Elvish writing - phonetic mode for English

Introduction | Tengwar | Tehtar

Tolkien's Elvish elvish writing system (Tengwar) can be used to represent a variety of languages including English. The standard set of Tengwar letters are repurposed to represent the sounds of each particular language. Mostly the sounds of a given letter are consistent between languages but since the phonemes used in each language vary, the character-sounds are of necessity somewhat specific to the language at hand.

In the Tengwar writing system there are 24 standard consonant letters, each of which may be modified by one of the accents called tehtar (signs) which represent vowel sounds. The tehtar are markings written above (and sometimes below) one of the tengwar consonants. There are five tehtar, each corresponding to one of the five English vowels. The way that tengwar are mapped to English consonants is well developed, but there is a fair amount of variation in the methods of using tehtar to represent English vowel sounds.

In English there are a number of common vowel sounds not represented directly by one of the five vowels of the Latin alphabet. The alphabetic vowels can be used in combinations to represent these additional sounds. Vowels can be used in pairs called diphthongs and they may be combined with consonants (especially R and Y) to represent more complex vowel constructions. However there is little consistency between these sounds and their written spellings. Words with different spellings may be pronounced the same, as in 'here' and 'hear'. Two words that are spelled the same may have different pronunciations, as in 'take a bow' and 'bow and arrow'. There is also an undifferentiated vowel sound -uh called a schwa which is short and sounds something like a cross between a U and an A.

An obvious approach to writing in Elvish is to map English vowels directly to their tehtar counterparts. The disadvantage of this method is that it ties the Tengwar spelling of a word to the English spelling. The Elvish system then inherits all of the complexities and inconsistencies of English writing. A better approach in my opinion is to represent the English vowel sounds phonetically by assigning a specific tehtar representation to each English sound.

The phonetic mode

I present here a method for using tehtar to phonetically represent the common English vowel sounds in a consistent way. The goal is to provide a Tengwar writing system based on an phonetic transcription of English with a close correspondence between the spoken and written words. Using this approach one need not be familiar with the peculiarities of standard English spelling to read or write Tengwar English. This guide can be used in conjunction with the Tengwar textbook which describes the use of numerals and punctuation, some other writing conventions and modes for other languages.

My use of Tengwar is fairly standard and follows the Tengwar textbook common mode with just a couple of minor exceptions - the letter uunque is not required to represent the gh in words such as aghast, nor is the vertically extended ungwe required for the silent gh in bought. My tehtar assignments are a little more unusual, because of the phonetic requirement.

In this design I have chosen to assign vowel sounds in a way that matches (at least one) standard english spelling, rather than using the relationships between vowel sounds as the organizing principle. This allows for a system that stays close enough to other non-phonetic english-elvish that it should be understandable by other tengwar readers, whilst still having a single representation for each english vowel sound. This system is therefore not identical to J.R.R Tolkien's nor to that used by his son Christopher. Neither is it the same as the system described in the Tengwar textbook as the common mode. It matches the common mode most closely, but differs from it in order to provide tehtar assignments for each english vowel sound. In doing so it provides a way of representing english vowel sounds that is complete, unambiguous and fairly unsurprising to english readers.

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See Omniglot for a description of another system - the non-phonetic common mode which matches normal english spelling closely.


2004-01-06 Added justification background and explanations
2003-05-13 Added Tengwar page
2003-04-25 Update to improve phonetic consistency based on feedback from Mach Hezan ... added schwa and switched tehtar for tote, gown, bought, book.
2002-08-04 Original version