Tengwar - Punctuation



The many samples of Tengwar where punctuation marks are used demonstrate that there is a sophisticated system for punctuation in Tengwar; more so than in the Sarati, where the punctuation in actual use is limited to a few full stops (but usually even these are left out). Not much is known about the origins of these punctuation marks, how they were developed, and which cultures they were linked to. Various signs appear in different documents, together or alone, enabling us to put together a greater picture, but it is impossible to tell whether these signs all represent parts of one coherent punctuation system.

However, it is clear that the system transcended the boundaries of “modes”, since it appears, with small variations, in documents of supposedly vastly different origins written with many different modes. It seems probable that some elements were very old indeed, possibly part of Feanor’s original invention. In all likelihood there were different “schools” of writing, especially in centers of learning and administration such as the court of Gondor, where particular customs arose with regard to punctuation.

There is usually no one-to-one correspondence between Roman punctuation marks and those of the Tengwar. As with the Latin period, comma, semicolon and colon, many Tengwar punctuation marks indicate pauses or breaks of varying strength, corresponding in part to divisions between syntactic units. However, the strength of a particular break in relation to other breaks is not always obvious, and the division of syntactic units is not always straightforward. In addition, some Latin marks, like the colon, may indicate several nuances of meaning, which may or may not be present in the Tengwar punctuation marks used to transcribe them (and vice versa). Many marks can thus be transcribed in several different ways.

Unlike the punctuation marks of the Latin script, marks used with the Tengwar are usually preceded by a space, so that they are spaced evenly between the preceding tengwa and the following.

Punctuation systems

The table below gives a summary of punctuation marks and how they are transcribed in a few significant documents. A paragraph sign < ¶ > indicates that the mark is found at the end of paragraphs or texts. A more detailed analysis of extant punctuation is given below.

Source Low dot Middle dot Double dot Triple dot Double and middle dot Four dots in a diamond Four dots in a square
DTS 10:1   , .      
DTS 10:2 ,   .      
DTS 19-20   , ; .      
DTS 50-51   , ; : ; .        
DTS 45, 48, 49 ,   , ; : . : . : . .¶  
DTS 71     .        
Source Single dash Double dash Double vertical lines Double vertical dashes Tironian 7 Exclamation mark Question mark
DTS 10:1              
DTS 10:2   -          
DTS 19-20           ! ?
DTS 50-51       ( ) &    
DTS 45, 48, 49     ( )        
DTS 71 ; : ( )        

Dot marks

Samples: DTS 5, DTS 8, DTS 10, DTS 19, DTS 20, DTS 21, DTS 29, DTS 30, DTS 31, DTS 32, DTS 33, DTS 34, DTS 45, DTS 48, DTS 49, DTS 50, DTS 56, DTS 69, DTS 71

Double dot The double dot is by far the most common punctuation mark found in our Tengwar samples. Shaped like a colon, this sign indicates a pause or break in the text. It is usually transcribed as a full stop < . >, sometimes as a semicolon < ; >. In the King’s letter documents (DTS 45, 48, 49) it usually corresponds to a comma < , > in the transcription (although these documents also use a single dot as a comma).

It seems likely that the Quenya word pusta ‘in punctuation full stop’ (Etym) refers to this sign (pusta also denotes a diacritic; see Tengwar Names).

Samples: DTS 10, DTS 19, DTS 20, DTS 21, DTS 50, DTS 51, DTS 57

Middle dot A single dot is commonly used to indicate a pause or break that is weaker or briefer than those marked with a double dot; usually the single dot is transcribed as a comma < , >. The most common placement of the single dot is at mid-height (similarly to the Roman “interpunct” or middle dot < · >).

In the Quenya and Sindarin poems published in The Road Goes Ever On (DTS 20, 21), the dot is used to indicate the end of each poetic line when there is no other punctuation indicating breaks in the required position (the poems are written continuously without breaks at the end of poetic lines).

In an inscription of Quenya word lúmenn’ (DTS 57), a dot is used to indicate the elided final a, thus corresponding to an apostrophe <  >. In this case, the dot is placed with no space between it and the preceding letter. However, in another inscription of the same word, the elided vowel is not indicated by any mark (DTS 62).

Samples: DTS 7, DTS 10, DTS 45, DTS 48, DTS 49, DTS 55, DTS 68

Low dot Some documents have the dot placed at the baseline rather than at mid-height, notably the Ring-inscription (DTS 7) and the King’s letter documents (DTS 45, 48, 49). In these documents the dot is most often placed close to the preceding letter.

Sample: DTS 48

Triple dot In one version of the King’s letter, a triple-dot mark (three dots in a vertical row) is used to transcribe a colon < : >. We may assume that this mark, other than indicating a pause, maybe also tells the reader that the following sentence is an explanation or elaboration of the previous one.

Samples: DTS 10, DTS 48, DTS 49

Double and middle dot A double dot followed by a single dot at mid-height is used in a few documents to indicate a stronger break or pause than one written with just a double dot. In two of the King’s letter texts (DTS 48, 49), where a double dot usually corresponds with a comma, this sign is rather the equivalent of a period.

In the second Brogan tengwa-greeting (DTS 10:2), which is written according to the Westron convention, this sign is used to mark the end of the final sentence. The first Brogan tengwa-greeting (written according to the General Use) has a four-dot mark in the corresponding position (see below).

Samples: DTS 45, DTS 48, DTS 49

Four dots in a diamond In the King’s letter documents, four dots in a diamond formation are used to indicate a strong pause. The ends of the texts are indicated by this mark in most versions. In addition, two versions (DTS 45:2, 49:2) have this mark where another has the triple dot (see above).

Samples: DTS 10, DTS 19, DTS 20

Four dots in a square Two successive double dots (or four dots in a square formation) are used in two texts to indicate a strong pause or the end of a text. In Namárie this sign is used both at the end of the first stanza, and after the question of the following line (but not at the end of the poem as a whole).

In the first Brogan tengwa-greeting (DTS 10:1), written in the General Use, this sign marks the end of the final sentence, corresponding in use to the three-dot mark used to mark the end of the second greeting (which follows the Westron Convention, see above).

Sample: DTS 5

On the title-page of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien marks the end of the text in Tengwar with a double dot followed by a dash.


Sample: DTS 71

A single horisontal dash at mid-height is found twice in Bilbo’s contract, where they surround a parenthetic remark. They correspond to semicolons < ; > in the Roman transcription.

On the title-page of The Lord of the Rings, a double dot followed by a dash marks the end of the text (see above).

Samples: DTS 10, DTS 55, DTS 71

double dash In two texts (DTS 10, 55), double dashes are used as hyphens where words are divided over two lines. In other documents, however, words may be divided over two lines without any denotation (DTS 20, 45, 48, 49).

In Bilbo’s contract (DTS 71), a double dash seems to correspond to a colon in the transcribed text.

Samples: DTS 45, DTS 48, DTS 49, DTS 71

Double vertical lines Two parallel vertical lines are used as a parenthesis < ( ) > in the King’s letter. A less elaborate form is found in Bilbo’s contract.

Sample: DTS 51

Double vertical dashes Another form of the parentheses is found in the second version of Edwin Lowdham’s manuscript, where the first parenthesis is superscripted and the second is subscripted. Although consistently transcribed by Tolkien as parentheses, these are here used specifically to indicate words written in other languages (and different modes) than the main text, whether or not these words are truly “parenthetic”. We may also note that the parentheses in this document surround isolated words, whereas the “full” parentheses in the King’s letter and Bilbo’s contract surround longer phrases.

Another theory is that these marks actually represent Roman quotation marks, added by the fictional editor of the text. However, several clues indicate that this is not the case: they are consistently transcribed as parentheses; and the second mark would be a low quote <  >, which is not used by Tolkien elsewhere, and does not usually occur in English writing.

Function marks

Samples: DTS 19, DTS 20

Exclamation mark In Namárie, a wavy vertical line is used as an exclamation mark, occurring after exclamatory words and phrases (though not in exactly the same places as in the Roman transcription). On one occasion the exclamation mark is followed by a single dot that indicates the end of a poetic line, suggesting that the exclamation mark can be combined with other dot marks as needed (cf. the question mark).

It is notable that the Sindarin text A Elbereth (DTS 21), which is published together with Namárie and contains several exclamations, does not make use of the exclamation mark. This might indicate that the mark was not used in Sindarin or the mode of Beleriand, or even that it was specific to Quenya or the Classical Mode.

Samples: DTS 19, DTS 20

Question mark The single example of a question mark for Tengwar is found in Namárie. The question mark is in origin probably the sarat representing ma in Quenya Usage: according to SF (note 18), ma is an “interrogative element” in Quenya. If this identification is correct, the question mark is probably very old. Since the Sarati were virtually unknown in Middle-earth, it seems likely that the question mark was incorporated in the Tengwar already in Aman, perhaps by Feanor himself.

In our sole example, the question mark is followed directly by two double dots indicating a strong pause. This suggests that the question mark may be combined with other dot marks as needed (cf. the exclamation mark).

Samples: DTS 41, DTS 50, DTS 51

Tironian 7 A sign that represents “and” is found in three documents. Not truly a punctuation mark, this is a so-called “Tironian note”, used originally by the Roman scribes as a shorthand for et ‘and’. The sign continued to be used in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, and is still in use today in Ireland. It is probably significant that the three documents containing the sign are not written in Elvish, but in Old English and Latin – ancient primary-world languages.

Latin script punctuation

A number of documents makes use of punctuation common to the Latin script. While many of these were produced early in Tolkien’s lifetime, at least two were written while Tolkien was working on The Lord of the Rings. One of these was even meant for inclusion in the book: the middle page from the Book of Mazarbul (DTS 13).

The table below gives the punctuation marks from the Latin script that are attested in Tengwar documents.

Source Punctuation marks
DTS 13 .   :          
DTS 16 .     ;        
DTS 17 . , : ; ‘ ’   !  
DTS 18   , : ; “ ”   ! ?  
DTS 23 . , :       ! ?
DTS 24 .   :   ‘ ’