On the use of asterisks in Tolkien linguistics

As is well known among people involved in Tolkien's fictional languages it is customary in historical linguistics to mark reconstructed hypothetical prehistoric forms with a prefixed asterisk ( * ), and that Tolkien imitated this usage to mark forms from 'prehistoric' stages of his languages, supposed to have been reconstructed by the Loremasters. From an external point of view these 'prehistoric' forms are of course not any more 'constructed' — in the 'constructed language' sense — than any of his 'historical' forms, but Tolkien played his language game thoroughly.

The problem

The problem arises when we who study Tolkiens linguistic fiction need to distinguish this Tolkienian use of the asterisk to mark fictionally 'prehistoric' forms from our need to indicate our own post-Tolkienian secondary reconstructions, where we to boot reconstruct both 'historical' and 'prehistoric' forms.

A solution

A few years ago I got the idea that secondarily reconstructed forms may be marked with an asterisk placed after the word. We then get this scheme:

Typeset Plaintext Meaning
abc _abc_ (no asterisk!) historical form attested in Tolkien's works.
*abc _*abc_ prehistoric form attested in Tolkien's works.
abc* _abc*_ secondarily reconstructed historical form.
*abc* _*abc*_ secondarily reconstructed prehistoric form.
**abc _**abc_ form attested in Tolkien's work but deemed to be erroneous (e.g. suspected or known to be misspelled or misprinted).
**abc* _**abc*_ secondarily reconstructed form deemed to be erroneous.

Markup conflicts

The reason that I use underscores around the plaintext versions is not only that these should be italicized in typeset text, but also that asterisks around words often are used in plaintext to simulate boldface *like this*. One could in theory use both leading and trailing **double asterisks** to simulate boldface since this combination isn't used to mark the status of linguistic forms, but it is easy to forget to double the asterisks simulating boldface — because one doesn't need to double them outside the context of Tolkien linguistics! — and in fact mixing asterisks and underscores is clearer and more easily parsed (both by the eye and when having a computer script convert plaintext marked up like this to HTML or Wiki markup, as I have in fact done with this text). The risk that someone would wish to simulate bold italics in for example email in a linguistic context is small; as far as I know it is only mathematicians and physicists who seriously use that typographical combination.

By the way he safest way to indicate strong emphasis in a context where asterisks are put to heavy use in another function is perhaps to use __double underscores__, although these are admittedly hard to distinguish visually from single underscores.

Other solutions

A not so good solution

Another method of marking secondarily reconstructed forms that has been used by some writers is with a preposed ! (!abc). The problem with preposed ! is that in many programming languages this sign signifies logical negation, e.g. != for 'not equal to', so that those used to this meaning will by reflex read !abc as 'not abc', i.e. what linguist would write as **abc. I'm afraid I wasn't aware of this when I myself used ! for secondarily reconstructed forms!

Conflicting uses of the number sign ( # )

I am aware that some writers have used a preposed # (number sign) to mark secondarily reconstructed forms.

The problem with this is that # also has been used in Tolkien linguistics to mark either that a spelling has been normalized, or to mark a dictionary form of a word as extrapolated from an attested compound or inflected form. Since it is this latter use of # that is found in Helge Fauskanger's widely circulated and consulted word lists it is probably the most well-known in the circles concerned. Besides I for one have a hard time seeing how one should else mark a word as not attested in uncompounded or uninflected form; to use # for 'secondarily reconstructed' and * for 'unattested in base form' feels like the wrong way around to me, being used to the asterisk marking reconstructed forms in the historical linguistics of natural languages. Perhaps one could define the commonality between these usages to be that it marks a grammatically, morphologically or orthographically extrapolated form, as opposed to phonologically reconstructed forms. We may thus add these conventions to our scheme:

Typeset Plaintext Meaning
_#abc _ _#abc_ grammatically or morphologically extrapolated form
_#abc* _ _#abc*_ orthographically extrapolated or normalized (respelled) form.

The complete scheme

The (for now) complete table for the entire scheme thus becomes:

Typeset Plaintext Meaning
_abc _ _abc_ (no asterisk!) historical form attested in Tolkien's works.
_*abc _ _*abc_ prehistoric form attested in Tolkien's works.
_abc* _ _abc*_ secondarily reconstructed historical form.
_*abc* _ _*abc*_ secondarily reconstructed prehistoric form.
_**abc _ _**abc_ form attested in Tolkien's work but deemed to be erroneous (e.g. suspected or known to be misspelled or misprinted).
_**abc* _ _**abc*_ secondarily reconstructed form deemed to be erroneous.
_#abc _ _#abc_ grammatically or morphologically extrapolated form
_#abc* _ _#abc*_ orthographically extrapolated or normalized (respelled) form.

Conflicting usages

Another use of the #, which may be worth mentioning although it is little or not at all used in Tolkien linguistics, since it seems diametrically opposed to the usages in Tolkien linguistics, is described like this in the Jargon File:

Occasionally one sees a leader # used for quotations from authoritative sources such as standards documents; the intended allusion is to the root prompt (the special Unix command prompt issued when one is running as the privileged super-user). (Jargon File 4.4.7, the links are mine)

Finally I should perhaps mention that dictionaries of Romance languages sometimes use a trailing asterisk (abc*) to indicate that a word has feminine gender, but this usage will hardly come into question in the context of Tolkien's languages, since the Eldarin languages have no gender, and AdŻnaic has three genders, while this usage presupposes a binary opposition between two genders.

Benct Philip Jonsson melroch@melroch.se (Last updated 29 october 2006)