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Devised as part of the Tengwar script in Valinor during the Years of the Trees
Part of a writing system invented by Rúmil, and developed by Fëanor
Originated with the Elves, but widely used by other peoples


About this entry:

  • Updated 14 August 2023
  • This entry is complete


A stroke in Elven writing

The Tengwar of Fëanor represented a sophisticated system of writing. The primary characters of the script were not arbitrary, but were designed so that the structure of each letter represented the sound associated with it. These phonetic symbols, divided into témar or sound-series, each consisted of a standardised basic structure, with a curved arc, the lúva, extending out from a straight stem. This straight stem or line was the telco, and its position within the character, as well as its orientation relative to the lúva, defined the sound represented by the letter.

A complication of the Fëanorian system was that the sound structure was not fixed, and so the values of the characters could vary depending on the scheme in use. Based on the typical system, the tengwar with the telco drawn down the left-hand side belonged to the tincotéma or parmatéma (variations on the sounds 't' and 'p'). The use of the telco to the right was more complex, as the series involved tended to vary according to the language being represented, but they typically included the calmatéma or quessetéma (variations on the sounds 'k' or 'kw').

For 'stops' or distinct consonantal sounds, the telco was written to extend upward from the form of the letter. So, for sounds like b, d, p or t, the stem would run upward from the tengwa. A telco written with a downward, conversely, represented a spirant, a variant sound made with a continuous flow of breath. Examples of these spirants would be sounds like f, th or dh. Any of these sounds could be voiced or unvoiced2 (the distinction of voice being made by the lúva, which was doubled for voiced sounds).

It was theoretically possible to write a tengwa with a 'double' telco, extending upward and downward in the same character. This represented an aspirated consonant,3 but such sounds were almost unknown in the main languages written with the tengwar, and so this double telco was very rarely used in practice.

Finally, there were letters with a short, unextended telco, a simple line that did not extend above or below the bowed lúva shape. These tended to be used less formally than the others, to represent common sounds that did not necessarily belong to the same téma or sound-series as the others of their kind. Characters with a double lúva and a short telco commonly represented nasal sounds such as m or n. Finally, a single lúva and a short telco represented a 'weak' sound (such as an untrilled r sound4 or a w sound).



This long straight mark takes its name from the more general Quenya word telco, which is interpreted in The Etymologies (in The History of Middle-earth volume V) as 'leg', deriving from a root telek-, 'stalk, stem, leg'. As used in writing, Tolkien specifically defines the term as 'stem' in Appendix II to The Lord of the Rings. In the sense of 'leg', the same root is found in Telcontar, the Elvish form of the name 'Strider'


Formally the difference between 'voiced' and 'unvoiced' relates to the movement of the vocal cords, which vibrate for voiced sounds, but not for unvoiced sounds. For example, the sound b is voiced, while p is formed in the same way, but unvoiced. Other examples of pairs like this include v and f (v is voiced, f is unvoiced) and g and k (g is voiced, k is unvoiced).


An 'aspirated consonant', a consonant followed by a short breath, is as rare in English as in the Elvish languages. There are a few examples, however, where the sound is implicit, if not actually spelled out. One common example is the word like 'pin', where the initial p sound is followed a short exhalation (so the p could be written as p+h). An absolutely fastidious Elvish transcription of the word 'pin', then, might use the letter parma with a double telco to mark its technically aspirated status.


The sound r was almost always trilled (distinctly pronounced with a rolling sound) in Elvish. (For that reason, many of the pronunciation guides on this site use 'rr' to emphasise this sound, where many English-speakers would more naturally use an untrilled r, or not pronounce the r sound at all.) This common Elvish trilled r had its own independent character with no lúva or telco (somewhat similar in shape to the letter 'y' in the Roman alphabet). For the untrilled version the usual character had a single short telco and a single open lúva (looking somewhat like a curved rendering of the letter 'n'). In transliterations from Elvish into English, this weaker r is usually represented by the combinations rh or hr (as in the month-names Rhíw and Hrívë).


About this entry:

  • Updated 14 August 2023
  • This entry is complete

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