Impendix V(a): The Carvings of Remembrance

The notes that follow are condensed from the published lectures of B. R. Smallbold, of King’s University, Wardhall, who has greater knowledge of the history of the Fair Tongue than any mortal hitherto. The editors gratefully acknowledge his assistance.

Breghwir of Eremis, as it has been told, was the first to devise symbols for the sounds of speech. These were used at first for short inscriptions, usually magical in nature, to bind the words of a spell permanently to the thing enchanted: an advance upon the technique of the Díoni, whose enchantments had to be laid on at the same time and by the same hand that made the enchanted object. Thus Tan-an-Nydh, the knife of Telkon, was his work solely, and no servant or apprentice had any share in it. The wall of Eremis was too large to be built by a single child of Dân, so Telmon was compelled to find a new method. The letters of Breghwir were invented for this very purpose.

Many of the short inscriptions from the glory days of Eremis were copied upon copper tablets, for the Färinoth had learnt the working of metals from Pirmala; glosses and explanatory text were added later in the margins. These tablets were called Gremni Meménodh, Carvings of Remembrance, and many of them were saved from the destruction of the city and borne away by sea. Most of the tales that have survived from those early times were reconstructed from the Gremni, and the story of the city’s fall was written down from the testimony of eyewitnesses after the sack.

The language of Dân had been much changed by the time the sons of Färon built their city, and greater changes were still to come. In the earliest days, it appears, that language gave clear and separate functions to vowels and consonants. The meaning of a word was carried by a consonantal radical of two or three sounds, and the grammatical function was determined by the vowels according to complicated rules of apophony.

[Like the triliteral roots in the Semitic languages, as seen especially in classical Arabic. A similar phenomenon occasionally occurs with ‘strong’ verbs in English, e.g.: stink, stank, stunk. —Ed.]

The full rules cannot now be reconstructed, because the system had been considerably simplified by the time the Gremni were recorded, and also because the letters of Breghwir themselves did not fully record vowel sounds. We must therefore study the language as it was first written in Eremis: a dialect referred to as Eremic or ‘Proto-Bhanic’, from *bha-, a root in the early language meaning ‘to speak’.

The principal distinction was between a ‘masculine’ or ‘active’ inflection with the thematic vowel O, and a ‘feminine’ or ‘receptive’ inflection using E. These inflections seem to have been reduced from an earlier system of vocalic harmony.

[Somewhat like that found in the Uralic languages, though the function of that system is quite different. —Ed.]

Since the E-form was most frequent, it was sufficient for Breghwir to invent a letter to represent O, and let the other vowels be supplied by the reader, who was assumed to know the rules of Proto-Bhanic.

The consonant system of Pre-Proto-Bhanic (as we must call the speech of Dân and his immediate descendants), like the vowel system, cannot be fully reconstructed; but we can make very much better guesses, because the letters of Breghwir did fully represent the consonants, allowing for sounds that occurred in complementary distribution. With one exception: we infer that Pre-Proto-Bhanic had a phonemic glottal stop, which was lost in the later development of the language. Most of the radicals are triliteral, some are biliteral, but a handful (mostly prepositions, affixes, and other ‘empty’ words) are uniliteral. These can occur in both ‘open’ and ‘closed’ versions, according as the vowel is placed before or after the root letter. It is thought that these were originally biliteral. Thus, *-n ‘in, among, possessed of’ (from reconstructed *ʔen), as contrasted with *n- ‘this, that, truly’ (from reconstructed *neʔ). Since the letters of Breghwir contain no symbol for the lost glottal stop, such words are often represented by a single letter: which creates ambiguity in the text. This is only one of the numerous difficulties in reading the letters of Breghwir.

The letters appear originally to have been pictographic and acrophonic, representing various common objects whose names began with the sound that the letter signified. However, by the time the Gremni were made, they had been reduced to stylized groups of horizontal and diagonal marks. Evidently the letters were written in vertical columns from the top down; the inscription on the gate of Eremis was probably written on the doorposts. Vertical marks were not used, presumably because inscriptions were often made on wood or other material with a pronounced grain, and incising a mark along the grain is liable to make the wood crack. [For the same reason, the Germanic runes did not contain horizontal lines. —Ed.] Writing was probably done with a chisel, stylus, or gouge, depending on the material being inscribed. Pen and ink was a later innovation.

The alphabet of Breghwir consisted of twenty-one letters, representing the twenty consonant sounds of Proto-Bhanic plus the lone vowel O. They are reproduced here as they appeared on late copies of the Gremni Meménodh:

LetterNameMeaningTransliteration
t’hāntoothT
kedhgateK
behenstrong placeB
quet’haright angleQ
penquëhandP
gelahollowG
ghōrmountainȜ
gwelserpentGw
d’hānmanD
bheresseedV
dhenewfir-treeÐ
ghwolbig fishȜw
selrefugeS
mewerplait, cordM
nehwëboatN
rekstraightR
leheklimbL
harakarrowH
werewopen placeW
yenedspreading treeY
’oquëeyeO

Here is the inscription from the gate of Eremis, as written in the Gremni:

No doubt the original was rendered in a full pictorial style, with all the artistic skill the Färinoth then possessed. What survives is no more than a diagram of a shadow.

Here is a full transliteration of the inscription, according to the system described above:

KÐMOGNGRYS WWRGSTLMWNN
HRWPPRTHÐ MMWNSÐGOȜRTHGLYTHN

The consonants H, Y, and W tended to disappear in later dialects, having been subsumed into the athematic vowels A, I, U. Even in later Proto-Bhanic, the presence of one of these consonants in a syllable ‘coloured’ the adjacent vowel. So by the time Eremis fell, for instance, *behen ‘strong place’ became *b’hān, and still later ban. (The apostrophe here is a reminder that the h sound is pronounced separately, and not as part of a digraph bh.) The form ban survived unchanged into the Fair Tongue of Mirenna, no doubt because of its frequent use in place-names famous in ancient legend. Likewise *werew > *wuruw > uru, which eventually developed into the suffix -or. The name Färinor itself would appear to derive from Proto-Bhanic *bheh-her-yen-werew > *bhaharyin wuruw, meaning roughly ‘the wide lands of the speaking people’, i.e. the Färinoth, or the Children of Dân more generally.

In reconstructing the full text, we insert the thematic vowel E where required, add the athematic vowels indicated by the ‘colouring’ consonants, plus additional occurrences of A or O as required by the grammar. This gives us (added vowels in italics):

KEÐMOGONGERYIS WEWERGOSTELMWUNEN
HARWUPPERTHAOÐ MEMWUNSAÐGOȜERTHAGELYITHAN

Add word-breaks and remove those ‘colouring’ consonants that were the first to be elided, and we have our best reading of the Gremni:

Kedh mōgon geris: wewergos Telmunen
Hār uppertaodh: memūnsadh gō-ghertah gelytān

Clearly this is very far from the Fair Tongue we know today. Millennia of development along widely different lines divided Proto-Bhanic into many daughter languages, at least five of which can be counted as partial ancestors of the Great Färin used by the Fair Folk in Mirenna. The Great Färin was deliberately refined and regulated by the Masters of Bellórin for clarity, precision, and euphony, qualities prized in themselves, but also necessary for the difficult and painstaking art of devising magic spells, which we call grammary. Great Färin (and its simplified derivative, used by the High Ward to communicate the Defenders’ lore) is not only a language, but a system of logical symbols designed to be spoken aloud. But the greater part of the language can be traced to its origins in the speech of Eremis.

Comments

  1. Sarah Dimento says:

    Nifty! Most of this goes over my head, but I like that the letter that corresponds to “strong place” looks like a little flexing strongman. :oD

  2. Wendy S. Delmater says:

    You know, I look forward to the day when your fans learn to write notes to each other in this alphabet! Like I used to send notes back and forth in class with other members of my high school Tolkien Society. We learned to use both the Dwarvish runes and Elvish letters to write things in English.

    • There are at least two other writing systems still to come. One is based on an idea originally developed by Alexander Melville Bell, who developed a purely phonetic alphabet called Visible Speech. (He also developed a son called Graham, whom you may have heard of.) The Masters of Bellórin (whom Smallbold mentions above) used one alphabet for the etymological letters, and a phonetic alphabet to show how the pronunciation of those letters changed over time.

      Anyway, either or both of those might be more suitable for writing notes to other fans, since they both have vowels.

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  1. […] [This represents the oldest recorded form of the Fair Tongue, as preserved in the Gremni Meménodh. See separate post.] […]

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