Why do the Elves in The Hobbit sound Welsh?

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1. What does Welsh have to do with it?

JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings combine timeless storytelling with the creation of a mythical world with its own races, history, music and languages.

The invention of new languages went hand-in-hand with the shaping of the characters that spoke them. And while Englishness is at the heart of the Shire, the home of the hobbits, for his other races Tolkien looked beyond England.

Sindarin, the Elvish language used in Peter Jackson's film adaptations, shares many key characteristics with Welsh. How did a proud Englishman like Tolkien become so entranced by the Welsh language?

2. Little by little, one travels far

Dimitra Fimi explores JRR Tolkien’s introduction to Welsh.

3. 'More pleasing than sky'

Tolkien always held a passion for inventing languages. From an early age he helped create the nonsense languages Animalic and Nevbosh with friends, and began creating his own tongue, Naffarin, which was based on Latin and Spanish. Yet Welsh proved more linguistically fruitful.

He taught medieval Welsh at the University of Leeds between 1920 and 1925. It’s not known how proficient he was in modern Welsh, but the Welsh grammar book he bought as an Oxford student is heavily annotated with quotations, grammatical points, and even corrections.

In 1955 Tolkien gave a lecture in Oxford entitled English and Welsh. He argued that Welsh was as important as Norse or French to linguists studying English.

He explained that what pleased him the most about Welsh was its sound. He told his audience: "Most English-speaking people … will admit that 'cellar door' is beautiful, especially if dissociated from its sense and from its spelling. More beautiful than, say, 'sky', and far more beautiful than 'beautiful' … Well then, in Welsh, for me cellar doors are extraordinarily frequent, and moving to the higher dimension, the words in which there is pleasure in the contemplation of the association of form and sense are abundant."

4. The Welsh Borders of Buckland

A linguist first and writer second, Tolkien claimed that The Lord of the Rings was actually his own translation of the Red Book of Westmarch, the book in which Bilbo, Frodo and Sam recount their adventures.

The Red Book of Westmarch was no doubt borrowed from the Red Book of Hergest (Llyfr Coch Hergest in Welsh), one of the oldest and most important manuscripts written in the Welsh language, which includes some of the medieval tales of the Mabinogion.

5. 'Never laugh at live dragons'

The influence of Welsh in Middle-earth is strongest in the Elvish tongues. Quenya is based on Finnish, and Sindarin on Welsh.

Tolkien thought Welsh fitted well with the Sindarin Elves, since their histories – as told in The Silmarillion – resemble Celtic styles of legends.

There are some Welsh words in the Sindarin wordlist, but Tolkien borrowed more from the sounds of the Welsh language. He even used the characteristic Welsh sound of 'll', heard in words such as llyn, llan and placenames including Llanelli.

He borrowed some other linguistic elements. One of the most distinctive features of Welsh is that, in some circumstances, letters will mutate. For example, i (to) and tŷ (house) becomes i dŷ. Sindarin also has these mutations.

The character Samwise Gamgee’s name in Sindarin is Perhael, yet when the word 'a' (Sindarin for 'and') goes in front, it turns into Berhael. What’s more, the Welsh word pêr translates as sweet or pure, while hael means generous - two key aspects of his character.

In Welsh, adjectives always come after the noun they describe, so red book would be llyfr coch (book red). Sindarin is the same. Edhellen (elvish) and annon (door) would come together as annon edhellen (elvish door).

Similarly, to indicate the possession of a noun in Welsh (the genitive), the possessing word comes after the noun – for example, nain Elen (Elen’s grandmother). Sindarin uses this grammatical structure too: Amon Hen means Hill of the Eye (amon means hill, hen is eye).

Tolkien never finished his work on Sindarin. The linguist David Salo was hired to further develop the dialect for The Lord of the Rings films, and had to piece together the little Sindarin available from Tolkien’s works and notes, as well as using his own linguistic skills, to finish the language. His version is known as Neo-Sindarin.

6. Sindarin or Welsh?

Can you tell which of these words or phrases is taken from Tolkien's language Sindarin?

Si nef aearon

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Si nef aearon

Sindarin

Meaning: on this side of the Great Sea. But it’s so nearly Welsh! Si means rumour, nef means heaven and aearon is very close to aeron (berry).

Osgiliad

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Osgiliad

Welsh

This word means oscillation, but looks and sounds like Tolkien’s city of Osgiliath in Gondor.

Emyn

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Emyn

Both

In Welsh, it means hymn, and in Sindarin, it means hills.

Pleidiol wyf i'm gwlad

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Pleidiol wyf i'm gwlad

Welsh

This is from the Welsh National Anthem, and translates as: true am I to my country. You can also find it written along the edge of a £1 coin.