Nirthian ontology

This is an excerpt from Nirth’s seminal work on ontology, by the philosopher Hissalion.


“It is folly to say we have not known that which cannot be named. We have known it, and even without naming it we have interacted with it and with many such things. Yet it is also folly to say that we do know it, for how can we know that of which we cannot speak to one another? So we both know and do not know that which is unnamable. All things, however, are unnamable until they are named. Is it not the very duty of language to form the unknown into syllables so that understanding may lighten our ignorance? Is it not the duty of elves to build language so that we can know one another, so that we can know our own thoughts? For even our thoughts are dark to us until we can speak them aloud and give them form. In this way we are like the Ainur, who think and then speak and then see what has sprung up, which then has form and life (although not all manner of life are the same; a tree has one form, an elf another; a stone can also be said to have life, but not life in the manner of trees or elves. Likewise, ideas and feelings have life, but a different manner of life than anything visible). We who are made by the Ainur do not have the power to create; what we speak does not rise up out of the earth as an elf does when an Ainu speaks it to life. Yet we also give life to our thoughts when we speak them aloud for our fellows to see, even if they see only with their minds. Yet seeing with the mind what another sees in his or her mind indicates that the thing seen has form and substance, if the speaker and hearer see alike. In this way, language is creation.

“Yet it remains that the life of all things visible and invisible is not knowable until we name it. It is folly to call a stone alive, yet how can we refer to its likeness to a tree or an elf or a feeling such as wind or hunger or loyalty? How can hunger be alive? We can say that it is like an animal prowling, and we know an animal to be alive, but this picture of hunger as an animal is only a picture. How then do we differentiate between a picture that represents and a picture that only suggests?

“Our language is insufficient to this task of delineating between life and life and life, between types of life, between pictures that represent and pictures that suggest. Our language, which is the creative function of elves, must grow up to include such thoughts.

“i speak now a thought: Návë.

Návë is what is meant by the life of an elf, the life of a tree, the life of a stone, the life of a feeling, the life of a picture whether representative or suggestive. It is folly to say that these types of life are all alike; so rather than say they are all life we say that they all have their own návë. When we speak an idea, we acknowledge its návë. We do not give it návë; once an idea springs to our minds, that springing up is proof already of its návë. Návë is what is in all things; it is not life, although things both living and nonliving have návë. Návë is the quality of a person or animal or thought or feeling that tells us that it is separate from us. We each also have návë. And although it seems folly, impossible things, insofar as they can be conceived by elves, have návë as well.”


The word návë is the Sindarin gerund of na, which means “is” or “to be.” In gerund form, it means “being.”

The word Ainu(r) means “holy one(s);” in modern times (that is, since the beginning of the epoch called the age of Nirth, when the sea peoples became vassals of the elves) it has been replaced with the word Abina(i), which carries the same meaning in a root language from which descended both the elven language represented here by Sindarin and that tongue which the sea peoples brought with them into Nirth.