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.

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.”

I’m at the point in my book where I need some sample sentences in Hindi. If you (or a friend or relative) know Hindi and can translate them for me, please contact me. There’s a couple dozen or so.

(I have versions of them already, but they’re either copied from textbooks or they’re my attempt at modifications. I’d rather have a native speaker produce original ones.)

Also, it’d be helpful to have a short (one-paragraph) text in Hindi I can use as a sample text. It should be in the public domain.

I know you were all waiting to hear what the king said. Here’s a bit more of the passage. The order of the lines is Devanāgarī, transliteration (with sandhi), pre-sandhi words, glosses, English.
एतच्चिंतयित्वा स राजा पंडितसभां कारितवान् ।

etacciṃtayitvā sa rājā paṃḍita-sabhāṃ kāritavān

etad cintayitvā sas rājā paṇḍita-sabhām kāritavān

this-s.nom.n think-gerundive that-s.nom.m wise-assembly-s.acc make-PassPart-caus-s.nom.m

Having considered these things, the King convened an assembly of wise men.

राजोवाच । भो भोः पंडिताः श्रूयतां ।

rājovāca bhobhoḥ paṃḍitāḥ śrūyatāṃ

rājā uvāca bhobhos paṇḍitās śrūyatām

The King said, “O wise men, let it be heard:
अस्ति कश्चिदेवंभूतो विद्वान्यो

asti kaś-cid-evaṃ-bhūto vidvān yo

asti kas-cid evam-bhūtas vidvān yas

be-PresPart-3s who-s.nom-ever such-s.nom.m sage-s.nom.m who-s.snom.m

Is there any sage among you who—
मम पुत्राणां

mama putrāṇāṃ

mama putrāṇām

I-gen son-p.gen

my sons


nityam unmārga-gāminām an-adhigata-śāstrāṇām idānīm

constantly wrong.way-go-gerund-p.m not-read-PassPart-book-p.m. now

being always wayward and never reading books—
नीतिशास्त्रोपदेशेन पुनर्जन्म कारयितुं समर्थः ।

nīti-śāstr-opadeśena punar-janma kārayituṃ samarthaḥ?

nīti-śāstra-upadeśena punar-janma kārayitum sam-arthas?

behavior-book-instruction-s.ins again-birth-s.acc effect-infinitive with-capable-s.nom.m

can instruct them in reading and proper behavior, [giving them] a second birth?”


This is from the prologue to the Hitopadeśa.  The king, whose name is Sudarśana, has a problem many kings have had: his sons are pretty worthless. He asks the pundits for help. (Yep, pundit is a borrowing from Sanksrit.) As he appears in a book written by a brahmin, the dude who steps up to help, one Viṣarma, believes that the answer is that they sit with a brahmin, i.e. himself, and learn moral tales.

I will report back later on the actual fables. But for now let’s look at one of the words in the text:



First, you may well ask, is that one word?  It’s written as one. And by the rules of sandhi, it’s pronounced as one. But Müller transliterates it as four words:

nityam – constantly
unmārga-gāminām – wrong-ways-going
an-adhigata-śāstrāṇām – non-reading-books
idānīm now

The first three words are a description of the unruly princes, and grammatically this can be considered a really big compound. Idānīm ‘now’ probably got dragged in only because it was too tempting to combine the initial i– with the preceding –m.

Sanskrit is extremely fond of these combined words, and this is by no means on the longer end of the possibilities— you can easily have compounds with 20 or 30 roots.

Now, you can certainly do this in English:

“Can anyone instruct my undirected, non-book-reading sons by reading-conduct-instruction?”

But we usually consider this sort of thing inelegant; it reminds of bureaucratic language: “You must submit the project extension protocol revision form to the acting assistant operations and processes group manager.” We’d be more likely to use subclauses:

“My sons are constantly going the wrong way and never read books; can anyone teach them to value good conduct and literature?”

You only have to inflect the last member of a compound, so possibly the compounds were easier than regular clauses. Or perhaps they were embraced for their difficulty. After all, when the Hitopadeśa was written, the spoken language was already very different. A.L. Basham describes classical Sanskrit as one of the most “ornate and artificial” languages in the world. He also suggests that these compounds may be influenced by Tamil, which also encourages concatenations without explicit connectors or inflections.




If someone has gone through and transliterated it and done a word-for-word gloss. But I have worked through the grammar enough that I can at least follow that.

Let’s work through an example. We start, as Westerners have for more than a century, with the Hitopadeśa, a medieval book of sagely advice told through animal stories. I start with Max Müller’s 1864 edition.  Here’s a sample line.

राजोवाच । भो भोः पंडिताः श्रूयतां ।

râjâ   -jan,  The King
uvâcha:  vach,  said:
bho  Ind.  O
bhos  Ind.  ye
paṇḍitâs  -ta,  wise,
śrûyatâm  śru, 3 sg. Imp. Pass.   be it heard

Now, Devanāgarī is not hard to read. It’s an abugida, meaning that the basic grapheme is a single consonant with an inherent vowel. E.g. it starts with क = ka. Diacritics modify it to change the vowel: कि ki, कु ku, का , and so on. If you really want a naked k, perhaps at the end of a word, you write क्.

If you actually transliterate Müller’s Devanāgarī, syllable by syllable, you get this:

rā-jo-vā-ca bho bhoḥ paṃ-ḍi-tāḥ śrū-ya-tāṃ

Which, if you look carefully, isn’t what Müller provides.  What happened?

Sandhi happened. All languages have processes of assimilation and relaxation that happen as words are uttered in context. Occasionally these become noticeable to people and they attempt to write them down— e.g. someone is represented as saying “I hafta go” for “I have to go”.  Sometimes the assimilations are lexicalized, which is why we write assimilation and not adsimilation.

Well, in Sanskrit there are a lot of such adaptations, and you have to write them all. So for instance the vowels ā + u combine into o: rājā uvāca > rājovāca. (Müller’s â / ch are older transliterations; we now use ā / c.)  The –s at the end of paṇḍitās changes to ḥ before the following  ś, while the final in the last word changes to ṃ, which in this case indicates nasalization. Before a stop, it’s pronounced as a homorganic stop, which is why paṇ- changed to paṃ-.

There are special diacritics for these last two letters: e.g. kaṃ would be कं, and kaḥ would be कः.

So, Müller is providing the pre-sandhi versions of the words, which makes them easier to look up in a dictionary.

(A complication for the actual book I’m writing: It turns out that Word and Illustrator don’t properly handle Devanāgarī. They can’t do the combinations– e.g. nra should be written न्र, but they turn that into न् र, like barbarians. So I won’t be able to use a lot of Devanāgarī except as, shudder, bitmaps.)

Next we need to translate his glosses to a briefer and more modern convention:

king-s.nom say-perf.part.-3s oh wise-p.voc.m hear-imper.pass.-3s

Müller glosses bho bhos as “O ye”, but this is a bit confusing— bhos is not a pronoun. An online dictionary suggests that it’s an interjection often used in addressing people: oh! hello!  indeed!   And it seems that we’re actually dealing with a reduplicated form here, bhobhos.

Finally we can provide the translation:

The king said: O wise men, let it be heard…

That’s enough for today, but on request I’ll tell you what the king wanted heard. And you should request it, because then I can talk about Sanskrit’s insane mega-compounds.

By the way, classical Sanskrit wasn’t written in Devanāgarī— it was written in the local, contemporary script. All modern Indian scripts, and Southeast Asian ones as well, ultimately derive from Brāhmī, which is what Aśoka knew. If you write your vernacular in Devanāgarī, as of course Hindi speakers do, then you write your Sanskrit in Devanāgarī; but if you speak Tamil you use Tamil script, and so on.

How, you may wonder, does this compare to learning wényán for my China book? The script is way easier, of course. But sandhi is a nightmare, and the grammar is far less accessible. You can boldly translate wényán poems knowing little but the glosses, but I don’t think I’ll be doing my own translations of Sanskrit poetry.

My wife has just returned from Peru, and brought back a list of Peruvian names from the newspapers. Odd spellings for foreign names are muy de onda (very hip).






Airon (Aaron?)





Jeylo (J. Lo)

Jhunior Brayan


Itan (Ethan?)

Johan Jonathán










I’ve updated the Numbers from 1 to 10 page!  For the first time in, well, many years.

Note: if you don’t see the new page, because the old page is cached, you may have to hit shift-refresh.

The major features:

  • It now makes extensive use of Unicode to finally present the numbers as they were intended to be seen. (If you can’t see all the characters it’s dredged up, check the notes page for how to download comprehensive Unicode fonts.)
  • As a corollary, I’ve started to include the native writing system for key languages.
  • The families are color-coded to help you navigate.
  • The page uses Javascript to allow you to customize the results.

Now the story behind the update. The original source file was an enormous Mac Word 5.1 file. To generate the html files, I would output the source file into RTF (which is how you were supposed to access .doc files). Then I ran a custom C program that converted the RTF into html.

So far so good, only my old PowerPC died a few years back, which meant I could no longer run Mac Word 5.1, which meant I couldn’t generate the RTF or the html files, which meant no updates period.

Sigh, Mac Word 5.1, released in 1991, was a thing of beauty. It had little of the cruft of later versions of Word, I had all the commands in muscle memory, and on the PowerPC it was damn fast. Plus it never crashed. I had to switch to Word 2008 when I needed Unicode, but I kept using 5.1 until I couldn’t. I’ve gotten used to Word 2008, but it is just not the reliable workhorse that 5.1 was. It crashes unpredictably with certain large files, especially if they have a lot of formatting— as many of my books do.

Word 5.1 had a neat feature that I used extensively for the numbers list: you could overtype characters. This was necessary to represent the many many arcane and wacky characters that linguists have used over the last couple centuries to write their grammars and wordlists. Word 2008 can read these, but apparently can’t create them.

I had long envisioned a database or a text document that could hold the numbers, letting the web page itself be very simple. I was a bit worried that the database would be huge and slow, but then I remembered that most web pages these days pull down megabytes of cruft.

So, the source file is now plaintext.  I still use Word to create it, because it looks better there and I can use bolding to help me navigate, but all I do to make the plaintext file is copy and paste into TextEdit. It turns out that the whole file is only 400K, far smaller than the 1.4M html file that was the old mondo partly-Unicoded version. The text file is human-readable, but some pretty simple Javascript reads and prettifies it for the actual web page.

There are probably some typos in the file, due to quirks in the old process which I may have missed or messed up during the conversion process.  On the other hand, there were a lot of kludges in the old html version; the new version is much closer to the original sources.

I haven’t dealt with the sources page yet. (The problems are similar; it will be a another fairly tedious project to update the document and access page.)

Edit: The sources page is done now too! As with the numbers page, you can zero in on specific regions.

If you happen to be a linguist or for some other reason study the less-spoken languages, I’m always open to additions and corrections, and finally I can make them again.


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