Monthly Archives: February 2013

Piece by piece

Having already considered the methods I would use to extract meaning from various Khuzdul words, let’s go ahead and look at some of the words that seemed most easy to interpret. This is most easily done in a table:

Khuzdul word Meaning Root     Meaning Pattern       Meaning
aglâb language G L B speak a CC â C action or abstraction
felak stone-cutting tool F L K hew stone C e C a C tool or instrument
mazarb record Z R B write ma C a CC past participle?
uzbad lord Z B D rule u CC a C agent
khizdîn dwelling of dwarves? Kh Z D dwarf C i CC în place (of)

But there remained a lot of words whose patterns couldn’t be readily interpreted, or whose patterns overlapped in an unclear way: CiCiC was used, for instance, for sigin “long”, but also zigil “silver” (referring to a silver-like color) and kibil “silver,” the actual metal. CaCaC appeared in baraz “red” and narag “black”, suggesting an adjectival formation — but also in zahar “excavation” or “underground dwelling”.

Prefixes and suffixes weren’t terribly clear either. Ma- I was pretty sure was a participial suffix, considering its similarity to Arabic mu-. A lengthened vowel + n was common in placenames: Nargûn “Mordor” next to narag “black”; Gabilân “Great River”, the Gelion; and Nulukkhizdîn, which I guessed meant “Dwarf-home on the Narog.” But then there was also Tharkûn “staff-man.”

I was pretty much on my own from that point on. I had a basic idea of how Khuzdul was shaped in my head, but specifics were elusive. The only grammatical facts available were that there were genitival or adjectival formations ending in -ul and that compound words were common. Everything else I was going to have to make up myself.

At the time I began working on the films, I actually had a little practice inventing Khuzdul words and names for the Middle-earth Roleplaying Game, to replace some earlier ones that weren’t quite Khuzdul-looking enough. Looking back at them, I can see there there were already some “philological puns” in there, some of which might be considered pretty atrocious. Some of them were based on well-known Khuzdul forms, such as those I’ve used before; but others borrowed inspiration from real-world languages, such as Old Norse and the Germanic languages ancestral to it.

For instance, one of the MERP words I was replacing was Khuzadrepa, intended (by its original creator, whose name I’ve never known, and who I hope, if he ever ends up reading this, is not offended) to mean “slayer of dwarves”. Obviously Khuzad was the creator’s attempt to create a combining form for Khazâd. But the second part, I believed, was not –repa but –drepa, the Old Norse word meaning “to kill.”

I liked the look of that, but I also knew that it could not be a Khuzdul form, given the absence of the sound p; but I turned it into a Khuzdul root DRF “kill”, and gave it the pattern of Tharkûn, producing darfûn, which I attached to khazad-, as a combining form already seen in Khazad-dûm: hence Khazad-darfûn. (Today I would probably have used udraf instead of darfûn.)

On a basis of which I can’t now be certain, I also created the root ʔZG “fight” (which I have not yet made use of again, but which I suppose still “exists” in some sense, since I haven’t decided that it’s not part of neo-Khuzdul) and created on the basis of the pattern seen in aglâb the word âzâg “fighting, battle” — where you can see that although the underlying form is *aʔzâg, the vowel and the glottal stop fuse to create a long vowel. This is a recurring feature of my version of Khuzdul — and since I don’t believe I’d yet studied Arabic at the time I was working on MERP, the similarity between this phonological rule and the Arabic one (which is basically the same) is perhaps “coincidental.” At any rate it seemed to me like an obvious development.

By the time I started work on The Lord of the Rings films, I had studied Arabic, so similarities of this type were thereafter usually pretty conscious.

The first Khuzdul translations I did for the films, way back in 1999, were very limited: they were a bunch of words that would appear in runes on the walls of Moria. I did not make much use of these translations later; indeed, I think I forgot about them for a long while — but they’re a good example of how I approached the translation. Here’s one of the examples:

Mabazgûn zai Azgâr Azanulbizarul zai shakâl Kheled-zâramul.
“Slain in the Battle of Azanulbizar on the shores of Kheled-zâram.”

I have to analyse this now almost as an outsider, lacking much (if any) direct memory of my thought-processes, and only advantaged by the fact that I have a general idea of how I think!

Mabazgûn is obviously “slain”, and shows a pattern maCaCC, similar to mazarb, and so I suppose a past participle. The ending –ûn is a little mysterious; perhaps it was intended to make the participle refer to a person, and was perhaps suggested by the –ûn in Tharkûn.

Zai must be a preposition, meaning “in/on.” I don’t think I’ve used it again.

Azgâr “battle” is pretty clear. It’s the same action-noun structure as in aglâb, and the root is ZGR, which is very obviously borrowed (in real terms) from the Adûnaic root of the same form. Could the Dwarves have borrowed such a root from speakers of Mannish languages? Or, conversely, could the Men have borrowed it from the Dwarves? I think the answer to both questions is yes — there’s nothing in Middle-earth history that I think would make it impossible.

It’s sometimes objected that Aulë made Khuzdul for the Dwarves, and he made it perfect, so it can’t have any borrowings. I don’t think this is actually stated by Tolkien — he does, indeed, identify kibil as a word with probable Elvish associations — and in any case I was not going to turn down a combination of sounds that seemed appropriate. In any case, several Adûnaic words made it into neo-Khuzdul, and the direction of the transmission is one of those things I’m content to leave lost in the mists of history — well, unless someone gives me a really good reason for interpreting things one way or the other.

Azanulbizarul and Kheled-zâramul are self-explanatory, I think.

Shakâl “shores” is evidently a plural, I suppose of shukl or shakl. I clearly wasn’t following any particular restrictions on the use of CaCâC plurals at this point.

Here’s another one:
Durin mabazgûn au Abzag Durinu
“Durin slain by Durin’s bane”

There are obvious objections to using the Mannish Durin in a Khuzdul context, especially when written in Dwarvish Angerthas. I was not and am not insensitive to the objections — which Tolkien had also noted, in the context of the appearance of the name of Durin on the West-gate of Moria. On the other hand, I felt (probably) that it was a bit above my pay grade to be inventing a “true Dwarvish name” for Durin the Deathless — which I still have not done. So Durin it remained.

Au must be a preposition meaning “by (an agent).” I haven’t used this one again either, as far as I know.

BZG is evidently a root for “slay, murder”, as in mabazgûn, while abzag is clearly a form derived from the same root, but with the pattern aCCaC. Clearly this is supposed to be related to uCCaC but different. I am sure that it’s not a casual error for “ubzag“; what I am not sure of is exactly what distinction I was making. Possibly it was that I imagined that “Durin’s Bane” was not conceived of as a person, and I associated the u– prefix with personhood.

It is, however, obvious why it is Abzag Durinu and not **Abzag Durinul: abzag literally means “killer” or “one who kills”, and therefore Durinu is in the “objective genitive” form.

There are a few more phrases here, but mostly short and not revealing a whole lot of grammatical information. In any case, the neo-Khuzdul seen here, though similar in general outline to that which I later developed, is obviously not exactly the same. When I come to frame something like a complete grammar of the language, I shall have to decide whether I want to retain any of these old forms and fit them in some how, or look at them as a mistake — or, perhaps, archaic “Moria-Dwarvish” forms which were somehow ancestral to the forms typically used in Erebor.

But there is an important point to be made here, about the way in which I had to work on neo-Khuzdul. I did not start with a complete grammar in mind, much less a complete vocabulary. I let the demands of particular translations build neo-Khuzdul up, bit by bit, until at last it developed some sort of coherence. Complete coherence I didn’t really expect and didn’t get, except that sort of coherence which can be imposed on a language thus developed after the fact.

It is odd to note that this is more or less the way in which Tolkien’s languages developed. Odd, not merely because I’m not Tolkien, but also because our patterns of work were quite different. Tolkien had years in which to carefully consider different aspects of his languages and carefully work out phonologies and inflectional paradigms. I had literally hours between the request for a translation and the time the end result needed to be delivered. Moreover, between one request and the next (particularly in less-used languages, like Khuzdul) months or even years might pass.

In the meantime, the likelihood that I would forget at least some parts earlier inventions was pretty good. Each time, I made an effort to, effectively re-learn the details of the languages I invented, in order to maintain consistency. Several things, however, might thwart this intention: first, I might not be able to find all of the older material in time to review it and get the translations done. Second, even if I found it, I might inadvertently overlook some details in the reviewing. Third, on reviewing the older material I might simply be unhappy with some aspects of the invention and choose to substitute something new.

Consistency was always my intention — but I wasn’t going to insist on an absolute consistency if the result was going to produce something that I thought wouldn’t really look like Khuzdul (or whatever other language I was working on). After all, natural languages are complex, inconsistent, and redundant, and a certain amount of synonymy or redundancy of construction could perhaps even enhance verisimilitude. I have often let myself be guided by my ear (and my gut), feeling that if I gave it free enough rein, the language would eventually speak for itself, and that if I made mistakes, they were not in failing to stick rigidly to an invention that I had made at one time, but in failing to listen closely enough to what the language was telling me about how it wanted to develop.

On the other hand, just playing by ear wasn’t going to be good enough if I didn’t want the language to descend into absolute chaos. So it was that when I was asked to translate lyrics into Khuzdul to be used in conjunction with the Moria scenes, I found the need — on translating complex verbal sentences for the first time — to sit down and create a verbal paradigm, which has remained essentially the same ever since.

A new page

Traversetravis wrote to me to suggest that I might use this blog to post some of my past writings related to the languages of Middle-earth. I’m grateful for the suggestion, which I think is a good idea, though at the moment I don’t know how much of what I’ve written has stood the test of time.

The first page that I’m creating, therefore, is a relatively recent essay called On Telerin which I wrote two years ago and posted as a sort of serial (because it’s quite long) on the Elfling mailing list. It’s about the Elvish language of the Teleri, which for reasons that I explain in the essay, can be considered Tolkien’s real “Elven-Latin.”

Because of the relatively scanty remains of Telerin, it’s actually possible to cover the entire development of language over time. This essay omits the earliest phases of this language, and covers a period from the late 1930s down to 1972; but I think it deals with a number of interesting points about the development of the Elvish languages in general.

It is almost the same text as that which appeared on Elfling, with only a few very minor changes in wording, none of which substantially affect the content. However, I have worked to enhance the appearance of the text so that it is hopefully more readable, and more in line with my intentions in writing it. I’m afraid that it is, in parts, rather technical (indeed, it’s possibly the most technical thing I’ve ever written about Elvish, including A Gateway to Sindarin) but even so there are some parts that should be readable for the non-technically minded.

Readers’ eagle eyes will no doubt discover some problems or inconsistencies in formatting; these are probably unintentional and will be fixed as they come to my notice.

Readers are also invited to try translating the section headers, all of which are in reconstructed Telerin, and can generally be figured out with the aid of the essay itself. Most are pretty obvious, but one or two may be a little tricky.

Mining for meaning

Helge asks:

I take it that the words Ukhlat “grasper, holder” and Umraz “keeper” are based on the pattern seen in Tolkien’s uzbad “lord”, which is then taken as an agentive formation meaning *”ruler” or similar (*ZBD “rule”?) So assuming ZRB as the root meaning “write” (underlying the word Mazarbul), a “scribe” or “writer” would be *uzrab, if the theory holds?

That’s exactly right, and it brings me right to the next stage of the process of creating neo-Khuzdul: extracting every possible bit of meaning from the existing body of Khuzdul-vocabulary, and using it as a basis for further expansion.

As I’ve already shown, every Khuzdul word is the combination of a meaning-bearing root, and a syntactically or structurally significant pattern. Some of those patterns have already been seen:

Root\Pattern C u C C C a C â C
Kh Z D khuzd “dwarf” khazâd “dwarves”
R Kh S rukhs “orc” rakhâs “orcs”

This looks like a simple singular-plural pattern. But obviously things must be more complex: not all nouns have the CuCC pattern, and we have plurals of a different type, e.g.: bark “axe”, plural baruk “axes”.

This suggests that the CuCC/CaCâC type of pattern applies only to nouns of a specific class. Now, these classes could be arbitrary, like some declensional systems, or like the classes of Arabic “broken plurals”, in which case there would be nothing to do except to randomly assign new words to one class or another. But it also might be the case that there’s some connection between the form of the word and its semantics: in this case, considering the contents of the class, it might be that the CuCC/CaCâC pattern applies to animate or rational beings. Such a theory is reinforced by the plural form Sigin-tarâg “Longbeards” — the name of a tribe of Dwarves.

We can easily guess that sigin means “long” and tarâg means “beards” (though the reverse is not impossible). But we can’t assume that the normal form for “beards” is tarâg outside of this compound — since beards as such are neither animate nor rational, while a Longbeard (dwarf) is. Presumable a single Longbeard is a Sigin-turg, but a beard by itself might be a targ, or something else with the same TRG root but a different pattern.

Incidentally, this is another “philological jest” — Longbeards translates a Germanic word derived from *Langabardôs, Latinized as Langobardi — this was the name of a Germanic tribe who invaded Italy, and whose name was gradually corrupted into “Lombard.” An early mediæval text in Latin, relating the origin of this people (the Origo Gentis Langobardorum) says that on the occasion of a war between the Vandals and a tribe called the Winniles, the women of the Winniles came to battle with their long hair let down and arranged around their faces in the shape of beards. This being seen by the deity Godan (=Óðinn), he said (in apparent astonishment) Qui sunt isti longibarbæ? — “Who are those longbeards?” — and from this came their name. The Longbeard dwarves owe nothing to this tribe other than the name, but perhaps the myth influenced Tolkien’s idea that the Dwarf-women resembled (and were bearded like) the Dwarf-men.

Anyway, I decided that I would use CuCC/CaCâC for all words referring to peoples: hobbits, elves, trolls, and so forth. As it happened, the only word of this type that I needed to create was “elf” — which became fund, plural fanâd. This is a “jest” of my own, although one which makes good sense in terms of the history of Middle-earth. The Dwarves had arisen in the early years of the First Age, after the Elves but before Men. They were unknown to the Eldar until after they reached Beleriand and met them in the Eryd Luin; but the Dwarves must have met other Elves before they encountered either the Sindar or the Noldor, and these were most likely either Nandor or western groups of the Avari, who (at this early stage in their history) probably went by the name of *Pendi. At any rate, fund is clearly an adaptation of pend– to Khuzdul phonology, substituting f for the p that is absent in Khuzdul, and using the CuCC pattern for “incarnates.”

Other words provided different meanings and patterns. On Balin’s tomb in Moria, we find him described as Uzbad Khazaddûmu “Lord of Khazad-dûm.” Now, it’s possible that uzbad “lord” is just a word, incapable of further analysis. But obviously it would be very convenient for me if I could get more out of it. I assumed that “lord” actually meant “ruler”, and that therefore the sequence ZBD meant “rule, govern” and the pattern uCCaC was the normal form for an agent — that is, in relation to any verb, a noun of this form would mean “one who [verb]s”. So, as Helge says, if ZRB was the root for “write, record” then a writer — most probably a professional writer, a scribe — would be an *uzrab. This was a pattern that I made considerable use of.

This theory about the meaning of uzbad also helped me explain why it is Khazaddûmu and not *Khazaddûmul, using the adjectival or genitival suffix which occurs so often elsewhere. I assumed that -u was the ending used for an objective genitive, one that can be used when the noun modified has verbal force, and the modifying noun is, in a sense, its object: that is, if uzbad Khazaddûmu can be understood to mean “one who rules Khazad-dûm.”

Dwarvish aspirations

Menelion asks:

I have a question about phonetics: Tolkien states that kh is an aspirated k sound. And that’s OK if we have a vowel after it (as in Khazad). But what will we do in the case of words like “rukhs”? This is an after-stress position without a vowel, so I find this quite difficult to pronounce correctly. Do you think the sound would somewhat become more plain and closer to k or, maybe, there will be a schwa between kh and s?

Although both of these possibilities are of course possible, and both deaspiration and epenthesis of a vowel in difficult clusters do occur in real-world languages, in this case I take the transcription at face value: that rukhs represents [ʀukʰs]. The distinction between [ks] and [kʰs] is that in the latter case there’s an audible expiration of breath, a voiceless period of transition between the two consonants. If you wanted, you could represent it as [ə˳] — a voiceless schwa — but it would be very short, it wouldn’t be a syllabic nucleus in itself, and so phonologically wouldn’t count as a vowel.

But this reminds me that I promised to say something about Dwarvish aspirates and the lack of [pʰ] — and the presence of [f]. Khuzdul is unusual among the languages of Third Age Middle-earth in having voiceless aspirated stops — though the loremasters of the Eldar postulated such stops (pʰ, tʰ, kʰ, kʷʰ) for earlier stages of the Elvish languages. They can also be found in Adûnaic, Tolkien’s other Semitic-influenced language. In all of these languages (Khuzdul, early Elvish, and Adûnaic) there is a three-way contrast in stops. A stop may be voiceless and unaspirated  (like p, t, k) — meaning that the period of voicelessness, when the vocal folds stop vibrating, can be very brief. If preceded and followed by a voiced vowel sound — in, say, the sequence apa — the vocal folds stop vibrating only for the brief moment that the lips come together to make the sound p.

Or a stop may be voiceless and aspirated (like pʰ, tʰ, kʰ). This means that the voicelessness continues into the following sound. In the sequence apʰa, the first part of the following vowel a is voiceless — effectively, whispered. The sound of h in English is a pure aspiration — it’s not so much a consonant in itself as it is the devoicing, or whispering, of the following vowel. If you look at yourself in the mirror while saying he, hay, ha, haw, hoe, who you’ll see that the h itself has no shape, and that the mouth immediately takes the shape of the vowel as you begin to say each word.

Or a stop may be voiced (like b, d, g). This means that the vocal folds continue to vibrate all the way through a sequence like aba.

Now the curious thing is that, although this kind of three-way voicing contrast was found in languages like ancient Greek and certain Indic dialects, or for that matter in ancient Chinese and Tibetan, it is absent from the Semitic languages. There indeed is a three-way contrast for some consonants in some Semitic languages; but the contrast is not based on voicing and aspiration, but on voicing and what is called, for a lack of a better term, “emphasis”.

What “emphatic” means with reference to Semitic languages depends in part on the language and in part on who is doing the analysis. They have been interpreted as velarized, pharyngealized, or glottalized or ejective sounds. What these all have in common is that they involve a certain amount of constriction of the throat coarticulated with the consonant. For our purposes, we don’t have to worry about the exact phonetic details, and we’ll just represent “emphasis” by that ambiguous symbol so much used by scholars of Semitic: the sub-dot.

The most common “emphatic” stops in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic are ṭ (ṭêt in Hebrew, ṭā in Arabic) and ḳ, more commonly written q (ḳôp in Hebrew, ḳāf in Arabic). There is, notably, no emphatic p in these languages. The gap can be shown graphically this way:

labial coronal velar
voiceless p t k
voiced b d g

This is rather distant from Khuzdul. There are a couple of things, however, which can bring it closer. One is that it appears that, in Hebrew and Aramaic at least, the voiceless stops may have been incidentally aspirated: that is, though phonologically /p t k/, phonetically they may have been [pʰ tʰ kʰ] rather than [p t k]. Two things point to this: one, that in Greek (which had the aspirated/unaspirated distinction) Semitic /p t k/ usually get transcribed as φ θ χ (pʰ tʰ kʰ) and not as π τ κ (p t k). In fact, τ and κ are usually used to represent ṭ and ḳ! The other is that in both Hebrew and Aramaic, /p t k/ in some environments (following a vowel, mostly) became fricatives [f θ x] (in some varieties of both Hebrew and Aramaic, even [f s x]) — which may suggest an intermediate stage of pʰ tʰ kʰ. In Yiddish, where the consonant values are derived from a rather late stage of Hebrew, the normal sound of כ (Hebrew /k/) is [x], while ט and ק (Hebrew ṭ and ḳ) are the normal representations of [t] and [k].

One might hazard a guess that Khuzdul — transcribed in alphabets invented by Elves — is no better represented than Hebrew transcribed into the Greek alphabet would be. If so, then possibly a table of Khuzdul stops would look something like this:

labial coronal velar
voiceless t written th k written kh
emphatic ṭ written t ḳ written k
voiced b d g

This makes Khuzdul look a lot more like Semitic, and explains why Khuzdul doesn’t have a p; it would be equivalent to an emphatic p, which is not found in the more common Semitic languages. But wait, there’s a problem – Khuzdul not only lacks p (emphatic p), it also lacks ph (/p/)! However, this is exactly the situation found in Arabic — where the phoneme cognate to /p/ in other Semitic languages is /f/. And we do indeed have an [f] in Khuzdul! If *p became f in Khuzdul just as in Arabic, then we could postulate a proto-Khuzdul consonant system substantially similar to that of Semitic.

This is all speculation, of course, and I have not the slightest shred of evidence that Tolkien ever actually thought along these lines. It is, however, a fairly neat way of justifying some of the curious asymmetries of the Khuzdul consonant system.

A Low Philological Jest

In a letter to the British newspaper The Observer written in 1938, Tolkien wrote regarding the name of the dragon Smaug:

The dragon bears as name — a pseudonym — the past tense of the primitive Germanic verb smugan, to squeeze through a hole: a low philological jest.

To clarify his meaning: there was, or can be assumed to have been based on descendant languages, a proto-Germanic verb smûgan, meaning “to creep, to crawl, to go through a hole,” of which the 1st person and 3rd person singular forms of the preterite tense would have been smaug: “I crept/he, she, it crept”.

Why this derivation would be humorous, even to philologists, let alone a “low jest” is, I suppose, something for the reader to guess at. It’s not even clear why it’s relevant to Smaug as a character — other than that a dragon can be considered a kind of serpent, and serpents creep — since one of the things we know about Smaug is that he was too large to “squeeze through a hole” as large as five feet by three. However, this particular Germanic root was a favorite of Tolkien’s — it also appears in Gollum’s proper name, Sméagol (Hobbitish Trahald, which Tolkien translates as “burrowing, worming in,” but which in light of Old English sméagend might also be rendered “searcher, investigator,” both being plausible descriptions of Gollum) and in the large delvings built by more prosperous hobbits, smials (from Old English smygel “burrow”= Hobbitish trân < trahan).

This sort of “jest” is not at all untypical of Tolkien’s linguistic work. From the very beginning of his invention of languages, the vocabularies are rich with “puns” — of a sort. They are plays on words that usually require some knowledge of other languages, modern, historical, and reconstructed, to be understood. They are not, as a rule, more humorous than needed to crack a very slight smile on the face of the person who gets them; and, like all puns, they lose their humor once explained. Some of these have been fairly thoroughly documented by Tolkien himself; for instance, the origin of orc in Latin orcus “underworld” (Late Latin “demon, ogre”); or of Eärendil in Old English Earendel, apparently a figure or concept from Germanic mythology associated with stars or with the dawn. But there are many other words, not bearing any particular mythological importance, which are borrowed, with more or less change, from various languages. To list them all would be a great labor. But derived from Finnish, for instance, we have the Elvish words rauta “metal,” tie “road,” lapse “baby,” kulu “gold”; from Primitive Germanic mat- “eat,” suk- “drink”; from Greek aglar “glory,” pen “lacking”; from Latin vala “have power,” ros “dew, spray,” cassa “helmet”; from some Slavic language ranko “arm”; from Hebrew  “mouth.” These are only some of the ones I can think of off the top of my head.  Some of these “puns” are indeed far too obvious, such as (in an early vocabulary) nénuvar “pool of lilies”, from French nénuphar “a water-lily”! Tolkien tended to drop some of the more obvious puns from his Elvish vocabularies, and was occasionally concerned (unnecessarily, I think) about too-obvious resonances between Elvish and real-world languages. For instance, it seemed to concern him that the Elvish negative element ú resembled too much various derivatives of Germanic un-, like Old Norse ó-, ú-. He occasionally considered replacing it with the element — forgetting, perhaps, that itself closely resembled the Arabic word for “no” or “not”, lâ!

Tolkien also repeatedly engaged in several “low philological jests” between his own languages, a sort of cross-pollination. Adunaic naru “male” echoes Quenya nér of the same meaning (though both probably echo Greek anêr, Sanskrit nara; and, for that matter, Adunaic zini “female” echoes, at a greater distance, Greek gynê, Persian zan). Adunaic  “spirit” echoes Quenya manu “departed spirit”. Khuzdul kibil “silver” echoes Sindarin celeb of the same meaning. Adunaic târik “pillar/that which supports” may be echoed in Khuzdul tharkûn “staff-man” (a nickname of Gandalf).

I’m discussing this because it relates to how I went about building Khuzdul vocabulary. Coming up with sequences of sound to fit meaning is not an easy task. Language creators have gone about this in different ways. Some, like the makers of Esperanto, Interlingua, and other auxiliary languages, have drawn extensively on real-world languages to provide a basic vocabulary. Others, especially creators of “artlangs” (in which class I suppose neo-Khuzdul belongs) have tried to distance their languages from the real world context — which only makes sense if your language is supposed to be spoken on, say, an alien planet or in a parallel plane of existence. Some have gone so far as to use computers, programmed with certain limitations on sounds and word-types, to generate new vocabulary.

I couldn’t do that. To me, the junction of meanings and sounds has to make some sense, to me if not to others. Such ‘sense’ is usually derived from our own linguistic experience. If I were looking for a word for “round”, no doubt sequences that resembled RND or BL or GLB would seem more plausible than, oh, KZT or ShRG. There is also a certain amount of sound-symbolism which is, if not universal, at least common enough to be drawn on in language-creation. If I create the words bulmo and rizek, and tell you that one refers to sharp, brittle shards while the other refers to a large, soft pillow, few people — certainly few speakers of English — will have difficulty guessing which meaning belongs to which word.

Considering this, and considering that Tolkien’s languages were not examples of pure language-making, untainted by influences from outside, I decided not to consciously avoid “influences,” either from real-world languages or from Tolkien’s languages, but to take them as they came to mind, and consider whether they could be fitted to the sound-patterns of Khuzdul. Neo-Khuzdul is therefore full of linguistic “puns” and references, though these are for the most part limited to the particular choice of sound-sequences for the roots.

Question about Dwalin’s axes

Michelle writes:

I have a question about Dwalin’s battle axes Grasper and Keeper. The first appears to be pronounced Uk Lat, but is the second pronounced Umrak (Angerthas Moria) or Umraks (Angerthas Erebor)? Angerthas Moria seems more likely, but I was hoping Angerthas Erebor might be used somewhere in the movie.

The two axes are supposed to be named Ukhlat “grasper, holder” and Umraz “keeper”, pointing toward roots KhLT “hold tight” and MRZ “keep, retain”, both with the same pattern uCCaC. The z-rune used is indeed the one used in the Angerthas Moria. I don’t remember my exact reasoning behind using the Angerthas Moria, but possibly I thought of the axes as very ancient relics, made before the settlement of Erebor.

The actual sources of the name-meanings (which I did not come up with) were the names of two dogs belonging to the novelist Emily Brontë.

If all the runic writing I created for the films actually appeared on screen, there would be a lot of Angerthas Erebor! But I don’t know how much will be seen; possibly more once the setting actually gets to Erebor itself.

The Architecture of Words

Generating a vocabulary for an invented language is a stupendous task. For basic functionality, a natural language probably needs about 5000 to 10,000 words; a language that’s fully capable of dealing with all sorts of specialized and technical topics may have upwards of 100,000 words.

Naturally, when I started work on neo-Khuzdul, I did not have such a complete vocabulary. Nor, after many years, does such a vocabulary exist today. What I created instead was something like what Tolkien had done with his Elvish languages; instead of making a dictionary of thousands of words, he created a system by which new vocabulary items could be generated based on existing words and “roots” — the sounds which carry the fundamental meaning of each word.

But Khuzdul was very different in structure from Elvish. In this, as with the phonology of Khuzdul, Tolkien had left clues that I was bound to follow. In The Lord of the Rings itself, Tolkien had had little to say about Khuzdul as a language; only that it was a “strange tongue, changed little by the years,” and “a tongue of lore rather than a cradle-speech” which few had succeeded in learning. We recall that, at the West-gate of Moria, Gandalf speculates that it will be unnecessary for him to ask Gimli for “words of the secret dwarf-tongue that they teach to none.” Obviously, even Gandalf is not a master of Khuzdul!

A vital clue about the nature of Khuzdul came from a text that is not really concerned with Khuzdul or the Dwarves at all. This is “Lowdham’s Report on the Adunaic Language” (in Sauron Defeated, pp.413-440). This text purports to be a description, by the fictional character Alwin Arundel Lowdham, of the languages of Númenor — an “Atlantis” of a distant, semimythical past, which he has been able to view by means of entering into the experiences of his remote ancestors – who may include Elendil of Númenor! The machinery by which all this is justified is extremely complex, and is described in The Notion Club Papers (also in Sauron Defeated); it also raises all sorts of intriguing issues which are beyond the scope of this particular discussion. Suffice it to say that Lowdham provides some elementary grammatical information about the primary language of Númenor, Adûnaic (or, as he spells it, Adunaic), and contrasts it with the Elvish or “Nimrian” languages — nimir being the Adunaic word for “elf.”

Adunaic, Lowdham speculates,

came under some different influence [than Elvish]. This influence I call Khazadian; because I have received a good many echoes of a curious tongue, also connected with what we should call the West of the Old World, that is associated with the name Khazad. Now this resembles Adunaic phonetically, and it seems also in some points of vocabulary and structure; but it is precisely at the points where Adunaic most differs from Avallonian [sc. Quenya] that it approaches nearest to Khazadian.

Lowdham does not identify Khazadian specifically as a language of Dwarves, doubtless because he does not know; his psychic information is largely focused on language-details, and occasionally visions of manuscripts, with other aspects of the visualized culture being scant or absent. But there is no doubt that, within Tolkien’s mythology, Khazad refers to the Dwarves and that Khazadian is Khuzdul.

This is all well and good, but one would like to know more precisely in what points of structure “Khazadian” resembles Adunaic. Lowdham happily comes through:

The majority of the word-bases of Adunaic were triconsonantal. This structure is somewhat reminiscent of Semitic; and in this point Adunaic shows affinity with Khazadian rather than Nimrian.

No more is said about “Khazadian” in this text, but this is enough. It echoes, somewhat obliquely, a comment made by Tolkien in a letter to Naomi Mitchison: that the Dwarves were “like Jews… speaking the languages of the country [i.e., of whatever country they happen to be living], but with an accent due to their own private tongue.” It’s difficult to reconcile this with Tolkien’s statement that Khuzdul was “a tongue of lore rather than a cradle-speech”; and in reality it’s more likely that the pronunciation of Hebrew was influenced by “the languages of the country” than the other way around, and that such accents as the Jews of Tolkien’s acquaintance may have had more likely came from Yiddish than from Hebrew.

But to return to the main point: it seemed evident that Tolkien intended Khuzdul to be somewhat Semitic in structure, particularly as regarded the system of roots. The Semitic language family is a large but fairly tightly-knit group of languages found mostly in the Middle East. Its representatives with the most speakers today are the Arabic languages (descended from Classical Arabic), modern Israeli Hebrew, and some but not all of the languages of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Extinct varieties include the Akkadian languages spoken in Mesopotamia, including Assyria and Babylon; Phœnician, spoken along the coasts of what are now Syria, Lebanon, and Northern Israel, and its descendant, the Punic of Carthage; and Aramaic, spoken originally in Syria but later throughout the Middle East. Aramaic is not quite extinct; some descendant dialects are still spoken in a few villages, though more than a century of upheaval has not been kind to them, and they are now on the edge of extinction.

What these languages have in common is a peculiar structure, in which basic meaning is carried by a group of consonants (normally three, but sometimes 1, 2, or 4) which are then modified by the addition of prefixes, suffixes, infixes, doubling of consonants (normally the second), and, most notably, the insertion or deletion of vowels between these consonants. For instance, in Arabic the three consonants k-l-m carry the notion of “speaking” or “speech”. From this root are derived (among othes) the verbs kallama “address”, kâlama “converse”, takallama “utter”, and the nouns kalimah “word, speech”, kalâm “expression”, mukâlama “discussion”, takallum “talk”, and the adjectives kalâmî “pertaining to speech”, tiklâm “eloquent”, and mutakallim “speaking”. The sequence k-l-m (which, for convenience’s sake, I’ll express in capital letters henceforth without dashes, thus: KLM) is the “root”, which in Arabic is called jidhr and in Hebrew shoresh.

A standard set of affixes or pattern of vowels can be applied to many different roots. These patterns (called wazn in Arabic and binyan in Hebrew) can indicate the part of speech, the person, number, mood, or tense of the verb, the comparative or superlative forms of the adjective, and so forth. For instance, in Arabic, the adjectives meaning “big” and “near” have the pattern CaCîC, where C=one of the consonants of the root: kabîr, qarîb. The superlatives of these same adjectives have the pattern aCCaC: akbar “biggest”, aqrab “nearest”.

Can we verify that Khuzdul has this kind of construction, in general, if not in detail? The word Khuzdul itself is evidently related to Khazâd “dwarves”, the prefixed form Khazad– in “Khazad-dûm” (“Mansion of the Dwarves”) and probably also Nulukkhizdîn*, a Dwarvish name for Nargothrond (where Nuluk probably = Narog, the name of the river on which Nargothrond was built). Each of these shows the same root KhZD (remember that kh is a single consonantal sound in Khuzdul) with a variety of vowel patterns and suffixes: CaCaC, CaCâC, CuCCul, CiCCîn. The ending -ul in Khuzdul is probably the same as that seen in Mazarbul and Fundinul — in the latter case appended to a name of Mannish origin. We also have the word Rukhs “orc”, plural Rakhâs “orcs” in The War of the Jewels, p. 391, which shows that patterns are repeated; Rakhâs has the same pattern as Khazâd, but with the root RKhS. If the patterns are consistent, then most likely the singular of Khazâd is Khuzd, which in term explains Khuzd-ul — basically equivalent to Dwarf-ish.

Assuming a Semitic style of construction, generating a Khuzdul vocabulary was therefore — in principle — as simple as producing a lot of triliteral roots and a suitable set of patterns, like (but not identical to) those found in real Semitic languages. In actual application, things were a little more complicated.

*Misspelled in The Silmarillion; see The War of the Jewels, p. 180.

Runes in The Hobbit film

Bethany writes to ask:

I have a question about the dwarf-runes used in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I have noticed that in some instances (e.g. Thorin’s key) Anglo-Saxon futhark runes are used, and in others Tolkien’s own Angerthas runes are used. Is there a reason that both kinds are used alongside each other?


This is a problem peculiar to the film, and results from different people working on different aspects of the film at the same time without necessarily being aware of what the others were doing. Although only the Anglo-Saxon runes are used in the book of The Hobbit, I recommended, at an early stage (with what I thought were plausible arguments) that the Angerthas runes should be used throughout the film of The Hobbit, to maintain continuity with the previous filmed The Lord of the Rings and avoid questions of this kind being raised! I even, for instance, retransliterated the text of Thror’s map out of the English fuþorc and into the Angerthas of Erebor (still using English, but different rune forms). At some point, without my being aware of it, the decision was made to go back to the fuþorc in some instances.But where there was something entirely original to the film, like Dwalin’s axes (to which I gave neo-Khuzdul names and corresponding inscriptions in Angerthas) there was no original to go back to, and so there the Angerthas remain.

The result is precisely the mixture which I was trying to avoid! But now that it’s part of the film universe, I think we can at least guess at an in-universe interpretation — where the original inscription is in Khuzdul, the Angerthas are used, but where it was in Westron or another non-Khuzdul (most likely Mannish) language, we see the fuþorc used instead. In which case we have to suppose that, even on such “secret” items as the map and key, the Dwarves preferred not to use Khuzdul in writing. The use of Khuzdul writing on Dwalin’s axes might be seen (and this is just a guess that I came up with while writing this) as a sort of charm, if Khuzdul (which is a language made by a Vala, after all) is thought to have greater magical potency than other languages.

But in general I don’t expect there will be any way of telling which artifacts are going to bear inscriptions in Angerthas and which will use fuþorc; it depends on decisions that I didn’t take part in.

Language Creation 101

Working on creating an extended version of Khuzdul for The Lord of the Rings was a different challenge, both from translating into Quenya and Sindarin, and from simply inventing a new language out of the blue. In the first case, I had a large vocabulary and a general grammatical framework. In the second, I could do pretty much as I pleased. Khuzdul, however, though it had almost no indications of grammar and a very small vocabulary, nonetheless had a definite and distinctive sound and feel to it. It was going to be my task, before all else, to determine what that feel was and replicate it.

The first part of the job was relatively simple: to determine what the sounds of Khuzdul were, and the constraints upon the way those sounds could be organized. Simply by going through a list of all the Khuzdul words and names, I found the following sounds:

Vowels, short: i, e, a, o, u

Vowels, long: î, ê, â, û

Diphthongs: ai

Consonants, stops: b, d, g, t, th, k, kh, ʔ (glottal stop)

Consonants, fricatives: f, s, sh (i.e., /ʃ/), z, h

Nasals: m, n

Liquids and glides: l, r

Of course I knew that, given the small size of the Khuzdul corpus (the total number of words, names, and phrases in the language) this might not be all the sounds there were in the language, but each sound was repeated enough that it seemed to be pretty characteristic of the language. I decided that I wasn’t going to go outside this set of sounds without a very good reason.

The list of letters in the Angerthas, or runic alphabet, which is said to be used by the Dwarves that appears in Appendix E of The Return of the King appears, at first glance, to give a much larger variety of sounds. On closer consideration of its history and use, however, it turns out to be unreliable as a guide to Khuzdul sounds. The Dwarvish Angerthas is a fairly superficial remodelling of an earlier Elvish Angerthas, at first used for writing Sindarin (which explains the existence, for instance, of vowel sounds for ü and ö) and then supplemented by additional letters to write sounds found in other languages, which might include Khuzdul, but would also include Quenya, the Nandorin Elvish languages, and Mannish languages. And since the Dwarves always lived in contact with Men and Elves, they might have retained the same symbols for the same reason. The only sound that the description of the Angerthas specially pointed to as being part of Khuzdul was ʔ, “the clear or glottal beginning of  a word with an initial vowel that appeared in Khuzdul.” By this I understood that when a word appears to begin with a vowel in Khuzdul — like uzbad, iglishmêk, or azanulbizar — it actually began with a ʔ, and this sound would or could be written in Khuzdul with the certh (rune) #35. (However, the word uzbad on Balin’s tomb actually doesn’t begin with this symbol.)

Appendix E’s pronunciation guide also pointed toward another distinctive characteristic of Khuzdul. Dwarvish is there said not to “possess the sounds represented… by th and ch (kh)” (meaning the sounds of English thick and German ach, represented in IPA by /θ/ and /x/) and that the written combinations of Roman letters th and kh actually represented aspirates — that is, IPA /tʰ/ and /kʰ/. The absence of /pʰ/ was notable, as was the presence of /f/ (as in felak-gundu, the Khuzdul name of the Elvish king Finrod Felagund). But my interpretation of these facts will be noted later.

The vowel system seemed fairly straightforward, with one exception: the extreme rarity of o (and the total absence of ô). The vowel o only appears in the name Gabilgathol, Khuzdul for Belegost/Mickleburg, and presumably also meaning “Great Fortress”. I decided that using a lot of o’s in my Khuzdul words would make it look very different from Tolkien’s, and I decided to avoid o where possible (though, as the language later developed, an ô later got in through the backdoor!).  A system of just i, e, a, u looks somewhat “unbalanced,” when charted out: /i/ has /u/ as its back counterpart, but /e/ has no back counterpart at all. Of course, these symbols are, in principle, derived from equating the Khuzdul vowel-signs with their Elvish counterparts, and it’s quite possible that the Dwarvish values ascribed to these symbols were somewhat different. For instance, e might actually represent /æ/, a low front vowel, and a might represent /ɑ/, a low back vowel, in which case the symmetry would be complete. On the other hand, many natural languages do have asymmetrical vowel systems; so I decided not to worry too much about it.

The other question was about possible combinations of sounds. This was easy: there seemed to be no limitations. There was gl in aglâb, ʃm in iglishmêk, zb in uzbad, zd in Khuzdul, kʰs in rukhs, rb in Mazarbul, rbh in Sharbhund, rg in Nargûn, rk in bark and Tharkûn, nd in Bundushathûr, and various other combinations in what were more obviously compound words, like lg in Gabilgathol or lb in Azanulbizar. It seemed that wherever two consonants came together, they remained without change — and this, of course, made the task of construction considerably easier. It also gave the resulting words a very distinctive sound, less mellifluous, perhaps, than the Elvish languages, but more powerful.

But sounds were only the raw materials, the bricks and mortar of a building. In order to start building phrases and sentences, I needed words; and to get words, I needed an architectural plan, a way of bringing those sounds together in consistent shapes that would do two things at the same time: first, carry meaning; second, look and sound like Khuzdul. With this in mind, I proceeded to step two.