The root √SIR and similar roots meant “flow” for most of Tolkien’s life. The earliest form of this root was ᴱ√SIŘI [SIÐI] “flow” in the Qenya Lexicon of the 1910s with variant sini and derived forms like ᴱQ. sindi “river” and ᴱQ. síre “stream” (QL/84). The latter word became “river” in Tolkien’s later writings, and words appearing in the contemporaneous Gnomish Lexicon like G. sîr “river” and G. siriol “flowing” (GL/67-68) rather than ✱✱sidh- indicate Tolkien very early revised the root to ✱ᴱ√SIRI. Indeed, the root was ᴹ√SIR “flow” in The Etymologies of the 1930s, and the root appeared with this form and essential meaning several times in Tolkien’s later writings (PE22/127, 135).
root. flow (down or away), run (of water or rivers), go away, flow (down or away), run (of water or rivers), go away, [ᴹ√] run away especially downwards or at end; [ᴱ√] ooze, trickle
- ✶ektel- “to spring out (of water), spurt out, gush”
- ✶kelu- “to well up, flow (out swiftly), well forth” ✧ PE18/086; PE22/133
- ✶kelumē ✧ PE18/086
- ✶kelus “brook”
- ᴺQ. celeta “trickle”
- ᴺQ. celu “source, origin”
- Q. celumë “flowing, flood (tide), stream, flow(ing), stream, flood (tide); [ᴱQ.] fountain, spring”
- ᴺQ. celwë “spring, source”
- ᴺS. celf “channel”
- ᴺS. cell “flowing”
- ᴺS. celu “spring, source, spring, source; [G.] rill, stream, runlet”
- ✶et-kelē “spring, issue of water”
- √KWEL “fade, die away, grow faint, fade, die away, grow faint, [ᴹ√] fade away; wither, [ᴱ√] decay, perish, die” ✧ PE18/103
- √KYEL “go down slowly” ✧ PE17/157
- √KYEL “(come to an) end, cease, run out” ✧ PE18/103
- ᴺQ. aucelië “sewer, (lit.) away-flowing”
- Q. celima “fluent, fluent, *(lit.) able to flow freely”
- S. Celduin “River Running”
- S. Celon “stream flowing down from heights” ✧ SA/kel
- KEL¹ ✧ PE18/086 (KEL¹)
- kel- ✧ PE18/091; SA/kel
root. (come to an) end, cease, run out
- kel² ✧ PE18/086
- KEL² ✧ PE18/086 (KEL²)
- kyel- ✧ PE18/091
- KJEL ✧ PE18/103
- sir- ✧ SA/sîr
√KEL was established as the root for “flow” very early in Tolkien’s Elvish languages, also with the variant vocalic extension √KELU. ᴱ√KELE appeared in the Qenya Lexicon of the 1910s glossed “flow, run” and also “ooze, trickle”, though the latter sense did not appear in later writing (QL/46). It also had a variant ᴱ√KELU elsewhere compared to ᴱ√QEL+U of similar meaning (QL/75). It had derivatives in both Qenya and Gnomish such as ᴱQ. kelu- “flow”, G. celu- “trickle” and ᴱQ. kelu(me)/G. celu “stream” (QL/75; GL/25).
The root ᴹ√KEL reappeared in The Etymologies of the 1930s where it seems to have an added connotation of “flow downwards”, given its gloss “go, run (especially of water), flow away downhill” (Ety/KEL). This more specific meaning to the root appeared in later writings, with glosses such as 1930s “flow, flow away, run (of rivers)” (PE18/58), 1940s “run away especially downwards or at end” (PE22/114), 1950s “go away, flow away or flow down (of water)” (PE18/103), and 1960s “flow (down)” (PE17/157). The u-extension ✶kelu with the (continuative?) sense “flow, well up” remained common throughout all these periods as well (PE18/86; PE22/98, 133, 135).
Starting with The Etymologies of the 1930s, Tolkien compared this root with etymological variants √KWEL “fade (away), die away, grow faint” and √KYEL “come to an end, cease, run out” (Ety/KWEL, KYEL; PE18/58, 103), and indeed Tolkien used it as one of his basic examples of such etymological variations:
> There existed in Quenderin 1. √KEL “flow, flow away, run (of rivers)”. Of this simple base, since the initial variation is possible, while the sundóma is the same 2. √KJEL “cease, come to an end”, and 3. √KWEL “fade, die away, grow faint” may be regarded as differentiated variants (second version of Tengwesta Qenderinwa, TQ2, circa 1950, PE18/103).
A similar note appeared in the first version of Tengwesta Qenderinwa (TQ1) from the 1930s (PE18/58). Likewise ✶kelu was one of his main examples of variant vocalic extensions:
> This “variant extension” always had the form i or u. It appears in many cases where its original function is no longer discoverable, if indeed that was more than to serve as a euphonic connecting link to affixes. But the added element [u] often appears as a differentiator as in kel¹-u beside kel², and some old verbs have a fixed u as the end of their base (TQ2, PE18/86).
In the Quendi and Eldar essay of 1959-60, it seems that √KYEL “end” was replaced by √TEL “close, end, come to an end” (WJ/411) as indicated by the replacement of 1930s ᴹQ. tyelma “ending” (LR/72) by later Q. telma “conclusion” (WJ/411). In a 1967 note the etymological variant √KYEL seems to have been assigned a new meaning “go down slowly”, which served as the basis for Q. tyellë “grade, a step in a stairway or ladder” (PE17/157).
To summarize, the base root √KEL meant “flow (down)” for pretty much all of Tolkien’s life, usually used with a variant vocalic extension √KELU, and starting in the 1930s it had etymological variants √KWEL and √KYEL, with √KWEL always meaning “fade (away), die” and √KYEL meaning “cease, end” from the 1930s to 40s, but changing to “go down slowly” sometime between the 1950 and 1967 (but probably before the 1st edition of LotR), with “end” being reassigned to √TEL by 1960. See the entry on √TEL for further discussion of those developments.