The Question of Lenition of Primitive Nasalized Stops

Two Rings
Gabe Bloomfield — February 2004
needs some updating
Analytical ArticleAnalytical Articles: These articles provide a detailed overview of the theme they cover. However, they require some prior knowledge of the main works of J.R.R. Tolkien.

One key aspect of Sindarin, J.R.R. Tolkien’s invented grey-elven language, is the changing, or mutation, that an initial consonant undergoes when it is in a certain position. These changes have been termed ‘consonant mutations’, and it is a concept shared with Sindarin’s inspiration, Welsh. Right now, we know of four different kinds of mutation: soft, nasal, mixed, and stop (the latter two are never named by Tolkien). In addition, Helge K. Fauskanger has theorized that another mutation, liquid, must also exist. Very recently, there has been a lot of discussion about the affect that soft mutation (lenition) has on Sindarin words that begin in b-, d-, and g- that evolved from primitive nasalized stops (mb-, nd-, and ñg- ). Tolkien’s ideas about how this worked were constantly shifting (as the corpus shows; see below), so it is difficult to know what Tolkien’s final idea was on the matter.

This article represents my current views on the matter of the lenition of stops evolved from primitive nasalized stops in Sindarin. All the ideas represented here are subject to change as people present their ideas, or as more information regarding this topic is published. If that does indeed happen, I will always strive to present my most recent ideas on the matter.

Generally, there are two different theories. The first is one that Helge Fauskanger wrote. In his article Sindarin – the Noble Tongue, he states that b-, d-, and g- that come from primitive nasalized stops lenit to their corresponding nasals: m-, n-, ng (ñ). There are examples to back this up. However, Florian “Lothenon” Dombach introduced the theory that initial stops evolved from nasalized stops would revert back to their nasalized stop forms when subjected to soft mutation. Fortunately (or, perhaps, unfortunately), there is also evidence to back this up. As was previously said, there is not sufficient evidence from what was taken into account to get a good picture of what happens to Sindarin stops the evolved from nasalized stops. Instead, we must analyze the entire relevant corpus, both Sindarin and Noldorin, to find clues.

The Relevant Corpus


  • úmarth – ‘ill fate’
  • i mbas – ‘the bread’1)


  • i mâr – ‘the home’2)
  • ngolodh – ‘Ñoldo’3)

As you can see, there is one example in Sindarin and one in Noldorin that supports each theory. Úmarth is transparently ú, seen in Gilraen’s Linnod as a negative particle and here meaning “ill”, and barth “fate” from the primitive root MBARAT (Etym). Further down, i mâr is i “the”, which we know to cause lenition as in the King’s Letter’s i Varanduiniant, and bâr from MBAR, from which we also see e‧mbar nín ‘of my home’. The examples that support the latter theory are i mbas from Tolkien’s Pater Noster (Ae Adar Nín), which is i (see above), and bas from MBAS(T) (we also see Sindarin bast from this root). We also have ngolodh from golodh (root NGOLODH). We can obviously not reach a conclusion from just this evidence. Luckily, there are a few more resources. The ‘Etymologies’ provides some valuable information that can help to inform our decisions. Here are the entries that I have found to be relevant.

  • MBAD - Angband
  • MBAR - amar, ambar, emmerein (emmerain), emerin, gondobar
  • MBARAT - ammarth, Turamarth
  • MBAW - Gothmog
  • MBUD - andabon, annabond
  • NDAK - boldog
  • NDER - Ender
  • NDUL - Terendul
  • ÑGAN/ÑGÁNAD - talagant
  • ÑGOL - angol, durgul, mor(n)gul
  • ÑGOLOD - Angolonn
  • ÑGOROTH - gorgoroth (gor-ngoroth)

Though these entries in the ‘Etymologies’ can provide some very interesting insight into our topic, there are many instances in which it is impossible to tell what is happening in these compounds. For instance (just to pick an example) boldog could be bol and ndog (which would be dog lenited), or bol and dog (where dog would be unlenited; this unfortunately occurs occasionally, such as in rath dínen). Yet another occurrence of this is in the name gorgoroth. Although the ‘Etymologies’ lists gor-ngoroth as the root of this (showing us that lenition definitely occurred), it’s difficult to know whether ngoroth begins with a nasal or a nasalized stop. Yes, it is written as though it would begin with a velar nasal (as in i ngelaidh), but it’s unlikely that gor combined with ngoroth would actually become gorgoroth. Perhaps either Tolkien neglected to put the tilde on the initial *ñ-, or it was left out in typing up the manuscript; ñgoroth would make much more sense as the second element of gorgoroth.

One of the oddest things about this is that all of the times we see stop > nasal (and we are positive that this is indeed what happens) is in the entries in MB-, as in amar (although this also has a version with stop > nasalized stop, ambar), Gothmog, and ammarth, as well as one of our Sindarin examples, úmarth. Though it is not likely, it is possible that lenition of an initial consonant in b- would become the nasal, while consonants in d- and g- would become their nasalized stop cousins. This would explain i mâr and úmarth, but not i mbas. Maybe Tolkien at one time changed his ideas that all stops that evolved from nasalized stops became nasalized stops in lenition, but later changed his ideas back to the idea that b- would become a nasal and the others would become nasalized stops. After analyzing the entries, there are six entries that show stops become nasals (all of which appear in the entries beginning in MB- and show b- > m-), nine entries that show stops reverting back to their nasalized stop ancestors, and eight entries that show no change in compounds. Once again, we have gained insight into our topic, yet we still have no definite answer.

Minas Morgul (© John Howe)

There are still two more sources of information that can be analyzed to try to figure out what happens to the primitive nasalized stops. Hopefully, with these two we will be able to come to some sort of conclusion. The first is the name Mordor. While this seems to be relatively simple, it can actually be a mine of information for those who look at it closely. The first element of this name is undoubtedly morn “dark” (as seen in Eryn Vorn), but the second element poses another problem. This could simply be dôr “land” in an unlenited form. However, this could also be the lenited ndôr, making the compound morn-ndôr, which would then be shortened to Mordor. However, if dôr were lenited to nôr, we would instead see Mornor.

The other source of information is not as usable as the example that Mordor or the ‘Etymologies’ gives us, though it is quite definite as to what it proves. As mentioned in Fauskanger’s Sindarin – the Noble Tongue, Tolkien’s primitive Gnomish language also had stop > nasalized stop. In the ‘Gnomish Lexicon’, published in Parma Eldalamberon #11, there are several examples of this. According to Fauskanger we see ‘balrog “demon, balrog” > i mbalrog “the demon”’, ‘dôr “land” > i ndôr “the land”’, ‘Golda “Gnome, Noldo” > i Ngolda “the Gnome”’. While Gnomish’s use of this type of mutation by itself does not prove anything, as Gnomish, though similar in some ways to Sindarin, cannot tell us about something this important as Noldorin can. However, in a case like this one, where there is so much evidence in support of multiple theories, it can help to tip the scales in favor of one of them.

It is very difficult, from the evidence given, to provide a definitive answer to the question of what happens when a stop that evolved from a primitive nasalized stop is lenited. As is necessary when dealing with many aspects of Sindarin (or indeed, any of Tolkien’s invented languages), we must wait for more relevant material to be published before we can really know for sure.

Gondolin (© John Howe)

However, for the time being, we must use the material that we have right now, and generally, that material points to the fact that the aforementioned stops would revert back to their nasalized counterparts. We have one Sindarin example of this, and one non-‘Etymologies’ Noldorin example of this (this is the same with the other theory, of stop > nasal). However, there are two more examples of the former theory in the ‘Etymologies’ than in the latter. In addition, the name Mordor and the fact that it was like the former in Gnomish tip the scales towards the idea of stops evolved from nasalized stops to become nasalized stops when subjected to soft mutation.

I would very much like to thank Florian “Lothenon” Dombach, whose ideas and original theory gave me the inspiration to write this. Maybe someday, a long time from now, my knowledge will match his, though I doubt it will happen any time soon. I would also like to thank Aaron Shaw and his website The Noble Tongue – ‘i Lam Arth’ for many of the ideas that are presented here.

See also

On Tolkiendil

On the net

1) VT44:21,27-28
2) PE13:120
3) WJ:383
langues/english/i-lam_arth/primitive_nasalized_stops.txt · Dernière modification: 14/06/2011 05:35 par Elendil
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