Black Speech


The mind of the Dark Lord

Since I had so little direct linguistic information about Black Speech to go on other than what could be gleaned from the Ring-inscription (object suffixes -ul, -ulûk; verbal infinitive (perhaps) ending -at; abstract ending -um in burzum “darkness”, containing the same burz element seen in Lugbúrz “Dark Tower”; postposition –ishi “in”) I had to go on à priori notions of what a language such as Black Speech might be like — I had to get inside the mind of Sauron, and try to figure out what somebody like the Dark Lord of Mordor might put into his language.

As a matter of fact, this is something I had thought about some years before. As an undergraduate in college, I had contributed to a set of ongoing stories, where each participant wrote additional chapters and introduced characters and events as he or she pleased. Into one of these stories I introduced the character (played partly for humor, partly tragically) of a misfit Orc who, sometime after the fall of Mordor, had found himself transported through time and space into a new environment. On introducing this Orc, I thought it would add a touch of realism to let him speak in his own language; so I sketched the outline of what I imagined Black Speech might be like, and wrote a couple of paragraphs in it.

I have no idea if any copy of this text survives somewhere in my files. At any rate, I made no direct use of it, except for one small element that I retained in memory, the 1st person pronoun za — possibly suggested by Avestan azəm.

What I did retain, however, was the overall notion of Black Speech as a complex but consistent language, rich in affixation and inflection, but with a wholly transparent morphology. Indeed, the transparency of the morphology, the lack of any phonetic alterations between morphemes that could obscure the structure, would help explain the prevalence of clashing consonant clusters; morphemes ending in one consonant were jammed up against morphemes beginning in another, with nothing to ease the transition.

Sauron, I imagined, was an enormously practical person, who would have made the Black Speech as “perfect” (according to his notions of perfection) as he could make it, with a rigorous consistency and logic, but without making any allowance for æsthetics. It would not eschew borrowings from other languages of Middle-earth, but it would adapt them to its own style. It would in fact have been, as my friend Helge Fauskanger terms it, Sauron’s Esperanto.

Whether I actually managed to capture this vision of Sauron’s mind in my version of Black Speech may be doubted. I largely lack that sort of mental rigor, and when it comes to language I often prefer sloppiness to tight organization. Nonetheless, I think I succeeded in making my version of Black Speech a bit more consistent than most of the other languages of this milieu, though not without its own quirks.

In sharp contrast to the relatively tight organization of Black Speech, the Orkish languages were to be simple, disorganized, and inconsistent, the result of years of rapid and ungoverned evolution. There would be grammar, of course, but also a fair amount of toleration of variation, and a continuous tendency to proliferate new words and abandon old ones. They would show a strong influence from Black Speech, at various stages in their development; but they would fail to adhere by its rules.

For the Lord of the Rings films I intended to come up with three Orkish dialects in addition to Black Speech: one, spoken by the Orcs of Mordor, would be closely based on Black Speech, but spoken in a more casual and clipped manner. The other two, the Orkish of Isengard and the Orkish of Moria, ideally should have been developed as wholly independent languages, touched by Black Speech only through borrowings. Faced with rapidly approaching deadlines, however, I cheated; I made all of them descendants of Black Speech, via a hypothetical Proto-Orkish, with the language of Isengard showing several distinguishing sound changes, and the language of Moria showing an even more advanced set of sound changes, intended to give the Moria-goblins a hissing, sibilant sound.

The last was not actually my own idea; I received a message (February 20, 2001) from writers Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, asking for the following characteristics of the Orcs:

Mordor Orcs – harsh and guttural, reflecting the barrenness of Gorgoroth.
Moria Orcs – more secretive, whispery, hissing, reflecting the darkness of the tunnels.
For the Uruk-hai we want powerful sounds that reflect aggression and hatred, also a discipline to the language not shown by the lesser Orcs.

Since “harsh and guttural” and “aggression and hatred” were likely to be associated with these languages in any case, I didn’t have to do much with regard to the dialects of Mordor and Isengard other than to render them distinct; but for Moria I had to implement sound-changes (of a somewhat improbable nature) that considerably increased the proportion of fricatives.

By way of illustration, I copy a list of words which I wrote out at the beginning of this task. From *lutu- down this is actually a rationalization of miscellaneous jottings, not necessarily consistent with the rest of this list or even with themselves; they were probably added later. You can also observe that I was not very consistent with my choice of symbols.

Meaning Proto-Orkish Mordor Isengard Moria
sky *kilmi kilᵊm kʰīm ʃīm
sun *ūru ūr ūr ūʒ
tree *turu tur tʰur suʒ
foot *tulu tul tʰul sū(l)
tooth *nakṛ nakur nagū pl. nāgā noɣ
flesh *marna marn mān mān
bite *naka- naka- naga- naɣa-
beat *bada- bada- bara- vaza-
whip *badgu badg bāg vāɣ
fight *kutkuta- kukut- kūkda- χūχza-
kill *daka- daka- daga- zaɣa-
war *kutmu kutum kūm χūm
die *guru- guru- gura- ɣur-
death *gurutu gurut gūt ɣūʃ
heave *giba- giba- giva- ʒīa-
pull *tugu- tugu- tʰuɣu- sū-
hack *skada- skada- kʰara- χaza-
slash *kliza- kliza- kʰiza- χliza-
command *durbu- durbu- dūbu- zū-
light *gāra gār gār ɣāʒ
day *garmu gārum gām ɣām
to daw [sic] *garmuza- garmuza- gāmza- ɣānza-
dawn *garmuzata- garmuzat gāmzad ɣānzaz
arise *huru- huru- huru- uʒu-
burn *laka- laka- laga- laɣa-
burn (caus) *lakja- lača- laiga- laʒa-
feel, touch *maka- maka- maga- maɣa-
want/will *hizi- hizi- hizi- iʒi-
hurry *klikja- kliča- kʰīga- χīɣa-
come *lutu- lutu- ludu- ruzu-
rest luzu-
close *karba- kāba- χaχāv-
flee *drigi- drigi- diɣi- dī-
work *bulu-
wait, stay *dara- dara- dara- zara-
feast *mamata- mamata- manda-
scream *skriki- kʰigi-
screaming *skrikikai χriχa
crawl *smugu-  smugu- muɣu- šmū-
crawling *smuguku muɣgu šmūɣ
gnash *karka- kāka- χāχa-
see *guglu- gūgu- ɣūɣu-
more *tʰag
get *snaba- nava- ʃnā-
mountain *urudu
come *nakʰ
return *agnakʰ
army *kʰotʰ
destroy *gutja- gūda-
hard *kraka kʰag

Isengard kūm is doubtless a mistake for kʰūm. There are likely other errors as well.

I did not write down any details of the sound changes, since I presumably made them up as I went along; nonetheless they appear to be fairly regular. Mordor-Orkish loses the final vowels in nouns, and adds an epenthetic vowel in some final consonant clusters. Isengard-Orkish aspirates initial voiceless stops and voices medial ones, while turning medial voiced stops to voiced fricatives (but -d- to -r-), drops preconsonantal r with compensatory lengthening, and has a variety of other assimilations. Moria-Orkish assimilates like Isengard-Orkish, but also turns almost all stops to fricatives.

Unutterable words

In the interest of keeping this story in a more-or-less chronological order, and having covered most of the work related to the Khuzdul of the films of The Lord of the Rings, I’m going to go back a bit and discuss another rather tangled complex of languages I worked on: the Black Speech of Mordor, and its various Orkish progeny.

Creating these languages posed problems similar to those of Khuzdul, but in a much more acute fashion. Whereas for Khuzdul there was at least a small vocabulary (but enough to establish a consistent phonology) and some hints at grammar, so that one knew at least what kind of language it was, for the language invented by Sauron we had almost nothing: just the inscription on the One Ring, and a couple of other words and names (such as Lugbúrz “Dark Tower,” uruk “soldier-orc,” snaga “slave-orc,” olog “troll,” ghâsh “fire,” nazgûl “ringwraith,” sharkû “old man,” and tark “man (of Gondor)”; and possibly some much older words used by the Orcs in the First Age, like golug “elf” and oghor “Wild Man”. Of the lesser Orkish dialects, just a curse uttered by a Mordor-orc, which is translated three different ways, and a variety of names are available (Isengard-orcs: Lugdush, Mauhúr, Uglúk; Mordor-orcs: Gorbag, Grishnákh, Lagduf, Muzgash, Radbug, Shagrat, Ufthak).

Appendix F provides some other indications of the nature of the languages in question: with regard to the Orcs, that they “took… other tongus and perverted [them],” making “brutal jargons”; that there were “as many barbarous dialects as there were groups or settlements,” and consequently that there was no single Orkish language, and that one Orkish tribe would be unable to communicate with another through its own language, and that therefore Westron became their <i>lingua franca</i>.

With regard to the Black Speech, it appears that Sauron devised it with the intention of it being the common language of all his subjects, but merely succeeded in providing certain common items of vocabulary for the various Orkish groups. During most of the Third Age it was forgotten, but the end of the Third Age Sauron revived it as the ‘national language’ of Mordor, and it was consequently used by his own soldiers — but in a “debased” form. This language was also used by the Olog-hai, a breed of trolls found in Mirkwood and in Mordor.

Beyond that, we have the general characterization that the sound of spoken Black Speech was “menacing, powerful, harsh as stone” — characterizations that are a little hard to relate to its written transcription.

The vowel sounds in the inscription on the Ring include only a, i, u, and û [uː]; but o is found elsewhere. The sound i is rare, and e is not found at all.

The consonants seen are:

Labial Coronal Palatal Velar Glottal
Voiceless
stops
p t k
Voiced
stops
b d g
Nasals m n ŋ
Voiceless
fricatives
f θ, s ʃ x h
Voiced
fricatives
z ɣ
Liquids
and glides
l, r j

There is really nothing exceptional in this sound system; except for [x] and [ɣ], all the sounds are easy for English-speakers to pronounce, and those sounds are fairly common in other well-known languages.
What may make the language “harsh” is the abundance of unsimplified consonant clusters of various types: Initial gl-, kr-, sk-, sn-, θr-; internal -bh-, -db-, -fθ-, -gb-, -gd-, -gl-, -gr-, -mb-, -mp-, -rb-, -rz-, -ʃd-, -ʃn-, -zg-; final -ŋk, -rk, -zg. These give the language a somewhat clunky, overcrowded phonæsthetic, but in this respect English is no better and quite possibly worse. One also notes a relatively high proportion of velars, as compared to the Elvish languages, which are coronal-rich. But perhaps more than any of this it’s the preponderance of back vowel sounds which most contribute to the “heavy” sound of the language.

But for all that, I can’t say that I personally find it an unlovely language. Gandalf’s voice may have become “menacing” when uttering the words on the Ring, but I could just as easily produce the same sounds with charming effect. In terms of its sounds, I think Black Speech comes closest to Persian, which I find a very appealing-sounding language — though front vowels are much more common in Persian.