Impersonal constructions in Elvish

Abbreviations used:

UT: Unfinished Tales
LR: The Lost Road
SD: Sauron Defeated
PE: Parma Eldalamberon
VT: Vinyar Tengwar


Impersonal constructions, i.e. sentences without an explicit subject, occur rather frequently in Tolkien's invented Elvish languages, although they are not readily understood from an English speaker's point of view as English is a language with an explicit subject requirement. An example is the phrase 'it is raining'. 'it' in this expression is not quite a normal pronoun, as there is no noun which could usually replace it. One wouldn't usually say with the same meaning 'the cloud is raining' or 'the weather is raining' where the pronoun would then stand for 'cloud' or 'weather'. In such situations where an action is performed by an unspecified (maybe even unspecifieable) agent, other languages (such as e.g. Finnish) use impersonal constructions, i.e. say the equivalent of 'is raining' without an open subject. To illustrate this point, we will in the following often use a notation in which the impersonal 'it' is placed in brackets, i.e. write '[it] is raining' (except when quoting from Tolkien's works where the original notation is used).

The Elvish languages employ impersonal constructions quite frequently in a number of situations. Verbs describing the weather are often marked as impersonal, but also actions outside one's control and in some cases also a passive meaning can be expressed by impersonal constructions. In the following, we will present the attested material throughout the different conceptual phases of Tolkien's Elvish languages and discuss the grammar and use of impersonal expressions.

Attested impersonal constructions


Impersonal verbs have been part of the Elvish languages from the very beginning. The Gnomish Lexicon (PE11) dating from around 1917 contains a few verbs which are marked as impersonal. This is probably best apparent from luista- 'to parch, to dry up' (PE11:55) where the example luista nin 'I am thirsty', lit. '*[it] dries up for me' is given. The Gnomish expression does not contain an 'it' since that would be **a·luista nin. A similar example is oltha- 'to appear as an apparition' (PE11:62) where Tolkien's remark impers. c. dat. 'I dream' points to *oltha nin 'I dream' lit. '*[it] appears as an apparition to me'.

What is common to these two examples is that they describe actions outside the control of the actor - the person being thirsty cannot choose to do so, neither can the dreamer choose what appears in his dreams.

Some more verbs are explicitly denoted as impersonal:

There are a few more verbs where the translation suggests that they are meant as impersonal: Quite evidently, these are part of a class of weather verbs where no explicit actor 'doing the weather' can be identified. But there are also verbs having to do with weather for which no impersonal use is indicated such as ubra- '[to] rain' (PE11:74).

Early Qenya

A few verbs in the Qenya Lexicon are marked as impersonal: A few others would from the translation given appear to be impersonal, but apparently display an ending -[i]n which for other verbs seems to indicate the pronominal ending of 1st person - for yet other verbs that mark the 3rd person, compare avin 'he departs' (PE12:33) and aqin 'I seize in my hand' (PE12:31). The 1st person instead seems to be marked with -r at times, cf. lomir 'I hide' (PE12:55). On the other hand, varkin 'it bodes' (PE12:102) is quite clearly marked as impersonal. The apparent coexistence of different concepts of what the individual endings signify makes it difficult to come to a comclusion about some of the following verbs: hilkin 'it freezes' (PE12:39), ilkin- (sic) 'it seems' (PE12:42), lūta-, lukta- 'time passes' (PE12:56), uqin 'it rains', vildin 'it matters, is of significance' (PE12:102) and varkin (impers.) 'it bodes' (PE12:102)

The Early Qenya grammar shows a rich system of impersonal endings. In addition to the usual impersonal form where no agent at all can be identified (and the pronominal ending is dropped), Early Qenya also has an impersonal verb ending which is used when there is an agent, but he is not known.

The usage of the first form can be seen in PE14:56:

Note that the neuter (rem: i.e. the pronoun (h)a-) is never used as as impersonal subject: there is no prefix used at all in that case, as uqe 'it rains', tiqe 'it thaws'.

Again, in these examples verbs having to do with the weather are impersonal. The second impersonal form is apparent from the following:

The inflections of verbs are always pretty regular and consist of (a) no ending for singular (b) -r for the impersonal (distinct from the endingless form, e.g. uqe 'it rains', but tulir 'one goes, somebody goes'). (...) this becomes a passive if pronomial elements are added, for these are in the accusative (rarely dative). In the first case (accusative) these still may retain (...) their accusative-position after the verb, but as the passive feeling has increased such expressions as ha·matsir 'it is soiled' are not unusual.

What the latter seems to imply is the sequence of forms *matsir '*someone soils', *matsir ha '*someone soiles it' with the pronoun in accusative position and ha·matsir 'it is soiled' with pronoun moved to nominative position and passive being understood. For comparison, *ha·matse would then be '*he soils'.

Impersonal constructions do not seem to be confined to special verbs - if the situation is sufficiently general, the verb can be used in such a way: (h)a- is only employed with definite reference: impersonal 'it' is rendered by verb without pre-verbal prefix, as: (h)a·tule 'it comes' (some definite thing) tule ne 'it happens that, it comes about that (PE14:52), cf also tule mer 'it comes to us, falls to our lot' (PE14:85)

The Etymologies

The Etymologies do not add much information. One Noldorin verb is directly identified as impersonal: For another verb, its impersonal nature may be deduced: In neither case is there any evidence that the Qenya cognates of the words are meant as impersonal.

Late sources

Post-Etymologies sources do not add much in terms of vocabulary, but they show several examples of the use of impersonal constructions. First, there is one example of a verb which is identified as impersonal (note that 'to dream' has already been impersonal in Tolkien's conception at the time the Gnomish Lexicon was written): Next, there are several examples having to do with the perceived urge to do some thing or the perceived freedom for some course of action: Two examples show the usage of adjectives with an impersonal form of 'to be': A rather interesting example occurs in the Ataremma VI in the phrase where an impersonal construction is apparently used to convey a passive meaning. This may also be the relevant construction underlying the Sindarin sentence where a passive meaning could be implied by a personless plural inflection of the verb. This reminds somewhat of the situation described in PE14:56, although there the suffix -r was explicitly described as an impersonal verb ending.


We can identify a few main themes for which impersonal constructions are used:

1) The Weather

This is the largest group of attested material. Chiefly it concerns verbs which are only used to describe weather, such as Qenya uqe 'it rains', tiqe 'it thaws' or Noldorin eil 'it is raining', but it seems that this class is not limited to such verbs: ringa ná 'it is cold' is a clear example of an adjective used in an impersonal construction to describe a weather condition. One may suspect that in fact quite a few verbs which are not specially marked as impersonal nevertheless would be used in such a way, such as Quenya *ulya '*[it] is pouring' when talking about the weather but *ulyas nén '*he is pouring water'.

2) Uncontrolled sensations

A second group of verbs seems to have to do with sensations a person has no control over, such as Qenya *oltha nin 'I dream' lit. '*[it] appears as an apparition to me' where the dreamer has no real control over the dream. Likewise, in verbs like Goldogrin luista nin 'I am thirsty', lit. '*[it] dries up for me' or Qenya *saita nin 'I am hungry', the sensation of hunger or thirst is not of a person's own choosing. This group also encompasses verbs expressing experiences like 'to irk, to annoy, to smell, to pain' and so on. In all cases, the subject of an English personal sentence (such as 'I am hungry') is placed in dative in Elvish, thus we may assume that this is the general pattern.

3) Compulsion and freedom from compulsion

The third major group of verbs includes the idea of vaguely defined outside necessities leading to some course of action, such as Noldorin bui '*[it] compels' or Quenya orë nin caritas 'I would like to do so', 'I feel moved to do so'. Force of habit may also be counted into this class, cf. *sitta nin 'Im am used to, I do habitually'. As the verb eke shows, the freedom from any limiting outside circumstances can also lead to impersonal expressions such as in eke nin kare sa 'I can do that' lit. '*[it] is open to me to do it'. This also includes the idea of fate, such as in Qenya mart- 'it happens' or tule mer 'it falls to our lot', maybe even mára ná 'it is good'.

4) Passive

In some cases, impersonal constructions are used for a passive meaning. This is most evident from Qenya ha·matsir 'it is soiled' where the impersonal verb ending (which does not occur in later conceptual phases of Elvish) is used. In the much later Ataremma VI we have na care indómelya '*be [that] [someone] does thy will' without such an ending. It would seem that although it is rarely seen attested in texts, it is quite a common construction maybe applicable for any transitive verb.

Thorsten Renk

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