Elves are a fictional race that has attracted conlangers ever since the days of J. R. R. Tolkien. However, there are about as many different ideas of Elves as there are people writing about them.
Elves in mythology and folklore
The origin of the concept lies in Germanic mythology, where Elves are a kind of middling race between humans and gods. The word elf has cognates in most Germanic languages, e.g. Old English ælf, Old Norse álfr, Old High German alb, and can be reconstructed for Common Germanic as *albiz. Its further etymological connections are unclear. The Germanic Elves are a race of demigods, living in a country remote from the world of mortal men, and often mentioned in conjunction with the gods (æsir og álfar) in Norse mythological texts. The Snorra Edda distinguishes between the good ljosálfar and the evil subterranean døkkálfar, who may be the same race as the Dwarves. In Anglo-Saxon England, the Elves were believed to co-exist with humans, and magical powers were attributed to them (see Alaric Hall, Elves in Anglo-Saxon England).
Similar beings (called Tuatha Dé Danann or Daoine Sidhe in Irish, Tylwyth Teg in Welsh) also occur in Celtic mythology, where they inhabited the British Isles before the Celtic landtaking and function as cultural heroes. The Tuatha Dé Danann originally were human beings but later became gods, and receded into the Otherworld when the land was taken by the ancestors of the Irish people.
The elves survived Christianization in folk tales. In the Middle Ages, the elves were demonized and identified with fallen angels; later, they were considered spirits of nature and more and more diminished. In Victorian fairy-tales, they are tiny (from mouse-sized to insect-sized), luminous, playful and usually winged; another popular modern idea is that of the elves being a race of midgets making toys for Santa Claus and living with him at the North Pole.
Elves in modern fantasy fiction and games
Elves in Tolkien's legendarium
It is the merit of J. R. R. Tolkien to have reinstated the Elves into their old nobility. Tolkien's Elves are similar to humans but wiser, stronger, more beautiful etc. and immortal (or rather, extremely long-lived; Elves can be killed, and may die of grief); they closely resemble the Elves of Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythology. Gone were defacing traits such as the minute size and the gossamer wings. Tolkien also invented languages spoken by the Elves, most notably Quenya and Sindarin - he liked to say that he rather invented the Elves to have speakers for his languages.
Tolkien's ideas about the Elves changed over time. In his youth, he wrote poems about the Victorian-style fairy-tale elves with which he had grown up, but soon he explored the mythological origins of these elves and developed a concept of the Elves based on Germanic mythology. In the Book of Lost Tales (1917-1925), the Elves are a heroic race; however, he still entertained the notion that these originally human-sized Elves later dwindled and became the tiny elves of the Victorian fairy tales - a notion he abandoned later.
In The Lord of the Rings, the Elves are portrayed as almost invariably good and wise, but The Silmarillion paints a richer and more morally ambiguous picture in which Elves could also act as villains.
The Elves (called Quendi in Quenya) are divided into several 'kindreds' or nations. They originate on the shores of Lake Cuiviénen in the east of Middle-earth and were invited to migrate to the Undying Lands beyond the sea in the west by the Valar. This led to the First Sundering between the Eldar (Q. 'Star-People') who accepted the invitation and began to march westward, and the Avari (Q. 'Refusers') who declined and stayed in Middle-earth. The Eldar consisted of three kindreds: the Vanyar (Q. 'Fair Ones'), the Noldor (Q. 'Crafty Ones') and the Teleri (Q. 'Stragglers'; they called themselves Lindar Q. 'Singers'). The Vanyar and the Noldor completed the march west and arrived in Aman; so did some of the Teleri, but two groups of Teleri remained behind in Middle-earth: the Nandor in the Vale of Anduin (probably the ancestors of the Wood-Elves in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) and the Sindar (Q. 'Grey Ones'; also known as Grey Elves, probably in reference to their middling position between the Calaquendi and the Avari) in Beleriand. The Elves who reached Aman were called the Calaquendi ('Elves of the Light'), while those who never came to Aman were called the Moriquendi ('Elves of the Dark'). Later, many Noldor returned to Middle-earth and settled in Beleriand, and thus the Noldor and the Sindar are the two Elven nations featuring most prominently in The Silmarillion.
The divisions of the Quendi are summed up in the chart below.
Each of these groups had their own language, though all these languages are related to each other and make up the Quendian language family. The languages of the Avari are almost completely unknown. Of the languages of the Vanyar, the Amanye Teleri and the Nandor, only limited information is available, while the languages of the Noldor (Quenya) and the Sindar (Sindarin) are well known (and counted among the finest conlangs ever made, influencing legions of later conlangers).
Tolkien's Elves have been the main model for Elves in modern fantasy fiction, and Tolkien's example popularized the idea that these beings speak languages of their own. Since then, numerous authors have developed their own ideas of and stories about Elves, and many conlangers have made up their own Elvish languages.
In many fantasy worlds, there are, as in Middle-earth, several sub-races of Elves. They are usually an ancient race resembling beautiful human beings with pointed ears, very long lifespans and great artistic and magical talent, living in harmony with Nature; however, one often also finds Elven races that have turned to evil and perverted the stereotypical Elven ideals, such as the Drow in the Forgotten Realms or the Blood Elves in the world of the Earthdawn RPG.
In some fantasy worlds (for instance in Richard & Wendy Pini's Elfquest graphic novels), the Elves are actually aliens, originating in a different world. (This notion of alien Elves is entirely foreign to Middle-earth, where the Noldor immigrated from Aman but are returnees - their ultimate origin lies in Middle-earth, and they are thus no more alien to that world than are Men.)
The Hylians in the Legend of Zelda video games are not called Elves but show many typically Elvish traits. In the world of Glorantha (the original game world of the RuneQuest RPG) the Elves or Aldryami are a humanoid mobile plant species. Another unusual variation of the theme are the aquatic iliu of Almea.
Elves or Elf-like beings also occur in some futuristic settings. In the Warhammer 40,000 strategy game, the Eldar (whose name is borrowed from Tolkien's legendarium) are an ancient, sophisticated but declining race resembling Elves, with highly advanced technology and a preference for streamlined, elegant designs. There is also an evil sub-race, the Dark Eldar. In the Shadowrun RPG which combines cyberpunk and high fantasy elements in a bizarre 21st-century setting, the Elves are a magically mutated subspecies (Homo sapiens nobilis) of humans. The speakers of Kēlen and the Na'vi of the Avatar movie are also in many ways similar to Elves.
Nevertheless, much fantasy fiction is still written in which pre-Tolkienian notions of elves are used. In the Harry Potter series of novels, for instance, the house-elves are gnome-like beings that are used as servants by wizards. Little fairy elves are also still very common, especially in children's literature.
Contemporary Elvish conlangs
Many conlangers have invented Elvish languages. Often, these languages are inspired by Quenya, Sindarin or both. In many conworlds, Elvish languages are described as very complex, often so complex that they require acute hearing, excellent motor control of the articulation organs, an extended lifespan, magical abilities or a combination of any of these to master. Frequently mentioned features are the following:
- Subtle differences in articulation change meaning radically, i.e. the language has a large phoneme inventory exploiting many phonological features, with many minimal pairs.
- The meanings of words depend on their intonation, i.e. the language is tonal.
- The words are very richly inflected, with many different declensions and conjugations, and many irregular forms.
- There is a large number of words for advanced cultural concepts specific to Elven culture.
In other words: Elves speak kitchen sink conlangs ;)
In reality, most Elvish conlangs are not really like that. This includes Quenya and Sindarin, which are rich and complex, but not beyond the richness and complexity of human languages. Many other Elvish conlangs are actually simple euroclones, or just lists of exotic-sounding words without any information on grammar being given.
List of languages
- Andreas Johansson is the inventor of Meghean, a language spoken by Elves in a fantasy world of his own devising. Andreas's Elves are a separate species, not interfertile with humans.
- Christian Strobl has developed an Elvish language called Styrásh, which he presents on this web page. It is vaguely based on Indo-European languages such as Latin.
- Danny Wier has been working on and off for years on an Elvish language named Tech. Little is known about Tech, except that it is a very complex language with a huge phoneme inventory, based on the hypothetical Nostratic language family. Danny tries to avoid Tolkienian clichés, and his Elves are actually incarnate djinn in a near-future setting.
- Elliott Lash has developed Silindion, a highly developed language of Elf-like beings, the Neste, in his own fantasy world. There are also several languages related to Silindion.
- Herman Miller has invented several languages for Elves from another planet, in a con-universe where most sapient beings are cute and furry.
- Jashan A'al has developed the High Drow language, based on a less sophisticated conlang which is in turn based on a list of words found in official game material published by TSR, Inc. The language is typologically similar to Quenya, and meant to be spoken by the Drow, a race of Elves in the Forgotten Realms who were exiled for worshipping an evil deity.
- Jörg Rhiemeier is currently developing the Albic languages, a family of languages spoken by a hypothetical human ethnic group that may have been the grain of truth within the Germanic and Celtic mythological traditions of Elves.
- Sylvia Sotomayor invented Kēlen as the language of Elf-like humanoid beings of the planet Tērjemar.
- Toms Deimonds Barvidis has developed the Elvish language Longrimol. No information on Longrimol is currently available.
- Eltharin is the language of the Elves in the Warhammer Fantasy strategy and role-playing games. Only word lists are available, and samples of a complex, probably logographic writing system.
- Sperethiel is the language of the Elves in the Earthdawn and Shadowrun role-playing games. The available documentation makes bold claims about the complexity of the language, but the actual available data point at a simple euroclone.
- The Grey Company, a guild of Ultima Online players, use Grey Company Elvish, a language with a vocabulary partly taken from Tolkien's languages but also from Dungeons & Dragons handbooks and other sources, and a simple grammar closely modelled on English.