The wanderers and the analytics: A lexicostatistical study of Sindarin and Quenya

Open Access
Brendel, Christian Douglas
Area of Honors:
Communication Arts and Sciences (Berks/Lehigh)
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Sandy Feinstein, Thesis Supervisor
  • Sandy Feinstein, Honors Advisor
  • Jeanne Marie Rose, Faculty Reader
  • Holly Lynn Ryan, Faculty Reader
  • Tolkien
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • The Silmarillion
  • Middle-Earth
  • linguistics
  • lexicostatistics
  • Elvish
  • literary analysis
Literary analysis of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion has long incorporated an interest in the usage of language in the texts, including the examination of Tolkien’s constructed, fictional Elvish languages. For example, the break-up of language has been seen as a metaphor for the fragmentation of original truth or purity, and the divergence of the various races of Elves is connected to the separation of their languages (Flieger, 2002). In the narrative, the two Elvish languages most used in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, Quenya and Sindarin, diverge from a shared ancestor, but evolve in isolation from each other: Quenya develops in the heavenly Undying Lands whereas Sindarin remains in Middle-Earth, a land of relative strife and hardship. Although Quenya is a language heavily influenced by the divine beings who shaped the world, it is Sindarin, curiously, which wields power in Middle-Earth, and is often used to invoke magic. The historical development of these languages has been previously analyzed using the comparative method of historical linguistics, first by Tolkien himself and later by linguists such as Allan (1978a, 1978b, & 1978c) and Salo (2004), who reconstruct the shared ancestor language and examine the relationship between related words or cognates. However, lexicostatistical methods of linguistics—which provide measurements of the rate of lexical change (Swadesh, 1952; Lees, 1953) and the degree to which the vocabularies of two related languages differ (Petroni & Serva, 2011)—have not featured in these analyses of the Elvish languages. Using these methods, this study calculates the rate of decay of the Elvish languages and examines the lexical distance between Quenya, Sindarin, and the root forms from which the words of both languages descend. The results suggest that Elvish decays more slowly than real-life languages, losing only about 6% of core vocabulary per millennium compared to about 20% for natural languages (Lees, 1953). The relatively conservative nature of Elvish can explain Quenya’s usage as a language of history. Additionally, the analysis of lexical distance suggests that Sindarin is closer, or purer, in form than Quenya to the hypothetical roots of the ancestor language. Sindarin, therefore, may be more connected to the source of power in Middle-Earth. These results can be used to inform an understanding of the link between the decay of the Elvish languages and the deterioration of the Elvish race, to examine the relationship between language and magic in The Lord of the Rings, and to offer new insights into literary analysis of Tolkien’s works.