As I was reading about Elvish languages for my recent post on constructed languages, I learned a lot about the scripts Tolkien created for his languages. The most interesting one is the tengwar, which in Tolkien’s history was invented by the elf Fëanor (who also invented a lot of other stuff, like the Silmarils, the palantíri, and the first Kinslaying).
The tengwar is the most recognizable of Tolkien’s scripts, originally intended to write Quenya and later adopted for a number of Middle-earth languages, including various Elvish tongues and the Black Script of Mordor. It’s also been adapted for human languages like English, which actually accounts for a good number of the tengwar script examples in Tolkien’s work.
I’m just going to talk about the consonants, because their design is what’s really special about the tengwar. Rather than just having a traditional order like an alphabet, the consonants are organized into four columns or series and six rows or grades. These are also called the témar and tyeller, and they do a lot more than provide a handy grid—they tell the reader about the pronunciation of each letter.
For an example, let’s look at the first series, which corresponds to dental consonants in both the classic Quenya usage and the general mode (modes assign different consonant groups to the letters to accommodate the needs of different languages). Dental consonants are articulated with the tongue against the upper teeth, like t, d, etc. In the general mode, as we go down the rows or grades in the dental series, we see changes in the type of dental consonant.
(For descriptions of the linguistic terms, check out Wikipedia’s content on the manner and place of consonant articulation!)
You’ll notice helpful general features like doubling the bow (the round curves) to make a sound voiced instead of voiceless. (By the way, if you’re not familiar with these terms and you’re somewhere where you’re not going to look too weird, I really recommend saying everything aloud so you get a feel for what’s meant by “voiced” vs. “voiceless.”)
The correspondence between changes to the basic letter shape—doubled bows, reversed or shortened stems—and the manner of consonant articulation continues across all four series. Each series represents a different place of consonant articulation; both patterns change depending on the needs of the particular language that’s being written. Below is the general mode, which is pretty well suited for writing English.
To me, this idea of an organized, informative script is ingenious and incredibly cool, and it would be even cooler if only it were usable in the real world. If only…what’s that? There’s already a language that does this?
Allow me to introduce Hangul, the Korean script (called Chosŏn’gŭl or Chosŏn Muntcha in North Korea)! Hangul means “great script” and was commissioned and possibly substantially designed by King Sejong the Great in 1443. It has its own holiday (October 9), and it really is pretty great.
If you don’t know anything about Hangul, at first glance it looks similar to the syllabic scripts of Chinese and Japanese, which have thousands of characters and take years to master. However, Hangul has a secret—while it’s written in blocks that represent syllables, it’s actually an alphabet in disguise!
Sejong the Great wanted everyone to be able to read, which just wasn’t an option given the demanding process of learning to read Chinese characters, called hanja in Korean. Hangul offered a simple and elegant solution, resembling the characters used by the educated elite but with easily learned components. The 1446 document explaining the new script, Hunmin Jeong-eum Haerye, declared of the letters, “A wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days.”
To illustrate, here are the symbols for the syllables tho and tha:
Note that they’re just the letter for th combined with o or a as necessary. There’s some work involved in learning all the letters and getting used to how they’re combined in the syllables, but it’s not nearly as difficult as learning thousands of syllabic symbols.
In addition to being a stealth alphabet, the individual Hangul letters have a unique design that is similar in spirit to Tolkien’s tengwar (and, of course, predating it by 500 years!). Each stroke of a consonant says something about the place and manner of articulation and lets you compare it to other consonants that have similar features. Let’s take a look at the letter for th:
(Again, here’s your handy guide to the phonological terms.) Naturally, reading doesn’t involve analyzing all the individual elements of a sound, but it’s incredible to know that they’re all there in the letter design.
Hangul and the tengwar are examples of featural scripts, which deliberately use written elements to represent the nature of sounds, rather than using arbitrary shapes that have become increasingly abstract through time and tradition. Featural scripts offer information about the language on a finer scale than alphabets, which are on a finer scale than syllabaries, which are on a finer scale than logograms.
By their nature, fully featural scripts are a deliberate creation, so Hangul is an extremely rare example of their use in a language with a long written history. (Blame Sejong’s unusually egalitarian insistence on a fully literate population, I guess.) Even Hangul didn’t catch on as the primary written form of Korean for a while, since the educated minority guarded the elite status of the more difficult Chinese hanja. It finally made it into official documents in 1895, though, and inexorably overwhelmed hanja after Korea’s independence from Japan at the end of World War II. It’s been a long process, but Hangul is now the official script in both North and South Korea.
Hangul’s success story is pretty unique—other featural scripts are mostly limited to shorthands and scripts created for some Aboriginal Canadian languages. There is some middle ground, as many have pointed out semi-featural characteristics like the accent that gives us “résumé” and “fiancé” and the diaeresis that The New Yorker uses to obnoxiously remind us how to pronounce “coöperation.”
By and large, though, we’re stuck with our traditional, non-optimized writing systems. They go hand in hand with the histories and oddities of our languages, and I wouldn’t change that. All the same, it is beautiful to see the triumph of logical design in Hangul and the tengwar.
Who knows? Maybe in a few thousand years they’ll wonder why we didn’t always use the Shavian alphabet.