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Minas Tirith Forums » Languages of Arda » Tengwar and the Arabic Alphabet
Author Topic: Tengwar and the Arabic Alphabet
Tigranes
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I know, this sounds a bit stupid (I hope this is the right place for this kind of topic?), but, as I have to deal with both alphabets, I noticed some striking similarities between the two, apart from the general shape of the characters. For example, the way vowels are written (the "o", specifically in Persian, is sometimes the same letter as it is in Tengwar).
My question is: Did Tolkien actually know the Arabic Alphabet (as in: read and write)? And if so, did he draw inspiration from it?
I only found this thread on this board which leaves the question open.

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Hamfast Gamgee
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Unfotunately I don't think Tolkien ever managed to fulfill his ambition to write a total language. He was a busy man. I think what Tolkien wanted in his Elven tongues was a language that was classical but had some kind of oral tradition in nature. I think Finnish is the nearest modern example. Or, as I think about it, and dare I say it, possibly Welsh!
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Tigranes
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I'm afraid you misunderstood me. I was arguing about the alphabet, not the language.
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Mithrennaith
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Well, I've long thought the shape of the Tengwar was due to a script that Tolkien was very familiar with: the Insular script, or form of the Latin script, which was used to write the mediaeval Anglo-Saxon manuscripts that he so often studied. It was also used in Ireland at that same time, and descendants of it have continued in (some) use till the present time for writing Gaelic.

I think this is a much more likely origin than Arabic script, where most of the similar forms are only recognisable in the stand-alone forms of letters, which are actually the least common forms.

Of course, the idea of having vowels represented by diacritical markings is most probably derived from masoretic (biblical) Hebrew, which Tolkien would have come into contact with at one or other time, sooner and rather more extensive than with Arabic. The method used in Arabic is very similar, though, I think.

There is one aspect in which Tengwar, rather than resemble an abjad, such as Hebrew or Arabic, resemble an abugida, such as Devanagari, used for writing Sanskrit, Hindi, Bengali and like languages. That is that in the old mode for writing Quenya with vowel-Tehtar, the vowel a is said to be understood as implied after every Tengwa, unless replaced by another vowel (written with a Tehta), or suppressed by the underposed dot. That is the same way that the inherent vowel, almost always an a, works in the Indic scripts like Devanagari.

But in shape, the Tengwar are much more like the South Indian cousins of Devanagari, like Tamil, or their Indochinese or Indonesian descendants, like Dehon Dai or Javanese.

The Sarati however, especially when they are appended from a line, either horizontal or vertical, bear a great general visual resemblance to the Devanagari or the Tibetan script (another cousin) respectively.

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I am in too great doubt to rule. To prepare or to let be? To prepare for war, which is yet only guessed: train craftsmen and tillers in the midst of peace for bloodspilling and battle: put iron in the hands of greedy captains who will love only conquest, and count the slain as their glory? Will they say to Eru: At least your enemies were amongst them? Or to fold hands, while friends die unjustly: let men live in blind peace, until the ravisher is at the gate? What then will they do: match naked hands against iron and die in vain, or flee leaving the cries of women behind them? Will they say to Eru: At least I spilled no blood?
'When either way may lead to evil, of what worth is choice? Let the Valar rule under Eru!
- Tar Meneldur [UT 2 II:173-174]

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Tigranes
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Thanks for the clarification. BTW, is it known whether Tolkien knew Devanagari?
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Mithrennaith
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I think, considering how matters stood with the Raj and Britain, it would not be believeable that Tolkien would not have known about Devanagari. That is not to say that he would have had expert detailed knowledge of it; Hammond & Scull's warning (Reader’s Guide, p. 461) against assumptions that he was expert in e.g. Sanskrit should be borne in mind here also.
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Cernunnos
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JRRT had at least a general knowledge of Semitic languges: Khuzdûl, the language of the dwarves, was largely based on them. But this tongue was in a very undeveloped state compared to the Elvish dialects.

As to whether Tolkien cd actually read Arabic, I doubt it. He wd of course have recognised it if he came across it (and Devanagari too, doubtless - he wd have known it was one of Subcontinental scripts, certainly), but one does not need to be a linguist for that.

He wd have needed some knowledge of Sanskrit for his linguistic work (eg on the Oxford English Dictionary), but I have never read that he was a 'fan' of it, or Arabic.

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Whereas the light perceives the very heart of the darkness, its own secret has not been discovered.

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