May 2017

The Fan’s Guide to Neo-Sindarin, by Fiona Jallings, is now out. Here’s where you can buy it. It’s about Neo-Sindarin.


This is partly a Yonagu Books production: I edited the book and did the book design. But I enjoyed the book a lot and I think most conlangers would.

Tolkien is the greatest of conlangers, and one of the most frustrating. He has an effortless good taste that few of us can match.

I goth ’wîn drega o gwen sui ’wath drega o glawar!
the enemy our flees from us like shadow flees from sunlight
Our enemy flees from us like a shadow flees from sunlight!

You get the feeling that every word has been carefully hand-crafted and polished for decades, probably because it has. He was a linguist, knew his Indo-European and sound changes inside out, and knew how to make a language seem familiar yet with few outright borrowings. The feel of his languages is so natural that it’s become a cliché. (If you’re planning an orcish language, I advise you not to imitate the Black Speech.)

What he couldn’t do for the life of him was finish a language, or write a grammar. He kept messing with things, and he never properly explained even some of the basics. Quenya is in pretty good shape, but Sindarin is woefully underspecified.

That’s where Neo-Sindarin comes in. It’s an attempt by multiple people to finish the language, at least to the point of usability.  There are glaring holes— entire tenses or lines of paradigms, the copula, the pronominal system, just aren’t complete. It would be a little grotesque to make up words to fill things out, and the Neo-Sindarinists don’t do that. They scour the published texts and the slowly accumulating extra material; they extrapolate carefully from Proto-Elvish or from early drafts of Noldorin.

Because so much material has been published only in the last few years, Fiona’s book is pretty much state of the art. It’s a textbook (with exercises), organized in such a way that it can serve as a reference grammar.  You can learn Neo-Sindarin or just learn how it works. It’s also an annotated introduction to the reconstruction process; you can see exactly what was reconstructed, and by whom, and what that’s based on. And it’s lively, or at least as lively as a language textbook can be.

There are also sections on (e.g.) naming and cosmology that remind us that Tolkien was not only a linguist, but a medievalist. The elves are more different from modern humans than many an sf alien.

For me, the most interesting bit was peeking behind the curtain into Tolkien’s study as he conlangs. As I’ve been studying Sanskrit, it’s fascinating to see glimpses of Indo-European poke out in Elvish, such as umlaut and multiple verb stems.

In Sindarin, Tolkien made extensive— really extensive— use of mutations, as in Celtic (and these are not dissimilar to Sanskrit’s sandhi).  There are half a dozen types of mutation, and they make for patterns like this:

drambor – a fist
i dhrambor – the fist
in dremboer – the fists

The article i, you see, triggers vocalic mutation, while the plural in triggers nasal mutation. Often mutation takes on a syntactic role: e.g. only the presence of mutation distinguishes the structure i ’wend bain “the maiden is beautiful” from i ’wend vain “the beautiful maiden”. (Bain is the un-mutated form.)

Sindarin has particularly complex pluralization rules, yet they go back to a very simple rule: add –i to the end. Only the i triggers two separate sound changes, one affecting potentially every vowel in the word, the other moving the –i into the last syllable (and causing some changes there).  And for some words you need to know the ancient form.

Beginning conlangers often want to make simpler languages, Esperanto-style; but later on we usually get a taste for complexity. But merely being weird or randomly irregular is not interesting. Sindarin is a master class in getting complexity out of some fairly simple ideas.

And also, you know, in finishing your grammar. Tolkien had the reworking bug; he was one of those people who can’t stop fiddling with his creation. But really, people, take a sheet of paper and write out all your pronouns.

The other area where most conlangers could learn from Tolkien is in the lexicon. Creating words, he was in his element. This is the opposite of machine-generating a word list and assigning each an English meaning. His words have a history going back to Proto-Elvish and interesting derivations, and they all sound good.

Anyway, I hope you have a wide collection of natlang grammar and a few conlangs; Fiona’s book is a great addition to that part of the shelf.

Just finished The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan (2015)– an ambitious, disappointing book.

At times I tried to imagine the author’s elevator pitch. It doesn’t match the subtitle: it starts with Alexander the Great, so it’s already leaving out half of history. It barely covers Africa or the Americas. It’s very roughly about “East-West relations”, mostly involving trade, though it’s not very strong on China or India. It more or less focuses on the countries at the crossroads of Eurasia: the Middle East, Persia, Central Asia– only it never really tells their stories coherently. It sort of promises to retell European history with a focus on how it involved those regions, but then it has long detours into pretty traditional European history and contemporary US politics.

The last chapter talks about sudden evidence of wealth and grandiose architecture in Central Asia… but doesn’t bother to explain where it came from. The previous chapters were a quick retread of recent history in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran. He states that ancient history from the Silk Road on illuminates present concerns… but falls far short of demonstrating how. It is relevant to understand the early history of Islam, and he does go over that, but earlier chapters on, say, early Christianity east of Syria don’t tell us much about why they’re building spectacular airports in Astana, besides the wan truisms that trade is important and the lifestyle of rich countries affects people thousands of miles away.

There was probably a better book buried in here, but it needed a lot more focus and a more consistent theme. An out-and-out history of Persia and Central Asia, for instance, probably would have covered what he wanted to talk about, with far more coherence and depth. It can certainly be argued that Westerners could learn more about this part of the world… but for long chapters he ignores it himself, instead giving resumes of Viking raids, or Hitler’s mountain retreat, or the Spanish conquest of Mexico, or Zheng He’s expeditions.

This isn’t to say it’s terrible. Any traipse through history is likely to turn up something new, and he does have some interesting stories and theories. I did find the bits about early Christianity interesting; the link between the EIC and the American Revolution is a good point for my book; he also mentions that the Islamic concern with the direction of Mecca stimulated advances in geometry and astronomy. Which is a good reminder for conworlders: seemingly trivial bits of doctrine can have unexpected and unintended secular effects.

If you don’t know much about early Islam, this would probably be a good introduction… though there are better ones.

A couple more complaints, though.  One, the maps are less than helpful. He likes maps with lots of arrows showing movements of things, and the results are hard to read.

Plus, I think he’s too credulous about reports of riches and high living. Whether today or millennia ago, big buildings and the lifestyle of the rich get a lot of attention. But these are perfectly compatible with near-starvation for the 9/10 of the population that works the fields. Azerbaijan, whose airport so impresses Frankopan, and which has significant oil reserves, has a per capita income less than that of Peru. He also talks about the luxuries of ancient Rome (most of them imported from the east). But other books I’ve read emphasize that, the mass of people lived on the edge of disaster, and urban life never put forth deep roots anywhere west or north of Italy– which is why the west couldn’t survive the shocks of civil war and barbarian wandering. Similarly, his accounts of Silk Road traders neglect to mention that the actual number of merchants and the amount of goods privately traded was pretty small.




I finally got around to something I wanted to do for awhile… find out what some of the signs on the Hanamura map in Overwatch say.

In the arcade, there are intriguing posters of a lanky woman, not D.Va, who may have a mecha of her own.


Super マシン2 = Super Machine 2

音樂! = Ongaku! = Music!


ルパンター X = Pantā X = Hunter X

パワーガー  = Pawāgāru = Power Girl

The sign on the door of the outside door of the castle:


Hanamura-jō atochi. Tachiiri kinshi.

Site of Hanamura castle. No trespassing.

The Rikimaru shop is labeled, not very excitingly,

ラーメン屋 Rāmen-ya = Ramen shop

Finally, the van outside the arcade says

うまさ世界 デリバリ = Umasa sekai – deribari = Tastiness World – Delivery

Thanks to alert reader Hirofumi Nagamura for corrections!

Edit: And also for providing translations for these signs inside the castle:


Left: 七転八起 = Shi chi ten hakki = “Fall seven times, rise eight times”— i.e. “Don’t be discouraged by multiple setbacks.”

Right: 竜の心で気合全開 = Ryū no kokoro de ki ai zen kai = “With a dragon’s heart, go all out with your fighting spirit.”