The making of a lambë [language] is the chief character of an Incarnate.
—Pengolodh of Gondolin (recorded in The War of the Jewels, compiled by Christopher Tolkien)
✠ ✠ ✠
John and Greta Carswell kindly invited me to participate in their podcast, The Tolkien Road, to discuss Elvish languages last week (pursuant to my piece back in February about Nandorin). I’ve been reflecting on Tolkien’s corpus of invented languages again since that time, and I’ve hit on another theory.
Most of the languages that Tolkien invented were those of the Elves: Quenya, Sindarin, Nandorin, Doriathrin, Telerin, and the Primitive Quendian that underlay them all. However, a handful of other languages that appear in the Middle-earth books were also treated. Few Mannish languages were given much attention; the most important of them, Westron or the Common Speech, was ‘translated’ entirely into English, and though its immediate ancestor Adûnaic1 was worked out rather more, neither language received quite the detailed analysis that Sindarin and Quenya were given, nor are there any complete texts. The Orkish languages, though a very few words (like Golug ‘Noldo, High-Elf’) are known, were considered by both Tolkien and the Elves to be ugly and degraded, and he devoted very little energy to developing them.
However, three non-Elvish languages are of interest to me, because I believe they may be connected: Valarin, the language of the Valar2; Khuzdûl, the secret tongue of the Dwarves; and the Black Speech, devised by Sauron. This last was—to a limited extent—the lingua franca of Sauron’s second empire in Mordor, in the period during which The Lord of the Rings is set, and a number of Black Speech words (such as ghâsh ‘fire’) did become common among Orcs.3 I suspect, for reasons I will lay out here, that both Khuzdûl and the Black Speech are in fact modified forms of Valarin, forming a Valinórean family as the tongues of the Elves form an Eldarin family.
First, a word on each of these three languages. Dwarvish or Khuzdûl is the one about which we know the most—ironically, since it was famous for being a jealously guarded secret of Dwarvish culture—so we’ll begin there. Tolkien composed Dwarvish largely on the pattern of Semitic languages, where meaning is encoded not in a root of sequential sounds, as in English or the Elvish tongues, but in something called a radical: a series of consonants (usually three, sometimes two) into which vowels are inserted in different ways to make different words. For example, the consonant sequence Kh-Z-D in Khuzdûl indicates the general meaning ‘Dwarvishness,’ and related words are built from it, such as Khuzd ‘Dwarf,’ Khazâd ‘Dwarves,’ and the term Khuzdûl itself.4 Dwarvish also seems to contain a limited amount of inflection: the suffix -ul serves as a patronymic and may be a more general possessive, genitive, or adjectival marker.
We know less about the grammar, or even the vocabulary, of Valarin, the language which the Valar devised for themselves. This is partly because the Elves themselves were not fond of Valarin; Rúmil of Tirion remarked, ‘The tongues and voices of the Valar are great and stern, and yet also swift and subtle in movement, making sounds that we find hard to counterfeit; and their words are long and rapid, like the glitter of swords’; Pengolodh the Sage said more simply that ‘the effect of Valarin upon Elvish ears was not pleasing.’5 It has a multitude of sounds, some of which—such as 3 (often written gh) and z—were avoided or altered in some varieties of Elvish, particularly Quenya.6 Some of its vowels (æ as in English cat, and ô as in English pot) were likewise absent from Eldarin tongues, and adjusted accordingly if words were borrowed from Valarin. We have a few hints at an intricate grammar, with features such as a plural infix rather than a suffix or an umlaut, exemplified in words like mâchanâz ‘authority,’ of which the plural is mâchanumâz, showing the plural infix -um-. We also know that, at least in certain words, some remarkably varied forms are permitted: both šata and ašata are given for ‘hair’ (and the form *ašta appears to be used as well, at least in compounds7), and both Ošošai and Oššai for the name of Ossë,8 while the word ‘fire’ can appear as both rušur and uruš.
Finally, the Black Speech. We have still less of this than of the other two, and for good reason; it was designed by Sauron, to serve as the language of his slaves, and is therefore the closest thing to a language of evil that Middle-earth knew. Tolkien loathed the language—in one of his letters, he mentions that when an admirer sent him a steel goblet engraved with the inscription on the Ring, he decided to use it as an ashtray—and put that loathing into his good characters as well; when Gandalf read the inscription at the Council of Elrond,
the change in the wizard’s voice was astounding. Suddenly it became menacing, powerful, harsh as stone. A shadow seemed to pass over the high sun, and the porch for a moment grew dark. All trembled, and the Elves stopped their ears.9
Nonetheless there are a few fragments which tell us something of its character. Its sound system is very unlike the Elvish languages: consonant clusters such as sn, rz, bh, shd, and zg are attested, all of which are impossible in Quenya and Sindarin alike (phonotactically or even phonologically); and it seems to be rich in gutturals, sounds the Elves found disgusting—the voiced velar fricative, spelled 3 or gh,6 which was systematically eliminated from Eldarin tongues, and the uvular pronunciation of r, as in French or German, are specifically attested. Tolkien states in The Peoples of Middle-earth that ‘[the Black Speech] was so full of harsh and hideous sounds and vile words that other mouths found it difficult to compass’. It’s been suggested by Alexandre Nemirovsky, a historian of the Near East, that the language was modeled on Hurrian, and the neighboring language of the Hittites is another possibility—Hittite had a number of archaic gutturals that are extremely difficult to pronounce, placed far back in the pharynx and epiglottis, and if the Black Speech shared these sounds then it would be natural that the Elves would find it both ugly and pointlessly difficult. Nor did the tengwar or, to my knowledge, the cirth have symbols to represent them. Nemirovsky also theorized, based on the forms of the verbs in the Ring text, that the language had an agglutinative, ergative grammar (as Hurrian did), markedly unlike the inflected and accusative structure of the Eldarin tongues—and, in fact, unlike most languages.
So on what grounds do I propose that all three of these languages are part of a Valinórean family? Well, let’s start with the origins of each. Valarin was of course composed by the Valar. And so was Dwarvish; or rather, it was composed by Aulë, the Vala who made the Dwarves and invented a language for them to speak. Similarly, the Black Speech was invented by Sauron,10 who as a Maia would have known Valarin as his ‘native’ language. It would therefore be natural for both Aulë and Sauron to draw upon their own tongue in forming a new one.
Is there any evidence that they did so? In the case of the Black Speech, yes: the word nazg ‘ring’ is suspiciously similar to Valarin *naškad, tentatively isolated from Mâchananaškad ‘Doom-Ring.’11 It’s just possible that ghâsh ‘fire’ is ultimately derived from Valarin uruš of the same meaning, if a uvular r were raised into a velar fricative gh. Khuzdûl is less tractable. Mahal, the Dwarves’ name for Aulë, could be descended from Valarin mâchan ‘authority,’ which also yielded the Quenya title Máhan for the lords of the Valar. Delgûmâ—a Valarin word whose meaning unfortunately isn’t recorded—is cited as the source of the Quenya telluma ‘dome,’ and although it’s a stretch, it’s just possible that the Dwarvish *tumun (isolated from Tumunzahar ‘Hollowbold, Nogrod’) is related.
A subordinate reason for supposing that these languages are related is their similar phonology. All three share certain sounds (e.g. sh, gh, z) that never appear in the chief Elvish tongues, as well as seeming to display aspirated stops (e.g. kh, th as in English backhand, outhouse), which dropped out of Elvish languages. All also seem to display a marked preference for the cardinal vowels a, i, and u; the Black Speech in particular may lack e altogether, and o is stated to be rare in the appendices to LotR. This isn’t conclusive, though: Adûnaic shares these traits to a degree, though it perhaps favors the cardinal vowels a little less.
However, my real reason for thinking that Khuzdûl has a Valinórean background, aside from the obvious argument of its craftsman, is structural. Valarin is not well understood, but I think it shows tell-tale signs of being, like Dwarvish, a language based on radicals rather than stems. The marked and irregular variations in some of the (all too few!) words we have suggests it: the common thread between ašata, *ašta, and šata for ‘hair’ is precisely the consonants Š-T, and the forms rušur and uruš both suggest a radical R-Š with the general meaning ‘fire.’ The persistence, respectively, of the vowels a and u may parallel Adûnaic, in which radicals were again the basis of words, but had a theme vowel as well, which had to appear somewhere in the word (though its place could vary considerably): so, the radical-theme pairing for ‘hair’ would be Š-T (A), and so on.
And what do we gain by this theory? Nothing really, but it’s so much fun.
POSTSCRIPT: A VALARIN WORD?
The Valarin vocabulary available to us hardly amounts to more than about thirty words. A few more can be isolated from compounds, with modest likelihood: *ezel ‘green’ seems to be a fairly safe deduction (appearing in Ezellôchâr ‘the Green Mound’ and Ibrîniðilpathânezel for Telperion, literally ‘Silverflower-Greenleaf’ … probably), as do *ibri ‘silver’ or ‘white,’ *igas ‘heat,’ *naškad ‘ring,’ and *phelûn ‘dwelling place.’
I think we can add another: *aman ‘blessed.’ The words amanaišal ‘unmarred,’ dušamanûðân ‘marred,’ and the name Mânawenûz ‘Manwë [lit. Blessed One]’ all appear to contain it—less certainly in the case of Mânawenûz, given the long â, but the possibility is still there (especially since, though no Valarin reflex is recorded, the Quenya name Manwë did also have a rare variant Amanwë, reported in the index of the Silmarillion if memory serves). The name Aman, typically translated as ‘the Blessed Realm,’ was the name of the continent upon which the Valar and the Calaquendi Elves lived—charmingly referred to as Faërie in The Hobbit—but I know of no Primitive Quendian stem from which this name could be derived, suggesting that it comes from Valarin, and I think this too strengthens the idea that *aman, as such, is a Valarin word.
This allows us to make a surprising observation. H. K. Fauskanger points out in his article on Valarin at Ardalambion that ‘The word dušamanûðân “marred” would seem to be a passive participle by its gloss; if we had known the verb “to mar,” we could have isolated the morphemes used to derive such participles.’ However, if in fact it derives from *aman ‘blessed,’ then it is (probably) a modified adjective rather than a participle. What’s interesting is that, unlike in English, the word meaning ‘unmarred’ is morphologically simpler than the word ‘marred’: the latter takes both a prefix and a suffix, the former only a suffix. The concept of being blessed, happy, or free from evil is apparently treated as the base, and the idea of marring has to be added to that base—the exact opposite of the relationship between the English words unmarred and marred. This seems deeply harmonious with Tolkien’s thought as a whole; evil cannot make, it can only mock, distort, or reduce good things; as Elrond remarked at the Council, ‘Nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so.’
It would also allow us to divide the two words ‘marred’ and ‘unmarred,’ thus: aman-aišal and duš-aman-ûðân. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence of what *aišal, *duš, or *ûðân might mean in isolation—and they might even be inflectional affixes, rather than independent words. (It’s tempting to see an analogy to English dys- in Valarin duš-, but the temptation should be resisted, if only because there’s no real evidence for it in the rest of the corpus.) Perhaps another and more insightful linguist can find a place to go from here.
✠ ✠ ✠
1This was the vernacular language of Númenor, or in English Westernesse, the home given to the Elf-Friends (Men who were allied with the Elves and friendly to the Valar2) after the destruction of Beleriand at the end of the First Age. Númenor itself was destroyed shortly before the close of the Second Age, a little more than three thousand years before the events of LotR.
2The Valar were godlike or angelic powers (indeed, the name Vala means ‘Power’) created by Eru, ‘the One’ (i.e. God in a monotheistic sense), which governed the created world. They assumed incarnate forms freely, out of love for the material world which they had been sent to serve; but they did not need or depend on their bodies any more than we depend on our clothes to exist.
3Nonetheless, Sauron’s original goal of making it the native tongue of all who served him seems to have been frustrated. During most of the Third Age, the only beings who knew and spoke the Black Speech were the Nazgûl; it was revived after Sauron’s return to Mordor, and throve there from about 2945 (allowing him and/or the Ringwraiths time to teach it to the Men and Orcs who served him) until his demise in 3019. The only race to whom it was a birth-tongue were the Olog-hai, a new subspecies of Trolls bred by Sauron to be able to endure the sun.
4This important structural element was passed on to other languages, notably Mannish ones. Adûnaic was built on a similar structure, which it then passed on to the Common Speech. The name Gimli is almost certainly related to the Adûnaic noun gimil, which literally means ‘stars’ and, by extension, the starry sky.
5Rúmil of Tirion was an Elf of Aman, the Blessed Realm and home of the Valar, who devised the first Elvish script, upon which the later tengwar were based. (Most inscriptions we see in LotR, other than runes, are tengwar.) He also composed the Ainulindalë, the story of the preëxistence and operations of the Valar and their lesser companions, the Maiar, before Middle-earth was created: a translation stands at the beginning of the Silmarillion.
Pengolodh the Sage was one of the ancient Loremasters, born in Middle-earth during the First Age when Beleriand was in flower. He was behind only Rúmil and Fëanor himself, the greatest of the Eldar, in brilliance of intellect; he is thought to be one of the very few Elves who ever learned Dwarvish. He left Middle-earth for Aman sometime between 1695 and 1700 of the Second Age (i.e., about 5600 years before the events of LotR).
6Tolkien (like other linguists) sometimes uses the letter 3, or yogh, to express the sound of a voiced velar fricative: a sound rather like a ‘blurred’ g (related to g the same way v is related to b). The digraph gh is used for the same purpose. All known Eldarin languages eliminated this sound without a trace. Similarly, the Elves regularly changed the sound of z to a trilled r (except for the Vanyarin dialect of Quenya, which was never spoken in Middle-earth, save presumably during the War of Wrath); the same thing happened historically in the transition from Old Latin to Classical Latin.
7The compound in question is the name Tulukhaštâz, Noldorinized as Tulkas. (I’ve taken the liberty of emending the recorded form Tulukhastâz, which contains s without a caron, on grounds of the etymology of the word and the fact that Tolkien did often make errors in his handwriting!) It contains the word tulukha ‘yellow,’ and is translated as ‘Yellow-Haired’; the final z appears at the end of many Valarin nouns, chiefly names, and may be a nominative marker.
8Ossë was one of the Maiar, spirits similar in kind to the Valar but lower in stature. He was one of the lesser governors of the seas; one of his names in Sindarin was Gaerys, which contains the word gaer ‘sea.’ Interestingly he is one of the few Maiar whose name was borrowed from Valarin, instead of given in an Elvish equivalent; this happened moderately often with the Powers themselves, but among the Maiar only Ossë and Eönwë (the herald of the Valar) are so honored.
9From The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Book II, Chapter 2: The Council of Elrond.
10Sauron, whose original name was Mairon ‘the Admirable,’ was one of the company of Aulë in the beginning, before his corruption (as was Saruman). Given Sauron’s passion for breeding new types of Orcs and Trolls, and the fact that the Orcs themselves may once have been Elves who were twisted and ruined under the ‘care’ of Sauron in the First Age, the imprint of Aulë’s character seems to have been strong even in the depths of his malice. (Contrary to popular belief, Tolkien never settled the problem of Orkish origins to his own satisfaction. The thesis that they were corrupted Elves is the best known and perhaps the most credible, being ‘canonized’ in the published Silmarillion; but it has difficulties of its own.)
11Due to the restrictive phonotactics of Quenya, this term was borrowed into that language as Máhanaxar.