a discussion by Thorsten Renk
I. General remarks
Now David Salo, probably most famous for the creation of the Elvish dialogues in the Lord of the Rings movies has published his ideas on the grammar of Sindarin. The book has very much the flavour of a review published as a summary of long research, it aims to cover all aspects of Sindarin, from the internal history of the language in Tolkien’s legendarium to the phonological development from the primitive Common Eldarin forms to the Sindarin of the 3rd age, from the grammatical and syntactical rules of the language to the way names and other compound words are formed. In addition, it contains several appendices providing wordlists Sindarin English and English Sindarin, a list of primitive roots, an analysis of all known texts in Sindarin and an annotated bibliography.
The book is written in a highly technical language (at times unnecessarily so), and although there is a glossary of linguistic terms, in order to actually read and understand the text the reader needs more than an elementary knowledge of grammar.
This, in combination with the scheme employed by Salo for distinguishing between attested and reconstructed forms, leads to the greatest flaw of the book - its false pretense of rigor. While the technical language and the presence of the signs ! ’reconstructed form in external history’, * ’reconstructed form in internal history’ and # ’form with regularized spelling’ suggest that the book is a serious scholarly attempt to deduce the grammar of Tolkien’s invented language by starting from Tolkien’s own writings, a closer look reveals that this is actually not quite true. The book represents rather a grammar of Sindarin as Salo thinks it should be, sometimes regardless of what Tolkien wrote.
Therefore, although the book is written in the style of a comprehensive review, it lacks an important element which would be present in a scholarly work, i.e. citations to the underlying reasoning for the grammar given here. All we get to see is the end product, but we seldom get a glimpse at the logical deductions leading to the forms which are presented. This makes it very difficult to actually judge the value of a given idea. Richard Feynman characterized scientific method with the words: ’Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given if you know them. (...) If you make a theory (...) and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it. (...) In summary, the idea is to try to give all the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution, not just the information that leads to judgement in one particular direction or another.’ (from: Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman). Clearly, that is not the approach David Salo has chosen.
In the following, I will try to give an overview over what I can see of Salo’s methology in dealing with Tolkien’s original texts, followed by comments on selected chapters of the book.
II. Standardizing Sindarin
David Salo tries to discuss the grammar of a fictive, ’classical’ Sindarin which is supposed to be as a unified description of everything Tolkien wrote about the language.
However, the texts Salo refers range from early sources like the Etymologies (about 1937) to late sources like ’The Shibboleth of Feanor’ (about 1968), and for all we know Tolkien’s ideas about the phonology and the grammar of the language (and even it’s role in his legendarium, initially it was ’Noldorin’, the language of the exiles, before it became ’Sindarin’, the language of the grey-elves) changed considerably. Thus, Tolkien’s changing ideas clash frequently with Salo’s attempt to find ’standard Sindarin’.
Consequently, Salo employs a variety of strategies to deal with ’irregular’ pieces in Tolkien’s writing. In the following, an example for each of them is provided:
1) Open dismissal:
On page 390, Salo discusses the phrase Sarch nia Hîn Húrin ’grave of the children of Húrin’ stating The word nia is almost certainly wrong, though also seen in Glaer nia Chîn Húrin (WJ160,251). Perhaps for nia should be read ina, as in the early form Haudh-ina-Nengin (WJ:79). No reason is actually given why the form is ’almost certainly wrong’ though it doesn’t fit into the theory Salo developed earlier.
2) Silent dismissal:
On p.108, Salo makes a distinction between si ’now’ and sí ’here’. On p.202 in the discussion of Lúthien’s song he stresses this distinction again: si adverb ’now’ (...): not to be confused with the related sí ’here’.
However, that doesn’t go too well with Sam’s cry le nallon sí di-nguruthos! and the translation given by Tolkien in Letters:278 ’to thee I cry now in the shadow of death’. In Salo’s discussion of the text, the translation reads ’I cry to you under the horror of death’ and the form sí is conveniently ignored in the word by word analysis.
3) Dismissal on a fictional basis:
On p.118, Salo discusses the past tense formation car > agor. He acknowledges that Tolkien states that the formation is ’usual in Sindarin ’strong’ or primary verbs’ (WJ:415) but continues with the claim but in fact such examples are much rarer than those of the nasal past. One might expect such formations as *udul ’he/she/it came’, *idir ’he/she/it watched’, *egin ’he/she/it saw’ but these are not in fact found.. He conveniently fails to mention that while these three forms are indeed unattested, his own suggestions *toll, *tirn and *cenn are not found anywhere either.
4) Possible updates
Discussing the conjunction ’and’, Tolkien dismisses the form ar widely found in Sindarin texts with: Although this has not been emended in any of the texts cited in this book, it is clear that Tolkien intended to generally replace ar with a(h). The change appears to have taken place in the earyy 1950s prior to the publication of The Lord of the Rings.
For all I know, that could be true, although Salo doesn’t really provide a compelling reason. The latest text including ar is the ’Ae Adar’ which dates ’sometime during the 1950s’ (VT44:21), and in late notes (1968) Tolkien gives a Common Eldarin form as and Sindarin ah (VT43:30), cf. also Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth (MR:303). However, it seems rather absurd to assume that Tolkien would have gone over his early texts some time around 1960 and changed just ar into ah everywhere and nothing else.
III. ’Proving’ the theory
Especially in the discussion of the verbal system, Salo doesn’t show a lot of hesitation to throw out a Tolkien-made example or to emend it to a form which goes along with his theory. Since most of the attested verbal forms are actually Noldorin, this is not so much trying to standardize and unify Sindarin and Noldorin, it is closer to fabricating evidence to ’confirm’ a pre-existing theory. The strategies are pretty similar, though:
1) Silent ’correction’
Verbs which do not conform to the expected pattern are simply emended where needed - this is the fate of the infinitive garo (LR:360, VT45:14) which becomes ?geri in the paradigma shown on p.126, of the verb aphad- (WJ:387) which is changed into **aphada- (p.128), of the past tense degant (VT45:37) which is quoted as **dagant (p. 119) to ’confirm’ a pattern, of the verb dant- (LR:354) which leads to the invention of the verb **danna- (p.135) and a lot of other forms which don’t fit into a neat theory.
2) Silent dismissal
Sometimes forms which do not agree with the theory are left out of the discussion. On page 119, Salo states:There was also a past tense suffix that added -s, -ss- to the stem. This suffix is found attached to the -ta verbs. It is also found in the composite form -a-s, -a-ss with CVC root verbs which ended in the alveolar stops t and d (...). However, this past tense may have been preserved only in the Noldorin dialect of Sindarin, as we have teithant from the -ta verb teitha- but not teithas.
Of course that seems plausible - unless you include the past tense form erias from eria- (VT46:7) - that spoils not only the statement that it is a suffix for -ta verbs but also the relevance of teithant (the fact that VT46 appeared during the final preparation of the book is hardly relevant - erias was known from  published on Tengwestië shortly after VT45 appeared).
3) ’Exceptional’ status
Forms which do not conform to the pattern but for some reason resist emendation are explained as ’exceptions’, like on page 118 where we learn about what Salo terms ’Ablaut past tenses’ Pasts of this form are rare and were probably replaced by analogical formations by the period of classical Sindarin..
The actual distribution of nasal infixion past tenses vs. ablaut past tenses in Noldorin is 12:4, i.e. about 25% of the attested forms show this variant (see ), that is not really negligible. As for the replacement by analogical formation, 2 of the ablaut past tenses show alternative weak past tenses using the ending -ant and 6 of the 12 nasal infixed past tenses show -ant/-as- the ratio is therefore pretty much the same, analogical past tenses did not specifically level ablaut past tenses but all ’strong’ past tenses in the same way, be it n-infixion or ablaut.
4) Unresolved discrepancies
Occasionally a form which doesn’t agree with the theory is allowed to stand in apparent contradicion to the grammar, though no explanation is given. For example, we find in the discussion of the preposition athar that it causes liquid mutation, followed by the example athar harthad ’beyind hope’ where we ought to see ?athar charthad according to the liquid mutation table. No discussion of this phenomenon is provided.