Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Finnish and Quenya

I just found out that if you Google search "Kalevala Middle-Earth", my blog post Traces of Kalevala in Middle-Earth will come up on the first page of search results – how amazing is that?!

Today's post will continue the theme of Finland and Middle-Earth. Non-Finnish Tolkien fans have often asked me how much Finnish and Quenya (the High Elven language in Tolkien's works) actually have in common, since the latter supposedly drew inspiration from the former. I'm going to try and shed some light on the question. I admit that I haven't done any extensive study on the grammar and linguistics of Quenya, but I'm familiar with some of its basic principles and can definitely make some comment on how it relates to Finnish, which is my first language. It is not my intention to make a linguistic essay out of this, so I'll try to avoid saying things like "sonorants" and "voiced stops". I'm mostly just providing a viewpoint on what Quenya looks like to an average Finn.

Most of the "Elvish" language that is spoken in The Lord of the Rings, both book and film versions, is actually Sindarin, which was mainly influenced by Celtic (most notably Welsh) and Germanic languages. There is, however, one very good and lengthy example of Quenya in the chapter Farewell to Lórien where Galadriel sings as the Company depart. I'm going to attach the lyrics of that song right here for illustrational purposes:

Ai! laurië lantar lassi súrinen

yéni únótimë ve rámar aldaron!
Yéni ve lintë yuldar avánier
mi oromardi lisse-miruvóreva
Andúnë pella, Vardo tellumar
nu luini yassen tintilar i eleni
ómaryo airetári-lirinen

Si man i yulman nin enquantuva?

An si Tintallë Varda Oiolossëo

ve fanyar máryat Elentári ortanë,
ar ilyë tier undulávë lumbulë;
ar sindanóriello caita mornië
i falmalinnar imbë met, ar hisië
untúpa Calaciryo miri oialë.
Si vanwa ná, Rómello vanwa Valimar!

Namárië! Nai hiruvalyë Valimar.

Nai elyë hiruva. Namárië!

The Alphabet

I'm going to start off with the most immediately perceptible feature of language. In this respect, Quenya includes quite a lot of things that Finnish doesn't. First of all, written Finnish doesn't use any kinds of accent marks or the e with dots on it. Accent marks aren't needed because the stress is always, and I mean always, placed on the first syllable, which is one important difference with Quenya. Also, the letters b, c, f, q, w, x and z never appear in native Finnish words, though we do have them in lots of loan words. 

Now, we have to get back to the subject of letters with dots. Like I said, Finnish doesn't have ë, but we do have ä and ö. You would find these in Quenya words as well – for example, the word for the Universe in which Middle-Earth exists is Eä. However, the dotted letters have a bit of a different function in the two languages. If you take a look at the Quenyan song lyrics, you'll notice that the ë appears most often with another vowel right before or after it, or if that's not the case then it will be at the end of the word. So, Quenya uses the dotted letters to signify that they should be pronounced as separate vowels, even when they appear right next to other vowels or at the end, but dotted vowels are still essentially the same letters and sounds as the undotted ones. In Finnish, though, the addition of dots changes the pronunciation entirely and can also change the meaning of the whole word. For example, Väinö is a man's name, but vaino means persecution; moi is the equivalent of hi, but möi is the past tense of the verb to sell. Ä is always pronounced like the first vowel in apple, and nearest equivalent I can think of for the pronunciation of ö would be the British pronunciation of the vowel sound in curse – though it's by no means a perfect example of it. 


In one respect, Finnish and Quenya agree perfectly: everything is pronounced exactly as it's written. Each vowel is pronounced separately even if they appear next to another vowel, and the pronunciation of r is similar to Spanish and Swedish (just a couple of examples). Here's a video where Tolkien himself recites the poem that I showed above:

If you asked a Finn to recite the same poem with no knowledge of Quenya pronunciation, there would no doubt be some differences in the overall rhythm and colour of speech (because that part was inspired by Latin more than by Finnish), but they would get the essentials right (except they might be confused about what to do with all the c's). When I first read The Lord of the Rings aged thirteen, in my mind I simply pronounced all the Elvish names like I would have done in Finnish; later, I found out that that was exactly what Tolkien had intended. I imagine an Anglophone's first instinct would be to pronounce Sauron something like saw-ron, but a Finn would get it right automatically. We also wouldn't say things like Minus Tirith or Orodroown. 


I'm not going to go too deeply into this section because firstly, as I mentioned I really don't know that much about Quenya, and secondly, because I still don't want to make this blog post a full-blown linguistics monster. 

Anyway, there was one quality in the Finnish language that particularly interested Tolkien: agglutination. Basically, it means that the kind of things that are expressed in languages like English by means of prepositions are in Finnish put into little "word bits" (I made that up) that are just attached to the main word. Usually, Finnish doesn't even need to employ things like personal pronouns because you can tell by the verb conjugation who the subject is. Visually, this means that Finnish sentences often have much fewer words than English ones, but our words tend to be ridiculously long. Example: you can say I wonder if we would see in a single Finnish word: näkisimmeköhän. Tolkien found this discovery so thrilling that he would later write: 

"It was like discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me."

Apparently, a massively excited linguistics geek produces the most wonderful expressions ever. They should do this more often! Tolkien would of course make his Quenya an agglutinative language as well, and even took it to a higher level than Finnish. Another example: in Quenya, the single word utúvienyes means I have found it. But even in Finnish, you would need three words to express the same: olen löytänyt sen. So sometimes, Quenya agglutinates things that Finnish doesn't. 

This will be the last post on my Tolkien Blog Party series. To Hamlette, I would like to say a big hantanyel! for hosting such an amazing blog party. For you readers, I hope my couple of posts about Tolkien's mythology from a Finnish point of view have been more interesting than boring. 

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating!

    The only language I know other than English is German, where they have the umlaut to go over vowels, and that makes it pronounced differently than a non-umlaut-ed vowel. And German has lots of agglutinates, though I didn't know that was the word for them until now. Like one of my favorites, selbstverstandlich, which means self-understanding-ly, or in English, obviously.

    Fun stuff!