The Q(u)enya Past Tense

Abbreviations used:
LOTR: The Lord of the Rings
SIL: The Silmarillion
QL: The Qenya Lexicon
LR: The Lost Road
WJ: The War of the Jewels
SD: Sauron Defeated
RS: The Return of the Shadow
PM: The Peoples of Middle-Earth
QL: The Qenya Lexicon
EQG: The Early Qenya Grammar
PE: Parma Eldalamberon
VT: Vinyar Tengwar


Of all tenses in the various stages of Tolkien's Q(u)enya we know most of the past tense (besides the Aorist/present tense of course in which verbs in Tolkien's writings are most often listed). If an additional verb form is found in a wordlist, it almost always is a past tense, rarely a participle. Presumably, the reason is that in Tolkien's concept of the Elvish languages the past tense, unlike other tenses, reveals the development of the verb from its primitive root. As far as we know, the Quenya future is marked by a simple suffix (usually -uva). A tense marked by a suffix is commonly called a 'weak form', and such weak forms often can be predicted from the present tense if one knows the correct suffix.

In contrast, past tense forms in Tolkien's languages show a complex mixture of weak and strong forms (i.e. forms for which the verbal stem is modified), and in order to understand the latter often knowledge of the primitive root of the verb is necessary. Within Tolkien's fictional environment of himself being a researcher of the Elvish language, those past tenses would be prominent clues allowing him to understand the development from primitive roots to final Quenya.

For the student of Quenya, this makes the past tense rather difficult to master, as we can often classify verbs according to their past tense formation but not predict reliably how other verbs (of which we only know the present tense) would form the same past tense. It is the purpose of this essay to investigate the Quenya past tense and its development over time by presenting all relevant evidence from different periods, starting from the Qenya Lexicon 1914-1918 to past tense forms appearing in late texts around 1970 and making comparisons where we can trace a verb through time. It will become evident that while some ideas remained remarkably stable over the years, details of the system were in continuous change and Tolkien changed his mind back and forth about some forms.

The complexity of the Elvish past tense formation is a remarkable feature of Tolkien's languages, contributing distinctly to their 'real' flair by demonstrating that Tolkien did not only invent languages but also their whole history.

The Qenya Lexicon

The Qenya Lexicon (QL) published in Parma Eldalamberon 12 is the first published document in which Tolkien's Finnish/Latin/Greek-inspired language Qenya (later Quenya) appears. It dates from about 1915-1918 and contains more than 200 past tenses of verbs which allow a very detailed picture on Tolkien's early ideas with regard to past tense formation. However, many more verbs occur in the lexicon for which no past tense is given.

Based on their derivation, we may group the Qenya verbs roughly into two groups: Primary verbs, derived directly from the root, usually with a repetition of the root vowel, cf. e.g. siqi- 'to sigh' from the root SIQI (PE12:84), in some cases also including vocalization of consonant roots, cf. e.g. sulp- 'to lick' from SLPL (PE12:84) and derived verbs which show a derivational suffix in addition to the root, often -ya or -ta. In some cases, the distinction is not really clear-cut. A verb like lampa- 'hit, beat' (PE12:51) from a root LAMA could be seen as being derived by a strengthening of the root m > mp in addition to loss of the repeated root vowel and a suffix -pa. We will list such verbs for which is evidence of some development from the bare root as derived, although this may not be correct in all cases.

Verbs in the QL are not listed according to a standard convention. Rather, verb forms in present tense are sometimes hyphenated (indicating that they represent a stem), sometimes unhyphenated (the gloss then often suggests an infinitive) and sometimes inflected for person. Here, two different endings -(i)r and -(i)n occur. Tolkien seems to have changed the assignment of these endings to the persons throughout the creation of the QL, we find e.g. elin 'I drive' (PE12:35) but mokir 'I hate' (PE12:62) and usin 'he escapes' (PE12:98). The situation is analyzed in greater detail in PE14:23f by Patrick Wynne and Christopher Gilson. One past tense is given inflected for person, we find pilty- 'to strike' pa.t. paltye '*struck' paltien '*I/he struck' (PE12:74), indicating that the usual past tense form serves also as stem form, however shifts like y > i occur in the presence of an ending.

Therefore, the following conventions are adopted in the following: Since the present tense is mostly hyphenated, we will list all verbs as stems (without further note where hyphens have been added), where a stem is deduced it will be marked with a # and the original form found in the QL will be listed alongside. All past tense forms will be listed as 3rd person/personless forms under the assumption that (occasional) hyphens can be dropped.

General remarks

It is not uncommon for a Qenya verb to have more than one past tense, for a fair share of verbs two forms are given (usually without indication of a preference or one form marked as archaic), cf. nesta- 'to feed' pa.t. nēse, nesse (PE12:66), however three distict past tenses are never observed.

We have one example where the past tense is different if the verb takes a transitive or an intransitive meaning, cf. olto- 'to increase, multiply' pa.t. olonte (tr.) ōle (intr.) (PE12:69), however this is not usual: Although for a number of verbs transitive and intransitive meanings are given in the translation, a single past tense is indicated, for example tilt- 'to make slope, incline' (tr.) 'decline' (intr.) pa.t. talte (PE12:93).

The one common marker of past tense is a final vowel -e, it is observed in almost all examples. In addition to this, past tense is marked in a number of different ways, among them (1) n-strengthening (nasal infixion), (2) vowel-length strengthening, (3) 'apparent' ablaut and (4) suffix between stem and ending (cf. Tolkien's somewhat later notes to Qenya verb paradigms PE14:26). Especially for derived verbs, there is also the possibility that a (partial) loss of the derivational ending takes place.

Primary verbs with vowel lengthening

Lengthening of the stem vowel is the chief mechanism for forming the past tense for stem verbs. In addition to the lengthening, the final vowel of the verb is changed to -e in past tense. This allows the tense distinction in cases in which the stem vowel of the verb is long in present tense already, cf. qīni- 'speak high, squeak' pa.t. qīne (PE12:77). Lengthening is usually indicated by a macron, in some cases an acute is used instead, cf. kumin 'I pile up' pa.t. kúme (PE12:49).

If we neglect the repetition of the stem vowel in present tense and sort verbs by the last consonant of the stem, vowel lengthening occurs for all roots with final single consonant except one example in -w- where nasal infixion (see below) is seen. It seems to be the chief past tense forming mechanism for stems ending in -k-, -l-, -m-, -r- and -v-. Most notably, all 24 stem verbs with -r- form their past tense by vowel lengthening.

Derived verbs with vowel lengthening

Past tense formation by lengthening of the stem vowel is also possible in derived verbs. In this case, the derivational ending is lost and only the bare stem appears with a final -e as past tense marker. When the verbal suffix triggered a consonant assimilation, this assimilation is reversed when the suffix is lost in past tense, cf. konta- 'to roll up' pa.t. kōme (PE12:47) from the root KOMO.

Primary verbs with nasal infixion

Nasal infixion is presumably the result of an appended syllable -ne with subsequent assimilations of the stem consonant. Neglecting a vowel reduplication in present tense, we may identify nasal infixion for stems ending in -k- > -nke (with past tense form), -l- > -lle, -m- > -mbe , -n- > -nne, -p- > -mpe, -q- > -nqe/-nge, -s- > -sse, -t- > -nte (-tte), -v- > -mbe and -w- > -ngwe. Based on the number of examples, nasal infixion seems to be the chief past tense formation for stems with final consonants -p-, -q-, -t- and possibly -w-.

Primary verbs with nasal infixion and consonant changes

In some cases, nasal infixion leads to a change of the final consonant of the verbs as seen in present tense. This may simply be the reappearance of the original root, as e.g. for nikte- 'to whiten, cleanse' pa.t. niqente (PE12:66) from NIQI, but in other cases this must represent a true shift of the consonant, especially for roots with Ř, as e.g. apparent from liri- 'to sing' pa.t. linde (PE12:54) from LIŘI.

We thus find the two chief groups:

r > d changes:

k > q changes:

Primary verbs with suffix -ne

If a primary verb ends with a consonant cluster, neither stem vowel lengthening (impossible before a consonant cluster) nor nasal infixion (no 3-consonant clusters are allowed) can mark the past tense. In this case, usually the final vowel of the present tense is preserved and the past tense suffix -ne is appended. Alternatively, the past tense may may simply be made distinct by only a shift of the final vowel -V > -e (see below), cf. fanta- 'fall asleep, go dazed, swoon' pa.t. fante, fantane (PE12:37).

Rarely, rimary verbs with a long vowel in present tense may also form their past tense with a suffix -ne - in this case the length may shift, cf. nūru- 'growl (of dogs), grumble' pa.t. nurūne (PE12:68). In other cases, the stem vowel is only lengthened in past tense but a suffix -ne is added in addition, cf. qelu- 'well up' pa.t. qelūne (PE12:76).

Derived verbs with suffix -ne

A lot of derived verbs forms the past tense by means of the suffix -ne, however this is by no means the only or even the most common way of forming past tense for this class of verbs. Note that verbs formed with the suffix -ya form a separate class to be discussed in the next paragraph. In some (rare) cases, a vowel lengthening in past tense is observed, cf. lopeta- 'to amble, lop' pa.t. lopetāne (PE12:56), however this doesn't seem to represent the normal development.

Derived verbs with suffix -ne and (partial) loss of derivational ending

In some cases derived verbs loose part of the derivational ending when the suffix -ne is appended in past tense. This is most prominent for verbs ending in -ya which in combination with the past tense suffix becomes -ine, i.e. a is lost and y > i occurs. However, there are two examples where the whold suffix -ta is lost, cf. poita- 'to cleanse' pa.t. poine (PE12:75) and saita- (PE12:82), the latter has the alternative form saya- in present tense already. All in all, this class of verbs is small.

Nasal infixion with reappearance of a stem vowel

There are verbs in which, judging from the present tense, nasal infixion cannot act since a 3-consonant cluster would be formed otherwise. In particular, derived verbs with the ending -ta often lead to this situation. An example is the verb rakta- 'to pile, hoard, amass' (PE12:78) from the root RAKA, quite evidently formed by loss of the final root vowel and the common ending -ta. One might expect that in this situation past tense is formed by an ending -ne, but in fact what happens is that the last stem vowel reappears in past tense, i.e. past tense is formed as if the verb would be *rakata-, and for this nasal infixion on the ending can be done, leading to rakante (ibid). This occurs almost exclusively for verbs with final consonant clusters involving a -t- in second position and leads to a characteristic past tense ending -nte. In fact, this formation appears to be so strong that we see past tenses like nornoronte of a verb nornoro- 'to run on' (PE12:67) for which the present tense shows no indication of a derivational ending -ta. If the first part of the final consonant cluster has undergone a shift, e.g. as q > k in lekte- 'to join together' (PE12:53) from the root LEQE, the original consonant can be restored in the process of root vowel reappearance and nasal infixion.

Change of final vowel

There is another class of verbs with a final consonant cluster which behaves in a different way. This class of verbs shows a nasalized stop before the final vowel. If a repetition of the stem vowel would occur, nasal infixion of the ending would be possible but would lead to the same nasalized stop again, e.g. panta- might have a development to **panante. However, this doesn't actually occur (presumably Tolkien didn't like the repetition of the nasal); instead the past tense of these verbs is simply marked by changing their final vowel into -e, if the verb has a present tense ending in -e already the past tense is not distinct.

Suffix -sine

Verbs which end in present tense in -tya have a strong tendency to change into -(k)sine in past tense. This is presumably nothing but the ending -ne combined with a shift of the preceding y > i and t > (k)s. Occasionally other past tenses are seen for these verbs as well though.

Suffix -tine

Verbs ending in -sya, -nya or -rya undergo a development similar to the previous class: In past tense, consonant changes lead to a suffix -tine, which can again be decomposed as the usual past tense suffix -ne and subsequent consonant shifts.

Shortened past tenses

In few cases, especially for verbs with the endings -kta, -hta, the past tense is much shortened. Often a final vowel different from -e is seen.

Past tense with augment

In two cases the past tense is marked by an additional augment, i.e. a prefixed vowel. Since this is in no case the stem vowel, we may tentatively assume that it is the same past tense marker e usually seen at the verb ending.


In one case, the first consonant of the verb stem is altered in past tense to avoid a repetition of m like map- > **mampe. This seems to be an extremely rare phenomenon though and in this case is due to a blending of the roots MAPA and NAPA.

Past tense of verbs with vocalized consonants

The Qenya Lexicon contains a number of verbs which are derived from purely consonantic roots. In such cases, the verbs show vowels originating from the vocalization of the sonant consonants of the root. However, these vowels are not as 'stable' as a true root vowel. This is readily apparent from the past tense: Past tenses of this verb class are very consistently formed by a change of the first verbal vowel into -a- and the second vowel into the standard past tense marker -e (with one exception: the verb kilkin 'I gather, reap' shows past tense kalka (PE12:47). No other vowel lengthening or past tense suffix is seen for these verbs. Occasionally, this way of forming past tense seems to have spread to other verbs containing vowels in the root by analogy, cf. for example qingi- 'to twang, thrum' pa.t. qange (PE12:77) from the root QINGI.

Various other developments

Finally, we have attested past tenses of verbs which can't be easily grouped into one of the above classes. They may not be irregular from Tolkien's point of view, but we list them here for the sake of completeness without further analysis.

The Early Qenya Grammar

The Early Qenya grammar was written some time after the Qenya lexicon. It can be dated 1920-25, most likely around 1923. Among a very detailed account of the grammar of Qenya is also a page of examples of verbs in past tense (PE14:58), this is the chief source of our knowledge of the past tense at times somewhat later stage of the language.

There is some development from the scenario in the Qenya Lexicon visible. Most prominent is the appearance of a past tense suffix -ie, for example kapa- 'to leap' shows nasal infixion with this ending, leading to the past tense kampie. (PE14:58).

The past tense formation is described by Tolkien in PE14:56 as The past stem is obtained by the suffix -ye, -ie or -ne, but -ie (the commonest) is normally accompanied by stem strengthening consisting of (1) a-infixion, (2) n-infixion, (3) vowel lengthening (this last perhaps largely an analogical extension from the ā resulting in many stems (...). Thus, for the most part the Early Qenya Grammar shows groups similar to those in the Qenya lexicon.

Like in the QL, a verb isn't limited to a single past tense. Alternative forms are frequent, and verbs with as many as three different past tenses are seen, cf. tantila- 'hop' pa.t. tantille, tantilane, tantilante (PE14:58).

Primary verbs with vowel lengthening

For a number of stem verbs, lengthening of the stem vowel in addition to a suffix -ie marks past tense.

Primary verbs with nasal infixion

Nasal infixion is the second important stem modification to mark past tense for stem verbs.

Derived verbs with nasal infixion

With nasal infixion acting on derived verbs, we see the same two possibilities as in the QL: Either the nasal infixion happens on the derivational suffix (mainly -ta), leading to an ending -nte and when needed the introduction of an additional vowel between stem and ending to avoid a 3-consonant cluster, or the derivational ending is lost and the verb forms past tense like a stem verb. Both possibilities are seen in the small data sample.

Primary verbs with suffix -ne

At least in the case of the verb kar- 'to make' we can reasonably deduce that the past tense is not the outcome of a nasal strengthening of the stem but rather simply a suffix -ne - if karne were the result of a stem modification, the final suffix should rather be -ie as seen in other cases of nasal infixion.

Derived verbs with suffix -ne

For most derived verbs shown in the chart, past tense is formed by a suffix -ne, usually added behind ther derivational ending.

Derived verbs with suffix -ne and (partial) loss of derivational ending

In one case, the derivational ending -ta seen in present tense disappears when a suffix -ne is added in past tense.

Derived verbs with suffix -sine

As in the QL, derived verbs with an ending -tya lead in past tense by sound changes to an ending -sine.

Past tenses of vocalized consonant stems

Like in the QL, there is a class of verbs derived from consonant roots in which one of the consonants is vocalized. Apart from the change in the past tense suffix -e > -ie, the verbs showing 'apparent ablaut' in the Early Qenya Grammar form their past tense just as seen in the QL. Note also the shifts -lt- > -ls- and -nt- > -ns- occuring in past tense, presumably triggered by the long ending since it does not occur for the present tense suffix -e.

Irregular developments

There are (again) a few formations which cannot easily be classified. In all cases, they involve alternative past tenses, i.e. at least one of the forms given agrees with Tolkien's general outline and the classes defined above.

Comparison with earlier forms

The overlap between verbs found in the QL and in the EQG is not great, but we can compare at least a few examples. kapta- 'to startle' pa.t. kāpe (PE12:45) found in the QL has a later cognate in kapa- 'leap' pa.t. kampie pr.t. kapta (PE14:58).

#kar- 'to make, do' pa.t. káre (PE12:45) reappears with a different past tense as kar- 'to make' pa.t. karne pr.t. kare (PE14:58).

As apparent from the hardly changed example sulp- 'to lick, sup' pa.t. salpe (PE12:84) which is found as slp- 'drink' pa.t. salpie pr.t. sulpe (PE14:58), Tolkien's ideas with regard to the 'apparent ablaut' past tense seem hardly changed.

Finally, map- 'seize, take' pa.t. nampe (PE12:59) reappears as mapa- 'to seize' pa.t. nampie pr.t. mape (PE14:58) which shows the same pattern of dissimilation.

All in all, the two revised forms indicate that Tolkien somewhat reduced the relevance of past tense formation by lengthening of the stem vowel - in one case, nasal infixion, in the other a suffix -ne were introduced instead. The change of the past tense of kar- is particularly interesting as in the QL vowel lengthening was almost the only way of forming past tense for verbs with a final consonant -r- whereas the new choice of a nasal element is clearly a significant development. However, in the discussion below it will become apparent that Tolkien did not make his final decision at this point.

Qenya of 'The Lost Road'

Several past tenses of Qenya verbs occur in 'The Lost Road'. However, since this is not a grammatical essay or a wordlist, past tenses occur usually isolated, and we don't know for sure what the present tense of the verb is like (considering that derived verbs in the QL may shed the derivational ending when the past tense is formed, a past tense does not uniquely identify the present tense of a verb). Thus, in the following list we tentatively add present tenses as they can be deduced or are found in other sources written at different times. For the same reason, we do not know if one of the verbs has an alternative past tense or not.

We have one verb in past tense given in both base form and inflected for person: káre 'made' (LR:72) becomes in 3rd person plural kárielto 'they made' (LR:72) involving a 3rd person plural suffix -lto. By comparison with ataltane 'down-fell' (LR:47) and lantier 'they fell' (LR:47) we can deduce the basic past tense ending is -e and becomes -ie- as soon as a (plural?) ending is added.

Primary verbs with vowel lengthening

For stem verbs (in the few examples with final consonants -l, -r lengthening of the stem vowel (here marked with an acute) is observed.

Primary verbs with nasal infixion

In one stem verb with a final consonant -t nasal infixion is seen.

Derived verbs with nasal infixion and (partial) loss of derivational ending

For derived verbs with the ending -ya, the loss of the ending is attested in past tense. Note that #lenna- (such a form is attested in the Etymologies in LR:368, VT45:27) is derived from a root LED, thus the apparent consonant change in the past tense is simply a restoration of the original root vowel. Likewise, comparison with the Etymologies (LR:396) would suggest that #ulle is the intransitive past tense.

Derived verbs with suffix -ne

The suffix -ne is seen as a means to form past tense for a derived verb.

Derived verbs with suffix -e

As in the QL, there are verbs with a nasalized stop in the root (here presumably DANT) for which vowel lengthening is impossible before a consonant cluster and nasal infixion or a suffix -ne likewise lead to three consonant clusters. In such a case, the change of the final vowel (here -a- > -e may still mark past tense.

With a notable exception to be discussed later, the Qenya past tenses in 'The Lost Road' have much in common with the forms found in the Etymologies.

The Etymologies

The Etymologies, written about 1938-40, is the last document published so far that contains something like a Quenya wordlist. However, the amount of Quenya verbs found in the Etymologies is smaller than what is seen in the QL, and only for a few verbs past tenses are given. Nevertheless, we have enough examples to see that a pattern quite similar to the one seen in the QL reappears in which a number of different ways exist how the past tense can be formed. Likewise, verbs are not limited to one past tense, we find an example in which alternative past tenses exist without apparent differences in meaning, cf. onta- 'to beget, create, pa.t. óne, ontane (LR:379) and one in which the past tense is different for transitive and intransitive use of the verb, cf. ulya- 'to pour' pa.t. intr. ulle tr. ulyane (LR:396).

Primary verbs with vowel lengthening

Past tense by lengthening of the stem vowel occurs in the Etymologies but is comparatively rare - only for the two variants of the negative verb is it attested.

Derived verbs with vowel lengthening

Vowel lengthening is attested for derived verbs, just like in the QL this leads to the loss of the derivational ending (and possible subsequent consonant changes).

Primary verbs with nasal infixion

Chiefly for verbs with stops as final consonant, but also (assuming this is nasal infixion and not an assimilated suffix -ne) for -l- nasal infixion appears to be the usual way of forming the past tense. In one case, a consonant change leading to the reappearance of the original root consonant (from RED) is seen:

Derived verbs with nasal infixion

There is one curious case of a derived verb ending in -ya where we find a form which could be nasal infixion for this ending under the assumption that an additional -i- was inserted as connecting vowel. This is the only place in which such a form occurs, a similar formation is for example not seen in the QL - cf. e.g. purya- 'to set fire to' pa.t. pustine (PE12:75).

Derived verbs with nasal infixion and (partial) loss of derivational ending

In another example of (presumably) nasal infixion for a derived verb ending in -ya the loss of the derivational ending is seen. Alternatively the form may be analyzed as a suffix -ne with subsequent assimilation -lne > -lle. lenna-, derived from the root LED, shows a change back to the original root consonant when in past tense.

Primary verbs with ending -ne

Chiefly for primary verbs with final consonant -r- but in one case also with -m- a suffix -ne is appended directly to the verb stem. This is very different from the scenario seen in the QL where vowel lengthening was by far the most common past tense marker for verbs with -r- but agrees with the past tense of kar- as outlined in the EQG.

Derived verbs with suffix -ne

For a number of derived verbs the past tense is formed by a suffix -ne without further changes of the verb.

Derived verbs with suffix -ne and (partial) loss of derivational ending

In relatively many cases (at least too many to call this an irregular development) a suffix -ne in past tense leads to a loss of the derivational ending of the verb. It has been suggested that this occurs regularly for intransitive verbs with a suffix -ya - based on the small corpus, this is certainly possible but can't be really confirmed. In other cases, nasal infixion is seen along with the loss of the ending -ya, cf. ulya- above. However, this would not agree with the later intransitive use of #ahya- (see below) where a past tense ahyane is found, assuming that #ahya- represents a derived verb.

Derived verbs with suffix -e

As in previous sources, for verbs with a nasalized stop as final consonant cluster (here a derived verb) there is the possibility that the past tense is only distinct by a change of the final vowel, here -a- > -e.

Special developments

The verb 'to know' is a special case - here the past tense is apparently formed with an inverted root IS-SI. This will be made more explicit below.

Late sources

Past tenses in sources later than the Etymologies are rare (and often part of sentences such that the present tense has to be inferred from elsewhere). For the sake of presenting a coherent list we will list all the forms as 'late sources', although this list encompasses forms from SD dating from about 1946 to the very last essay 'Eldarin Hands, Fingers and Numerals' from the 1968+ period. Thus, there is no reason to assume that this list represents a coherent system of past tense formation as it would be used in Tolkien's post-LOTR writings.

Primary verbs with vowel lengthening

Vowel lengthening is found for three stem verbs with final consonants -v, -r, -l (which also lead to vowel lengthening in th QL in may cases). However, two of the three examples date from the pre-LOTR period.

Derived verbs with vowel lengthening

While this group is rather small, there is an archaic form of 'to give' unchanged from the QL:

Primary verbs with nasal infixion

Nasal infixion is only rarely observed in late sources, among the examples we have it seems to be that stops as final root consonants lead preferentially to nasal infixion.

Derived verbs with nasal infixion

Nasal infixion on the derivational suffix -ta is said to be 'regular' for a verb of this type in the discussion of öante in WJ:366. It is somewhat unclear to what this class of verbs might refer to, but in addition with the example keante one might gues that verbs involving a diphthong or vowel followed by a single stop only might readily allow this pattern - note that all derived verbs with past tense -ne are of a different type and often involve a consonant cluster at the end. If that is true, the past tense sinte should be derived from *sita- involving a single stop, and indeed this seems to be implied in Tolkien's discussion of reversed roots where sinte is implied to be derived from such a development in VT48:25. In addition, for a number of verbs nasal infixion on the ending -ya is observed, resulting in an ending -nye paralleling -nte. Often, this ending is preceded by a repetition of the stem vowel, cf. sirinye, but it may also come from the derivational ending, cf. tenante. These variations may just represent different conceptual phases.

Primary verbs with suffix -ne

There are a few cases of attested primary verbs taking the ending -ne. In one case the underlying root is presumably KAB, an alternative form showing nasal infixion instead is attested, the suffixed form might then perhaps be interpreted as a later analogy.

Derived verbs with suffix -ne

The most common past tense found in late sources is the suffix -ne added to a derived verb. In most cases, the underlying verb is characterized by a final two consonant cluster.

In one case, the suffix is rather unexpected as the verb anta- is in other sources (also in the Sindarin form onen 'I gave' in LOTR) observed with a past tense by vowel lengthening:

Derived verbs with suffix -ne and (partial) loss of derivational ending

In several cases, suffixion of -ne leads to a loss of the derivational ending. In PE17:93 Tolkien remarks that loss of derivational ending and consequently strong past tenses occurs for (intransitive) verbs derived from primitive -tă whereas verbs derived from transitive -tā show a weak past tense with the suffix -ne appended to the suffix. This may explain at least part of the formations below:

Restored intervocalic ñ

In two cases, an intervocalic ñ present in earlier stages of the language but absent in the Quenya present tense is found restored in past tense (maybe by nasal infixion). The implication is that e.g. tëa would have been *teña in an earlier phase of language development. This seems to be a rare development:

Derived verbs with suffix -e

Even in very late texts, Tolkien briefly seemed to consider the idea that the shift -a- > -e would mark past tense. However, tente was subsequently rejected.

Special developments

In two cases, an inversion of the root or in other words a variation AW-WA and IS-SI can explain the formation of the past tense. In the case of ista-, this is explicitly confirmed in (VT48:25).

In a single case, a past tense marker -n- appears two times:


In some sense, the Quenya past tense was 'born' in its final shape. Virtually all of the ways of past tense formation seen in the corpus are already found in the QL, there was no substantial revision of the ideas since. In particular, some past tenses are unchanged from the QL to very late sources, cf. ista- 'to know' pa.t. sinte in PE12:43 and VT48:25 or kai- 'lie down' pa.t. kaine pr.t. kaita in PE14:58 with #kaita- 'to lie' pa.t. kaine, keante in VT48:12 - these seem to be the fundamental building blocks around which Tolkien's languages would develop.

Having said that, there are of course development in detail, for example the short appearace of a suffix -ie (instead of -e) in the Early Qenya grammar (which survived briefly in 'The Lost Road' in the presence of a suffix before it disappeared). Notably, the relative importance of the different ways of forming past tense is apparently changed from early to late sources: While vowel lengthening is relevant for a substantial amount of verbs in the QL (it is in fact the most common past tense formation found in this source), in the late sources it seems to be about as important as nasal infixion and in the Etymologies, clearly more examples with nasal infixion are found. However, the small number of attested examples in sources later than the Etymologies does not allow any firm conclusions as to what the regular pattern would be. It is however worth noting that Tolkien calls öante as past tense of auta- 'regular' for a verb of this type (WJ:366) from which naturally follows that there is a type of derived verbs which forms past tense regularly by means of nasal infixion, although most derived verbs among the attested late examples form past tense with a suffix -ne.

One past tense formation disappeared alltogether: the 'apparent ablaut'. This is evidently due to the fact that the Etymologies don't contain pure consonant roots, and since the verbs derived from vocalized consonants vanished from the vocabulary, so did their characteristic past tense formation.

There is some reason to assume that the past tense of stem verbs with a final consonant -r- was never worked out decisively. In the QL, all such verbs form past tense by vowel lengthening, best examplified by #kar- 'to make, do' pa.t. káre (PE12:45). But already in the EQG, this has been changed to a suffix -ne, cf. kar- 'to make' pa.t. karne pr.t. kare (PE14:58). In the Qenya of 'The Lost Road', the past tense form ohtakáre (LR:47) appears, suggesting a change of mind back to vowel lengthening. Yet in the Etymologies, all verbs with final consonant -r- for which we have a past tense take the suffix -ne (among them also #kar- 'to make, build' pa.t. karne in LR:362) with no alternative past tenses given. But about seven years later in the 'Notion Club Papers', ohtakáre (SD:246) re-emerges, indicating that if Tolkien indeed tried to settle the question in the Etymologies, he did not stick to the scenario outlined there.

Appendix A - the past tense within the Avallonian Fragments

Fragments of a language ('Avallonian') appearing in dreams and distant memories are a theme both in 'The Lost Road' and 'The Notion Club Papers'. Four different versions of the fragments are found, two in 'The Lost Road' and two in 'The Notion Club Papers'. The text of the fragments is very similar in all four versions, thus they offer an unique opportunity to study how Tolkien's ideas of the past tense evolved, to what degree earlier forms were taken over into later texts and what strategies he employed when the forms were not taken over.

The following table shows all relevant past tense forms of the four texts, the information from LR:47 and SD:246 already appeared in the main body of this article:

LR:56 LR:47 SD:310 SD:246
lende tūle túle túle
'came' 'came' 'came' 'came'
lantie lantier lantier > lantaner lantaner
'fell' 'they fell' 'they fell' 'fell'
ohtakárie ohtakāre ohtakāre ohtakáre
'war-made' 'war-made' 'war-made' 'war-made'
terhante terhante terhante > askante sakkante
'broke' 'broke' 'sunder-broke' 'rent'
lantier ullier ullier ullier
'fell' 'poured' 'they should pour' 'should flow'
atalante ataltane ataltane ataltane
'down-fell' 'down-fell' 'down-fell' 'fell down'

Some of the changes made evidently concern vocabulary, not past tense formation, and as such are not so interesting for the present study. These are lende > tūle, lantier > ullier or terhante > askante > sakkante. Other changes are minor, such as the choice of acute or macron to mark length. We are left with three more interesting changes.

First, note the change atalante > ataltane. Assuming that the present tense is #atalta-, the first form would represent nasal infixion on the derivational suffix with reappearing stem vowel whereas the second form is a simple suffix -ne. It has been speculated that this change could indicate Tolkien's intention to replace the more complicated past tenses by simple suffixes (possibly as analoguous formations). Nasal infixion for derived verbs in -ta is indeed absent in the Etymologies, but appears in later writings, so this particular instance of the replacement is probably not very significant.

The second observation concerns the fate of the past tense ending -ie. In the Early Qenya Grammar, this was quite regular as the most common suffix. This still appears to be the relevant scenario in the first draft of the fragments, as we find ohtakárie or lantie next to lantier, indicating that the suffix is relevant with and without ending. It is not surprising that #atalta- would still show an ending -e as nasal infixion for derived verbs in -ta doesn't lead to a past tense in -ie in the EQG, cf. lokta- pa.t. lokante (PE14:58) but the development for the nasal infixion past tenses lende and terhante is different from what is seen there.

However, in the next version of the fragments, both singular forms ending in -ie have disappeared, indicating that now -e was seen as the past tense vowel without the presence of pronominal endings. This is consistent with the past tense as shown in the Qenya Verb forms where we have e.g. tūle 'came' but tūlien, tūliendo 'he came' (PE14:28).

The first version of the fragments reappearing in the 'Notion Club Papers' is almost identical with the last version in 'The Lost Road', indicating that Tolkien essentially copied it. A first set of emendations then suggest that the forms needed to be made consistent with the Quenya grammar of 1946 - both remaining forms in -ie were dealt with. In the first case, lantier > lantaner introduced a suffix -ne.

The second case is more intersting, ullier was allowed to stand, but the gloss was changed from 'poured' to 'they should pour' re-interpreting the form as some kind of subjunctive (and thus not a past tense any more). Both these variants were then allowed to remain in the final version in which at last no past tense in -ie remains, consistent with the other later texts. Note however that the ending -ie was associated with the perfect tense in later Quenya, cf. utúlien 'I am come' (LOTR:967).


The work of the Parma Eldalamberon and Vinyar Tengwar editorial team is gratefully acknowledged - without it such a compilation of verb forms would be much more difficult to create. I have also occasionally made use of Helge Fauskanger's discussion of the Quenya past tense in his Quenya course. For valuable comments and additional insights I'd especially like to thank Roman Rausch, Helios de Rosario Martinez, Patrick Wynne and Helge Fauskanger.

Thorsten Renk

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