https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Eard_Stapa

Elvish (Quenya and Sindarin) on Duolingo: an explanation

I have posted on this before in several of the Elvish/Quenya/Sindarin threads but so many people continue to hope for an Elvish course on Duolingo that I thought I would repost my explanations here.

First of all, some people are confused about what the languages are. "Elvish" is not a language but rather can be thought of as a language family (like the Romance languages, Germanic languages, Slavic languages, etc) created by JRR Tolkien for his fantasy setting. The two most well-known and most developed are Quenya (high Elvish, or Latin-Elvish) and Sindarin (Grey Elvish, the every-day language of the elves in LOTR).

First off I want to clarify that I am a huge LOTR fan (of course) and I really encourage everyone to learn more about Quenya and Sindarin. But after diving into Quenya and studying the language quite extensively, I am convinced that a Quenya course for Duolingo would be very difficult and would need to be done with much care. In the end, I just don't think Duolingo is a very good platform for teaching these languages and I give several reasons below.

The problem is that Tolkien's languages were made for his own amusement and not for practical use. Not only does this mean that the vocabulary is limited, it also means that we know nothing about discourse in these languages and furthermore because it was Tolkien's private hobby for decades before Quenya and Sindarin were used in the LOTR, there are many different versions of these languages and even the publication of the LOTR did not stop him from tinkering with them. Even the iconic greeting that Frodo uses "Elen sila lumenn' omentielvo" was changed in later editions. The earlier form was "Elen sila lumenn' omentielmo."

Which brings up the point of why it would be so difficult (perhaps not impossible, but extremely tricky) to create a Duolingo course on Quenya. The ending -vo/-mo in the above phrase is a first person plural pronominal ending ("our"). So which ending should be used in the course? The original or the one Tolkien used later? Indeed, the pronouns in Quenya tend to be quite slippery and Tolkien changed his mind about them (and many other things) just about every time he sat down to write something! Mixing and matching from different documents and different periods of Tolkien's life does not accurately represent Quenya, it creates a new language based on Quenya ("Neo-Quenya") which might derive from Tokien's language but is emphatically not the language that Tolkien created. And there are several different competing forms of "Neo-Quenya" from different people depending on which choices that person made regarding grammar points like the pronouns mentioned above.

And the problems only start there. Many aspects of Quenya grammar are fraught with this type of fluctuation in Tolkien's many conceptions of the language. Any website out there claiming that it can teach you to write or speak Quenya is actually teaching you that author's particular amalgamation of the language, a "Neo-Quenya" version created by them and based on Tolkien but definitively not Tolkien.

In my opinion, the problem is even worse for Sindarin. Quenya generally has much better documentation and a much longer history. If you go to the Duolingo Incubator, you will see that you can apply as a Sindarin course contributor. I fear that if such a course were made, though, it would actually (necessarily) be a form of Neo-Sindarin. Indeed, if the course were based on David Salo's Sindarin that is used in the movies, I would have to decry it as something wholly different from Tolkien's Sindarin. For a view on Salo's book on Sindarin and why it is not a particularly thoughtful or scholarly recreation of "Neo-Sindarin", see

https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/lambengolmor/conversations/topics/760

If you want an even more comprehensive explanation of the several points I have made above about why Duolingo is not a good platform for a course in Quenya (and even more so in Sindarin), the following article is a must read:

http://www.elvish.org/articles/EASIS.pdf


In short, I think Quenya and Sindarin can be used for composition in interesting ways if the writer is careful and has a deep understanding of the histories of the languages and is able to take that into account in their composition. But I am not convinced that this can be taught effectively through a Duolingo course. The course would end up being overly simplistic to avoid errors or to constrain itself to only the most basic and consistent aspects of grammar (and therefore not of much help to the aspiring elvish student) or it would be a full language course that necessarily deviates from Tolkien's Quenya and instead uses a form of Neo-Quenya that does not necessarily conform to Tolkien's conception of the language. And as I mentioned before, Quenya is generally much better documented and we are much more confident about the grammar and workings of Quenya than Sindarin so the problems outlined above are even more severe for a proposed Sindarin course.

August 19, 2017

12 Comments


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Eard_Stapa

I will also leave you with some quotes from the following source: http://www.elvish.org/FAQ.html

"The inescapable fact is that no one can learn to speak a language without a corrective speaker or model against which to gauge grammaticality and comprehensibility (be it an already fluent speaker or speech community, or a comprehensive, fully descriptive grammar and pedagogical course). Since Tolkien never fixed his languages firmly or described them completely enough to provide any such comprehensive and corrective model (that never being his goal), and since thus even Tolkien himself was never able to speak Quenya or Sindarin fluently or casually (that too never being his goal), it is consequently a further inescapable fact that no one has or ever will be able to speak Quenya and Sindarin, any more than anyone will ever (again) be able to speak, say, Etruscan or any other fragmentarily-attested non-living language."

"How do I learn Quenya and Sindarin?

"That depends on what you mean by "learn". If you mean "learn" in the sense in which one can "learn German" or "learn Japanese", then the short answer is that you can't; see the previous question. If you mean "learn" in the sense of "learn Gothic" or "learn" any other fragmentarily-preserved, non-living language, then one answer is to read well-researched, thoroughly documented, purely descriptive articles and discussions about the languages, based upon Tolkien's writings and free from artificial, utilitarian agendas; and to do so in conjunction with an independent examination of the data cited to verify claims. But the best way to engage with Tolkien's art-languages is to simply study this evidence for yourself, to read and ponder Tolkien's own compositions and commentaries. It must be remembered that Tolkien is the sole and final authority on his languages; anything not written by Tolkien is strictly speaking not Quenya or Sindarin, but is simply more or less reasonable conjecture based on a selective set of data and supposed facts derived from them.

This is not to say that the artificial, homogenized Quenya presented on Helge Fauskanger's Ardalambion site, or the pseudo-Sindarin inventions of David Salo for Peter Jackson's films, are without interest or merit (but neither are they without serious problems); but rather that meaningful study of Tolkien's languages cannot be achieved simply by mastering the artificial, simplified, patch-work systems of these popularizers. Instead, the study must be always and primarily based and centered on reading, pondering, and understanding the exemplars and statements that Tolkien himself made, in their context and in relation to one another, across the decades of his life and the millennia of internal development they were created by Tolkien to exhibit."

August 19, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/EliasPitts

wow! what a great amount of text!

August 19, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/garpike

I wonder if Tolkien, were he brought out of time somehow, would really want his pet languages taught on Duolingo. I dare say, at this juncture at least, that Tolkien the scholar and master of allusion would be much more enthusiastic about enabling people to learn languages like Old English, Icelandic and Finnish—which, by coincidence are all greatly requested anyway.

August 20, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Eard_Stapa

Of course, it's all speculation but I agree with you. It is very apparent from his writings that Tolkien did not intend for anyone to "learn" any of his languages the same way one "learns" Japanese or German. I do think, however, that he would be quite delighted by people studying them in a more scholarly fashion. And I do agree with you that he would probably put more emphasis on people learning languages like Old English (Anglo-Saxon), which was, after all, his profession.

August 20, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/piguy3

Duolingo has shown itself not unwilling to accept less-than-pure linguistic forms among its courses. Just seek out the commentary of the experts in academic Guaraní from the early days of the Guaraní tree. I suppose I read your statements as an argument that such shouldn't be done. But to the extent that your argument is that these factors mean it won't be done, I would not find the case dispositive. However, given the paucity of any new languages of late, I obviously wouldn't be thinking the probabilities are too high.

August 19, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Eard_Stapa

Right, I'm not saying that Duolingo wouldn't approve a Quenya or Sindarin course, I'm just saying that because of the complex development and evolution of these languages over Tolkien's life and because of our incomplete and often contradictory understanding of their grammar, that these courses shouldn't be made on Duolingo. I still think they are great fun to learn about and play around with, I just don't think Duolingo is a very good platform because of the complexities I outlined above.

August 19, 2017

[deactivated user]

    I think turning down a Quenya course because its not Tolkien's Elvish would be bit like turning down English cause its not the Queen's English.

    Neo-Quenya, whilst perhaps not 100% being elvish as imagined by Tolkien, is still elvish. It has a workable grammar; the bare bones for a wporking language are all there, it really just suffers in vocab. And even if the Tolkien Estate released an entire grammar of Quenya, I'd wager the "complete" corpus of Tolkien's Quenya would be mutually intelligible to what would be taught on Duo. I mean Tolkien did love to self-edit, but he would have to stick close enough that the existing and most famous examples, such as Namárië, are still intelligible by the newest version of Quenya. As such, a Duo course would be at worst a dialect of Quenya, and I don't see anything wrong with that.

    Furthermore, the people who would be interested in a Quenya course I would say are probably not the kind who would be interested in a nitpicky debate about the alleged impurity of Neo-Quenya. Everyone know's Tolkien left it unfinished (as far as we know), and that its not likely to get "officially" finished any time soon, but we also know what we have is already a workable language, so why not teach it?

    Stuff like conflicting accounts of grammar, such as the vo/mo change are easy to address, just say they're both correct. Spanish has two equally valid conjugation patterns for the subjunctive, but no one complains about that (except Spanish students, heh).

    I really hope Duo adds an Elvish course to its roster, but in the mean time I guess I'll just have to content myself with Ardalambion's Quenya Course. Heck, maybe by the time the course comes around I'll know enough to be a contributor.


    Mi opinas, ke malakcepti kvenjan kurson cxar ne estus la preciza elfa de Tolkien estus kiel malakcepti anglan kurson cxar ne estus la angla de la Regxino.

    Kvankam Nova Kvenja precize ne estas la elfa, kiu Tolkien estus imagi, gxi estas la elfa ankoraux. Gxi havas uzeblan gramatikon; gxi havas la minimumon de funkcia lingvo, la sola problemo estas, ke la lingvo havas malgrandan leksikon. Kaj ecx se kompleta gramatiko de Kvenja estus trovita, mi kredas, ke la "kompleta" versio de la Kvenja de Tolkien estus reciproke komprenebla al la Kvenja, kiu Duo instruus. Tolkien ja amis redakti siajn proprajn verkojn, sed li estus povinta tro multe sxangxi la ligvon, por ke la plej famaj ekzemploj, kiel Namárië, ankoraux estus kompreneblaj per la plej nova versio de Kvenja. Tial, la versio de Kvenja, kiu Duo instruus, estus (en la plej malbona situacio) dialekto de Kvenja, kaj mi ne komprenas la kialon, ke tio estus malbone.

    Plue, la homoj, kiuj partoprenus en kvenja kurso, ne estus la tipoj de homoj, kiuj ne estus interesita per pedanta diskuto pri lingva pureco. Oni komprenas, ke Tolkien ne finis siajn lingvojn, sed oni scias, ke estas funkcia lingvo, tial kial oni ne instru gxin?

    Aferoj kiel malkonsentaj raportoj de la gramatiko, kiel la sxangxo de "vo/mo", estas facilaj por plibonigi: diru, ke ambaux estas gxustaj. La hispana havas du gustajn versiojn de la subjunktivo, oni ne plendas pri tio (krom lernantoj de la hispana, heh).

    Mi tre esperas, ke Duo kreu kurson kvenjan, sed gxis tiam mi supozas, ke mi devas felicxi kun la kvenja kurso de Ardalambion. Kiam Duo kreos kvenjan kurson, mi eble scios suficxan kvenjan, ke mi povos kontribui al gxi.

    February 20, 2019

    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Gondrembor

    Yup.

    Any "completed" language course for Sindarin or Quenya would have to be something of a massive stretch unless if two gigantic manuscripts are suddenly uncovered that lay out the two Elven languages in full, along with extensive vocabularies/ extensive common eldarin roots with testified methods for transitioning to either language. Quite frankly I believe this would have been impossible for Tolkien to make because he so dearly loved tweaking his languages; so to set them in stone in such a way would have been to him like freezing a flower as it grows so it does not decay.

    April 2, 2018

    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Alex119913

    Has anyone started yet or suggested an Elvish course? I would really like to learn Quenya or Sindarin or another Elvish language. I have recently become a LOTR fan but am still quite new to the subject. If I weren't learning several other languages right now, I could teach myself an Elvish language and contribute to the course. So if such a project begins, I would like to help.

    April 11, 2019

    [deactivated user]

      It seems so; the application page for course contributors allows you to apply for Sindarin. I presume that if enough Sindarin speakers applied, the course would be made.


      Sxajnas, ke jes; uzi la kandidatigxan retpagxon por kursa kontribuantoj, oni rajtas kandidatigxi por Sindarino. Mi supozas, ke se suficxaj sindaraj parolantoj kandidatigxus, tiam la kurso estus farita.

      April 15, 2019

      https://www.duolingo.com/profile/bornxlo

      I agree that Tolkien's languages cannot accurately be taught as “full” languages, but something parallel to Thorstein Renk's course might have some merit in Duolingo's format. At least some aspects of 3rd age Quenya are relatively firmly established, such as phonotactics. I wouldn't expect such a course to teach speakable Quenya, but rather present some of what we can “know” about the language.

      October 31, 2018

      https://www.duolingo.com/profile/william803231

      : Marc Okrand maybe could help construct it (If he wanted too)

      November 1, 2018
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