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Old 04-04-2019, 03:21 AM   #1
Huinesoron
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What was the dominant writing system in Middle-earth?

We are told that there were two chief writing systems in Arda: the Cirth of Daeron, and the Tengwar of Feanor. But which was used in the late Third Age for writing Westron - if either?

It can't be the classical Tengwar, with the vowels as accents:

Quote:
Originally Posted by FotR: The Shadow of the Past
As Frodo did so, he now saw fine lines, finer than the finest pen-strokes, running along the ring, outside and inside: lines of fire that seemed to form the letters of a flowing script. They shone piercingly bright, and yet remote, as if out of a great depth.

'I cannot read the fiery letters,’ said Frodo in a quavering voice.

‘No,’ said Gandalf, ‘but I can. The letters are Elvish, of an ancient mode, but the language is that of Mordor, which I will not utter here.'
Gandalf, at least, assumes Frodo isn't that familiar with the Tengwar - he defines them as 'Elvish', not 'the ones you use every day, Fool of a Baggins'. He also claims they're in 'an ancient mode', though apart from the reversal of the O & U symbols, they're pretty much standard for tengwa-tehta writing.

So perhaps Westron used the Mode of Beleriand, with vowels represented by full Tengwar? Except no, because at the Doors of Moria:

Quote:
Originally Posted by FotR: A Journey in the Dark
'What does the writing say?' asked Frodo, who was trying to decipher the inscription on the arch. 'I thought I knew the elf-letters but I cannot read these.'
Again we see that Frodo supposedly knows 'the elf-letters' - making it clear that they aren't his usual alphabet - but specifically does not understand the Mode of Beleriand.

Logically, then, Frodo must use the Cirth/Angerthas. Except... no:

Quote:
Originally Posted by FotR: A Knife in the Dark
On the flat under-side Frodo saw some scratches: 'There seems to be a stroke, a dot, and three more strokes,' he said.

'The stroke on the left might be a G-rune with thin branches,' said Strider. 'It might be a sign left by Gandalf, though one cannot be sure. The scratches are fine, and they certainly look fresh. But the marks might mean something quite different, and have nothing to do with us. Rangers use runes, and they come here sometimes.'
'Rangers use runes' would be a strange statement to make if everyone used them, and once again we have Frodo not recognising a common letter. Later on, the stone marking the former troll treasure is marked with 'dwarf runes', again highlighting that they're different to the normal letters.

Confusingly, at the very beginning of the book we see both a different picture, and a different naming scheme:

Quote:
Originally Posted by FotR: A Long-Expected Party
At Bilbo’s front door the old man began to unload: there were great bundles of fireworks of all sorts and shapes, each labelled with a large red G [Tengwa] and the elf-rune,[Cirth].
Now the Tengwa G is named just as a letter, while the Cirth (later just 'runes') is an elf-rune.

The best explanation I can concoct is that Hobbits and other such folk use a derived form of the Tengwar, still called 'elf-letters' in the same way we say 'Latin alphabet'. This form is somewhat stubby, with thick lines that tend to curve or not differently to the original form. The 'ancient mode' of the Ring is in the shape of the letters, long and sweeping, very confusing to a hobbit. Based on the evidence of Moria, I figure Frodo is used to vowels-as-accents. Runes are seen as magical and slightly secretive.

But I'm still not convinced that Frodo's words above match up with this idea. Would you look at a sign that you didn't understand and say "I thought I knew the Latin letters, but I cannot read these!"?

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Old 04-04-2019, 12:45 PM   #2
William Cloud Hicklin
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Add to this Gandalf's comment on the Book of Mazarbul, that the last hand (Ori's) used an Elvish script; and Tolkien's facsimile thereof shows that he plainly means Tengwar as opposed to the Certhas of the earlier entries.

But why call them "Elvish" if they were everybody's alphabet, and the language was CS?

All I can say is that Tolkien slipped (the BofM facsimile after all should have been in Westron, not English!)
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Old 04-05-2019, 09:16 AM   #3
Huinesoron
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It occurs to me that the one non-Dwarvish Westron Tengwa example we have is the 'G for grand' early on in FotR. And... it actually looks really weird. My redrawing:



Look at that squat little thing! It's nothing like your classic 'ungwe', and doubly nothing like the delicately flowing Ring inscription. With the stem bent under like that, and the thick lines and rounded strokes, it looks almost like a Hobbit itself - short and portly, just wanting to sit down in the sun.

Perhaps Frodo's 'um nope can't read it' response to the Ring is similar to how we might look at Cyrillic: a lot of the letters are similar, but some are pretty weird (you've got a B with a hook, a backwards N, an upside-down L...), and if you interpret them as your usual alphabet, you wind up with nonsense. "I cannot read the fiery letters" indeed. But, as Gandalf points out, they are Latin - sorry, Elvish - letters, though in an old hand.

I think the Mazarbul passage agrees with this: the two alphabets in use in Middle-earth are Elvish and Dwarvish, sometimes referred to as 'letters' and 'runes'. This still doesn't explain how the Hobbits can tell an 'elf-rune' G from a 'dwarf-rune' G - they're the same letter, and you'd expect them to see far more dwarf-marks coming through the Shire. Perhaps the decorative dots around Gandalf's signature on the letter at the Pony are also on his fireworks, and mark it as 'elvish'? Dots all over the place characterise the now-extinct Gondolinic runes, and it's conceivable the design feature might have been retained.

Quote:
Originally Posted by William Cloud Hicklin
(the BofM facsimile after all should have been in Westron, not English!)
I would give my metaphorical right arm to live in a world where we had a multi-page passage of Westron, even if it was only written in Cirth and Tengwar!

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Old 04-05-2019, 11:47 AM   #4
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Quote:
Perhaps Frodo's 'um nope can't read it' response to the Ring is similar to how we might look at Cyrillic: a lot of the letters are similar, but some are pretty weird (you've got a B with a hook, a backwards N, an upside-down L...), and if you interpret them as your usual alphabet, you wind up with nonsense.
wouldn't even have to be Cyrillic. Consider the average modern's reaction to Latin script from the 14th century:

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Old 04-05-2019, 11:51 AM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by William Cloud Hicklin View Post
wouldn't even have to be Cyrillic. Consider the average modern's reaction to Latin script from the 14th century:

That's Latin? :O I thought I knew the Latin letters, but I cannot... read...

Huh. I guess it does make sense after all.

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Old 04-05-2019, 02:49 PM   #6
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And Tolkien ought to have known, since his day job was reading things where "the letters are Latin, of an ancient mode" -- and trying to teach students to comprehend same.
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Old 04-09-2019, 11:09 AM   #7
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Generally speaking (Appendix E), the runes were "devised and mostly used only for scratched or incised inscriptions" while the Feanorean letters were used for writing with brush or pen. With respect to the Feanorean letters, full modes had been reached, but older modes in which only the consonants were written with full letters, were still in use.

Of Dwarves and Men tells us that the Common Speech "had from its beginning been expressed in the Feanorian Script," and that writing with the Cirth was dependent on the already established usages of the Tengwar (the same text adds that the Dwarves, who preferred the Cirth, used a spelling that was intentionally "a transcription of the current spelling of the Common Speech into Runic terms”, yet this transcription included many words spelt phonetically).


I'd guess that the Hobbits were familiar with a full mode referred to as the "later or Westron convention, in its northern variety" (Pictures By JRRT) used by Ori the Dwarf in the Book of Mazarbul -- and (with slight differences), in the letter from King Elessar to Sam Gamgee (Sauron Defeated, Westron/English version).

Arguably (at least), and with respect to the latter example, this was chosen by a Gondorian as the recipients were Hobbits.

Last edited by Galin; 04-09-2019 at 02:30 PM.
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Old 05-02-2019, 12:31 AM   #8
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Thanks for the OP, it's a great read, and reminds me of my first discovery of the Elvish in Middle Earth.

I imagine that Bilbo's language knowledge increased over the course of his life, and from contact with other peoples. So that by the time the Red Book of Westmarch was compiled, the latter authors' contributions seem to reflect learning, and where Frodo and Bilbo must, by then, have been familiar with Quenya.

I don't know why Celebrimbor's speech is referred to as the Mode of Beleriand, in that I wondered how widespread it was. As Sindarin goes, I thought vowels were applied to it as Quenya applied, them, or that a change in Sindarin writing followed from the Noldorin presence. I saw a 'Latin' like comment above, and I tend to agree, and add that I imagine Celebrimbor wrote in Quenya, or with the o and u as his people did. The Ring Spell, with its perversion of Elvish included the 'mirror imaging' of vowels, which seems to give it the creepy sense of it, like playing a record backwards. It must have imprinted dread on Celebrimbor and the Elven Ring wielders to see that.
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Old 05-03-2019, 11:13 AM   #9
William Cloud Hicklin
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I think that well before the end of the Elder Days, Quenya in Middle-earth had fallen out of everyday use, and Sindarin had become the lingua franca of all the Eldar. (Depending on which note you choose to believe, even the Silvan Nandor had adopted it).Celebrimbor itself is Sindarin, not Quenya.
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Old 05-03-2019, 11:15 AM   #10
William Cloud Hicklin
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Galin View Post
Generally speaking (Appendix E), the runes were "devised and mostly used only for scratched or incised inscriptions" while the Feanorean letters were used for writing with brush or pen. With respect to the Feanorean letters, full modes had been reached, but older modes in which only the consonants were written with full letters, were still in use.

Of Dwarves and Men tells us that the Common Speech "had from its beginning been expressed in the Feanorian Script," and that writing with the Cirth was dependent on the already established usages of the Tengwar (the same text adds that the Dwarves, who preferred the Cirth, used a spelling that was intentionally "a transcription of the current spelling of the Common Speech into Runic terms”, yet this transcription included many words spelt phonetically).


I'd guess that the Hobbits were familiar with a full mode referred to as the "later or Westron convention, in its northern variety" (Pictures By JRRT) used by Ori the Dwarf in the Book of Mazarbul -- and (with slight differences), in the letter from King Elessar to Sam Gamgee (Sauron Defeated, Westron/English version).

Arguably (at least), and with respect to the latter example, this was chosen by a Gondorian as the recipients were Hobbits.
It could also be, OTOH, that the "slight differences" indicate the Southern as opposed to Northern mode.
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