Tengwar research

Non-Tolkienian Mainlander Mode


The Tengwar was a writing system devised by J.R.R. Tolkien for "Lord of the Rings" and his other writings set in Middle-Earth. Tengwar is a phonetic system, where each symbol represents a sound, rather than a letter, and the symbols are organized in groups based on the types of sound. It is sensible, and elegant, and it works quite well with the languages which Tolkien created for the Elves and other races of Middle-Earth.

Of course, the problem with using the Tengwar for writing English is that English is very much not a phonetic language. There have been a few modes created for writing English. Each has its benefits and useful parts. However, each also suffers from either an attempt to continue to cater to Tengwar's phonetic nature, at least according to the rules (it's apparently not uncommon practice to bend the rules to write things "closer" to English spelling).

I first became interested in Tengwar in December of 1995. It was Christmas break of my freshman year at WPI, and I was very bored. I had a copy of "The Hobbit" and of all three parts of "Lord of the Rings," but had not gotten further than the end of "The Two Towers" during my first attempt at reading them a couple of years previous. I chose to start over again, and got through all of it this time. Finishing the story itself, I then read through the appendices at the end of "Return of the King." Appendix E, covering pronunciation and writing systems in use in the books, caught my attention. I had just recently started participating in a medieval fantasy live-action role-playing game, in which I had made my character a hobbit (granted, a very atypical hobbit, physically, but a hobbit nonetheless), and thought that, since I was going to be writing down my character's back-story and keeping a journal and stuff, it would be interesting to declare Tengwar to be his homeland's writing system and use it for my writing.

Having found the existing English modes to thus far be sufficiently lacking, I have been working to define an expanded mode that more completely compensated for English being non-phonetic, while at the same time maintaining as much of the structure and organization that went into Tengwar's original design as possible. Since I doubt that Tolkien had ever intended for this to be done, and since my character comes from a place called "The Mainland," I am currently naming this mode the "Non-Tolkienian Mainlander Mode."

Mainland History of the Tengwar

(where it came from in-character, and why I did some of the things I did)

Mainlander history has it that the Elves of the land invented the Tengwar long long ago, designing an elegant system, phonetically organized and well-suited to their languages. Having done so, they distributed the knowledge of this system to the rest of the Mainland, as written literacy was still relatively new to the other races at the time. The results were mixed. The so-called "goblinoid races" -- goblins, orcs, kobolds, and so forth -- didn't really understand it all that well, but then, their concept of language in general has always been kind of sketchy. By chance, the Dwarven language proved readily compatible with the Tengwar, and soon used it as a base for a runic script for carving into stone or metal, as Dwarves are wont to do.

The races of Men and Hobbits already had a common tongue, with its own vague concept of spelling that was scatter-shot in its mapping to phonemes. Making it work with the Tengwar took rather more effort, involving inventing additional characters and splitting paired characters for special-purpose rules for each of the ways a phoneme could be spelled. One benefit provided by this work was that in the process, the spelling of words got standardized. However, at the same time, linguistic and graphemic drift had their effects, reversing some of the mappings and rendering the resultant mode quite different in many ways from that which the Elves originally created.

(As it happens, the Mankind of the Mainland had, long ago in its past, another language which would have been well suited to the Tengwar. Some of its older and more well-learned population still knew it. That this language was never proposed as a replacement for the existing Common language is a mystery lost to the ages.)

This mode became known as the "Non-Tolkienian Mainlander Mode." No one really knows who/what "Tolkien" is/was, that the name/word should figure in the naming of the mode. It is theorized that it was perhaps the name of one of the primary Elven architects of the original Tengwar, and that the mode is thus "Non-Tolkienian" because the mode for Common speech is such a departure from strict phonetic writing. However, this remains merely speculation, except possibly among the Elves, who are not telling.

Non-Tolkienian Mainlander Mode


t - t - trip p - p - pain soft ch - soft ch - chime hard c (k) - hard c (k) - candy
d - d - draft b - b - balloon soft g (j) - soft g (j) - germane hard g - hard g - grave
t+h - t+h (see ordinal numbers) ph (f) - ph (f) - epitaph ti (sh) - ti (sh) - solution k - k - cake
"the" - the word "the" "of" - the word "of" j - j - jerkin silent-gh - silent gh - bought
gh (f) - gh (f) - tough "of the" - the words "of the" kh - kh - ankh g+h - g+h (Not really used)
th - th - thick f - f - floor sh - sh - shut hard ch (kh) - hard ch (kh) - cholera
dh - dh - this v - v - avuncular zh - zh - azure gh - gh - ghost
n - n - noon m - m - gamble nj - nj - ring njg - njg - finger
r - r (see "The R Rule") - rancher w - w - weird y - y (consonantal) - yonder qu - qu (q) - quandary
r - r (see "The R Rule") - rancher rh - rh - rhesus l - l - life lh - lh - Delhi
soft c (s) - soft c (s) - acerbic s - s - sarcasm hard s (z) - hard s (z) - sarcasm z - z - zebra
h - h - hello hw - hw - white i-glide - i-glide diphthongs - their u-glide - u-glide diphthongs - journey
silent h - silent h - john x - x - extreme carrier - short vowel carrier carrier - long vowel carrier

The R Rule: The pre-vowel r character is used to represent the letter "r" when the next letter is a vowel, and the pre-consonant/word-end r character is used when the letter "r" precedes a consonant or is the last letter of a word.

Silent consonants: In such cases as the "g" in "gnaw" or the "k" in "knee," the silent consonant is included anyway. It is likely that at some time in the past, those consonants were actually spoken as part of the word, and thus became part of the codified spelling of the word, even when it stopped being pronounced. Examinations of a Mainlander's speech patterns may reveal vestiges of these silent consonants, rendering a subtle difference in pronunciation between "night" and "knight."

vowel-glide diphthong characters: In the earlier days of this mode's development, "y" was considered to have a close enough sound to "i," and "w" to "u," that the glide diphthong characters i-glide and u-glide were also used for "y" and "w," respectively, as well as their current meaning. For example, "royal" and "crowbar." However, during the process of codifying the spellings of words, it was instead decided that it was confusing enough to have consonant-style letters for vowels without each of them possibly representing two different vowels. And so "w" became considered entirely consonantal, and "y" mostly so (see below about vowels), leaving the glide diphthong letters for "i" and "u" only.

Ordinal Numbers: When the t+h tengwa is placed after a number, it indicates that the number is ordinal rather than cardinal. (Thus, 25th as opposed to 25.) There is only one symbol for a number being ordinal, rather than the succession of "st", "nd", "rd", "th" as in Latin script.


Single Double
tengwa/short long tengwa/short long
triple-dot triple-dot/short - short a - apple triple-dot/long - long a - fake 5-dot/short - doubled a (very rare) - Aaron
circumflex circumflex/short - long a - fake
acute accent acute/short - short e - bed acute/long - long e - be double-acute/short - doubled e - heed
dot dot/short - short i - hit dot/long - long i - hide double-dot/short - doubled i (very rare) - shiitake
over-curl over-curl/short - short o - hot over-curl/long - long o - hole double over-curl/short - doubled short o - book double over-curl/long - doubled long o - moon
under-curl under-curl/short - short u - gun under-curl/long - long u - use double under-curl/short - doubled u (rare) - vacuum
inverted circumflex vcirc/short - short y - system vcirc/long - long y - by
under-dot under-dot/short - silent e following - more under-dot/long - silent e following - foe
triple under-dot triple under-dot/short - following a - earn triple under-dot/long - following a - leap

Regarding the doubled e: It may be noted that the example, "heed," for the doubled e, is shown over a short carrier, despite the doubled e sound being that of a long e. The reason for this is that with vanishingly few exceptions, the doubled e is a long sound, and thus the long carrier is not necessary to make it obvious, which means that it can be put over a tengwa or a short carrier as easily as anything else. So, in Tengwar, the doubled e in "heed" would go over the d, as in [heed].

Following a/silent e: Whether the marks for the following vowels are placed under a tengwa, a short carrier, or a long carrier make no difference to the following vowel itself. With a silent e, it is fairly obvious, but it should be noted that in the case of using the following-a, it should only be a short a and part of the same syllable as whatever it's following. Thus, "earn" and "bead" are [earn] and [bead], but "reality" and "reagent" are [reality] and [reagent].

Tilde modifiers

Depending on where it is placed, a tilde (tilde) can modify the consonant to which it is attached.

Above Below
Preceding n - nt - nt Doubled sound - tt - tt

There was once a time that the over-tilde signified that the preceding sound might be that of an m rather than an n, depending on the word. Like many similar concepts, this was eliminated in the settling of the spelling of words, and henceforth was only for a preceding n.

A few words/phrases, short and commonly used, have developed short forms of expression, incorporating the tilde as part of their design:

"and" - "and" "in the" - "in the" "and the" - "and the"


Possession is indicated not by an apostrophe or equivalent as in Latin script, but rather by a small stand-alone curl (possession curl) at the end of the word signifying the possessor(s). The possessive curl pays no attention to the number of possessors (i.e., singular/plural), or whether or not the word ends in "s", as with the possessive apostrophe of Latin script. Despite not being any sort of consonant itself, the possessive curl is effectively pronounced as "'s" would be in Latin script, though the only s that should be written is if the possessor noun is plural. Thus:

"kid's" - kid's "kids'" - kids'


, - comma . - period
; - semi-colon : - colon
? - question mark ! - exclamation point
' ' - single quotation marks (` ') " " - double quotation marks (" ")
- - hyphen (-) -- - dash (--)
... - ellipsis (...) ( ) - parentheses ()
& - ampersand ("and"/&) ¶ - paragraph end (¶)
+ - plus (+) - - minus (-)
* - asterisk (*) / - slash (/)
= - equals (=) % - percent (%)


1 - 1 2 - 2 3 - 3
4 - 4 5 - 5 6 - 6
7 - 7 8 - 8 9 - 9
0 - 0

Numerals are written in left-to-right order from most to least significant digit. It is said that when the Elves brought the Tengwar to the rest of the Mainland, they attempted to reverse this order (so 25 would be written 52), and to also teach counting using 12 digits as opposed to the 10 (0-9) which were already known. Both of these attempts were considered utterly confusing, and did not spread to common usage.

It has been noted and wondered just why 0 looks so much different from the other numerals. In truth, no one seems to really know. As with so many things, the Elves try to provide cryptic reasons and the occasional stony silence when asked about this. Modern Tengwar scholars suspect that the real reason is that they just didn't think of the concept of 0 until they had everything else all set, and then were at a loss when they realized that their original most likely candidates for a symbol that fit the style they were using could be easily mistaken for either the possessive curl or l. (The similarities between l and 1 already present enough of a danger that they probably would not want to compound it.) While 0 looks perhaps a bit odd when in the midst of other numerals to make a larger number, it is nonetheless quite distinctive and definitive when used on its own to signify a truly null value.


There are no contractions in this mode. For a long while, the very concept was rare, usage of contractions considered to be mispronunciation or otherwise a failure to speak correctly. Increased contact with people from other lands has introduced occasional rare usage of contractions in Mainlander speech, but while attempts were made to integrate them into writing, none of the methods invented to do so were deemed satisfactory, and so were never adopted.

Chris Pinard (slarti@gweep.net)