Thursday, September 18, 2008


I have a confession to make. Eleni is not my name; it is the name I chose as my blogger alias. And it is not pronounced "eh-LAY-nee" (as an acquaintance of mine named Eleni pronounces her name), but "EH-leh-nee". Pronounced this way, "eleni" is the Quenya word for "stars".

For those who are asking, "Quenya? What the heck is Quenya?" Quenya is one of J.R.R. Tolkien's Elvish languages. Yes, there are multiple Elvish languages; Quenya may be described as "High Elvish". Almost all of the Elvish spoken in the Lord of the Rings movies is Sindarin--basically, the vernacular at the time of the events of LotR--but Quenya can be heard on a handful of occasions, including Galadriel's farewell to the Fellowship ("Namárie"), a couple of incantations, the song Aragorn sings at his coronation, and the Enya song that plays over the credits of FotR (mornie utúlie = darkness has come; mornie alántie = darkness has fallen). Tolkien based Quenya loosely on Finnish and based Sindarin loosely on Welsh. Quenya is supposed to be related to Sindarin in much the same way that Latin is related to English, both linguistically (their structures are different but they share many word roots) and historically (Quenya is extinct as a vernacular but is still used on certain occasions). Quenya is a complicated artificial language with an advanced system of grammar, complete with irregulars to give it a "realistic" feel. Why did Tolkien bother creating his Elvish languages? The real question is, Why did Tolkien bother writing The Lord of the Rings?

Tolkien was a linguist. He was a professor of linguistics at Oxford and had at least a working knowledge of around twenty languages. Language was both his profession and his hobby. He had played around with creating primitive languages as a child, and as an adult he continued to make up languages, now more complex, for fun. During World War I, he started developing the language Qenya, which would evolve over the years into the Quenya of the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien created other languages as well, though Quenya was the most fully developed. Once he had these languages, he needed people to speak the languages, a world for those people to live in, and stories about that world and its people. Tolkien once said that, in a way, he wrote the Lord of the Rings books in order to give a context to the languages that he had created.

Why do I know about Quenya? Well... I've studied it. For school. Sort of. Here's the deal: When I was a junior in high school, my best friend, a senior at the time, explained that the English department was beginning a program in which all seniors would be responsible for carrying on a year long project called their "Hero's Journey". It was unclear what this had to do with developing skills in English, because the project could be about anything. Really--just about anything, as long as there was some sort of goal that one could at least attempt to achieve. To give you an idea, I remember one kid trained to run in the marathon, another learned to cook French food, another wrote songs on her guitar, another worked on being nicer to people.... Anyway, at the time, Lord of the Rings was in the midst of a surge in popularity with the release of the movie trilogy. My friend and I were among those fans high on the LotR buzz. I suggested that she learn Quenya for her Hero's Journey, and directed her towards the Quenya course I'd found on the Ardalambion site, a site that had been recommended to me by another friend. Well, being the crazy person that she is, she learned Quenya for her Hero's Journey project. And I, being equally if not more crazy than she, did the same the next year when the English department continued the Hero's Journey program (we had different teachers, so it's not like my teacher was sick of crazy Elves by the time I got there). And I am very proud to say that I got an A+ on the project. To the skeptics saying, "How could your teacher grade you on Quenya?" I would say that they have a point. I got a little lazy in the spring of my senior year (understandably) and didn't actually learn the second half of the Quenya lessons, and in my final presentation, I showed a clip of FotR where they were actually speaking Sindarin (the class didn't need to know the difference). Aside from the Sindarin intrusion, my final presentation was pretty awesome: I dressed up as an Elf (well, I wore a full length velvet cloak; I take this incident as evidence that media depictions of high schoolers as petty, cruel, and image-obsessed are grossly unfair), showed a clip from the movie, played a little of the "Aniron" song from FotR (also Sindarin--shhh!), recited a portion of the "Namárie" poem, taught the class a Quenya greeting (interestingly, I was never able to find a Quenya word for "Hello" so settled for the more lengthy "Elen síla lúmenn' omentielvo" from the first book: "A star shines upon the hour of our meeting") and the Quenya word for farewell (the much simpler namárie), and even handed out index cards to the whole class and the teacher with their names roughly translated into Quenya. My teacher loved the presentation, partly because he had encouraged us all to give "multi-media" presentations, which I certainly did, and partly because on each Quenya name index card I had glued a thumbnail portrait of a different LotR character and on his had put Gandalf, the wise, powerful wizard. The fact that this was a less than subtle suck-up move is balanced by the fact that at the end of the presentation, the teacher proudly announced to the whole class how appropriate it was that I had given him Gandalf, the wise, powerful wizard. He was like that; did I mention that he had us clap for him when he entered class every day? No? Well, he did. I am not kidding.

Now, I can't play guitar or run a marathon (or probably even a quarter marathon, for that matter), but I would never say that devoting time to the study of a language not only extinct but also artificial was not beneficial or useful. I actually learned a lot about linguistics in general--just look at all the detail, references, and side notes in Fauskanger's Quenya course. I've always had an interest in language--grammar, etymologies, and similarities and differences between languages--and studying Quenya introduced me to linguistic concepts I never knew and gave me an interesting perspective on languages. Learning Quenya also gave me some significant geek cred. I am not your classic Lord of the Rings nut; in fact, I think many LotR fanatics would look down on me. I have seen the movies many, many times but have only read each of the books once (I have read The Hobbit nearly twice). I have never read The Silmarillion (I did read the chapter on Beren and Lúthien, though--I actually wrote a paper on Beren and Lúthien in college, but that is a tale for another day). But learning Quenya illustrates a high level of devotion to LotR, and studying an artificial language in general advances me to a higher tier of the geek elite.

My friends in college all liked to say that I was fluent in Quenya, but I would quickly correct them: I am not fluent--I have a "working knowledge" of Quenya. It is not actually possible to be fluent in Quenya. Tolkien developed the language extensively, but he passed away before publishing a definitive, comprehensive grammar or a dictionary with enough vocabulary to survive usage in daily life. Unlike, say, Klingon, which was (as I understand) developed enough to allow fluency and can be heard spoken at Star Trek conventions, Quenya is mostly used by those who know it in poems, rather than in speech. Besides, as I already admitted, I kind of cheated on the second half of the Quenya lessons, so I'm not even good at the Quenya that does exist. I have written simple poems, but my vocabulary is mostly Elf-like words such as "star", "moon", "tree", "horse", "warrior", and "maiden". Once my roommate dragged me downstairs to a study room where someone had scrawled Tengwar across the chalkboard, but at the time, I hadn't even learned the Tengwar alphabet so couldn't begin to interpret the message (I have since rectified this ignorance, and can now read and write the beautiful script). Another time, though, I did know enough Quenya to sound knowledgeable. A friend called me excitedly to tell me that Stephen Colbert was on Conan O'Brien speaking Quenya! It turns out he was watching a rerun of the July 12, 2006 episode in which Colbert illustrates how much of a Lord of the Rings geek he is by sharing some random LotR trivia and speaking Quenya. Now, I love Stephen Colbert--I think he's smart, brilliantly funny, gutsy, and overall just pretty awesome, all the more so because he is a total fantasy/sci-fi geek (I know he is also a fan of Star Wars and D&D). But what did he say that night on Conan O'Brien? Elen síla lúmenn' omentielvo: "a star shines upon the hour of our meeting." Really, Stephen, that's all you got? That's all you have to show off your Quenya knowledge? Please--my whole 12th-grade English class knows that one.

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