The fascinating array of languages used in J.R.R Tolkien’s novels, including The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, took the world by storm when they were brought to life on the silver screen and in print. But did Tolkien really create entire languages for his novels?
That’s Quenya for “yes!”
The acclaimed author created his first language when he was just a teenager. And he was also a master of real-world languages. In fact, Tolkien knew 35 different languages, both ancient and modern, and it ranged from Old Norse to Lithuanian.
But what are the languages that were used for these novels, and where can we even start to dissect them?
Here’s a brief look at the languages used throughout Tolkien’s most acclaimed works!
The Languages of Middle Earth
Many authors create fictional languages for their literary works, and Tolkien’s languages are arguably the most widely known. The language constructed for Tolkien’s fictional universe often referred to as Middle-Earth (the origins of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings), is the work of a linguistic genius with creative abilities to compose new and complex languages.
“What I think is a primary ‘fact’ about my work, that it is all of a piece, and fundamentally linguistic in inspiration. The invention of languages is the foundation. The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me, a name comes ﬁrst, and the story follows. I should have preferred to write in ‘Elvish’. But, of course, such a work as The Lord of the Rings has been edited and only as much ‘language’ has been left in as I thought would be stomached by readers.”- J.R.R. Tolkien
The Elvish Language
Elvish is a language derivative of the proto-language, also known as Primitive Quendian. Tolkien first started constructing it while attending the Kind Edward’s School in Birmingham, England, between 1910 and 1911. The language he later called Quenya was based on his deep knowledge of languages including Finnish, Latin, Greek, Spanish, and various ancient Germanic languages. The basis for Quenya so Finnish as this is the language that most inspired Tolkien to develop his own unique language.
The Languages of Men
Middle earth was home to a great many languages spoken by Men, most of which were mentioned in Tolkien’s novels. Taliska, Adûnaic, and Soval Pharё, the languages spoken by the Hobbits and Men in the Third Age, were the only ones Tolkien developed grammar and vocabulary for.
Adûnaic was essentially the lingua franca of Middle earth during The Lord of the Rings period, and it’s a language that’s related to Taliska and Soval Pharё dialects. Other Middle earth languages included Dalish, Rohirric, Rhovanion, Haladin, Dunlendish, Haradrim, and Easterling.
The Language of the Dwarves
The Dwarves had a secret language known as Khuzdul, which was based on Semitic languages. Tolkien drew many comparisons between the Dwarves and Jews. They were both aliens in a habitat that was once their native land, and because they both had their own private tongue, they spoke the languages of the country, but with an accent.
The Language of the Ents
The Ents originally had no language of their own, however they soon developed one after first encountering the Elves in the primeval forest of Middle Earth. The Elves, who had recognized the sentience of the Ents and the ‘woke’ trees, taught the Ents the concept of communicating with sounds rather than words. The Ents also adapted the Elvish language (Quenya) for their everyday use and transformed the vocabulary with a little help from Old Entish grammatical structure. This is why the language Treebeard spoke was much more easily translatable than Old Entish. ó
In the realm of Mordor, the Black Speech is spoken as a lingua franca. Originally created by Sauron as an artificial language for the servants of Mordor, the Black Speech replaced many Orkish dialects and other languages spoken by the servants. Ancient (or ‘pure’) Black Speech is spoken by Sauron, the Nazgûl, and the Olog-hai. There’s also a more ‘debased’ form of the Black Speech that’s used by the Barad-dûr soldiers.
Lesser-Known Languages of Middle Earth
Aside from Elvish, Entish, Black Speech, Hobbitish, and Khuzdul, Tolkien constructed a range of complementary languages along his mythological journey. Here’s a look at some of the most fascinating ones.
Adûnaic – Also known as Nûmernórean, this was common tongue for Men until the fall of Nûmenór. It can only be found in ancient texts of Gondor.
Doriathrin – Doriathric is the language of the Doriath and is also known as Archaic Sindarin.
Drûadainic – This is the guttural tongue of the wild men of the Drûadan Forest.
Nandorin – Also known as Green-Elven, Nandorin is similar to Sindarin and is spoken by the Nandor. It is replaced by Sindarin around the time of The War of the Ring.
Sindarin – Sindarin is Grey Elven and known as The Noble Tongue. It’s a primary language for the First and Second ages, and even to Men. It’s the most common Elvish language in the Third Age.
Telerin – Telerin is originally a dialect of Quenya that became a language in its own right when the Teleri dwelt in Tol Eressёa.
Valarin – Valarin is the language of the Valar and Maiar. It’s known to Melian the Maia and the Istari but heavily influenced by Quenya, Adûnaic, and the Black Speech.
Of all the Tolkien languages, two of them have enough words and grammar to be considered functional. They’re not complete, but people do speak and write in them. Both of them happen to be Elvish languages; Quenya and Sindarin.
How Language Created Literature
J.R.R Tolkien’s stories were intended to provide us with a cultural insight and historical background so we could better understand the languages he was creating. In one of Tolkien’s letters, he stated:
“Nobody believes me when I say that my long book (Lord of the Rings) is an attempt to create a world in which a form of language agreeable to my personal aesthetic might seem real.”
It’s clear to see that Tolkien was a linguist first and subsequently became a novelist. In his own words, The Lord of the Rings was ‘fundamentally linguistic in inspiration,’ which is why it is important to understand the languages Tolkien created in order to thoroughly understand the mythological world he conjured up.
The Sarehole Mill in Birmingham, United Kingdom, forms part of the Tolkien Trail that follows the footsteps of the linguist’s childhood days to explore the place that inspired his writing. A short walk from the Sarehole Mill leads to Moseley Bog, which Tolkien described as the one place that civilization missed. The Bog is recalled in Tolkien’s description of the ‘Old Forest’, the last of the primeval wild woods. Tolkien fans can also explore the Shire Country Park that follows the valley of the River Cole from Small Heath to Yardley Wood.
Professional Translations for Every Language
Regardless of what language you’re trying to decipher or have translated, Day Translations can help. Our team of highly qualified and experienced linguists might not be based in Middle earth, but we can help you bridge the language barrier. Get in touch with us today to learn more about our innovative range of language services solutions!