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

16 Responses to “Unutterable words”

  1. Menelion Elensúle

    I can be wrong but I think that a presence of a uvular R should be noted, also. At least, it’s the correct Mordor way of pronouncing Black Speech, if I’m not mistaken.
    This gives to the language even more back vowels (via assimilation), and renders its sound even more harsh for non-linguistic Elvish ears.
    More than that, if we inspect the inscription on the Ring, we can speculate that [k] and [g] were labialized.

    Reply
    • David Salo

      It’s true that Tolkien notes that Orcs used “a back or uvular r,” but that doesn’t tell us whether that sound was expressly found in Black Speech, especially when spoken by others than Orcs. And while it may be the case that “the Eldar found ([ʁ]) distasteful,” it doesn’t follow that others would agree; many people find French an attractive language, despite its abundance of [ʁ]s.
      I don’t agree that the use of the letters quessë and ungwë to denote [k] and [g] is likely to indicate labialization; I think that’s just a characteristic of the “ancient mode” in which the Ring was written. It is consistent with Tolkien’s use of the tengwar to transcribe English (because calma and anga are used for [ʧ] and [ʤ]) and with the tengwar system used for writing Adûnaic as well.

      Reply
  2. Nicolás

    I’ve always found interesting the part that goes: “(…)One Orkish tribe would be unable to communicate with another through its own language, and that therefore Westron became their lingua franca.”. If they corrupt and debase everything they touch, which seems to be the point, wouldn’t they in turn debase and mangle Westron as well? Would they even care to use “correct Westron”?

    I totally agree with you, David, about the unlovability issue. In fact the Ring inscription sounds cool and menacing, and Gandalf’s voice in it is really severe.

    I’ve always thought that its harsh nature was also very much due to the use of “kh”, “gh” and “zg”. Since Tolkien Black Speech’s “nazg” seems to be influenced by Gaelic “nasc” (a language Tolkien didn’t enjoy phonoaesthetically), have you incorporated Gaelic words into your creation? And if so, could you show some of those in a future post? :)

    Reply
    • David Salo

      Presumably the Orcs did corrupt Westron, and they are supposed to have spoken it in a “degraded and filthy manner.” However, as a secondary language of communication, dependent on another people and learnt at second hand, it probably never developed into an independent dialect.

      I did not use Gaelic words (other than nasg) for two reasons. First, Tolkien’s opinion of it was that — nasg aside — it was largely a “mushy” language (not an opinion I share, though I believe I understand why he held it) and therefore not especially appropriate for the linguistic style that either he or I intended for Black Speech. Second, although I have studied Irish (literary Old Irish particularly) at a couple of points in my life, I have never advanced very far in it, or retained much in memory outside of a general sense of its phonetic style.

      Reply
      • Nicolás

        Hehe, yeah, surely they corrupted it, and yet in the books they sound almost “Shakespearean”, haha.

        Very true, he did write that. Mushy is certainly not a good vibe for Orkish, hehe.

        Reply
  3. Thoron

    You say that /e/ isn’t found at all in Black Speech, but you still used it the first part of the Ring verse, where you used “shre” to translate “three”. I’m assuming this is yet another jest, but why step out of the “established” phonology?

    Reply
    • David Salo

      Either because I wanted to, or because I wasn’t thinking overly deeply about the phonology at that point. I’ve no idea which. After the fact, it could possibly be justified as being a monophthongization of underlying /ay/ — though obviously one built into the language, rather than as the result of historical development. Or else /e/ existed in Sauron’s original Black Speech, but it just happens not to be found in the Ring Verse, and was lost from other variants and descendants of Black Speech. Languages do have some sounds and sound-combinations that just happen to be rare and found in only a few words; like [ʒ] in English. It’s a good question, and I’ll try to come up with the most plausible answer, but at present it just happens to be the way it is in my version of the language.

      Reply
  4. Nólar

    First I wanted to tell you that, as a linguist and a lifelong Tolkien fan, I admire (and envy!) the work you’ve done.
    I was wondering if you had ever read an interesting theory about Black Speech being a corruption of Quenya. There is one essay called Sauron’s Newspeak: Black Speech, Quenya and the nature of mind, found in a book about semiotics, where the writer briefly explained that Black Speech was intended as a language opposed to Quenya both in sound and structure, as its corrupted offspring, like the orcs who were a corruption of the elves, and as the embodiment of their corrupted mentality. I think you got to the same conclusions as did the writer of the essay at some points, and that you might find it interesting.

    Reply
    • David Salo

      I’m afraid I’m entirely unfamiliar with the essay. I don’t know that I agree entirely with the idea; Orcs were corruptions of Elves in the sense of being biologically derived from Elves (at least according to one version of the story) but physically altered and, as much as possible, morally corrupted as well. Black Speech is clearly not derived from Quenya (though it may owe some words to the Eldarin languages); and I do not know if I can agree (pace Orwell) that a language can have an intrinsic moral character, only a variety of moral uses. If there were a complete grammar of Black Speech available, I think it likely that it would be possible to write beautiful, uplifting, and edifying poetry in it — even if this were not intended by its inventor. Such is the nature of language.

      Black Speech is clearly intended to be unlike Quenya in sound, but perhaps not quite as much unlike in structure as all that, since I can think of ways in which it might have been more unlike (they didn’t both have to have been agglutinating or quasi-agglutinating, for instance). Tolkien knew a great deal about many languages, but his knowledge was not infinite, and his predilections were more restricted than his knowledge. Tolkien’s linguistic palette draws mostly from European and Near Eastern languages (Indo-European, Finno-Ugric, and Semitic) — he never tried, as far as I know, to create a polysynthetic language, or an ergative one. To an even greater extent, his grammatical writings on, say, Adûnaic or Westron, echo his writings on Elvish in spirit (and a good deal of structure) while differing in detail. A Tolkien language tends to bear certain hallmarks, overall similarities of concept, which is separate from genetic relationship; one might speak of a Tolkien language Sprachbund. From what can be deduced of it, Black Speech was not really an exception.

      Reply
      • Axwin

        Hi David,

        I am beginning a work of my own regarding Tolkien’s blackspeech, and I’ve found a few things that I was wondering if you had considered: Firstly, Alexander Nemirovsky [?] thinks he has isolated ergativity and cognates akin to ancient Hurrian. And secondly, canonically, blackspeech is said to have roots in Valarin (given Sauron being Maia). I have to say I agree with both, from having looked at the comparisons, and they both seem plausible, and quite frankly like breakthroughs in terms of blackspeech-ology.

        Reply
        • David Salo

          I can’t think of a single thing that would justify either of those two opinions. I doubt Tolkien knew anything about Hurrian.

          Reply
          • Helgi

            Well, Nemirovksy finds Black Speech to be an ergative agglutinative language with similarities between some of its known roots with the few Hurrian roots we know. He also states the similarity in the use of the complex system of cases expressed in postpositions:
            https://www.wirade.ru/arda/arda_ring_spell_and_black_speech.html

            As for the completely independent opinion on Valarin, it basically rests on the idea that a word “nazg” might has been derived from the Valarin “naškad”.

  5. Annatar

    Hi David,

    Thanks so much for this insight and the work you’ve put into this language. Sauron’s Black Speech always held a peculiar fascination for me, and I hope to develop my own (admittedly amateurish) dialect of it one of these days. So, thanks for the inspiration!

    Annatar

    Reply
  6. Jack

    What about the original ancient Black Speech, created by sauron? Do you have a guide for that?

    Reply
    • David Salo

      I have built a rather different (though somewhat overlapping) vocabulary and grammar for the Black Speech used by Sauron and his immediate servants, though I haven’t gotten around to saying much about it yet.

      Reply

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