Lesson six past tense



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LESSON SIX

Past tense
The previous lesson discussed the Quenya present tense, which is typically used to describe an on-going present action. However, Quenya has different tenses covering the entire trinity of past, present and future, and when recounting past events one will normally use the past tense.

In English, very many past tense forms are formed by means of the ending -ed, e.g. filled as the past tense of the verb fill. In Quenya, most past tense forms are likewise formed by means of an ending added to the verbal stem. As far as we know, all past tense verbs end in the vowel -ë (though further endings, such as the plural ending -r that is used in the case of a plural subject, may of course be added after this vowel). In many cases, this vowel -ë is part of the ending -, that seems to be the most general past tense ending in Quenya.

As discussed in the previous lesson, most Quenya verbs are A-stems, meaning that they end in the vowel -a. The past tenses of these verbs are typically formed simply by adding the ending -. For instance, the Etymologies mention a verb orta- "raise" (see the entry ORO), and in Namárië in LotR its past tense is seen to be ortanë. (The simplest translation of ortanë is of course "raised"; the somewhat free rendering in LotR employs the translation "has uplifted" instead, but Tolkien's interlinear translation in RGEO:67 reads "lifted up" – which is merely an alternative wording of "raised".) Other examples from Tolkien's notes:

ora- "urge", past tense oranë "urged" (VT41:13, 18)

hehta- "exclude", past tense hehtanë "excluded" (WJ:365)

ulya- "pour", past tense ulyanë "poured" (Etym, entry ULU)

sinta- "fade", past tense sintanë "faded" (Etym, entry THIN)


We may add the verb ahyanë "changed" (or "did change"), only attested like this in the past tense, as part of the question manen lambë Quendion ahyanë[?] "how did the language of the Elves change?" (PM:395). The verb "change" would seem to be ahya-.

Regarding the verb ava- (apparently meaning "refuse, forbid"), Tolkien noted that its past tense avanë "revealed that it was not in origin a 'strong' or basic verbal stem". The latter seems to be more or less the same as a primary verb. He called avanë a "weak" past tense form (WJ:370). That probably goes for all the past tenses so far discussed. (What Tolkien would call a "strong" past tense is not quite clear. Perhaps he would use this term of the past tenses formed by means of nasal-infixion – see below.)

We must also consider the "basic" or "primary", ending-less verbs, verbs that unlike the A-stems do not have a final vowel: verbs like sil- "to shine", tir- "to watch", mat- "to eat".

It seems that the ending - can be used to form the past tense of some primary verbs as well. Tolkien mentioned tirnë as the past tense of the verb tir- "to watch" (Etym, entry TIR), and he also quoted tamnë as the past tense of the verb tam- "to tap" (Etym, entry TAM). In these cases, adding - to the verbal stems in question does not produce impossible consonant clusters: Both rn and mn are permitted by Quenya phonology. For this reason, the ending - can probably also be added to verbal stems ending in -n, since double nn is likewise a wholly acceptable combination in Quenya. For instance, the past tense of the verb cen- "to see" is presumably cennë "saw", though we have no attested example of the past tense of a verb of this shape.

But whenever the stem of a basic verb ends in any consonant other than just -m, -n, or -r, simply adding the ending - would produce consonant clusters that Quenya cannot have. The past tense forms of verbs like mat- "eat", top- "cover" or tac- "fasten" cannot be **matnë, **topnë, **tacnë, for clusters like tn, pn, cn are not found in the language. So what happens?

The difficult way of describing what occurs is to say that the n of the ending - is replaced by nasal-infixion intruding before the last consonant of the verbal stem. What is "infixion"? We have already mentioned suffixes, elements that are added at the end of a word (like the plural ending -r, added to the noun Elda in its plural form Eldar), and prefixes, elements added at the beginning of a word (like the superlative prefix an-, added to the adjective calima "bright" in its superlative form ancalima "brightest"). If you want to add something to a word, there are only so many places you can fit it in; if it is not to be prefixed or suffixed, the final option is to infix it, that is, jam it into the word. For instance, the verb mat- "to eat" has the past tense mantë "ate" (VT39:7), an infixed n turning up before the final consonant of the verbal stem (t becoming nt). Similarly, the verb hat- "break asunder" has the past tense hantë (Etym, entry SKAT).

Before the consonant p, the infix takes the form m rather than n, so that the past tense of top- "to cover" is tompë (Etym, entry TOP). Before c, the infix appears as n (or actually ñ, see below), so that the past tense of tac- "to fasten" is tancë (Etym, entry TAK). The various forms of the infix – n, m or ñ, depending on the environment – are all nasals, sounds pronounced by making the stream of air from the lungs go out through the nose rather than the mouth. Hence nasal-infixion is a fitting term for this phonological process.

As I said, that was the difficult way of stating what happens. Put more simply: if adding the past tense ending - to a primary verb would result in any of the impossible clusters tn, cn, or pn, the n and the consonant before it switch places. Tn and cn simply become nt and nc; what would be np changes to mp to ease pronunciation. (Actually what would be nc similarly changes to ñc, using ñ for ng as in king as Tolkien sometimes did – but according to the spelling conventions here employed, ñc is represented simply as nc.) Hence:


mat- "eat", past tense (**matnë >) mantë "ate"

top- "cover", past tense (**topnë > **tonpë >) tompë "covered"

tac- "fasten", past tense (**tacnë >) tancë "fastened"
This, at least, is an easy way to imagine it for pedagogical purposes. We cannot know for certain whether Tolkien imagined this to be the actual development – a form something like matnë actually occurring at an earlier stage, but later becoming mantë by swapping around the consonants t and n. The linguistic term for such transposing of two sounds is metathesis, and there are other examples of metathesized consonants in the imaginary evolution of Tolkien's languages (see for instance the Etymologies, entry KEL-). However, some clues suggest that Tolkien imagined these past tenses to reflect "genuine" nasal-infixion occurring already in primitive Elvish, not merely a later transposition of consonants. After all, he had one of his characters observe that "nasal-infixion is of considerable importance in Avallonian" (SD:433; Avallonian is another term for Quenya). But this is an academic question.

Primary verbs with -l as their final consonant must be given special attention. The verb vil- "to fly" is said to have the past tense villë (Etym, entry WIL). This double ll probably represents some combination of l and n. Perhaps villë is meant to represent older wilnë with the normal past tense ending (notice that in this case, v comes from older w: root WIL), the group ln turning into ll in Quenya. However, other examples suggest that older ln would rather produce ld in Quenya. It may well be that villë is meant to represent older winlë, that is, a nasal-infixed variant of the verb wil- (since nl also became ll in Quenya; for instance, the noun nellë "brook" is said to come from older nen-le: Etym, entry NEN). Whatever development Tolkien may have imagined, primary verbs with l as their final consonant seem to form their past tense form by adding -.


NOTE: In Telerin, the sister language of Quenya in the Blessed Realm, a verb formed from a root DEL ("go") is said to have the past tense delle: WJ:364. As pointed out by Ales Bican, this form probably descends from older denle (with nasal-infixion). If it descended from delne, it would likely have remained unchanged in Telerin, since the cluster ln is permitted in this language (cf. a Telerin word like elni "stars", WJ:362). This observation supports the view that past tenses with nasal-infixion did occur already in Primitive Elvish.
XXX In the original version of this course, I wrote: "The system set out above is what I shall consider the 'regular' way of forming the past tense of a verb in Quenya." Calling something "regular" is often a daring thing to do when discussing a Tolkien-language, so let us rather say that it may be considered a fairly typical way of forming the past tense. ZZZ That is, as long as a verb conforms with this system, I will not explicitly list its past tense when I first mention it. With one exception (to be discussed below), the past tenses in the exercises below are constructed according to this system, so your task this time is to internalize the rules above. Some irregular forms will be discussed in later lessons, but even so, we will here survey certain "alternative" past tense formations (contrasting them with the more XXX typical ZZZ forms may actually be helpful in memorizing the normal system – but the student is not expected to memorize this survey as such). So do skim through as much as you can take of the stuff below, and proceed to the exercises when you've had enough.

The past tense of primary verbs with -r as their final consonant is relatively well-attested: Attested examples include car- "make, do", pa.t. carnë (Etym, entry KAR), tir- "watch", pa.t. tirnë (Etym, entry TIR) and tur- "govern", pa.t. turnë (Etym, entry TUR). So above we set out the rule that verbs of this shape have past tense forms that are constructed by adding the suffix -. But a few verbs behave quite differently. The past tense of the verb rer- "sow" is not **rernë as we might expect, but rendë: See Etym, entry RED. The reason for this is precisely the fact that the original root-word was RED rather than **RER. Thus the verb rer- appeared as red- at an earlier stage, and then the past tense rendë is actually "regular" enough: it is simply formed from red- by means of nasal-infixion + the ending -ë (just like such a regular verb as quet- "say" has the pa.t. quentë). What slightly complicates matters is that in Quenya, original d only survived as part of the clusters ld, nd, and rd; in all other positions it was changed, and following a vowel it normally became r. Hence red- turned into rer-, while the past tense rendë remained unscathed by the phonological changes. In this perspective, the verb is strictly speaking not "irregular" at all; it just behaves differently because it has a special history – and this goes for very many of the "irregularities" in Quenya: As observed by his son, Tolkien's linguistic creations "imagine language not as 'pure structure', without 'before' or 'after', but as growth, in time" (LR:342). Tolkien clearly liked leaving in various testimonials to this imaginary age-long "growth".

We don't know very many verbs in -r that should have past tenses in -ndë because of their special history. From the Etymologies we must presumably include the verbs hyar- "cleave" and ser- "rest" (since these come from roots SYAD and SED, see the relevant entries in Etym – but Tolkien did not actually mention the past-tense forms hyandë and sendë). In a post-LotR source we have a verb nir- "press, thrust, force"; again no past tense form has been published, but since the stem is given as NID it should presumably be nindë rather than nirnë (VT41:17). More attested examples could be quoted from early "Qenya" material, but these writings do not have full authority as regards LotR-style Quenya. For instance, the 1915 Qenya Lexicon seems to include the verb nyar- "tell, relate" in this category (past tense nyandë, QL:68). But in later material, Tolkien derived this verb from a root NAR (entry NAR2 in Etym) rather than NAD, so now its past tense would presumably be regular (nyarnë).

Some primary verbs are also seen to use a past tense formation that dispenses with any nasal sounds. The verb does receive the ending -ë, the vowel displayed by all past-tense forms, but instead of adding a nasal sound (infixed or as part of the ending -), the stem-vowel of the verb is lengthened. For instance, the past tense of the verb lav- "lick" is seen to be lávë (attested in Namárië as part of the verb undulávë "down-licked", that is, "covered"). Likewise, the past tense of the negative verb um- "not do" or "not be" is said to be úmë (Etym, entry UGU/UMU; we will return to this peculiar verb in Lesson Nine). This past tense formation is quite common in the early Qenya Lexicon, and it also turns up in relatively late (but still pre-LotR) sources. Fíriel's Song of ca. 1936 agrees with the 1915 Lexicon that the past tense of the verb car- "make, do" is cárë (QL:45, LR:72; the spelling used in the sources is káre). However, according to the Etymologies (entry KAR), the past tense is carnë – and that is the form we will use here: The Etymologies is, at least in part, slightly younger than Firiel's Song. Following the pattern of cárë, some pre-LotR sources give túlë as the past tense of the verb tul- "come" (LR:47, SD:246), but villë as the past tense of vil- in the Etymologies suggests that the past tense "came" could just as well be tullë (representing older tulne or tunle) instead.

It may seem that Tolkien eventually decided to limit the use of the past tense formation represented by túlë and cárë, though it was never wholly abandoned, as the form undulávë in Namárië in LotR demonstrates. We might actually have expected the past tense of lav- "lick" to be **lambë rather than lávë. A past tense form lambë would be constructed by nasal-infixion of the original root-word LAB (itself listed in Etym): In Quenya, original b normally became v following a vowel, but b persisted unchanged in the group mb. The Qenya Lexicon actually lists ambë as the past tense of a verb av- "depart" (QL:33); this may be an example of this phenomenon. However, **lambë as the past tense of lav- would clash with the noun lambë "tongue, language"; perhaps this is why Tolkien decided to go for the XXX alternative ZZZ formation lávë instead. Or should we generalize from lav- and let all Quenya primary verbs in -v form their past tense after the pattern of lávë?

Luckily, these verbs are not very numerous. There is a distinct verb lav- meaning "yield, allow, grant" (root DAB, see Etym), possibly a verb tuv- "find" (verbal stem isolated from a longer form), plus tyav- as the verb "taste" (see entry KYAB in Etym). Should the past tense "tasted" be tyambë or tyávë? The latter past tense form is actually attested in the Qenya Lexicon (p. 49), but since the QL is seen to use this formation quite liberally compared to later Quenya, we cannot be sure that the information is valid for the later stages of Tolkien's conception. (Tyávë is attested in a post-LotR source as a noun "taste"; whether this argues against the same form being used as a past tense "tasted" is unclear. In the 1915 Lexicon, Tolkien did have similar-sounding nouns and verbal tenses coexisting; see QL:49, entry KUMU.)

There are some curious cases where even longer, derived verbs (A-stems) drop their ending and have lávë-style past tenses derived directly from the ending-less root. One early example is the verb serta- "tie", past tense sérë (QL:83) rather than **sertanë as we might expect. These formations are far from uncommon in the 1915 Lexicon, but the idea was not wholly obsolete in later Quenya either: The Etymologies of the mid-thirties records that the verb onta- "beget, create" has two possible past tenses: beside the XXX straightforward formation ZZZ ontanë we also have the XXX shorter ZZZ form ónë (Etym, entry ONO). XXX Another case of -ta dropping out in the pa.t. involves the verb caita- "to lie" (lie horizontally) introduced in the previous lesson. In the first version of this course, I assumed that its past tense was simply **caitanë – but material published in 2006 indicates that the pa.t. "lay" is actually cainë, formed by adding the past-tense ending directly to the original root KAY rather than to the derived form caita- (VT48:12-13). ZZZ

The simplest A-stems, those that add the short ending -a to the root (and not a longer ending like -ta or -ya), may also drop this ending in some past tense formations. Above we quoted the QL form tyávë as an attested past tense of the verb tyav- "taste", but in the 1915 Lexicon, the verb "taste" is actually given as an A-stem tyava-: It is not a primary verb tyav- as it becomes in later sources (QL:49 vs. Etym, entry KYAB). Within the later system, we would expect an A-stem tyava- to have the past tense tyavanë, but the validity of either form in LotR-style Quenya is highly questionable. More commonly, the simplest A-stem verbs have past tenses that are "regular" enough – if you pretend that the final -a does not exist! Above we quoted oranë as an example of the regular past tense of a simple A-stem verb (ora- "urge"), but immediately after writing oranë, Tolkien actually added ornë as a parenthetic alternative (VT41:13). Of course, ornë would be a perfectly regular form if it were the past tense of a primary verb **or- (cf. for instance tur- "govern", pa.t. turnë). In effect, ora- may behave as a primary verb in the past tense, discarding its ending and jumping over into another class. The earliest material has examples of the same phenomenon: In the QL, the past tense forms of the verbs papa- "tremble" and pata- "rap, tap" are given as pampë, pantë (p. 72), not **papanë, **patanë as we would expect according to the "regular" system. The nasal-infixed past tense forms would be perfectly "regular" if we assume that in the past tense, the simple A-stem verbs papa- and pata- are masquerading as primary verbs **pap-, **pat-. Thus we cannot be certain whether the past tense of the verb mapa- "grasp, seize" should be mapanë or mampë; writers have used both. Since Tolkien seems to imply that the past tense of ora- can be both oranë and ornë, perhaps both are permissible.


NOTE: In QL:59, Tolkien actually listed the past tense of mapa- as nampë (sic!) In the 1915 scenario, there were two variant roots, MAPA and NAPA, that shared the past tense nampë. XXX In the original version of this course, I wrote: "Do we dare to assume that this idea was still valid decades later? The verb mapa- is listed in the Etymologies, but if Tolkien had still imagined its past tense to be as irregular as nampë, I tend to think that it would have been explicitly mentioned in Etym as well. Furthermore, in Etym there is no trace of the alternative root NAPA; we only find MAP (LR:371) corresponding to MAPA in the QL. But on the other hand, the form nampë is attested, so if you like it better than the unattested forms mapanë or mampë, feel free to use it." Since I wrote this, a root NAP "take" or "pick up" has turned up in Tolkien's late material (VT48:16), and if this is a later version of NAPA, it could strengthen the case for nampë as the pa.t. of mapa- in Tolkien's late versions of Quenya as well. As so often, we can't be quite sure what the Professor intended. ZZZ
The verb lala- "laugh" is another example of one of the simplest A-stems. It may have the past tense lalanë, but it is also possible that it should behave as a primary verb in the past tense. But if so, we must take into account the fact that lala- is to be derived from older g-lada- (PM:359); this is one of the cases where an original d following a vowel turned into l rather than r (influenced by the l earlier in the word). So if lala- has a "short" past tense, it should probably not be lallë, but rather landë – derived from a nasal-infixed form of the original word g-lada-. On the other hand, the similar but distinct verb lala- "deny" found in the Etymologies (LR:367) never contained a d, so its past tense may well be lallë (unless it is lalanë, and I think I lean toward that form).

The Etymologies actually provides a few examples of even more complex A-stems that also drop their ending and in effect transform themselves into primary verbs in the past tense. The verb farya- "to suffice" is said to have the past tense farnë (Etym, entry PHAR); here the whole ending -ya drops out in the past tense, which is formed as if this were a primary verb XXX **far-. ZZZ Based on such a regular example as the one we quoted above – namely ulya- "pour", past tense ulyanë – we would of course expect the past tense of ferya- to be **feryanë. But actually even our "regular" example ulya- also has an alternative past tense form ullë (Etym, entry ULU), and this is a particularly interesting example, for Tolkien indicated that the two past tenses ulyanë and ullë were not interchangeable. They had somewhat different meanings. There will be a fuller discussion of this in Lesson Ten; for now it suffices to say that I think most verbs in -ya would retain this ending when the past tense suffix - is added. (But ullë as one past tense of ulya-, formed directly from ul- rather than the full form of the verb, would seem to confirm that primary verbs in -l normally have past tenses in -. Except for ullë, we only have the example vil- "fly", pa.t. villë to go on – so an extra, if indirect, confirmation of this pattern is very welcome!)

Finally we will discuss a strange past tense formation that may occur in the case of verbs in -ta. Perhaps it should not be seen as irregular, for Tolkien actually described one such past tense as "regular...for a -ta verb of this class" (WJ:366). Nonetheless, its formation is less than straightforward. It is exemplified already in the earliest material: The 1915 Lexicon contains a verb lahta- (QL:50; the verb is not clearly glossed), but its past tense is not **lahtanë as we might expect: Instead we find lahantë. In other words, the verb lahta- is reworked into lahat- (the stem-vowel being repeated between the second and the third consonant, breaking up the consonant cluster, whereas the final -a is dropped), and the past tense lahantë is then formed from this lahat- by means of nasal-infixion and an added -ë, in itself a quite regular process familiar from primary verbs.

A much later example can be found in the Etymologies, where the verb orta- "rise, raise" is assigned a past tense form orontë (Etym, entry ORO), though orontë is not there clearly presented as a Quenya form: In Etym, it is actually quite unclear what language it is meant to belong to. However, in some of Tolkien's earlier drafts for Namárië, the past tense of orta- did appear as orontë, not "regular" ortanë as it became in the final version. So what is going on here?

Our only real clue is what Tolkien wrote in WJ:366, where he somewhat surprisingly declared the form oantë – the past tense of auta- "go away, leave" – to be quite regular "for a -ta verb of this class". According to the "regular" system we have tried to make out, oantë instead of **autanë inevitably seems highly irregular. Tolkien derived the verb auta- from a root AWA (WJ:365), so its form in the primitive language is probably meant to be awatâ (my reconstruction). As primitive Elvish evolved towards Quenya as we know it, the second of two identical short vowels in concomitant syllables was often lost; hence awatâ would have been shortened to aw'tâ = autâ, and this in turn is the direct ancestor of Quenya auta-. But it seems that the old past tense of such a verb as awatâ, with a vowel immediately preceding the ending -, was formed by nasal-infixion: Tolkien explicitly gave the past tense of the primitive verb as awantê (WJ:366; the spelling there used is actually áwa-n-tê, the hyphens before and after the n apparently emphasizing that it is an infix – whereas the accent on the initial á here only means that it is stressed, not that the vowel is long).

In the case of a word like awantê, the rule that the second of two identical short vowels is lost could not apply (no **aw'ntê), for such loss does not occur immediately in front of a consonant cluster – and the nasal-infixion has here produced a cluster nt. The "final" Quenya form of awantê, namely oantë, is somewhat obscured because the group awa later became oa in Quenya – but this change has nothing to do with the past tense formation. Now we can explain a form like orontë as the past tense of orta-: In the Etymologies, the original root is given as ORO (LR:379), so Tolkien probably meant the verb orta- to be descended from older orotâ- after the regular loss of the second vowel. But the past tense of this orotâ- was the nasal-infixed form orontê (both are my reconstructions), and this produced Quenya orontë, the second vowel here being preserved because of the following cluster nt (no one wants to say **orntë!)

When Tolkien apparently changed his mind and altered the past tense of orta- from orontë to ortanë (a "regular" form according to the system we have set out), this would seem to suggest that he had now decided that the primitive forms were instead ortâ- with past tense orta-nê: There was never any vowel immediately in front of the ending - after all, and therefore the past tense was not formed by nasal-infixion, but by the independent ending - (> Quenya -). This is not the only example of Tolkien apparently changing his mind about which verbs actually belong to this exclusive "class". The Etymologies lists a verb atalta- "collapse, fall in" (entry TALÁT); no past tense is there mentioned, but in one text we have atalantë (LR:56, translated "down-fell"). This would seem to presuppose that the primitive forms were atalatâ- with past tense atalantê (my reconstructions, but cf. WJ:319 regarding ATALAT as a derivative form of the root TALAT). Yet in Tolkien's later texts the past tense of atalta- becomes ataltanë (LR:47 and SD:247), simply formed by adding the normal ending -. So now Tolkien had presumably come to envision the primitive forms as ataltâ-, past tense atalta-nê (my reconstructions).

If the apparent revisions orontë > ortanë and atalantë > ataltanë do not reflect changes in his ideas about the primitive Elvish forms, it may be that he imagined a development whereby the Eldar replaced the more complex past tense formations with simpler, analogical forms. For instance, orontë as past tense of orta- could have been replaced by ortanë because of analogy with such straightforward past tense formations as hehta-, pa.t. hehtanë (WJ:365). In the Etymologies, the form orontë is indeed marked with a symbol that indicates that it is "poetic or archaic" (cf. LR:347); is this to suggest that it was ordinarily replaced by the "non-archaic" form ortanë? Especially considering how Tolkien later came to envision the history of the Quenya tongue – that it was used as a ceremonial language in Middle-earth, but was no longer anyone's mother-tongue – we could very plausibly assume that its grammar was somewhat simplified, more complex formations being suppressed and replaced by simpler analogical ones. Indeed oantë rather than **autanë as the past tense of auta- "to leave" is the only verb I can think of where we "must" use this special past tense formation, unless we are to accept some of the earliest "Qenya" material with no reservations (and I have plenty).


With this we conclude our survey of various strange or XXX less-than-straightforward ZZZ ways of forming the past tense; as I said above, the exercises below are meant to reflect the XXX straightforward ZZZ system instead. XXX Caita- "to lie", pa.t. cainë, is the sole "irregular" exception. ZZZ

Remember that just like present-tense verbs, a past tense form receives the ending -r if it has a plural subject (or multiple subjects). For instance, the simplest past tense of the verb lanta- "fall" is lantanë, but with a plural subject it becomes lantaner (SD:246). Naturally, he diaeresis over the final -ë disappears, since the vowel is no longer final when the plural ending -r is added after it.


Summary of Lesson Six: While various irregular formations occur, it would seem that the past tense of Quenya verbs is typically formed according to these rules: A-stem verbs simply receive the ending -. The "primary" or ending-less verbs can also receive this ending if their last consonant is -r or -m, probably also -n (no examples). If added to a primary verb in -l, the ending - turns into - (resulting in a double ll, e.g. villë as the past tense of vil- "fly"). Primary verbs ending in one of the consonants p, t, c have past tenses constructed by adding the ending -ë combined with nasal-infixion intruding before the last consonant of the verbal stem; the infix manifests as m before p (hence tompë as the past tense of top- "cover"), otherwise as n (hence mantë as the past tense of mat- "eat").
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