J.R.R. Tolkien’s Full Tengwar Modes for Modern English: An Analysis

Three Rings
Ronald Kyrmse — November 2003
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.

Tengwar Modes

When speaking about tengwar, the writing characters created by the Elves, two kinds of modes may be distinguished: tehta-modes, where vowels are represented by tehtar, or diacritics above, below and sometimes inside the tengwar, and full modes, which have a separate tengwa, or character, for each vowel. The use of diacritics for non-vowel functions, such as indicating a preceding homorganic nasal or the doubling of consonants, or the “s-curls” attached to the tengwar, does not serve as a distinction between tehta- and full modes.

Furthermore, when a tengwa mode is employed for a modern language — as opposed to its use for Elvish, Black Speech etc. — one must distinguish between phonemic modes, having ideally one tengwa or tehta for each phoneme of the language, and orthographic modes, which represent with each tengwa or tehta one graph (written symbol, or “letter”) of the language, or possibly a digraph or trigraph (fixed combinations of letters, such as English th or ch).

Tolkien’s Tengwar Modes

This paper proposes to analyse a limited subset of tengwa-texts, or specimina: those written by J.R.R. Tolkien’s own hand in Modern English, as opposed to those in languages of Middle-earth or other Mannish languages, such as Old English or Latin (instances of which do exist), and employing a full mode. Even within these limits there exist several texts, listed below. Each is designated by a name for ready reference (thus one may speak of the “Mazarbul-mode” or the “Bombadil-II-mode”) and its DTS number, from the Mellonath Daeron Index of Tengwar Specimina. The dates attributed to specimina are in many cases only approximations based on the best educated guesses.

Full Tengwar Mode Specimina

Inscription on a jar in Erebor from The Hobbit. Some characters are obscured. Phonemic.
AH p. 277; P ill. 17; AI ill. 133
DTS 10
A greeting in a letter to Hugh Brogan. Orthographic.
L #118
DTS 13
The middle page from the Book of Mazarbul in The Lord of the Rings. Probably Ori’s hand on a badly damaged leaf. Orthographic.
P ill. 23
DTS 14
The last line of the last inscribed page of the Book of Mazarbul, possibly by Ori. Orthographic.
P ill. 23
DTS 15
The title for a drawing of Minas Tirith (called Steinborg by the Rohirrim) in The Lord of the Rings. The picture in AI also shows a crossed-out table of vowels with corresponding tengwar (shown below). Phonemic.
P ill. 27; AI ill. 168
DTS 16
A page of calligraphy with the beginning of the poem “Errantry” — its third version before being published in the Oxford Magazine. Phonemic.
P ill. 48–I
Bombadil I
DTS 17
A second specimen of calligraphy showing the beginning of the poem “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil”. Phonemic.
P ill. 48–II
Bombadil II
DTS 18
The third calligraphic text on the same published page, containing a longer portion of the beginning of “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil”. Phonemic.
P ill.48–III
DTS 22
A greeting by the Elvish scribe Ilbereth. The tengwar appear to be corrupt due to faulty reproduction of the thinnest strokes. Phonemic.
LFC 1937
DTS 23
Several lines of “The Lay of Leithian”. Phonemic.
LB ch. 13
DTS 24
A commentary on a rejected version of the Treebeard episode in The Lord of the Rings. Phonemic.
RS ch. 22
DTS 25
Three drafts in the same mode for the inscription on the West Gate of Moria. Phonemic.
RS ch. 25
DTS 28
The title for a drawing of the coming of the eagles in The Hobbit. Phonemic.
AI ill. 138
Letter II
DTS 45
The second draft of the King’s letter to Samwise Gamgee in the Epilogue to The Lord of the Rings. Orthographic.
AI ill. 199
Letter I
DTS 48
The first draft of the King’s letter. Orthographic.
SD ch. 11
Letter III
DTS 49
The third version of the King’s letter. Orthographic.
SD ch. 11
Ring Draft
DTS 53
Draft version of the Ring-inscription. Phonemic.
DTS 54
Inscription of the title of The Lord of the Rings. Phonemic.
Original Ring
DTS 60
The original text of the Ring-inscription, difficult to read due to the extremely cursive nature of the tengwar. Phonemic.
RS ch. 15

Comparison among Modes

The full table downloadable here shows the usage for each particular mode, including all tengwar employed, noting also the occurrence of underposed dot for schwa, superposed double dots for -y and tilde for -w, abbreviations with extended telcor for the, of, of the, s-curls and other peculiar uses. It should be noted that:

  • The Steinborg specimen is arguably not modern English, but Anglo-Saxon;
  • The Ilbereth specimen — possibly an example of “Arctic” spelling — is not a genuine Middle-earth text, and furthermore printed quite indistinctly, so that it will hardly qualify for an analysis based on letter-shapes.

The Steinborg- and Ilbereth-texts are therefore excluded from the analysis.

It is interesting to remark that several tengwar always stand for the same phonemic or orthographic values throughout the chronology. These tengwar — all for consonants — are shown in the Table 1 below. The case for vowels is less clear-cut; for instance, the pencilled and crossed-out table that accompanies the Steinborg text is shown below (Table 2). None of the published modes coincides with it.

Table 1: Common Consonant Values

t p ch [tʃ] k
d b j [dʒ] g
th [θ] r sh [ʃ]
th [ð] v
n m ng [ŋ]
s z
w w ʍ

Table 2: Rejected Vowels from the Steinborg Drawing

a e i o u ʌ ǝ

There is considerable variation in the attribution of tengwar to vowels; thus, for instance, the tengwa anna has variously stood for a, o and the first vowel in butter. A character looking rather like a cursive lower-case u has also been used to designate this latter vowel-sound, but in some cases this could be considered a mere allograph of .

The phonemic modes differ in the representation of vowels — as noted above — and the semivowels y and w. For y the long carrier is used, sometimes with a dot, sometimes without (this carrier also serves for schwa in the Treebeard-mode); for w the modes use the tengwa that looks like a cursive 2 (short or extended); the Ring-mode uses rómen , more frequently used for r. The aspirated sound in which (for those speakers that pronounce it differently from witch) is noted variously as hwesta sindarinwa or inverted rómen . Use of the schwa-dot, the tehtar for following y and w and the abbreviations seems to be common; these graphs are lacking only in those texts where there is no need for them. The use of one or the other s-curls seems to be dictated partly by the form of the tengwa to which it is attached.

The orthographic modes are coincident to a large extent concerning consonants and vowels, the only notable differences being the use of rómen sometimes for r and sometimes for w. The modes used for the three versions of the King’s Letter are even more similar, differing only in the use of lambe with a tilde inside the bow for ll in one of them, the forms of the s-curls, abbreviations for on and in (o and i with the nasal tilde) and the peculiar form of rómen, looking like an óre with an added bow, in Letter III.


Given these data, it would be idle to ask: “What mode would Tolkien be using today?”, for we can be certain that he would maintain his well-known “contrasistency”, and change modes according to what he judged to be more adequate at the moment of writing. What we may ask is: “What full tengwar mode for writing Modern English would Tolkien recognise, upon reading, as coherent, logically and historically fitting, and above all faithful to the spirit (if not to the letter — and this word is used advisedly!) of his sub-creation?”. To this each can answer as she or he will; my own opinion is that we would be faithful to JRRT’s most recent practice in employing a Treebeard-like mode (if writing phonemically) or a Letter-mode (if writing orthographically). The resulting Phonemic (P) / Orthographic (O) modes would be similar to those pictured in Table 3 below.

Table 3: Proposed Phonemic and Orthographic Modes

Phonemic and Orthographic Modes


The font employed for practically all tengwar in this analysis is Tengwar Parmaitë, available here.

See also on Tolkiendil

langues/english/otsoandor/full_tengwar_modes_modern_english.txt · Dernière modification: 06/04/2020 18:47 (modification externe)
Nous rejoindre sur https://discord.gg/cafByTS https://www.facebook.com/Tolkiendil https://www.twitter.com/TolkiendilFR https://www.instagram.com/Tolkiendil http://www.youtube.com/user/AssoTolkiendil
Tolkiendil - https://www.tolkiendil.com - Tous droits réservés © 1996-2024