See also: More about Quenya's relation to Finnish in the Net

Are High Elves Finno-Ugric?

Tolkien's original inspiration to create Quenya, the High-elven language, came from his encounter with Finnish. How similar, then, are these two languages?



Quenya is a constructed language created by Professor J. R. R. Tolkien. It is the language of the High Elves in Arda, Tolkien's "secondary world" in which his novels such as The Lord of the Rings are set. Tolkien created numerous languages that were a part of his fictional world, but only the two Elvish ones, Quenya and Sindarin, ever became more or less completed.

The following is my attempt to point out the similarities and differences between Quenya and my native tongue, Finnish. I will concentrate on the language's late forms, sometimes called mature Quenya (see History of Quenya From Our Point of View).

I have no competence in linguistics, so please forgive any inaccuracies in my use of terminology. If you have any comments, I would be glad to hear them.


According to its creator, Quenya's main models were Latin, Finnish and Greek. It could perhaps be said that Finnish was the most important of these in the beginning, because it gave Tolkien the initial impulse to create Quenya. Finnish influence does indeed seem strong in the earliest forms of the language, at least in vocabulary, where many words are Finnish in style. Later on the language distanced a little farther from Finnish, but the similarity never disappeared.

Comparing the grammars of the two languages shows that both are rather highly inflected languages, having a large number of noun cases. On the other hand, the details of their structure do not seem to be very similar. According to what is known of Quenya's grammar, it seems to be somewhat simpler than in Finnish.

Phonetics and phonology - the sounds of a language and the system they form - were important to Tolkien, who most of all wanted his languages to sound beautiful. In this area some features of Quenya clearly agree with Finnish: both languages use vowels very frequently, and neither allows heavy consonant clusters. However, there are many differences, such as the many consonants in Quenya that are alien to Finnish. Quenya also lacks many of the peculiarities considered to be typically Finnish.

As a natural result of the similarities in sound structure, Quenya has many words that would not be impossible in Finnish, either. Some of them actually do exist in Finnish, having a different meaning. An etymological dictionary by Tolkien contains about a dozen actual loanwords from Finnish, a few of which a careful reader can find in The Lord of the Rings. Some Quenya names in Tolkien's mythology could also have Finnish roots.

Rautala has also posed a semi-serious question similar to the title of my article. Her answer is no - if Quenya was a "real" language, it could not be placed in the Finno-Ugrian group. I think I will have to agree. Quenya is clearly a language of its own, even though it owes much to its models such as Finnish.

History of Quenya From Our Point of View

While studying at Oxford, young J. R. R. Tolkien came a across a Finnish grammar. The language made a strong impression on him, as he afterwards described in a letter: "It was like discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me" (quoted in Carpenter and Fauskanger, Vice).

Languages had been Tolkien's hobby since childhood, and he had already tried inventing some of his own. With this new source of inspiration, he began to work on a language which was strongly influenced by Finnish. While developing it, he began to feel that the language needed a history, and a world it was spoken in. During World War I, Tolkien decided to connect the language with the mythic stories he had just begun to write. The stories would eventually evolve into The Silmarillion, and the language now became an Elvish tongue called Qenya.

The Finnish influence was rather obvious in the early forms of "Qenya". By looking at the index to one of the earliest wordlists, one can find quite many Finnish or near-Finnish words. The language went through many changes (one of the smaller ones was changing the spelling of its name to Quenya) until it reached the relatively final form we see in The Lord of the Rings and later writings. Some call this form mature Quenya. Its vocabulary seems to have fewer direct borrowings from Finnish.

Finnish was of course not the only language that influenced Quenya. Tolkien himself described Quenya as being "composed on a Latin basis with two other (main) ingredients that happen to give me 'phonaesthetic' pleasure: Finnish and Greek" (a letter quoted in Fauskanger, Ancient Tongue). Furthermore, in TolkLang message 28.48 B. Philip Jonsson points out that the Elvish proto-language and Quenya have been influenced by Uralic languages in general, not only Finnish.

History of Quenya From the Elves' Point of View

In addition to its history in the real world, Quenya also had an imaginary history invented by Tolkien. The development of Elvish and other languages is an integral part of the history of Arda.

Like all other Elvish languages, Quenya is descended from the proto-language known as Primitive Quendian. In Valinor Quenya was the common language spoken by the Vanyar, the Noldor and even the Valar. It was eventually brought to Middle-earth by the Noldor. In Beleriand, however, the Noldorin Exiles were forbidden to use their language openly. Quenya survived, but became mostly a book language or a "high speech" used in ceremonies.

Quenya was meant to be an archaic language. It "preserved the main features of the original Elvish language, invented by the Elves when they first awoke by the mere of Cuiviénen" (Fauskanger, Ancient Tongue). Finnish is also very conservative when it comes to the phonetic form of words. It has, for example, kept the final vowels in many ancient Finno-Ugrian words and old Germanic loans. This is demonstrated by the ancient Germanic word *raudha [1]: it has become röd in Swedish and red in English, but in Finnish it is preserved in the form rauta. (Hakulinen)

The word rauta also happens to exist in Quenya, allowing some interesting comparisons. According to an etymological account, Quenya rauta is derived from a stem RAUTÂ, which means that the word has apparently changed very little from its earliest form. Sindarin, a related Elvish language, also has a word coming from the same origin. That word, however, has experienced more changes, becoming rhaud or -rod. (Tolkien)

Grammar Comparison

The similarities of sound structure are often mentioned when discussing Quenya's relationship with Finnish, but that is not the only area where connections can be found. "The grammatical structure [of Quenya]," writes Fauskanger, "involving a large number of cases and other inflections, is clearly inspired by Latin and Finnish" (Ancient Tongue).

Finnish and Quenya are thus both synthetic languages: they express things by adding endings to words rather than using prepositions and other separate little words. As a simple example, 'in a house' is talossa in Finnish and apparently coasse in Quenya.

If the endings and words can be "glued" together without changing them, a language is called agglutinative. Quenya and Finnish are both like this in principle, but neither is a pure agglutinative language. An example in Quenya is casar + the partitive plural ending -li, producing casalli instead of casarli (Fauskanger, Ancient Tongue). In Finnish hauki + genitive -n gives hauen, not haukin.

The number of noun cases in Finnish is usually said to be fifteen, while mature Quenya had nine or ten. The cases themselves are fairly different in the two languages, but their amount suggests that the two languages are closer to each other than to most Indo-European languages. The only cases that would seem related are the Quenya locative -sse and Finnish inessive -ssa/-ssä, which I used in the 'in a house' example above.

In Quenya, pronouns usually appear only as endings: for example, in hiruvalye 'thou shalt find', the part meaning 'thou' is -lye. Finnish verbs are inflected according to the subject of the sentence, and a pronoun can often be omitted, but I think there are other languages that are closer to Quenya in this respect.

At least one of the pronominal endings is apparently a Finnish loan: the first person plural is marked by -mme in both languages (actually Quenya has another 1.p. plural, too). In Quenya it also exists as a separate pronoun, me 'we'. This is also identical to Finnish. A more uncertain case is the 1. person singular: in Quenya it can be either -nye or -n. The latter happens to be the same ending as in Finnish, but this might be just a coincidence, since nasals are common in 1.p. pronouns in languages all around the world.

However, Quenya seems to have a simpler structure than its Finno-Ugrian model. For example, there are lots of endings in Finnish, like -ko/-kö, -kaan/-kään and -han/-hän that are used to express questions, emphasis and such (toimiikohan tämäkään means 'I wonder if this will work either'). These probably have no equivalents in the published samples of Quenya. It is likely that a large number of complicated forms did not fit Tolkien's image of a beautiful language.

The Sounds of Quenya and Finnish

Let us first look at the consonants of the two languages (the lines correspond roughly to different types of sounds) [2]:

Quenya             Finnish

t, p, c            t, p, k
d, b, g            d
s, f, h, hw, hy    s, h
v                  v
n, ng, m           n, ng, m
l, hl              l
r, hr              r
w, y               j       

Quenya c and Finnish k are the same sound spelled differently, as are y and j. With ng I mean the sound in king, not as in finger. hw, hl and hr are the unvoiced counterparts of w, l and r, and hy is like the ch in German ich. Finnish also has b, g, f and sh, but they only appear in loanwords and are not proper phonemes.

As the comparison shows, Finnish has quite few consonants, especially voiced ones. Even d, the only voiced stop, is a relatively new phoneme created by the written language.

One of the characteristic features of Finnish is the phenomenon called consonant gradation. In means the weakening of t, p, k in certain positions. For example, if we add the genitive ending -n to the word lappu, the doubled consonant is reduced to a single one, and we get lapun. In a similar situation, a single p becomes v, so the genitive of tapa is tavan. Quenya does not have a similar system.

Vowels are very frequent in Finnish. Approximately every other sound in Finnish is a vowel, and words usually end in vowels. Both features are present in Quenya as well. The richness of vowels must have been one of the features of Finnish that made the greatest impression on Tolkien.

Quenya has five vowels, a e i o u, while Finnish has eight, a e i o u y ä ö. Since Quenya lacks the front vowels y, ä, ö, it could not have vowel harmony, another characteristic feature of Finnish. In Finnish, these vowels cannot appear in the same word with the back vowels a, o, u (e, i are neutral in this respect).

Both languages avoid consonant clusters, Finnish perhaps even more than Quenya. This, together with the frequency of vowels, gives the languages a similar "style". However, because of the many differences listed above (and the differences in spelling), Quenya usually doesn't look very familiar to a Finn. Spoken Quenya is also likely to sound unfamiliar because of its different placement of stress: it follows a rule similar to that of Latin, while Finnish always has stress on the first syllable.


The Etymologies

The etymological dictionary known simply as the Etymologies, published in The Lost Road, is arranged around "primitive stems" from which all words are derived. It was written just before The Lord of the Rings, which means its Q(u)enya isn't quite "mature" yet, but very close. It is in any case the most important single source of Elvish vocabulary. There are (a rough estimate) a little less than 600 stems and about 1000 words of Quenya.

Rautala has examined the Etymologies, finding recognizably Finnish words under fifteen stems. These words have both a similar meaning in both languages and an identical or nearly identical pronunciation. She has taken into account the Quenya words, their early (primitive Elvish) forms and even the stems. Using this method, it could be said that a few percents of Quenya's vocabulary are influenced by Finnish.

However, I would like to limit this examination to the actual Quenya words that can be identified as Finnish. This would leave us about eleven words out of a thousand; in other words, about one percent of the Quenya words in the Etymologies come directly from Finnish. These are the words in the Etymologies that seem like direct loans to me:
Quenya Finnish
anta- 'give' antaa 'give'
et- prefix 'forth, out' eteen 'forward, to the front', etu- prefix 'front-'
hala 'small fish' kala 'fish'
kulda 'flame-coloured, golden-red' and other forms kulta 'gold'
lapse 'babe' lapsi 'child'
nasta 'spear-head, point, gore, triangle' nasta 'thumbtack, pin'
panya- 'fix, set' panna 'put, place, set, lay'
rauta 'copper', changed to 'metal' rauta 'iron'
tie 'path, course, line, direction, way' tie 'road, path, way'
tereva 'fine, acute' (from an older form meaning 'piercing, keen') terävä 'sharp'
tul- 'come' tulla 'come'

To know exactly how significant these amounts are, it would be necessary to know how much of Quenya's vocabulary is borrowed from existing languages and how much of it is pure invention. Unfortunately, I am unable to make any guesses about it. Tolkien certainly took words from various languages beside Finnish, such as Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, Greek and Scandinavian languages.

In addition to the actual loans, the Etymologies contains Quenya words that exist in Finnish in a completely different meaning. Tolkien probably knew enough Finnish to recognize many of these words, but I think some of them are just a result of the phonological similarity rather than actual loans. I would say there are over eighty of these words in the Etymologies. Quite many of them seem to be of the form CVC-CV (C=consonant, V=vowel). Some examples:
Quenya Finnish
amme 'mother' amme 'bathtub'
arka 'narrow' arka 'shy, timid'
harya- 'to possess' harja 'a brush'
kúma 'the Void' kuuma 'hot'
lanta- 'to fall' lanta 'dung'
poika 'clean, pure' poika 'boy, son'
ráka 'wolf' raaka 'raw, rough; cruel'
Vala 'Power, God' vala 'oath'

Closely related to the previous group are the words that could well be Finnish, although they are not. These words (for example morko, lepse, lauka) often differ very slightly from an existing Finnish word, or they just have a phonetic appearance suitable for Finnish. This group of words is larger than the group of actual Finnish words in Quenya. However, about one third of Quenya's vocabulary in the Etymologies is incompatible with Finnish [3]. Much of this is due to the differences in consonants noted earlier.

Other Sources

From Fauskanger's Quenya Corpus Wordlist we can get a good idea of Quenya's vocabulary outside the Etymologies. The words are mostly from later texts, and probably represent Tolkien's final image of his language fairly well.

Studying this wordlist gives mostly the same results as with the Etymologies. Again, about one third of the words would clearly not fit Finnish phonology; among the rest, there are some Finnish words in different meanings, although they are not as frequent as before.

Perhaps the most notable thing is that Tolkien seems to have given up taking Finnish loans after the Etymologies: I found none in this wordlist.

Finnish Words in The Lord of the Rings

Many might be interested to know how many Finnish influences have found their way into Tolkien's most popular work. Unlike The Silmarillion, LotR does not seem to have any obvious connections to Finland in the actual story, but it does have some phrases of Quenya with Finnish words. I know of the following three:

  1. In Galadriel's song when the Company leaves Lórien (Book II, ch. 8), line 11:
    ar ilyë tier undulávë lumbulë
    "and all paths are drowned deep in shadow"
    Tier is the plural of tie 'path' (Finnish has tie 'road').
  2. Line 13 of the same song:
    i falmarinnar imbë met, ar hísië
    "...on the foaming waves between us, and mist..."
    The word met comes from the pronoun me 'us' + the dual ending -t indicating that there are two persons in question. Me is 'we' in Finnish.
  3. In the words Aragorn cites at his coronation (Book VI, ch. 5), originally spoken by Elendil:
    Et Eärello Endorenna utúlien
    "Out of the Great Sea to Middle-earth I am come"
    Utúlie (the ending -n means 'I') is the perfect tense of tul- 'to come', which has the same meaning as Finnish tulla. Another possible Finnish element in this sentence is et. Here the meaning is 'out', but it could also be translated 'forth', a bit like Finnish eteen.


There are also some names in Tolkien's works that show Finnish influence. However, one should be careful not to jump into conclusions here. It must be remembered that words in Tolkien's languages are connected to each other, and that names have meanings.

As an example, de Anna suggests that Valinor, which is often associated with light in Tolkien's mythology, would be connected to valo, the Finnish word for 'light'. This is quite possible, but the matter may not be as simple as this. Valinor means 'the land (or people) of the Valar', and according to de Anna, the Valar didn't get their name from Finnish but from ancient Scandinavian, where it meant 'a prophetess'. Because of problems like these, we can often do no more than speculate.

De Anna also presents the idea that an early Quenya name for the Sun, Kalavent- / Kalavún- ('ship of light'), would have been inspired by Finnish kalavene ('fishing boat'). If so, the word kala, which remained in use as quite an important word (it can be seen in the names Calacirya and Calaquendi), might have quite an interesting Finnish origin! (As seen in the list above, Quenya has the word hala 'small fish' as well.)

There is a group of Quenya names that resemble ilma ('air') and Ilmarinen (a character in the Kalevala, originally a Finnish god):

It is notable that Ilmarinen can be divided into Ilmari + the diminutive -nen. Did Tolkien intend to associate Manwe with Ilmarinen, the god of travellers and winds in the ancient Finnish religion, or is the word ilma the only connection between these two? The boldest may also make guesses on whether Silmaril and related words have been inspired by ilma.

Similarity between the names of Eru Ilúvatar and Ilmatar of the Kalevala encourages speculation, especially since both have a part in the creation of the world. Another Quenya name that would fit well into the Kalevala is Annatar, used by Sauron in the Second Age. This is probably just a coincidence, though. Finnish -tar/-tär is a feminine ending, seen in many names in the Kalevala. In Quenya tar is 'high' or 'lord'.


Bradfield, Julian. "Elvish Pronunciation Guide."

Carpenter, Humphrey. J. R. R. Tolkien: elämäkerta. [Finnish translation of J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography.]

De Anna, Luigi. "The Magic of Words: J. R. R. Tolkien and Finland." Scholarship & Fantasy: Proceedings of The Tolkien Phenomenon. Ed. K. J. Battarbee. [Available, at least, at the library of Turku, Finland.]

Fauskanger, Helge.

Hakulinen, Lauri. Suomen kielen rakenne ja kehitys. [A book on the structure and development of Finnish.]

Rautala, Helena. "Familiarity and distance: Quenya's relation to Finnish." Scholarship & Fantasy: Proceedings of The Tolkien Phenomenon. Ed. K. J. Battarbee.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lost Road and Other Writings. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. The History of Middle-earth vol. 5.


The dh in raudha is pronounced like the th in English this.
The listing of Quenya's consonants is based on Fauskanger, Ancient Tongue. For a slightly different way of presenting them (which makes the system seem even less similar to Finnish), see Bradfield.
The amount depends greatly on how it is calculated. I decided to count words with a d as incompatible with Finnish, although d appears in Finnish as a weak grade of t in some inflected forms (and in recent loanwords).