Tengwar for Te Reo (Māori)

Tengwar for Te Reo

I have a once-and-future D&D world, which I call Tegurala (previously called "DungeonWorld"). When I started working on it, I decided to use real world languages for the fantasy languages, for naming language consistency without having to create a bunch of new ConLangs.

Elves in this world (at least in both of the time frames I've worked on) are mostly sea-farers, and also an elder race with a mostly unified world culture, so there's not a lot of linguistic diversity. I settled on Māori for their language (and other Austronesian languages in earlier time periods when the elves had more linguistic diversity).

But of course, Elven needs it own native writing system, which Māori doesn’t come with. One of my players lobbied me to use the Tengwar. While I had ruled out using Quenya or Sindarin for the language, using Tengwar seemed a reasonable compromise.

So here we are, Tengwar not just for use with Māori, but as if it had been invented by Polynesian speakers.

1: The Tuʻara

Chart of Tengwar
Modern Elvish languages Te Reo (aka Māori) and 'Ōlelo o ke Kai (aka Hawaiian, aka 'Ōlelo Hawaiʻi) compared to Te 'Alelo Tafito (aka Classical Elvish, aka Proto-Polynesian).

In (Tegurala) Elvish, the writing system is called Tuʻara. Each of the letters also has a new name. See Elven Terminology section

Elven orthography represents not the current pronunciation of words, but the pronunciation in an older period, from which the spellings have been preserved (the same is true of English, and many other languages that have been written for at least several hundred years). The part of Classical Elvish (Te 'Alelo Tafito) is played by Proto-Polynesian (or more accurately, a transitional form between Proto-Polynesian and Proto-Nuclear-Polynesian).

Luckily, it is pretty easy to reconstruct a Proto-Polynesian word from a Māori word, except for a couple of mergers. In the case of these mergers, we can pretend modern elves also have trouble spelling the old forms, and pass off our mistakes as authentic!

1.1: Transliteration Method

How to transliterate a known written Māori word into Tu'ara.

1.1.1: Vowels

Vowels are simple. They are marked above or below the preceding consonant (the consonant of the same syllable), exactly the same as the Mode of Beleriand. The five simple vowel marks of Tengwar map directly to the five short vowels of Polynesian languages.

Māori long vowels and diphthongs are almost always the result of consonant deletions between two originally separate vowels. Handling of these is described in the Consonants section. Other than that, If you assume the Proto-Polynesian vowels of a word are the same as in Māori, you'll almost always be right.

1.1.2: Consonants

  1. Māori t, p, k, n, m, ng, and r are easily transcribed as the corresponding Tuʻara (talo, pule, kapua, nifo, marama, ngalu, and raʻakau).
  2. Māori w becomes wiri.
  3. Māori word initial wh becomes fale.
  4. Māori word initial h becomes susu.
  5. Māori word internal h can be either fale or susu, I default to susu.
  6. Māori long vowels and dipthongs are written as two vowels with a ʻuha or hiku (Classical Elven /ʔ/ and /h/ respectively, both now lost) inserted “between” them, i.e. carrying the second vowel. I default to ʻuha for long vowels and hiku for dipthongs.
  7. Māori words initial vowels can be carried by lawe (if it began with a vowel in Classical Elven) or ʻuha or hiku. I default to hiku, but I try to mix it up with at least some lawe.

1.1.3: ʻŌlelo o ke Kai Consonants

The second most common elven language is ʻŌlelo o ke Kai, which is played by Hawaiʻian. Hawaiʻian is slightly harder, because it has a few more sound changes than Māori from Proto-Polynesian, including two more mergers. When transliterating a Hawaiʻian word without reference to a Māori cognate or Proto-Polynesian reconstruction, I use the following steps:

  1. Hawaiʻian p, m, l transcribed as the corresponding Tu'ara (pule, marama, and raʻakau).
  2. Hawaiʻian k becomes talo.
  3. Hawaiʻian ʻ becomes kapua.
  4. Hawaiʻian n can be either nifo or ngalu.
  5. Hawaiʻian h can be either fale or susu.
  6. Hawaiʻian w can be either wiri or fale.
  7. Hawaiʻian dipthongs and long vowels are handled the same as Māori.
  8. Hawaiʻian words initial vowels are handled the same as Māori.

For Hawaiʻian vowels, follow the same rules as Māori.

1.1.4: Advanced Complications

There are a few cases in which the basic rules I outlined above can be improved, when I'm spending more time with a specific word. Feel free to skip this part.

1.1.4.1 Advanced Vowels

I said Māori long vowels and diphthongs are "almost always" the result of consonant deletions". I know of one case each in which they are not: 1. Long vowels: Māori words that are not particles are phonologically required to be at least two morae, but that doesn't seem to have been true in Proto-Polynesian. So in a Māori word that is one syllable with a long vowel (e.g. whā, "four"), the long vowel could be from lengthening to meet the minimal word requirement, instead of from consonant deletion (in the example, from Proto-Polynesia *fa, "four"). 2. Diphthongs: a few Proto-Polynesian words had sequences of vowels (assumed to be separate syllables with hiatus rather than diphthongs yet) as a result of an earlier consonant deletion from Proto-Austronesian to Proto-Polynesian, which became diphthongs in Māori.

Same complications for Hawaiʻian, plus be careful of /o/s, especially near the beginning of words. The most common vowel change is Hawaiʻian /o/ or /ō/ from Proto-Polynesian /a/, and it is often triggered on a root-initial /a/ by adding a prefix. Additionally, there is a very common prefix hoʻo- (and its many variants, which I happen to have written an undergrad paper on), which is from Proto-Polynesian *faka (and is spelled in Tuʻara accordingly).

1.1.4.2 Advanced Consonants

Most of the cases in which the Te ʻAlelo Tafito spelling is ambiguous from the Māori, it can be resolved by finding either a Proto-Polynesian reconstruction; or a Tongan cognate, since Tongan preserves Proto-Polynesian /h/ and /ʔ/.

There a handful of known words (literally, about five) where Māori /w/ comes from Proto-Polynesian /f/ instead of from /w/. Proto-Polynesian /f/ usually becomes Māori /wh/, but sometimes dissimilates to /w/ if there were two /f/s in close succession in the Proto-Polynesian. So if a Māori word has the sequence wah-, it might be from Proto-Polynesian *faf-, instead of *waf- or *was-.

1.2: Elven Terminology

Classical Elvish Te Reo Elvish 'Ōlelo o ke Kai Elvish Meaning
Te ʻAlelo Tafito Te Arero Tawhito Ke Alelo Kahiko "The Old Tongue, Classical Elvish" Te ʻAlelo Tafito in Tu'ara
Tuʻara Tuara Kuala "writing, the elvish script"¹ Tu'ara in Tu'ara
Talo Taro Kalo "taro (root)" (letter name) Tengwar Tinco, Talo in Tuʻara
Pule Pure Pule "cowrie (shell)" (letter name) Tengwar Parma, Pule in Tuʻara
Kapu‘a Kapua ʻApua "cloud, fog" (letter name) Tengwar Calma, Kapua in Tuʻara
Susu Huhu Huhu "breast"² (letter name) Tengwar Súle, Susu in Tuʻara
Fale Whare Hale "house" (letter name) Tengwar Formen, Fale in Tuʻara
Hiku Iku Itu "(fish) tail" (letter name) Tengwar Harma, Hiku in Tuʻara
Nifo Niho Niho "tooth" (letter name) Tengwar Óre, Nifo in Tuʻara
Marama Marama Malama "moon" (letter name) Tengwar Malta, Marama in Tuʻara
Ngalu Ngaru Nalu "wave" (letter name) Tengwar Ngoldo, Ngalu in Tuʻara
Raʻakahu Rākau Lāʻau "tree" (letter name) Tengwar Lambe, Raʻakahu in Tuʻara
Wiri Wiri Wili "drill, bore" (letter name) Tengwar Úre, Wiri in Tuʻara
Rawe Rawe Lawe "carrier" (letter name) Tengwar Telco, Rawe in Tuʻara
ʻUha Ua Ua "rain" (letter name) Tengwar Ára, ʻUha in Tuʻara

¹ In-world, Tuʻara is from an archaic word meaning "bone", in reference to Giantish bone inscriptions, the first writing the elves encountered. Out-of-world, I derived it from Proto-Austronesian *CuqǝlaN: "bone", which has no real life reflexes in Polynesian languages because it was replaced by iwi as the word for "bone" in Polynesian (from Proto-Austronesian *duʀi: "thorn").

² In both of the modern languages, the word for breast is "Ū", but the letter is called "Huhu"

2. Development Story

The majority of the Tengwar are part of an ordered table. For example Series II are the labials (and labiovelars), or Grade 5 are the nasals; the shapes of the glyphs are likewise featural: Series I glyphs have downward-facing, open bows, Grade 2 glyphs have double bows and descending stems. Since I wanted Tegurala tengwar to represent a writing system native to the language, not borrowed from another language, I needed a system that used as coherent a pattern as possible selected out of full Tengwar.

Chart of Tengwar
Chart of Tengwar as used in Middle-Earth.

The consonant inventory of Māori is: /p/, /t/, /k/, /ɸ/, /h/, /m/, /n/, /ŋ/, /ɾ/, /w/. At first glance, this would use:

  • Grade 1: Series I-III
  • Grade 3: Series II&III
  • Grade 5: Series I-III
  • Grade 6: possibly Series I and/or IV
  • or rómen and úre from the Additional Letters
  • The short and long carriers, for vowel-initial syllables.

That approaches a coherent subset. Four letters from the Additional Letters, plus get rid of Series IV, and Grades 2, 4, and 6, use everything else. It leaves only a gap at Grade 3, Series I (súle). You could move /w/ or /ɾ/ to that glyph, from out of the additional letters, but neither makes phonetic sense in that position.

Using Grades 1, 3, 5 is a little weird based on glyph shapes, since Grade 5 glyphs are the double-bow version of Grade 6 glyphs. But if we slip a little influence in from the Beleriand Mode (that is, Sindarin Tengwar), we can just use Grade 6, I-III for the nasals instead of Grade 5 I-III. This eliminates all double-bowed glyphs, simplifying subset.

So anyway, I got to this point fairly rapidly, and said, “Well, that’s reasonably good, if not perfect.” But then I had an intuition that if I based the orthography on Proto-Polynesian or Proto-Eastern-Polynesian, it might work better.

And it did!

Chart of Tengwar
Proto-Polynesian Tengwar compared to Classical and Beleriand Modes. Proto-Polynesian Tengwar allows complete removal of Series IV and Grades 2, 4, and 5 (all double-bow grades).

Not only does this give a better fit than the Māori inventory, it also gives the orthography with built-in history: the words are being spelled as they were pronounced in an implied Classical Elven, at least a thousand years ago (times whatever multipliers you care to add for the counterfactuals in the game world version of the language, such as being spoken by elves instead of humans).

Chart of Tengwar
Chart narrowed to just glyphs used in Te ʻAlelo Tafito. Labelled with Te ʻAlelo Tafito glyph names and terminology.