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Arden Smith, ‘Writing Systems’

Arden Smith provides a brief introduction to Tolkien’s invented alphabets and writing systems.

J.R.R. Tolkien invented a variety of different writing systems during his lifetime, and a number of these can be seen in his published works. Most are associated in some way with his Middle-earth ‘mythology’, while some are connected with other stories, or no stories at all. Nearly all of them exhibit a considerable amount of linguistic sophistication, with structural similarity in letter-forms reflecting some phonetic similarity between the sounds represented.

Alphabet of Rúmil

The earliest of all the Elvish scripts is the Alphabet of Rúmil, which Tolkien invented in 1919 and later attributed to Rúmil, the Noldorin sage of Valinor. The Rúmilian letters or sarati (singular sarat) are usually written vertically, from top to bottom, but they can also be written horizontally, either left to right, right to left, or in boustrophedon fashion (with lines alternating left to right, right to left). They are sometimes attached to stems or bars, which may be short and attached to individual letters or may run for the entire length of a line. As in some tengwar modes, vowels are represented by means of diacritical marks. Examples of the Alphabet of Rúmil can be found in Parma Eldalamberon (no. 13 and no. 15).

Part of the Tale of Túrin written in the Rúmilian alphabet.


The writing systems that are most familiar to readers of Tolkien’s works are the two that appear in The Lord of the Rings: the Tengwar and the Angerthas. The Tengwar (Quenya ‘letters’, singular tengwa) are the type of Elvish letters that appear, for example, in the inscriptions on the West-gate of Moria and the One Ring. Within the fictional world, they were invented by Fëanor, the most skilled craftsman of the Noldorin Elves, and originally used for the representation of the High-Elven language, Quenya. The use of the Tengwar later spread to other Elvish and non-Elvish peoples in the West-lands of Middle-earth.

Letter from Aragorn, King of Gondor to Sam Gamgee, Mayor of the Shire, written in the Elvish script, Tengwar.

The twenty-four primary letters of the system are each formed of a telco (stem) and at least one lúva (bow) and are arranged in a grid of four columns (témar ‘series’) and six rows (tyeller ‘grades’). The témar and tyeller are applied to different types of sounds, depending on the sound system of the language being represented; the different applications of the letters are known as modes. There are also a number of additional letters, which vary from mode to mode. Diacritical marks, called tehtar (Quenya ‘signs,’ singular tehta), are used in conjunction with the tengwar to indicate such things as a doubled consonant, a preceding nasal (such as m or n), or a following semivowel (w or y). In some modes, consonants and vowels are both represented by tengwar. In others, however, only the consonants are represented by tengwar, and tehtar are used to indicate the vowels. More detailed information on the Tengwar can be found in Appendix E to The Lord of the Rings.

Angerthas (Elvish runes)

The other writing system used in The Lord of the Rings is the Angerthas (Sindarin ‘long rune-rows’). The individual letters are called cirth (singular certh); this is usually translated as ‘runes,’ because the angular construction of these letters gives them an appearance very much like the historical runes used by the ancient Germanic tribes. Like the historical runes, the cirth were designed for inscriptions carved into wood or stone, whereas the tengwar were more suitable for calligraphy with pen or brush. The cirth are said to have been invented by the Sindarin Elves of Beleriand, and the most extensive Elvish runic alphabet is called the Angerthas Daeron, named after the minstrel of King Thingol of Doriath. The use of the cirth spread to other races, most notably the Dwarves. The Dwarves of Moria used a modified alphabet called the Angerthas Moria, and the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain used a further modification called the Mode of Erebor. Examples of such Dwarf-runes can be seen on Balin’s tomb in The Lord of the Rings and in the facsimile pages of the Book of Mazarbul (Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien). Further information can be found in Appendix E to The Lord of the Rings.

Anglo-Saxon and other runic alphabets

The runic alphabet used on Thror’s Map and elsewhere in The Hobbit is not the Angerthas, but is rather the futhorc used by the Anglo-Saxons in England over a thousand years ago, adapted by Tolkien for the representation of modern English; see Appendix B to The Annotated Hobbit by Douglas Anderson for further information. Other ‘runic’ alphabets were used by Tolkien, some based on historical runes, others of his own invention. A number of these, including the Gondolinic Runes, can be found in ‘Early Runic Documents’ in Parma Eldalamberon, no. 15. The Taliskan skirditaila (runic series), used by a Mannish tribe that had had contact with Danian Elves, is mentioned (but not shown) in the ‘Appendix on Runes’ in The Treason of Isengard, which also includes early versions of the Angerthas, as well as a cursive modification called the Alphabet of Dairon.

Tolkien invented several tengwar-style alphabets in the 1920s, before the Fëanorian system reached its familiar form in the early 1930s. One group of related alphabets of this sort is called Valmaric. Unlike the Alphabet of Rúmil, Valmaric script was only written horizontally, from left to right, but it shares many features with both Fëanorian and Rúmilian script, such as the representation of vowels by means of diacritical marks. Valmaric is the type of script that appears in the caption to the ‘Lunar Landscape’ illustration in Roverandom. Further examples can be found in Parma Eldalamberon, no. 14 and no. 15. Manuscripts containing other Elvish scripts from the 1920s, some of which can be regarded as early versions of the Tengwar of Fëanor, are currently being prepared for publication in future issues of Parma Eldalamberon; some of these Pre-Fëanorian alphabets, such as Qenyatic, Falassin, Noriac, Banyaric, and Sinyatic, appear in Parma Eldalamberon, no. 16.

Goblin Alphabet (Letters from Father Christmas)

The letters written by Tolkien in the guise of Father Christmas and his friends at the North Pole contain further alphabetic creations. The Elvish script used by Ilbereth the Elf is essentially a variety of the Fëanorian tengwar. The Goblin Alphabet used by Karhu, the North Polar Bear, is quite different from Tolkien’s other invented alphabets. Supposedly based on goblin cave-drawings, it consists mainly of humanoid stick figures. It is essentially alphabetic, but contains a number of characters representing diphthongs and common consonant combinations. See Letters from Father Christmas.

Various other scripts

Tolkien also used invented scripts that were not associated with any of his fictional worlds. An early example is the Privata Kodo Skauta (Private Scout Code), which appears in a still unpublished notebook from 1909 called the Book of the Foxrook. This makes use of a phonetic code-alphabet, as well as a number of ideographic symbols representing full words. See Bodleian Library, J.R.R. Tolkien: Life and Legend, p. 18, and Arden R. Smith and Patrick Wynne, ‘Tolkien and Esperanto’, SEVEN, vol. 17 (2000), pp. 29–34. Toward the end of his life, Tolkien made use of the New English Alphabet, a phonetic script that combined the logical structural principles of the Angerthas and the Tengwar with letters that looked more like Greek or Latin. The alphabet has not yet been published in full, but examples can be seen in Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator.