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.

10 Responses to “A Low Philological Jest”

  1. Travis Henry

    Thanks for this David. For more on why the ancient meaning of words might resemble their sound-shape, see Owen Barfield’s book Poetic Diction and Stephen Metcalf’s “Language Learned of Elves: Owen Barfield, The Hobbit, and the Lord of the Rings”.

  2. Wolf

    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.

    Hm. No. Only if your mother tongue would be English.

    Having heard quite some newly developed languages in recent films and shows (like “Game of Thrones”) this seems to be common. It seems that everything deviates from English as a common ground.

    No frustration here – it’s up to language students of a different mother tongue to make themselves heard to studios and filmmakers, as difficult, as that might well be. But I for one would love to hear a “new” language not spoken with heavy american accent (or the oh-so-noble british one) whilst trying to convince me to be very foreign at the same time.

    • David Salo

      I was speaking of myself, not of anyone else — which is why I said “I”, not “you”, or “one”. Since my native language is English, the sound-associations I naturally start with are those found in English, though since I know a bit about other languages, they don’t stop there either. I would never actually use a word like rund or rond for “round” in an invented language, unless I intended it to be a long-lost cousin of French! But I might use such a sound-form for something else that vaguely suggested “roundness” to me (perhaps a word for “year”?) or I might use another combination of sounds that I felt had a similar phonetic effect.
      Now that I think of it, Tolkien used randa for “cycle” (of time). But then he was also a native speaker of English.

    • H.K. Fauskanger

      Wolf wrote: “But I for one would love to hear a “new” language not spoken with heavy american accent (or the oh-so-noble british one) whilst trying to convince me to be very foreign at the same time.”

      Well. As regards the “Dothraki” language heard in Game of Thrones, I was actually impressed that the actors managed to utter it in a way that was free of any very obvious English accent. To that extent it sounded quite convincing (as opposed to, say, the sometimes obviously labored delivery of the Aramaic lines in “The Passion of the Christ”). The language of the blue-skinned aliens in “Avatar” was also free of any overly obvious English accent, I should say. And indeed, in “The Hobbit” I think Hugo Weaving in particular does a good job delivering his Neo-Sindarin lines; they flow from his lips as if he is indeed speaking a language native to him.

  3. H.K. Fauskanger

    As for “smaug”, it is still a living word in some varieties of my native Norwegian — the past tense of smyge (seg) generally suggesting “sneak” (constructed with the reflexive pronoun seg, e.g. han smyger seg inn “he sneaks [lit. sneaks himself] in”. The idea of squeezing through a small opening may also be involved.

    Still, I very much doubt that most Norwegians watching the new movies will get Tolkien’s “jest”, but I was happy to hear the name Smaug properly pronounced, and not garbled into something like [smo:g] as English orthography would suggest.

    I guess it is harder to say what the “proper” pronunciation of Tolkien’s Germanic-derived words really is, as opposed to the pronunciation of Elvish. Neologisms like “smial” (from the same root as “Smaug”!) were meant to be pronounced in English fashion, i.e. more or less like the pre-existing word “smile”.

    • David Salo

      Were you thinking of Oscan (Samnite) niir “man”, or of a word in another Italic dialect that I don’t know about?

      I might also have noted that Adûnaic contains a few obvious Semitic borrowings or puns. One is huzun “ear”; cf. Hebrew ôzen and Akkadian uznu, both “ear”. Another is abâr “strength”; cf. Akkadian abâru “be strong”. Nimir “elf” is supposed to come from a root meaning “to shine” (hence Nimîr is translated “the Shining Ones”): Akkadian namâru “to shine” (related to nûr “light” in other Semitic languages).
      More obviously, and indeed more peculiarly a pun, is Azrubêl, the Adûnaic name of Eärendil. This is supposed to mean sea-lover in Adûnaic. But I find it hard to believe that it’s not modeled on the Carthaginian Punic name usually transliterated Hasdrubal – that is, עזרובעל (ʕazrubaʕl) “(His) help is Baal”; and Baal is also Bêl in Akkadian. (And what Semitic people were more “lovers of the sea” than the Carthaginians, unless perhaps their own ancestors, the Phœnicians?)

      • Mad Latinist

        Yes, Oscan ner/niir, Umbrian ner (not attested in the nominative). Also, ancient sources explaining the name Nero say it is Sabine for fortis ac strenuus (Suetonius), virtus et fortitudo (Gellius), or ἀνδρεῖος (Lydus).

  4. Olivier van Renswoude

    In meaning and sound Adûnaic huzun ‘ear’ is also quite similar to Old Germanic *hauzjanan (whence Modern English hear, Gothic hausjan, Old Saxon hôrian, etc.) and to Old Germanic *auzōn (whence Modern English ear, Gothic ausō, Old Saxon ôra, etc.).

    And Adûnaic abâr ‘strength’ reminds me of Old Germanic *abraz (whence at least Gothic abrs ‘strong, violent, great, mighty’).

  5. Sami Paldanius

    Tolkien was seemingly attracted by similar words appearing in unrelated languages. Besides Latin, kassa is also an old Karelian Finnish (Kalevala) word, meaning ‘thick, curly, or finely adorned hair of person’. Likewise Q manu, N mân, Ad. mânô might remind the more philological reader of Hebrew mânôn in Proverbs 29:21 (with which cf. Ad. Subjective /-n/, SD:437-8), but also of the obscure Old Irish word manath (‘Fer Manath’) in The Tale of Mac Dathó’s Pig, and of course some of the items listed here. Etc.

    Interestingly enough, even the name of Gríma’s father, Gálmód is naturally an Old English for ‘wanton, licentious, light-minded’, and yet it also happens to reflect a justifiable reading of Hebrew g-l-m-w-d, /gal’mu:δ/ ‘fruitless, barren’ (trad. for Job 3:7), later also meaning ‘lonely, friendless’.


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