Links Between Welsh and Elvish

A new book from Cardiff University Professor Dr Carl Phelpstead gives Welsh geeks one more reason to be proud of their heritage: it was the inspiration for Sindarin, one of two elven languages created by fantasy author J.R.R Tolkien. The other, Quenya, is based more on Finnish.

Tolkien was entranced by the sounds of Welsh. In “English and Welsh,” a speech he gave in Oxford, he notes that the sounds of Welsh had always called to him: “I heard it coming out of the west. It struck at me in the names on coal-trucks; and drawing nearer, it flickered past on station-signs, a flash of strange spelling and a hint of a language old and yet alive; even in an adeiladwyd 1887, ill-cut on a stone-slab, it pierced my linguistic heart.”

It’s only natural, then, that Tolkien would use one of his favorite languages as the inspiration for the speech of the Grey Elves. As Dr. Phelpstead explained to the BBC,  “It’s not so much that he borrowed Welsh words, more the sounds. This particular Elfish language is very like the sounds of Welsh and deliberately so. I have a friend of mine who is a Welsh translator who went to see the Lord of the Rings films and when they started speaking Elfish in the film she turned to her daughter and said ‘they are speaking Welsh’ so people do see this relationship.”

Tolkien’s created languages are far enough away from any real existing languages that they are not mutually intelligible. Still, if you look closely you can see how Sindarin was inspired by Welsh. Similarities between the two tongues include the sounds and sound structure as well as some grammatical elements.

Just for fun, here’s a brief list of some phrases in Sindarin, via Lord of the Rings fan site

Suilaid: Greetings.
Gîl síla na lû govaded: A star shines on the time of our meeting.
Pedich Edhellen?: Do you speak Elvish?
Le hannon: Thank you.
Navaer: Farewell.
And for your enemies: “Nai Ungoliant meditha le” means “May Ungoliant (a giant otherworldly spider) devour you!”

6 replies
  1. Gavin
    Gavin says:

    I was always interested in how he came up with those languages but I was too worried about people discovering my geeky lord of the rings side. Now that I know the linguistics roots of his invented tongues I won’t be so shy to express my interest and admiration! Thanks for the post.

  2. Monika
    Monika says:

    Nice article, it all makes sense now! 😉 One thing though, namárië is in Quenya, in Sindarin, it’s navaer 🙂

  3. K.A.Mylchreest
    K.A.Mylchreest says:

    Until I looked into the matter closely I’d always accepted that Sindarin was modelled on Welsh and related languages (Cornish & Breton maybe). However the stress patterns of the two languages are quite different so the overall impression, in particular as far as verse is concerned ought to be quite different. Welsh puts the emphasis on the last-but-one syllable of all but a very few polysyllabic words. And the stressed syllable is ‘stretched’ if possible. That is it’s vowel lengthens before a single consonant, and a double consonant has it’s full ‘long’ sound. Final syllables also carry a pitch accent keeping the vowels relatively clear. That’s Welsh.

    In Sindarin OTOH, vowels are mostly short but the long vowels are long by nature wherever they are found. Short vowels don’t lengthen under stress, and the stress often falls on the second-to-last syllable if the word has three or more syllables. Penultimate stress only occurs when that syllable has a long vowel by nature or ends with two consonants.

    The few samples of Sindarin verse by Tolkien, backed up by English verse that seems to be intended to represent Sindarin verse ‘in translation’ all have regular stress patterns. Each line has exactly eight syllables and the second and sixth must coincide with a stressed vowel. Welsh also traditionally has syllablic verse, that is each line must have exactly the right number of syllables, but the stress placement and rhythm vary from line to line.

    Consequently the two systems will sound quite different.

    Mar kanav vy a worholyon, py skath a’m bortho vy?
    Py par lester dhe’m doen arte, a-dreuz mar vras weylgi?


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