On the Origin of the Tehtar-Mode for Sindarin

Abbreviations used:

LOTR: The Lord of the Rings
SIL: The Silmarillion
Letters: The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
DTS: Daeron Tengwar Specimen
WJ: The War of the Jewels
TI: The Treason of Isengart
SD: Sauron Defeated
VT: Vinyar Tengwar


In Appendix E of LOTR, Tolkien gives a description of the tengwar, the Elvish writing system. The tengwar are not an alphabet in which an essentially random character would be assigned to a sound, rather they only define the relationship between sounds. As a consequence, there are different 'modes' of writing (some of them adapted to a particular language) which govern in detail what sign corresponds to what sound. One of the chief distinction between different modes is the question how vowels are represented: In so-called 'full' modes each vowel corresponds to a sign, a tengwa, whereas in so-called '(óma-)tehtar' modes only consonants are represented as full signs whereas vowels are added as diacritic signs, so-called tehtar.

Appendix E leaves no doubt that Sindarin can be written in an ómatehtar mode (the Appendix describes how the tehtar are to be placed when writing Sindarin). Likewise, it is clear from the Appendix that Sindarin can also be written in a full mode, the 'Mode of Beleriand' for which the Moria Gate Inscription is an example. However, the Appendix does not provide a clear statement on the origin of the tehtar-mode for Sindarin, neither do we learn much about who used it. A brief search through different tengwar resources reveals that the question is far from trivial:

Gernot Katzer in his (German) page 'Tengwar und ihre Verwendung' ('Tengwar and their usage') describes the mode as 'Noldorisches Sindarin' ('Noldoric Sindarin'), stating there that it is a mode of writing introduced by the Noldor and also used by men of lore in Gondor as opposed to the Mode of Beleriand which was used by the Sindar of Beleriand.

Måns Björkman on Amanye Tenceli calls the mode 'General Use' based on Tolkien's description of DTS58. While he draws attention to the possible existence of another even older 'General Mode', he does not offer any theory with regard to the story-internal origin of this mode.

Finally, 'The Tengwar Textbook' by Chris McKay on Tolkien Script Publishing finally calls the mode 'Mode of Gondor' which is strongly suggestive of an exclusive mannish use and origin of the mode.

Why would we bother with an answer at all? On fist sight, the question does not seem very relevant. There is of course curiosity, which may drive us to work on the question just to see if an answer can be obtained for its own sake. However, in this particular case there is also a practical consideration: Sindarin tengwar inscriptions on wedding rings, as tattoos or for other applications are quite popular. Usually, the choice of a mode is driven by a) aesthetics and b) the desire to have 'something Elvish'. It is the experience of this author that the tehtar-mode for Sindarin is usually perceived as aesthetically more pleasing (he shares this opinion). If both modes in essence represent Elvish usage in writing Sindarin, the two desires do not contradict each other. However, if it could be established that the tehtar-mode is a mannish use and not actually used by Elves, some people might want to think the question over in more detail. It is the purpose of this essay to present the main pieces of evidence for either of these views and to show what conclusions can be drawn.

A story-external view on the evidence

Appendix E of LOTR is clearly one of the main sources of information. Here, the tengwar are described in rather general terms. Specific modes (auch as the Quenya mode or the mode of Beleriand) are only explained in a passing reference. Based on the main table of signs, the usage of tehtar is described and application to Sindarin, Westron (English) and the Black Speech are mentioned. The vowels were in many modes represented by tehtar, usually set above a consonantal letter. (...) in those [languages] such as Sindarin, in which most words ended in a consonant, it was placed above the following consonant. makes it rather clear that Sindarin can be written in a tehtar-mode as described here.

However, if one is interested in details, the description of the application of the tengwar to different modes leaves much to be desired. In particular, there are some persistent oddities: the tengwar are introduced in the Appendix ordered in four rows (témar) which supply the basic sound of the row, e.g. tincotéma (t), parmatéma (p) calmatéma (c) and quessetéma (q). This scheme does not seem to be suited very well to either of the Elvish languages - while Sindarin due to its phonetic structure requires only three témar, Quenya actually could have a fifth row, the tyelpetéma (which is represented in writing by diacritic signs). However, as it is described there it fits the usage of English and the Black Speech rather well, and these are also the languages in which tengwar texts in a tehtar-mode are given in LOTR, namely the Ring Inscription DTS7 and the title-page tengwar DTS5.

In order to understand this way of presentation better, it is perhaps fruitful to step back and consider the broader context in which the Appendix was written. During the preparation, Tolkien found himself under some pressure by his publisher to supply all relevant material to the Appendix in a timely fashion. At the same time, he had to condense all his available material on the background of the story into a short enough version. The impending publication forced him to finalize decisions on several matters which he did not feel ready to make yet. A quote from letter 150 perhaps illustrates his dilemma: My trouble is indecision (and conflicting advice) in selection from the too abundant matter. (...) The alphabets, reduced to simplest form will need blocks. (Letters:185). At the same time, it illustrates what he had done to the tengwar presentation - he had 'reduced [them] to simplest form'.

In other matters, a far-reaching decision had been made during the writing of LOTR: The language formerly known as 'Noldorin' suddenly became 'Sindarin' whereas the mothertongue of the Noldor was then the Noldorin dialect of Quenya. A text on the Elvish Alphabets in the Appendix on Runes shows how Tolkien envisioned the scenario before this change had been made. There, Fëanor constructed the tengwar both as a general phonetic alphabet, and devised special arrangements to fit the characteristics of Qenya, Noldorin, and Telerin. (TI:453). Of course, in the new scenario that was no longer possible, as Fëanor had no chance to study Sindarin. Thus, while the tengwar-mode for Noldorin could be Fëanor's original creation, any Sindarin mode needed a different origin.

The way the tengwar in Appendix E are presented reminds one of Fëanor's 'general phonetic alphabet' which illustrates the internal structure of the tengwar without reference to a specific language, whereas Tolkien's subsequent description of how the individual languages are written goes along well with Fëanor's 'special arrangements'. If Tolkien still had such a setup in mind, it can be readily understood how the Sindarin mode arose from the 'general phonetic mode' by leaving a téma unused whereas for Quenya the fifth téma had to me marked in a different way and how the mode was adapted to the rather restrictive phonology of Quenya. Thus, maybe this idea still guided the presentation 'in simplest form' as it was published in LOTR.

It cannot be said with absolute certainty if the form of the presentation is based on an actual 'general phonetic alphabet' existing story-internally or if this is just a story-external device used because the information needed to be 'reduced'. However, there is indirect evidence that a 'general mode' existed in the scenario outlined in LOTR from the following: The original Fëanorian system also possessed a grade with extended stems, both above and below the line. These usually represented aspirated consonants (e.g. t+h, p+h, k+h) but might represent other consonantal variations required. They were not needed in the languages of the Third Age that used this script; but the extended forms were much used as variants. Neither Quenya nor Telerin (nor Sindarin for that matter) require signs for such aspirated consonants. However, the sounds did occur in the historic development of the languages (which Fëanor studied), so their presence would be reasonable in a 'general use' mode.

However, the same paragraph makes it clear that what Tolkien is describing here is not exactly this historic mode (as he left this grade simply out of the table). A statement made about the writing of the vowels also seems to indicate that Tolkien is giving a generic account of the tengwar, not describing a specific general purpose mode: The vowels were in many modes represented by tehtar, usually set above a consonantal letter. This explicitly refers to 'many modes'. Thus, perhaps a reasonable conclusion is that an ancient 'general phonetic alphabet' did exist, but while the description in Appendix E is based on this mode, it actually is a generic summary of the properties of many different modes.

It is useful to realize that apart from the description in Appendix E where the writing of Sindarin in a tehtar mode is briefly explained as a special application of more general statements previously, no such mode for Sindarin is mentioned elsewhere in LOTR, nor do we find an actual text in this mode in LOTR. Thus, it is also fruitful to take a look at tehtar-inscriptions in general in LOTR (if the Sindarin writing using tehtar is just the application of a 'general phonetic' mode, those would be relevant) and how Sindarin is written in LOTR (this tells about the presence or absence of a need for such a tehtar-mode).

The spirit of general principles and their application to particular languages is perhaps best apparent from the following: The theoretic freedom of application had in the Third Age been modified by custom to this extent that Series I was generally applied to the dental or t-series, and II to the labials or p-series. The application of series III and IV varied according to the requirements of different languages. In languages like the Westron, which made use of consonants such as our ch, j, sh, Series III was usually applied to these; in which case series IV was applied to the normal k-series. Thus, we may conclude that while Fëanor's original mode had even more flexibility, in the 3rd age the first two series were fixed also for Sindarin, and the remaining series were applied according to the requirement - since Sindarin only requires an additional k-series, only either III or IV would be used for that purpose.

Let us first consider the English inscription on the title-page DTS5. This agrees well with what Tolkien describes above as the requirement for 'languages like the Westron'. In more detail, the Appendix has an explicit reference to this writing: There was of course no 'mode' for the representation of English. One adequate phonetically could be devised from the Fëanorian system. The brief example on the title-page does not attempt to exhibit this. It is rather an example of what a man of Gondor might have produced, hesitating between the values of the letters familiar in his 'mode' and the traditional spelling of English., i.e. it is identified as a mode which would be familiar for a man of Gondor (evidently when writing Westron/English).

The second sample of a tehtar-mode is the Ring Inscription DTS7. The best description can be found inside the main text of LOTR. There is Gandalf's description of the ring inscription to Frodo: 'I cannot read the fiery letters,' said Frodo in a quavering voice. 'No,' said Gandalf, 'but I can. The letters are Elvish, of an ancient mode, but the language is that of Mordor, which I will not utter here.' and there is Isildur's account of the ring: It is fashioned in an elven-script of Eregion, for they have no letters in Mordor for such subtle work; but the language is unknown to me.

The only Sindarin tengwar text found in LOTR is the Moria-gate inscription DTS8. It is identified in its own caption: Here is written in the Fëanorian characters according to the mode of Beleriand and also referred to in the Appendix E as: The West-gate inscription illustrates a mode of 'full writing' with the vowels represented by separate letters. It is somewhat remarkable that Frodo (who could not read the ring inscription, see above) is also unable to read this text: 'What does the writing say?', asked Frodo, who was trying to decipher the inscription on the arch. "I thought I knew the elf-letters, but I cannot read these'

Appendix E in addition contains a few more general remarks which may be relevant. On the origin of different modes and the development of full modes, we find:

The scripts and letters used in the Third Age were all ultimately of Eldarin origin, and already at the time of great antiquity. They had reached the stage of full alphabetic development, but older modes in which only the consonants were denoted by full letters were still in use. This clearly imples a general development ('had reached') from older (tehtar-)modes in which only consonants were written towards full modes. Since all modes are 'of great antiquity' that development must have been very long ago.

There is also an account about the origin of the cirth and the influence of the tengwar on their development:

The Cirth were first devised in Beleriand by the Sindar and were long used only for inscribing names and brief memorials upon wood or stone. (...) But in Beleriand, before the end of the First Age, the Cirth, partly under the influence of the Tengwar of the Noldor, were rearranged and further developed. (...). Among the Eldar, the alphabet of Daeron did not develop cursive forms since for writing the Eldar adopted the Fëanorian letters.

There is also a wealth of material outside LOTR. Some concerns draft texts for LOTR which were not published, most notably the various version of the King's Letter, a letter addressed to Sam Gamgee by Aragorn, King of Gondor a few years after the main action of LOTR (SD:128f). This is given in English and Sindarin, the Sindarin text is in one version a full mode DTS48 which differs from the Mode of Beleriand as seen in LOTR, in a second version a tehtar-mode DTS49. The latter mode agrees with what can be inferred about the writing of Sindarin using a tehtar-mode from LOTR.

An important later source is a letter to Anthony D. Howlett DTS58. Here, Tolkien demonstrates how to write the name Imladrist in the antique S[indarin] mode shown on the gates of Moria and [i]n the general use (applicable to both S[indarin] and Q[uenya]) of the period of the tale. The 'general use mode' described here agrees with DTS49 and with the tehtar-mode for Sindarin that can be inferred from LOTR. The applicability to Quenya is seen in DTS38 where in an illustration of the throne of Gondor a Quenya writing in such a tehtar-mode occurs.

Finally, Appendix D of 'Quendi and Eldar' gives a strong statement with regard to a tehtar-mode for Sindarin: This quanta sarme or "full writing" was indeed mainly used by the Loremasters for special purposes, until later in Middle-earth the Fëanorian letters were applied to other languages, such as Sindarin, in which the diacritic method of indicating vowels was inconvenient. (VT39:8) This account is strongly at variance with the idea outlined in LOTR that full modes were 'reached' by a development from older tehtar modes - here the full mode was already present early on in Valinor.

Especially the last piece of information makes it quite clear that the answer one gets to the question of the nature and origin of a tehtar-mode for Sindarin may depend on what information one considers relevant. Thus, in the following we will investigate the case for a mannish or Elvish origin of the mode both limiting the analysis to what is found in LOTR and including also information beyond LOTR.

Considering only 'The Lord of the Rings'

The case for a mannish origin

Based solely on information found in LOTR, the case for a mannish (or rather Gondorian) origin of the tehtar-mode for writing Sindarin goes as follows: The mode which is described in the Appendix is based on four series, and the description includes the sounds 'such as our ch, j, sh' represented by the Third Series. There is no explicit statement that a series is dropped when writing Sindarin, only the placement of tehtar in Sindarin is discussed. But that mode is most suitable for writing Westron (and indeed, what a man of Gondor in 'his' mode might have produced explicitly establishes that the mode was used in Gondor).

On the other hand, there is a mode known to be used by Elves for writing Sindarin and it can be clearly linked to Elves as users - that is the Mode of Beleriand. Why, rather than assuming that two Sindarin modes co-existed where there is no single text sample of Elvish origin for one of them available, not make the more plausible assumption that an existing Westron tehtar-mode of Gondorian origin could also be used for writing Sindarin, and this is the mode we observe here?

The case for an Elvish origin

There are a few stumbling blocks for the above hypothesis, and the reader may apologize when we in the following embark on an almost Clintonesque weighting of single words to be precise about the meaning.

The first statement which seems to argue against a Gondorian origin of the mode (though not against its use by Gondorians) is Tolkien's statement that [t]he scripts and letters used in the Third Age were all ultimately of Eldarin origin. This hinges on the precise meaning of 'script' and 'ultimately'. If 'script' just denotes the collection of letters without reference to a particular mode, then this sentence is no problem for a Gondorian origin, as the letters and the basic idea were introduced by Fëanor. However, then 'and letters' would be somehow redundant.

Likewise, if 'ultimately' means that all scripts can be traced back to Fëanor, then the sentence contains a trivial truth - but then it is a strange wording. What the sentence seems to imply is that Elves were the main inventors of letter designs and writing modes, and while some development occurred with borrowed forms, all major developments go to the Elves - which would argue against a mannish origin.

The second obstacle is perhaps more severe: If common modes had reached the stage of full alphabetic development and tehtar-modes are the older modes then this does not agree with the Gondorian origin of the tehtar-mode for Sindarin - the Beleriandic full mode would then be older. One also wonders about the timeline - where did the Beleriand mode come from? As apparent from When twenty years of the sun had passed, Fingolfin King of the Noldor made a great feast (...) at this feast the tongue of the Grey-Elves was most spoken by the Noldor.(SIL), the Noldor spoke Sindarin a mere 20 solar years after their arrival. It's certainly reasonable to assume that they did write and make notes - but if they used a full mode for this initially, Tolkien's statement about the development of full modes from tehtar-modes doesn't make any sense. On the other hand, it would be natural for the Noldor to use a 'general phonetic alphabet' to write down a language they just discovered.

There is more: The similarities between the Ring Inscription DTS7 and the English title text DTS5 are striking (and indeed the presentation on Amanye Tenceli groups them into the same mode). However, the Ring inscription is described by Gandalf as [t]he letters are Elvish, of an ancient mode, but the language is that of Mordor. Note the position of the 'but' which introduces the contrast - both the letters and the ancient mode are Elvish, only the language is that if Mordor (otherwise the statement about the mode would follow 'but'). Note also that Frodo could not read the letters (he doesn't say 'I cannot make out the language', he says 'I cannot read the fiery letters' - presumably he would have been familiar with a Westron/General Purpose mode of his age. But if the letters represent an ancient Elvish mode, it would be natural to assume that it is again the 'general phonetic alphabet' as it can readily be applied to the Black Speech. Also Gandalf characterizes it as 'ancient'. This is a strong statement - recall that the scripts and letters were all at the time of great antiquity. Thus, the mode must be ancient as compared with other modes - a descendant of a general mode as developed by Fëanor would fit this description rather well. Isildur's account It is fashioned in an elven-script of Eregion, for they have no letters in Mordor for such subtle work again raises the question of the precise meaning of 'script' - however, since it is explicitly contrasted with the lack of proper 'letters' in Mordor, it would seem that it does not refer to the mode here but rather to the elaborate shape of the letters.

Thus, the idea of an ancient, general-purpose mode which was, among other things, also initially applied to the writing of Sindarin does a good job in accounting for these facts which are not easily explained by a tehtar-mode of Gondorian origin. Its application would be seen most clearly from the Ring Inscription, and undoing the changes which Tolkien especially mentions for the Black Speech and disregarding all sounds which are not needed for Sindarin would give an idea of its nature.

Over time, the mode could have reached 'full alphabetical development' and led to the Mode of Beleriand. However, in contact with the Númenóreans a 'general use' mode would again be useful for the writing of Adûnaic which may then be the first mode the Númenóreans learned, explaining the existence of a tehtar-mode for Westron. Again, this mode may have reached 'full alphabetical development', and as we will see later there are English texts in a full mode attested outside LOTR.

Considering other sources

The case for a mannish origin

The first bit of interesting evidence not found in LOTR is the King's Letter version DTS49. This text shows Sindarin written in a tehtar-mode, but by virtue of Aragorn being the author, it is clearly not associated with an Elvish usage, and it is also consistent with the Westron-mode alluded to in Appendix E.

Even more striking is the evidence from DTS58. The Mode of Beleriand is here denoted as the antique S[indarin] mode shown on the gates of Moria whereas the tehtar-mode is described as the general use (applicable to both S[indarin] and Q[uenya]) of the period of the tale, i.e. the tehtar-mode is explicitly identified as the younger mode whereas the Mode of Beleriand is 'ancient'. This would argue a revision of the idea of the development of full modes from older tehtar-modes which were 'still in use', and if we accept this revision, then major arguments against a mannish origin of a tehtar-mode are removed and Tolkien's description of 'general use (...) of the period of the tale' rather points to an all-purpose mode as used by men.

This interpretation is strengthened by Appendix D of 'Quendi and Eldar'. Recall that according to this source full writing was already developed in Valinor and brought to Middle-Earth, thus since the Noldor found the diacritic method of indicating vowels (...) inconvenient for writing Sindarin, they would have used this full mode from the beginning, making it the most probable origin of the Mode of Beleriand.

Thus, Tolkien's re-interpretation seems to be that indeed the tehtar-writing of Sindarin and Westron (and in this mode also Quenya) represents a rather recent development maybe typical for Gondor, clearly associated with Gondor. There may still be Fëanor's original 'general use' mode which can account for the Ring inscription, but the crucial difference is that there's no need to assume that the Elves ever applied it to Sindarin, as they did have a full mode available to do so.

The case for an Elvish origin

Once DTS58 and Appendix D of 'Quendi and Eldar' are accepted as a revision of the ideas in LOTR, it is very difficult to make a good case for an Elvish origin of the mode, Tolkien is rather explicit in 'general use (...) of the period of the tale' and it is hard to get around it without dismissing it outright as divergent from what is said in LOTR.

If however these two points are dismissed as divergent from the 'canonical' information in LOTR, the evidence from the King's Letter still allows for a case: First, while Aragorn was King of Gondor, he grew up and received his education among Elves in Rivendell. Thus, while it is reasonable to assume that he was familiar with whatever mode was used in Gondor, he was clearly not limited to such a mode. The choice of the mode would be more determined by what Sam Gamgee was able to read under these conditions. Since there is no special reason to assume that Sam was familiar with any mode of Gondor, it seems that if at all this argues for the King's Letter to be in some kind of 'general use' mode. Clearly, the usage of a tehtar-mode for Sindarin next to a full mode for English (Westron) could be seen as the Elvish text being written in an ancient, formal way - the letter itself is rather formal.

It is also clear that Aragorn story-internally did not write 6 versions of the letter, but Tolkien in any case would have had to decide for one of them. Thus, story-internally, a Sindarin letter written in a tehtar-mode may never have existed at all and only the full mode may have been present. But in the end Tolkien of course did not include any version of the King's Letter into LOTR.


As we have seen, the most likely answer to the question of the origin and useage of a tehtar-mode for Sindarin depends on what material is included into the analysis. This is not an uncommon situation - Tolkien's ideas with regard to both linguistic and historic matters in Middle-Earth were in constant flux, and the analysis just reflects this fact. In all cases, what emerges as most likely possibility is a 'general use' mode rather than one dedicated to the use of Sindarin, but in LOTR this would seem to be an ancient mode, quite possibly developed by Fëanor whereas in a later revision Tolkien's intention seems to be that it is a relatively recent mode, quite possibly of mannish origin.

There is little hard evidence to link this mode specifically to Gondor - while it can be established that a man of Gondor would have used such a mode, the fact that Tolkien himself calls it 'general use' and the fact that Sam Gamgee was supposed to be able to read the King's Letter letter point towards a more widespread usage. In that sense, a name like 'Mode of Gondor' would seem misleading.There's also not a good case for a specific 'Noldorin mode for Sindarin' - as pointed out above, it seems more likely that we may deal with the application of a general-use mode to the specific case of Sindarin, although this general use mode may be of Noldorin origin.

However, given all that, there seems little point in dissuading people from using a tehtar-mode for Sindarin inscriptions on the grounds that this would be not an Elvish usage - it may well be that in Tolkien's concept at the time LOTR was written, this was a beautiful and ancient Elvish mode, and even after the revision, the fact that the loremasters found the tehtar-writing of Sindarin 'inconvenient' does not imply that Elves would never have written Sindarin in such a mode.

The truth of the matter is complicated, but with patient examination of the evidence, anyone can make up his own mind what ideas to prefer.


I would like to acknowledge extensive discussion with "Mach", Florian "Lothenon" Dombach and "Pengolodh" which produced the the majority of the material and many of the arguments presented in this article.

Thorsten Renk

Back to the index