Gimla ok Þorins bǫlvan

One of the most common questions I’ve been asked about neo-Khuzdul is “what does Gimli say to Haldir?” This has been asked since the release of The Fellowship of the Ring way back in 2001. With the release of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug last year, the question was revived in the form “what does Thorin say to Thranduil?”

The answers are a bit embarrassing to me for three different reasons.

First, it’s not a line I wrote. I was asked to come up with a curse for John Rhys-Davies, playing Gimli, to utter in the scene in Lothlórien. What I came up with was embarrassingly insipid and weak — I think because I was (and still am) a bit squeamish about real profanity, even in a language that nobody could understand. After all, some day I was going to have to explain this, possibly to audiences containing small children; and I’ve just never been very good at profanity, even if I can appreciate the kind of torrent of lyrical invective which is, alas, so very rare these days. So I just rendered “a great darkness upon you Elves” into the kind of Khuzdul I was producing then:

Gabil-narga ai-mênu Kanâd!

Of course, I’ve changed neo-Khuzdul quite a bit since then, and if I were to do it today, it might come out as:

Aznân gabil ai-fnadumên!

Where we see a bit of colloquial Khuzdul syncope. The elements are much the same, but the word for “elf” changed when I realized that the first Elves that the Dwarves would have encountered would probably have been of Telerin origin, or Avari closely related to the Teleri, calling themselves some version of *Pendi.

This is not, of course, anything that ever appeared on film or was recorded in the first place. This leads to my second embarrassment:

I had no idea what the line John Rhys-Davies uttered meant for over a decade. I don’t even know how it came to be filmed that way; a story that I heard was that he ad-libbed it on set, being unable to produce the line I wrote for one reason or another. But that is a second-hand or third-hand story, or worse, and if he has a different story to tell about it, it supersedes anything I have to say on the subject. What I always said when I was asked was that I assumed it was so unspeakably nasty as to be untranslatable — at least in polite company!

I didn’t even know exactly what he had said, much less its meaning. So when I finally got asked about it by the scriptwriter I had to find the scene and listen to it over and over and over again before I came up with:

 [ɪʃˈkɑkʰʍi ɑɪ duˈrugnul]

Well, that may be Khuzdul, but it’s not my Khuzdul, and even includes a sound that I excluded from neo-Khuzdul — any variation of /w/. But when I heard that there was consideration of having Thorin use the same curse, I thought “Aha! Here’s a chance to deal with all of those questions, and the additional ones to come.” So I sat down and reverse-engineered (so to speak) a Khuzdul version from Rhys-Davies line, using my grammar and phonology.

What I came up with was:

îsh kakhfê ai-‘d-dûr-rugnul

îsh fit in well with my overall scheme for imperatives, CiCiC; it could come from a root ʔAYAŠA or *ʔAWAŠA ([j] regularly substitutes for /w/ before a vowel in Longbeard Khuzdul). ʔAWAŠA is reminiscent of English “wash,” and suggests a meaning “pour out, pour down, pour over.”

kakhf (f substituting for ʍ, since I had no /w/-type sound) is reminiscent of Latin cacāre, and so I decided that it must mean excrement or fæces.

ê was the already-existing first person singular possessive.

ai we already knew meant “upon”.

So what was “durugnul”? Obviously it had to refer to the Elves in some way. But it had to be bitterly contemptuous, in a peculiarly Dwarvish way. It should go beyond the usual reflections on intelligence, sanity, sexuality and personal hygiene that are the backbone of so many English curses.

After quite a lot of thought (more than I like to admit to) I came up with the compound dûr-rugn. On the face of it, this isn’t much of an insult. Dûr simply means bare, naked, or uncovered, from a root √DAYARA (*√DAWARA) “strip, shave, make naked”; rugn (plural ragân) is the lower jaw (or chin). Dûr-rugnul is an adjectival form (here used substantively, preceded by the definite object marker id-) meaning “bare-chinned” or more literally “with naked (hairless) lower jaw.”

It is, Tolkien wrote, “characteristic of all Elves to be beardless” (Unfinished Tales, p. 247); but all adult Dwarves, male and female, have beards of which they are very proud. Only a very young Dwarf, or one who had suffered some tragic injury or illness, would lack a beard.

The beardlessness of Elves would therefore appear comic to the Dwarves, a sign that they were at best infantile, and would be an obvious subject of mockery; it might also suggest that they lacked the gonads (of either sex) to produce a proper beard. At any rate, to go about with a bare chin must appear to the Dwarves to be shameful, all the worse for the fact that the Elves appear unconscious of their shame, or even proud of it.

Of course, when walking in the world, a Dwarf generally keeps such thoughts to himself; but they are apt to be let loose when under stress or when angry. So we find both Gimli and Thorin using this crude Dwarvish surmise about the less-than-intact nature of the Elves in their curses.

The literal meaning is therefore May my excrement be poured upon the naked-jawed (ones); a meaning giving the full connotation of the words would necessarily be less literal and more expressively vicious.

So at long last, there is the answer — or, at any rate, an answer, if perhaps not the fully satisfying one people may have been looking for. And if I don’t find it quite as loathsomely vile as I always assured people it was, I suppose I have noone but myself to blame for my third embarrassment.

12 Responses to “Gimla ok Þorins bǫlvan”

  1. Thoron

    It’s interesting to see the history of this line and another neat bit of retconlanging. But it’s odd that the scriptwriters had to ask you for the line, since some scripts for FOTR extended that you can find online (for example http://www.fempiror.com/otherscripts/LordoftheRings1-FOTR.pdf) give the line as Ishkhaqwi ai durugnul, translated “I spit upon your grave”.

    That use of ai as “upon” suggests that this line wasn’t an ad-lib which then got transcribed into the “final” script. On the other hand, the use of “QW”, especially spelt so, is nothing like Tolkien’s Khuzdul. I guess how it came about will remain a mystery for the ages.

    In any case, I like your retcon a lot better.

    Reply
    • David Salo

      I assume those scripts are fan creations. Whatever the origin of that ‘translation’ (one site attributes it to a German sub or dub, I think), it’s clearly never been official. And as far as meanings go, ultimately the buck stops with me.

      I should add that “I spit on your grave” — taken, I think, from the title of cheap 1970s exploitation film — is something I would never come up with. It’s practically meaningless as applied to the immortal Eldar, and I doubt it would be used as a casual curse by the Dwarves, who took the treatment and entombing of the dead extremely seriously.

      Reply
      • Thoron

        According to Gwaith-i-Phethdain (http://www.elvish.org/gwaith/movie_fotr.htm#ishkhaqwi), the meaning comes from the director of the German translation, with the implication that he “leaked” it from the official script they were sent. The actual line comes from a script from a source I assume they trust (though I couldn’t find it in the website they linked to, so it might not be the script I gave above). And well, it’s my understanding that at least in Hollywood, movie scripts get passed around a lot, and it’s not hard to find most online. But of course, none of this is evidence that this line was actually in some script, let alone that it was in the actual shooting script used.

        I must say, when I saw that line in that script a few years ago, I never thought the translation, let alone the meaning, was yours. I remember feeling that it was too much unlike Khuzdul, and especially unlike the one I’d seen in the soundtrack lyrics; though looking at it again, the only thing off is the “QW”. I think I associated this with something you wrote once, maybe in Elfling, saying or implying that other Tolkien-linguists had been involved in the movies at some point. Maybe it was someone else’s Khuzdul, plus either an unorthodox spelling for some reason, or a typo that crept into the shooting script?

        Reply
        • David Salo

          I can’t explain what information the German translator had, but I suspect there was some misunderstanding somewhere along the way. At any rate none of that derives from me or, to the best of my knowledge, from anybody who knew anything about it. At any rate, there is no reason that the line I provided would not have been in the script, and Rhys-Davies’ words, if they were ad libbed, would by definition not have been in the shooting script.
          The orthography, with the “qw,” is different from what I was asked about (though still recognizably the same phrase). I don’t think anything about this was official anywhere along the line; I can only guess that it was a fan’s reconstruction.
          As for whose Khuzdul it was, I am pretty sure it wasn’t anybody’s except John Rhys-Davies’ — at least, nobody else has ever taken the credit (or blame) for it. Nor am I aware of the involvement of other Tolkien language specialists except in the most tangential way — not involving the writing of extra lines.

          Reply
  2. The Dwarrow Scholar

    “-ê was the already-existing first person plural possessive.”

    Should this not be first person “singular” possessive (the first person “plural” possessive being “-mâ”) ?

    Reply
  3. The Dwarrow Scholar

    “Aznân gabil ai-fnadumên!”

    Would you mind clarifying how you come by this word “fnadumên” ? I understand the compound fanâd+mên. Combining the familiar 2nd person plural “mên”, with the singular for elves (CaCâC form). Khuzdul does not permit initial consonant clusters, so I am assuming you are counting the aya preposition as an integral part of the noun. The loss of the extended vowel “â” also makes sense as we’ve seen other attested forms losing the extended vowels when serving as the primary element of a compound word (example: Khazâd+dûm = khazad-dûm. What I have difficulty with is the “u” between the first and second element. Is it perhaps an accusative marker? If so, why not use the 2nd person plural accusative marker that likely was used by Tolkien himself “mên+u”, instead of adding the marker prior to “mên”.

    For instance: “Aznân gabil ai-fnadmênu!” (or
    “Aznân gabil aya fanadmênu!”)

    Reply
    • David Salo

      As I mentioned, I was envisaging a register of “colloquial Khuzdul” in which things like syncope of unstressed vowels might occur where they wouldn’t in formal language.
      The -u- is a connecting vowel that links the noun to the suffix. F(a)nadumên literally means “your elves,” “those elves of yours.”

      Reply
  4. Helge Kåre Fauskanger

    I always remember being slightly troubled by the “kw” (or “qw”) that turned up in the Rhys-Davies curse. It was an un-Khuzdul sound to my ear as well.

    But if we are to assume that a non-specialist like Rhys-Davies came up with the curse all by himself, he did do a fairly decent job of imitating the general style of Tolkienian Khuzdul.

    Reply
    • Aramir

      While you think kw may not be a Dwarvish sound, Tolkien did have in his Angerthas the kw, gw, khw, ghw, ngw, and nw sounds located in cirth numbers 23-28. So it could exist in Khuzdul as Ishkhakwi ai durugnul and would come from the khuzdul root sh-kh-kw.

      Reply
      • David Salo

        The Angerthas Moria (and their modification for use by the Dwarves of Erebor) was borrowed from the Angerthas used by the Eldar of Eregion, who designed it to be able to represent a wide range of sounds in a variety of languages known to them. So the presence of a sound in the Angerthas tells us absolutely nothing about whether it existed in Khuzdul; our only clue as to the following is whether it exists in an attested Khuzdul word or not.

        Reply

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