Til hamingju með afmælit

On this, the 122nd anniversary of the birth of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, the Miðgarðsmál blog would like to wish him a

  • Mána ontalérë
  • Aur onnas alwed
  • Ênâd-nurt gêdul

and a

  • Zeyborzi undumi bolneg

mána “blessed”
onta– “produce, create, beget, give birth to”
ontale “production, creation, genealogical descent” — hence (presumably) birth as well
“day” (of 24 hours)
ontale+ré = ontalére, preserving the original long final vowel of *ontālē (cf. yáviére, tuilére)

aur “day” (of 24 hours)
onnas “birth” — a conjectural noun form, from the slightly less conjectural onna-, equivalent to Quenya onta– (cf. edonna– “beget”)
alwed “fortunate, prosperous”

ênâd “birth” from *aynād, from the root √YND “give birth to” (influenced in fact by both Quenya yondo and Semitic √WLD, √YLD).
nurt “24-hour day” — a word from archaic formation, from √NRT “turn”; probably referring, not to the turning of the earth on its axis, but to the apparent turning of the sun around the earth. This root has been in my notes for a while, and I can’t find which word it was originally intended to explain or remember its origin; it looks now like simply an anagram of “turn,” but I may have had something else in mind, possibly Indo-European *wert- . “Turning” itself would be anrât.
gêdul “joyful, happy,” from a noun gayad, gêd- (*gayd-). No doubt Latin gaudium had an influence here.

Orkish (The dialect used in the film of The Hobbit)
zeyborz “day,” literally “light-dark”; zey from more archaic *zil, and borz from Black Speech burz.
The suffix -i marks a noun or noun phrase that is modified by an adjective or another noun. Its origin is probably the same as the Elvish relative pronoun i or ya.
undum “birth” or “spawning” from a verb und– “procreate.” This again seems to show Elvish influence.
The Orcs do not really appreciate the concept of joy, as understood by most other creatures (a literal description of it in Orkish would amount to “madness”), much less blessedness. I was forced to use an approximation of the concept that would make sense to an Orc:
bolneg “free from pain,” from the Orkish root √bol– (cf. bolum “pain”) and the privative suffix –neg, marking an absence of something. The latter is reminiscent of Latin negare; this is a coincidence (as they say in Middle-earth). The actual source is Quendian *-enekā, from the root √nek– “deprive of.”

Kíla steinn

I’ve received an inquiry about the meaning of the runes on Kíli’s talisman stone. The words inscribed on it are innikh dê.

The first is the singular imperative of the verb nanakha “return, come back”, which has a triliteral root √n-n-kh which obviously has been formed from the biliteral root √n-kh “come,” which is in turn clearly related to Adûnaic nakh-. The pattern is iCCiC, as is generally the case with other imperatives.

combines a preposition d(u) “to, toward” (whose real-world inspiration is the Gothic preposition du) with the 1st person singular pronominal suffix .

The meaning of the phrase on the stone is therefore “return to me.” Its precise application in Kíli’s case is something I’m not privy to, and I expect that passionate film fans can guess it more easily than I can.

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
p t k
b d g
Nasals m n ŋ
f θ, s ʃ x h
z ɣ
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.

Durin’s song: The rest

I’m finishing my discussion of Durin’s song with an overview of the remaining words, pointing out some of the sources. By way of comparison, I have added the first (and so far only) “dictionary” of Neokhuzdul that exists, at the link Neo-Khuzdul glossary. There may be some slight discrepancies between the glossary and the list below, but on the whole they seem to be in good agreement. There are also several words in it which are not found below nor, I think, anywhere else.


  • gagin “again” — Proto-Germanic *gagina, which forms part of *anagagina which becomes Old English ongean, Modern English again. Cf. German gegen.


  • ra “and” — I do not know where this came from.


  • ana “to, toward” — evidently also influenced by Elvish an and na.
  • bin “without, lacking” — clearly influenced by Elvish pen “without”, which in turn reflects Greek πένομαι penomai “be poor, have need of” — though I think I had not noticed the connection at the time, or indeed until quite recently.
  • ni “in” — it’s in backwards.
  • tur “through” — influenced by both Elvish ter– and Old English þurh, both “through”. (The former probably shows the influence of Indo-European √terH, which is of course the source of the latter).
  • undu “beneath, under” — Elvish √undu, and English under.


  • ku “who” — suggested by the Indo-European root √kwo-.
  • maku “no one” — literally “no who.” The use of a prefix ma- as a negative is a little obscure, but perhaps was suggested by Greek μή and Sanskrit .
  • tada “that” — suggested by Gothic þata and Indo-European *tod (Sanskrit tat) “that, it.”


  • kalil “cold” — English cold from Proto-Germanic *kalda- and chill from *kaliz.
  • shakar “sharp” — probably simply sound symbolism; I thought that the consonants suggested the sound of something being cut.
  • sullu “all” — suggested by Proto-Indo-European *solwos “whole,” which I knew in the shape of Sanskrit sarva “all.”
  • ubzar “deeper” — from a root √BZR, intended to explain bizar “valley.” The pattern uCCaC for comparatives and superlatives obviously overlaps with uCCaC for agents, but evidently this didn’t bother me. It is not uncommon in natural languages for similar constructions to have two quite different meanings, if they are unlikely to overlap in practice; for instance, in English the ending –er when attached to adjectives is a comparative ending (e.g. tall:taller) but when added to verbs indicates an agent (e.g. speak:speaker). I don’t remember if this comparison occurred to me at the time, however.
  • udlag “very far away” — presumably a superlative, but I don’t know what the base form would have been, perhaps dalig. In any case it is from *dlonghos, the Indo-European basis of both English long and Latin longus.
  • ugmal “eldest” — supposed to be a superlative form, from an adjective gamil “old”. The latter word is actually attested in the name of a Dwarf craftsman called “Gamil Zirak the old” (Unfinished Tales, p. 76) but there is no certainty that it actually means “old.” The meaning is really taken from Old Norse gamall “old”.


  • abad “mountain” — Almost certainly abstracted from Gundabad.
  • aban “stone”, adjectival form abanul “of stone, stony” — Looks like a rare case of direct Semitic influence, Hebrew eben < *abnu.
  • addad “fathers” — Thus in this transcript, though my early glossary has addâd. The singular was dâd, the root √ʔD, both singular and plural being somewhat irregular. Evidently from a kind of baby talk, “da da” — and of course similar to English dad.
  • aklat “sound” — an abstract noun from a root √KLT, suggested by Indo-European *klew- “hear” and *klutos “heard.”
  • amrad “death” — an abstract noun, evidently from a root √MRD “die”, which is obviously suggested by Proto-Indo-European √mer- (as in mortal).
  • arrâs “flames” — see urus below.
  • askad “shadow” — perhaps also originally abstract. Suggested by Proto-Germanic *skadwaz, whence English shade/shadow.
  • atkât “silence” — from a root √TKT, suggested by Latin taceo “be silent.” The pattern is evidently the abstract one I took from aglâb “speech.”
  • aznân “dark, darkness” — from a root √ʔZN, taken from the first part of Azanulbizar (Dimrill Dale). The form azanân was most likely intended as a sort of “broken” plural.
  • bashuk “bones” — a plural apparently founded on the pattern of baruk “axes”. It implies a singular *bashk, which however doesn’t appear in my notes.
  • buzrâ “deep” (sc. deep places, depths). From the same root √BZR in bizar “valley” and ubzar “deeper, very deep.” The word may have been intended originally as a plural, though I am not now sure of that.
  • fill(u) “skin” — Gothic fill “skin, hide” (cf. archaic English “fell,” a flayed animal’s skin).
  • gabil “great” — attested Khuzdul word, from Gabilgathol “Great fortress” and Gabilân “Great river.”
  • galab “word” — from the root √GLB taken from aglâb.
  • ganâd “halls” — a plural, obviously of gund, taken from both Felak-gundu and Gundabad. Hence evidently I understood Gundabad at the time as “Mountain-of-underground hall.”
  • gilim “glint” — suggested by Eldarin √glim-, English gleam, and of course glint itself.
  • iklal “cold” — yet another abstract pattern, from the same root as kalil “cold.” Most languages have a fairly large number of ways of constructing abstract nouns indicating qualities.
  • kâmin “earth” — suggested by Quenya cemen.
  • kilmîn “crown” — Old English helm, from an Indo-European root √kel-. The shape suggests a meaning something more like “helmet-shaped structure.” The crown of Durin depicted on the West-gate of Moria is helmet-like in shape.
  • kurd(u) “heart” — Indo-European *kerd-, whence Greek καρδία kardia, Latin cord-, and Gothic hairtō.
  • lukhud “light” — English light and the related Gothic liuhad-.
  • sanzigil “mithril” — literally “true-silver”. San from Sanskrit san(t-), sat- and Old Norse sannr, both “true” (from an Indo-European word meaning “existing”). This is probably not the secret name of the Dwarves for mithril, but a circumlocution that could be used in public.
  • thatur “stars” — this implies a singular thatr (though I do not see that form anywhere in my notes). The inspiration was English “star” and its Indo-European cognates (most of which, however, contain the stem in the form ster– (e.g. ἀστήρ astēr, stella, stairnō), except for Sanskrit tārā, which I may have been thinking of.
  • ugrûd “fear, dread” — from a root √GRD “fear”, related to various Eldarin words and roots (√ŋgor-, √ŋgur-) suggesting horror or death.
  • ukrat “glory” — Most likely from Old English hréð “glory, fame” < *hrōþiz, whose shape could imply a PIE *krōtis.
  • urus “fire” — Intended to be a direct borrowing from Valarin uruš (also rušur) “fire.” The reason Aulë might have had for changing the š to an s remains inscrutable; my reason was probably that I didn’t want it to look exactly like Valarin. The influence of Eldarin uru– “heat” is also evident. The plural arrâs is along the same lines as addâd, a plural formation that is evidently of my own invention.

Definite accusative prefix

As I mentioned in one of the comments on the previous blog post, one of the characteristics I invented for neo-Khuzdul is a prefix marking the definite accusative — that is, it comes before a noun which is the direct object of a verb, if that noun is not being newly introduced into the universe of discourse — that is, it has been previously mentioned or implied, or can be assumed to be well-known to the person or persons spoken to. Discussing this is moving a bit ahead and outside of chronological sequence, but as this is a detail which doesn’t have major effects on the rest of the language, it seems to do no harm to treat it out of order.

I have received a couple of questions about this prefix. The Dwarrow Scholar asks:

 What is the neo-Khuzdul prefix in question please (or is it indeed “al” just as in Arabic) ?

The prefix is (in theory) id-, and appears as such before a word beginning with a vowel (e.g. id-urus “the fire”) but it appears assimilated to following stops, e.g. ib-bekâr “the weapons.” Whether it assimilates to other types of consonants I’m not yet sure; probably it does assimilate to nasals (m, n) but not to liquids or glides (l, r, y).

This prefix certainly resembles the Hebrew prefix ʔeṯ– and I can hardly doubt that it was inspired by it, as Mad Latinist suggests; yet what I actually remember from the time when I invented it was thinking of the Persian definite accusative suffix –. Most likely the fresher memory of the one and a somewhat dimmer memory of the other combined to influence this choice.

Helge asks:

Is the variation in form of the definite article/prefix meant to reflect actual phonological changes (like say, assimilation) taking place over time? If I had been developing Khuzdul, I would be careful not to presuppose any really substantial “developments”, since Tolkien insists that this was a language that largely resisted change. (The only attested “sound-change” is that the preposition aya can be reduced to ai!) I like the idea that F may represent original P (a nod to Arabic), but to suggest that there was an older stage where consonantal roots were connected with a distinct “characteristic vowel” (as in Adunaic) hints at a pretty substantial structural change taking place over the course of history. Isn’t this more dramatic change than what Tolkien seems to presuppose? Do you have an vision of what the originial “Pure Aulean” Proto-Khuzdul was like as well as your suggestion for the “historical” version?

I have not explored the internal history of neo-Khuzdul to any great extent, and I’ve assumed that its current form is not unlike that of its original form. Accordingly, I used Arabic rather than Hebrew or Aramaic as an inspiration, because Arabic, at least in its classical form, is very archaic and conservative in structure. But there are two reasons to suppose that Khuzdul ought not to be constructed as if it had never undergone any change. The first is that Aulë, as a language-creator was completely capable of building in elements that resemble the processes of language change, even if they had never taken place in history, and that, if he was anything like Tolkien, he probably did! The second is that although change in Khuzdul was slow and slight, it was not nonexistent: “After their awakening this language (as all languages and all other things in Arda) changed in time, and divergently in the mansions that were far sundered… the change in Khuzdul… was ‘like the weathering of hard rock compared with the melting of snow.'”

Accordingly, an assimilation here or there hardly seems like an outrageous development to postulate. In Arabic, although for the most part root-consonants remain intact without assimilation, some affixes do assimilate; notably the definite prefix al-, which assimilates to following coronal consonants, and also the infixed –t– of the derived verb stem conventionally numbered VIII, which assimilates in voice and emphasis to a preceding coronal obstruent. Whether the Khuzdul assimilation took place in Longbeard Dwarvish over the long years between the awakening of Durin and the end of the Third Age, or whether it was something which Aulë/Mahal built into the language from the beginning is a question I haven’t felt the need to answer definitively.

Durin’s song: verbs

The first major text which I had to translate into neo-Khuzdul, and the last really significant work I did on the language prior to The Hobbit was Durin’s Song/The Balrog, the lyric which plays in the the background of the Moria scene in The Fellowship of the Ring. I received the request for this on February 27, 2001 (although, due to time zone issues, it was dated February 28), and returned a reply on March 4 — an unusually long delay of a little over 4 days, of which doubtless not all was spent working on this text.

The original English text, written by Philippa Boyens, was as follows:

Durin who is Deathless / Eldest of all Fathers. / Who awoke / To darkness / Beneath the mountain / Who walked alone / Through halls of stone

Durin who is Deathless / Lord of Khazad-dum / Who cleaved / The Dark / And broke / The silence/  This is your light! / This is your word!/ This is your glory! /  The Dwarrowdelf of Khazad-dum!

A crown of stars in the cold, black water of Kheled-zaram. Durin sleeps.

Deeper into the earth/ The dark grows heavy/ Cold snaps our bones/  Deeper into the earth. / There, the glint of Mithrail / sharp and far away/  Deeper into the earth/ That sound again / Dread surrounds us. /  Can no one hear us?A great shadow / Moves in the dark/ The earth shakes! / Cracks! Splits! / Will no one save us?! / Fire! / Fire in the deep! / Flames lick our skin! / Fear rips our heart! / No! No! No! /  The demon comes!

My translation was:

Durin ku bin-amrad / Ugmal sullu addad / Ku bakana / Ana aznân / Undu abad / Ku ganaga / Tur ganâd abanul

Durin ku bin-amrad / Uzbad Khazaddûmu / Ku baraka / Aznân / ra karaka / atkât / ala lukhudizu! / ala galabizu! / ala ukratizu! / Khazad-dûm!

Kilmîn thatur ni zâram kalil ra narag, Kheled-zâram. Durin tazlifi.

Ubzar ni kâmin / Aznân taburrudi / Iklal tanzifi bashukimâ / Ubzar ni kâmin / gilim Sanzigil / shakar ra udlag / Ubzar ni kâmin / tada aklat gagin / Ugrûd tashurrukimâ / Maku kataklutimâ? / Askad gabil / Tashfati ni aznân / Kâmin takalladi / Tabriki! Takarraki! / Maku zatansasimâ? / Urus! / Urus ni buzra! / Arrâs talbabi fillumâ! / Ugrûd tashniki kurdumâ! / Lu! Lu! Lu! / Urkhas tanakhi!

This was a pretty literal translation, with a few necessary reductions of redundancies, e.g. “the Dwarrowdelf of Khazad-dûm.”

Analysing the features of this text will take some space, yet as it was foundational for the later versions of neo-Khuzdul, it deserves to be treated in depth.

Let’s first look at the verbs, since we have already covered their forms to some degree. They are:
bakana “awoke”
ganaga “walked”
baraka “cleaved”
karaka “broke”
tazlifi “sleeps”
taburrudi “grows heavy”
tanzifi “snaps”
tashurrukimâ “surrounds us”
kataklutimâ “can hear us”
tashfati “moves”
takalladi “shakes”
tabriki “cracks”
takarraki “splits”
zatansasimâ “will save us”
talbabi “lick”
tashniki “rips”
tanakhi “comes”

All of these are 3rd persons, mostly singular. They fall into two obvious classes: “perfects” like bakana, ganaga, baraka, karaka, mostly translating preterites, but only because these refer to historical facts. The others, “imperfects” containing the prefix ta– refer to present experiences or present or future possibilities. It will be observed that three of the forms contain the 1st person plural suffix –, which doubles as a possessive marker “our” with nouns and as an object suffix “us” with verbs.

The verb roots are heavily laden with “jests,” most of which should be obvious to those familiar with the history of Germanic languages, or even just with English. However, I had better go over them, since the puns may be somewhat less obvious in the present constructions. For the most part I can remember the sources easily.

BKN “wake” is from Gothic gawaknan “awaken” and of course English waken, with substitution of B for W, which doesn’t exist in neo-Khuzdul.
BRK “cleave” from Gothic brikan, English break.
GNG “walk” from Gothic gangan “go.”
KLT “hear” from Indo-European *klutos “heard.”
KRK “break” from English crack.
NSS “save” from Gothic nasjan “save.”
ShFT “move” from English shift.
ZLF “sleep” from Gothic slêpan “sleep”, whose preterite is saizlêp.

Please note that these are not intended to suggest any historical or other relationship between Khuzdul and these languages — they were simply sound-sequences that seemed appropriate at the time.

Others are from Tolkien languages:
BRD “grow heavy” from Adunaic burôda “heavy.”
LBB “lick” from Eldarin LAB “lick” (though this is also an Indo-European root of the same meaning).
NKh “come” from Adûnaic unakkha “he came.”

Others appear to be pure inventions, or at least I cannot remember the source or association with certainty. Perhaps a perceptive reader can figure them out!
KLD “shake”
NZF “snap” — possibly simply the consonants of “snap” rearranged and altered.
ShNK “rip” — this might be onomatopœic, from a sound of tearing, shnik!
ShRK “surround” — possibly from a badly maltreated Latin circum “around.”

Four of the examples show a doubled medial consonant: taburrudi “grows heavy,” tashurrukimâ “surrounds us,” takalladi “shakes,” and takarraki “splits.” This was supposed to be an auxiliary stem indicating long-continued, repeating, or otherwise extreme action: e.g. takalladi “shakes over and over,” takarraki “splits into many small pieces, ‘shivers’.”

Also of interest are the prefixes ka– and za-. These mean, respectively, “can” and “will/shall”, and their forms were suggested by can and shall – or perhaps, in the latter case, German sollen. Their usage is very un-Semitic, and for that matter rather un-Indo-European. I may have imagined them as reduced auxiliary verbs that eventually got attached to verbs as clitics; as they refer to potential or future states, which are certainly non-factual, they are attached to the “imperfect” verbs.

The serendipity of error

Helge wrote:

Our one-and-only Tolkienian Khuzdul pronoun is mênu, accusative “you”, from the battle-cry meaning “the Dwarves are upon you”. Your 2nd person inflections contain nothing readily similar. Then again, the Hebrew 2nd person inflections (like –ta in the 2nd person sg. perfect) are not similar to the independent pronoun for accusative “you” (ending –kha added to an accusative particle).

This is true, and it was never my intention to have the verb forms exactly mirror the independent pronouns or pronominal affixes (about which more will be explained it is place). However, you bring up something else interesting and problematic for neo-Khuzdul.

The phrase Khazâd ai-mênu “The Dwarves are upon you” has been well-known for nearly sixty years. Yet for most of that time one could only conjecture how ai-mênu meant “upon you.” It was quite possible, for instance, that ai was “you” and mênu was a postposition. Or perhaps ai was “they are” and mênu was an inflected form of “you”. This state of ignorance still prevailed when I started creating neo-Khuzdul. Therefore I simply disregarded these words, fearing more to mischaracterize them than to create a system which omitted them.

By the time we found out that ai was a clipping or combining form of aya “upon” and that mênu was the accusative of a plural “you” (Parma Eldalamberon #17, p. 85), I had already established a detailed pronominal morphology for neo-Khuzdul in which the independent form of “you plural” is astun (feminine astin). In all likelihood (I do not remember the details) –st– was a strengthening of 2nd person –s-, while –u– and –i– were masculine and feminine elements, and –n was obviously a plural element — the 2nd person singulars are astu/asti.

I don’t apologize for making forms inconsistent with ai-mênu — for the reasons I mentioned, it seemed more prudent at the time. My mistake was that when I learned about the meaning of mênu, I did not at once go back and try to find a way to fit it in with the morphology. At the time, however, the three Lord of the Rings films had been produced, there was no prospect of any more films, and I shelved neo-Khuzdul without expecting to do any more work on it ever. By the time I had to start work on neo-Khuzdul again, I was concentrating on making it consistent (insofar as possible) with the earlier work, and I neglected to note that there had been an inconsistency which I could have fixed. As a result, I created several phrases containing neo-Khuzdul 2nd person pronoun forms which are consistent with my earlier pronominal morphology, but not with mênu.

This was unquestionably an error on my part, a serious oversight — the more so because it concerns the most famous phrase in the Dwarf-language! It is not, however, an irreparable error. In fact, it creates an opportunity to expand and enrich neo-Khuzdul’s pronoun system.

Tolkien in multiple places indicates that both Elvish and Mannish languages possessed a distinction between two types of 2nd person pronoun: one formal/respectful/courteous/polite/deferential, the other familiar/imperious/endearing. I do not recall Tolkien saying anything about Khuzdul having such a distinction, but he also never says that Khuzdul doesn’t; and it provides a neat way of getting out of my self-inflicted 2nd person trap. The distinction need not have been an original Khuzdul one; it might, perhaps, been imitated from other languages, using an appropriate noun or title to fill out one of the 2nd person slots, much like Spanish usted and Portuguese você (< vuestra merced/vossa mercê), or the Quenya use of the ending –tar “high one, lord” (in some paradigms) to create honorific verbal forms.

Coincidentally helpful is the fact that mênu fits with certain established facts about neo-Khuzdul. The –u ending can be taken as the same as that seen in Khazad-dûmu — an accusative ending following verbs and verblike forms. In fact, it is quite possible that aya is really a verbal root “go over, be above, be superior to.” That leaves mên, of which the –n ending is the same as the existing pronominal plural ending in neo-Khuzdul.

The question now is to which category to assign mên — formal or familiar? There are valid arguments for both. The you-pronoun in Khazâd ai-mênu refers to hated enemies such as Orcs. If the familiar form is one exclusively used for endearments or for close personal friends, then presumably the formal would have to used for Orcs, whom one presumes the Dwarves would not tutoyer, as they say in French: to treat someone as such an intimate that one uses familiar pronouns with them. On the other hand, if the distinction is not one of familiarity vs. unfamiliarity, but of respect vs. the absence of respect (if not disrespect), then presumably the Orcs would get hailed with the less respectful pronoun.

Something very like this has happened in the history of English. The Old English pronouns þū (>thou) and (>ye) simply distinguished singular (one “you”) from plural (many “yous”). In the later Middle Ages, however — probably through imitation of French — thou was used for intimates, ye (accusative you) in formal situations for singulars as well as plurals. One used thou to speak to sweethearts, children, animals — and to God. But thou was also used for enemies, as a sort of insult, as if to suggest that one’s foe was no better than a child. In Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, in the Tale of Sir Gareth (which I use because it is probably not a translation from French) Gareth always respectfully addresses the damnsel Lyonet who accompanies him as ye, whereas she (assuming him to be a kitchen boy) calls him thou; when Gareth fights with other knights, they address each other as thou; but when Gareth’s enemies yield and offer him homage, their relationship is changed, and they now call each other ye. By the 17th century in standard English thou had fallen out of ordinary use, and the accusative you was replacing ye in all situations; thou only remained in archaic, especially religious language, and in some non-standard dialects (both geographic and class-based), where the actual form in use was a little different, e.g. tha or thee.

Since I also have to keep consistency (if possible) with my established usage, I have just checked to see where I used astun and related forms (e.g. the pronominal suffix –zun). It looks like it was primarily in situations that can be described as military, where one dwarf is ordering or encouraging another to perform some action. These cases would seem to fit the “respectful” profile. Therefore I conclude that astun is the respectful 2nd person plural, and mên is the familiar (if not disrespectful!) 2nd person plural, probably with as a singular form. I did, unfortunately already have a word “we” already in the pronominal paradigm, but since it doesn’t appear to have been used anywhere, that doesn’t create any particular problem; I’ll just have to create a new pronoun in its place, perhaps ammâ.

This is all new — I hadn’t really thought about the issue until last week, when Helge’s question forced me to consider the discrepancy. But the error has serendipitously enriched neo-Khuzdul, making it both more complex (and therefore more natural) and more consistent with Tolkien’s Khuzdul.


Helge writes:

I believe you once mentioned that you had started to work out verb paradigms for Movie Khuzdul? One has to imagine a Hebrew- or Arabic-like system, with varous “conjugations” (a “qal” of simple verb, a corresponding causative, the passive equivalents of both, and possibly even intensive conjugations).

The concept, and to an extent the forms of the Khuzdul verb, as I worked it out some thirteen years ago, were considerably influenced by the structure of the Semitic verbs, particularly Arabic.

Semitic verbs, like other parts of the language, are generally based on triliteral roots. From each root a number of bases can be formed, which allow for verbal formations like passives, causatives, iteratives, reflexives, and so forth. In Arabic there are ten normal ways in which such bases can be formed, in Hebrew seven, in Aramaic usually six (though in more ancient forms of Aramaic there were more). Not all of these bases are exemplified for each root, and their meanings are not always predictable. Although they are generally grouped together in dictionaries, to a certain extent they can act like independent verbs, not necessarily more closely related than such English verbs as conceive, deceive, receive, and perceive. Sometimes the basic form of the verb (which in Hebrew is called the qal form) doesn’t even exist, just as there’s no such verb as **ceive in English.

Within each base, there are forms which carry some of the qualities which in Indo-European languages are allocated to tense, mood, and aspect. The main distinction in most Semitic languages is between perfect forms and imperfect forms. Arabic has several other forms which — from the point of view of their shape alone — can be considered as variations of the imperfect.

Defining the difference between perfect and imperfect is a task of extreme complexity. The uses are different in the different Semitic languages, and they have also changed over time. One might say that perfect refers to actions which are over and done, while imperfect refers to actions that are in the process of happening, or are going to happen, but that would be a drastic oversimplification and in many respects would be inaccurate. It is, in any case, not really relevant to Khuzdul since, although I postulated a distinction that was formally similar to the perfect-imperfect distinction in Semitic, it ended up being functionally different.

However, the formal parallels are relevant, and to demonstrate them I’ll give an example of the perfect forms of the Arabic simple stem of the root KTB “write”:


Person/Number Singular Plural
1st common katabtu katabnâ
2nd masculine katabta katabtum
2nd feminine katabti katabtunna
3rd masculine kataba katabû
3rd feminine katabat katabna

Other than the 2nd and 3rd persons having a distinction between masculine and feminine subjects, this actually looks a lot like an Indo-European verb. There’s a basic stem katab-, and all of the information about person and number is provided by suffixes. (Arabic also has dual verb forms, but I haven’t shown them because I never created dual forms for Khuzdul.)

If we turn to the imperfect forms of the same verb we see something quite different from what we’re accustomed to see in Indo-European languages:


Person/Number Singular Plural
1st common aktubu naktubu
2nd masculine taktubu taktubûna
2nd feminine taktubîna taktubna
3rd masculine yaktubu yaktubûna
3rd feminine taktubu yaktubna

Here we see that the base form is different, ktub instead of katab, and that the job of distinguishing person and number forms is borne not just by suffixes but also prefixes. In some cases we can attribute some separate meaning to each affix; for instance, ya– is 3rd person masculine, but ta– doubles in function as both 3rd person feminine and 2nd person general, while there is no common prefix for the 1st person forms. There’s a consistent suffix set marking masculine plurals (-ûna) and feminine plurals (-na), but all of the other forms end in –u, except for the 2nd feminine singular. It is rather a messy system, and kind of hard to memorize.

All of this was in the front of my mind when I started designing the Khuzdul verbal system. Let’s take a look at the Khuzdul forms comparable to the “perfect,” using the root ZRB “write, inscribe.”

Person/Number Singular Plural
1st common zarabmi zarabmâ
2nd masculine zarabsu zarabsun
2nd feminine zarabsi zarabsin
3rd masculine zaraba zarabôn
3rd feminine zarabai zarabên

The superficial similarities are obviously very close. For starters, I imitated the Semitic characteristic of having distinctively feminine 2nd person and 3rd person forms. Unfortunately (perhaps), most of these forms never got used: the 2nd person forms because there aren’t any female Dwarf characters (we think!) for a Dwarf to speak Khuzdul to; and the 3rd person forms because I never worked out which nouns would be feminine. In fact, I think that as with most languages of Middle-earth, masculine and feminine are not lexical properties; the only grammatical gender is “natural gender,” which could distinguish a male person or animal from a female, but not otherwise. I suppose the so-called “masculine” in Khuzdul is really a masculine/neuter, or a default form, while the “feminine” (if it really exists) is the marked form; a state of affairs which is objectionable to my ideas of social fairness and structural balance, but which is probably to be expected in a society where males outnumber females by two to one.
The base patterns correspond exactly to Semitic, being CaCaC. The suffixes are pretty self-explanatory; the endings –mi and – suggest a 1st person element –m-. The second person is marked by an element –s-, and then –u and –i mark masculine and feminine. Second and third person plurals are marked by –n.
Zarabôn and zarabên must be *zaraba-un, *zaraba-in, with contraction of the diphthongs *au, *ai > ô, ê. The 3rd feminine ending –ai is distinctive, and is probably not from *zaraba-i (which would have given zarabê) but *zaraba-ai.

These forms, in meaning, are not comparable to the Semitic perfect. The Khuzdul “perfect” is not a past tense, nor does it necessarily refer to completed action. Rather, it refers to actions which can be considered as dependable facts, as opposed to evolving and uncertain realities. These might be statements about the past, such as one might find in a chronicle, or statements of general truth, such as Izgil taraza zann ra zann: “The Moon rises every night” (literally “night and night”, sc. one night after another) or Uslukh sharaga “A dragon lies” — i.e., comtinually, compulsively, and dependably. It’s the sort of form that would be used in an aphorism. It could also be used to describe events that will predictably and with certainty take place in the future: Durin zabakana “Durin will awake” — to the Dwarves, an undoubted fact about the future.

The Khuzdul forms corresponding to the imperfect of the root ZRB are as follows:

Person/Number Singular Plural
1st common azrabi mazrabi
2nd masculine sazrabi sazrabîn
2nd feminine sazrabiya sazrabiyan
3rd masculine tazrabi tazrabîn
3rd feminine tazrabiya tazrabiyan

In a sense, this can be looked on as a partial rationalization of the Semitic imperfect. The person/number forms are still defined by a combination of suffixes and prefixes, but there is a consistent pattern: sa– marks 2nd persons, ta– 3rd persons; the suffixes are predictably -i, -în, -iya, -iyan. Only the 1st person plural breaks the pattern, and that because a 1st person plural is not, strictly speaking, a plural of the 1st person singular, but a 1st+2nd or 1st+3rd form. It will be noted that s– in a prefix in the “imperfect” corresponds to an –s– in a suffix in the “perfect.”

The stem, as in Semitic, is CCVC — in this root, ZRB, the stem vowel happens to be –a– (-zrab-) but in other roots it could be different. For instance, “I am writing” is azrabi, but “I am sleeping”, from the root ZLF, is azlifi. This is a purely lexical distinction, is unpredictable, and does not correspond to any kind of semantic class. It may point to a period in the past in which (as in Eldarin and Adûnaic) vowel distinctions were an integral part of the root; however, other than in these forms, no trace of this remains in Khuzdul.

The meaning of the Khuzdul “imperfect” is also different from its Semitic counterpart. It refers, not to incomplete action, but to vividly imagined action — either because one sees it directly in front of one, or imagines it as something which is playing out in the mind’s eye. It has no regard to tense. A Dwarvish storyteller would use this form to describe events he wanted his audience to vicariously experience, regardless of whether they had happened in the distant past or were prophecies of the future. It can also be used to describe an ongoing action that is taking place at the present: Durin tazlifi “Durin is (now) sleeping.” Durin zalafa could mean “Durin typically sleeps, as a matter of course” and would be a rather insulting thing to say to a dwarf; though in the right context, it could mean “Durin slept,” as an historical fact.

All of this was, of course, only the beginning; as I developed the verb, more and more complications arose, and the newly-invented forms often do not look anything like Arabic or any Semitic language.

Elvish notes

At the link Notes on Elvish Words, I’ve added five very short remarks which I originally made on Elfling discussing the relationships and meanings of some problematic Elvish words. The specific topics are:

  • The relationship of roots beginning in d– and nd– in Quenya, particularly considering a possible relationship between the words loico and noire.
  • A series of Elvish roots found on a single page written by Tolkien, their relationship to the legends, and their implications for the Sindarin word anach.
  • A possible explanation for the Quenya word minaþurie “enquiry.”
  • A note on the Quenya word queren “pivot.”
  • A note on the Quenya month-name Ringarë “December.”