction to
      Elvish_ and Ruth Noel's _The Languages of Tolkien's Middle-earth_, makes a
      critique of them (not too gently) and corrects many of their errors, of which a
      great deal come from their early date of publication, especially for the first.

      4. Conclusion: which kind of public?

      We have then a very complete book, a detailed analysis of Sindarin which
      shows a long and in-depth work. The mass of information is very impressive;
      nearly all points of the grammar are treated, in a way that will sum up our
      current knowledge about the language. As the reader will have guessed, my chief
      reservations are with the way data are presented. The book will be of no great
      help for an external study of Tolkien's creation, indeed it is not made for this.

      I believe one of David Salo's problems was his readership. Books about
      Tolkien's languages are not numerous and cannot be, so he knew he would have to
      accommodate various categories of readers: people who want to discover one
      great constructed language of Tolkien's and await a primer; people who want to
      learn Elvish and use it in fan-fiction composition, and await a normalised
      version of the language; people who are already familiar with the domain and are
      eager to see theories dealing with Sindarin in all its complexity. (The same
      person can of course be interested in several ways, but the thought processes
      are quite distinct.) He implies this at the end of the preface: "I hope [this book] will
      furnish the necessary groundwork for future investigation into Sindarin. For
      those who wish to learn Sindarin, such errors as there may be should not
      affect their ability to read Sindarin texts or to construct their own" (p. xv).
      Often he succeeds in fulfilling these various needs; sometimes he is at risk to
      frustrate all his readers together.

      Quite like Ardalambion on the Web, _A Gateway to Sindarin_ presents a
      personal vision of Tolkien's creation. Its point of view matches David Salo's
      contributions to Elvish linguistics as we have been able to see them: internist,
      reconstructionist, very concerned with clarity and consistency, much less with
      explaining Tolkien's role as a language maker. These are the limits of the
      book; once they are taken into account it is enjoyable. You just need to be
      aware of the author's point of view and to use this resource with discernment.
      Anyway, David Salo makes it clear in the preface that "this volume is not and
      cannot be the last or most accurate word on Sindarin" (p. xv). It is also the
      responsibility of the reader to do his part of the work and keep his critical sense.

      Under that condition, will this book succeed in becoming a reference? I
      believe it has the potential to do so; no doubt it will be much used, and if you
      are interested in Sindarin it certainly deserves to stand on your bookshelf.

      Bertrand Bellet

      Language has both strengthened imagination and been freed by it. Who shall
      say whether the free adjective has created images bizarre and beautiful, or
      the adjective been freed by strange and beautiful pictures in the mind ? -
      J.R.R. Tolkien, A Secret Vice
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