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.

11 Responses to “Piece by piece”

  1. Mad Latinist

    Abzag Durinul would presumably be the hitman he hired.

    And, maybe I’m stating the obvious, but surely felak is a “low philological jest”?

    • David Salo

      Yes. I think so, and perhaps doubly or trebly so.
      Tolkien defines felak as “a tool like a broad-bladed chisel, or small axe-head without haft, for cutting stone”, and derives it from a verbal root felek “hew rock.” Given our reconstruction of Proto-Khuzdul, the latter would have to arise from *pelek.
      Pelekus (πέλεκυς) is the Greek word for “axe,” a strange word that has a non-Indo-European look and is generally thought to be an early borrowing — so early, however, that it pre-dates the split between Proto-Hellenic and Proto-Indo-Iranian, since Sanskrit contains an exact cognate, paraśu.
      What makes it doubly a “jest” is that Tolkien at one time postulated a root √pelek for Quenya, with the derived verb pelehta– “hew, chop” (preterite pelencë, perfect epelehtië).
      What makes it trebly one is that felak-gundu was not Tolkien’s original explanation for the name Felagund — it was originally supposed to be Elvish, and the first part was Sindarin fela, equivalent to Quenya felya and Telerin felga, from a root PHELEG — all meaning not “hew” but “cave”. These words bear a certain resemblance to Greek σπήλαιον and σπῆλυγξ (Latin spelæum, spelunca), both also “cave,” especially when you know that initial *sp > f was a common sound change in both Quenya and Sindarin.
      Tolkien’s very early ‘Qenya’ language contained a root √flkl (with syllabic l’s) meaning “cleave, hew,” but, considering that its derivatives include falqan “large sword,” this was more likely inspired by falx and falchion.

      • Mad Latinist

        Of course, if you posit a primitive meaning of “dig,” then all three roots could be somehow connected.

        I could swear I read somewhere about Semitic cognates to *peleḱu-, but all the alleged cognates I can find seem to actually mean “spindle,” which is a little more semantic drift than I can account for.

  2. Travis Henry

    I admire the frankness (which is a kind of humility) with which you share your process. Thanks David!

    There are two reasons why most borrowings would be from Dwarvish into Mannish:

    1) The Dwarves had a “higher” technological culture and economic skill than Men.
    2) It’s explicitly said in The Lhammas that the Mannish languages were influenced by Dwarvish while Men were in the East.

    I suppose the words that would go from Mannish into Dwarvish would be those things which were not the Dwarves’ forte: agriculture and animal husbandry. “Of Dwarves and Men” in Peoples of Middle-earth explains the “division of labor” between the two races.

  3. The Dwarrow Scholar

    You mentioned that maCaCC would be a possible past participle. Could it perhaps be a passive participle and have the form maCaCCul ? This would give the chamber of mazarbul the meaning “The Chamber of that which is recorded”. Just a thought off course, but would fit nicely with the translation of “Chamber of Records”.

  4. H.K. Fauskanger

    I’m not entirely convinced the root of aglâb is GLB. I suspect it is really ‘GL, also seen in iglishmêk ‘sign-language’ (perhaps a compound containing two roots, ‘GL and ShMK, and I expect the latter to express ‘sign, gesture’). If so, the abstract pattern is really CaCCâb with an actual suffix (*zarbâb “writing”, *falkâb ‘rock-cutting’). But of course, nobody is pretending that this is an exact science.

  5. The Dwarrow Scholar

    If CeCaC is used for instruments or tools, why does the word “horn” (which in my thought would be an instrument) have the structure iCCaC (inbar / as in barazinbar) and not nebar? Does it perhaps fit in a different category or is perhaps a declined form ? Thank you again for you view on the topic David.

    • David Salo

      I expect the meaning of “horn” in Barazinbar = Caradhras was “something which sticks out and comes to a sharp point,” like the horn of a cow or sheep, not the musical instrument. The Elvish root √ras means “stick out” and most likely NBR means something similar. Perhaps iCCaC could be used for things which are in a sense “agents,” but in a rather stative way, by virtue of their being, rather than through an evolving action.

      It may be, by the way, that baraz “red” has something to do with Adûnaic pharaz “gold,” which has sometimes been described as a red metal. However, the connection is too uncertain to do much with.

  6. Bj Ward

    Shakâl “shores” seems to be a borrowing (or vice versa) from Adunaic #sakal seen in the name Sakalthor, which is the A. cognate of Q. Falassion “Son of the Shore”. I’m assuming this was intentional?

    • David Salo

      It may have been, but strangely I have no precise recollection of it being so. It’s just possible that it was a coincidence.


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