The Rings of Power: Languages of Middle-Earth
- The Rings of Power: Languages of Middle-Earth
Amazon’s The Rings of Power series set in the world of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings retains one of the most evocative features of the author’s work: the languages of Middle-Earth.
If you tune into the show – or The Lord of the Rings movies created by Peter Jackson – you’ll hear many of the characters and fantastical creatures speak their own tongues.
More than simply flavourful noises that sound good, the fact that Tolkien was a master linguist means that some of these are full conlangs – constructed languages – that can actually be used.
Here is a taste of the languages of Middle-Earth Tolkien created that, if you listen closely, you’ll hear in The Rings of Power:
What is a conlang?
A constructed language is one that has been “consciously devised for some purpose”. In this case, to add some serious colour to works of fiction.
Of course, if you believe J.R.R. Tolkien himself, in this case it’s actually the other way around. He once claimed that he wrote The Lord of the Rings purely so he had somewhere to include the languages he had invented, saying:
“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.”
In general, as opposed to languages like French or English that developed naturally over time, a conlang – with all its attendant grammar, vocabulary, and phonology – has been invented.
While conlangs vary in the depth of communication possibilities they offer, they aren’t entirely limited to fiction. Esperanto is an example of a “real-life” conlang that was invented for a specific purpose.
How many languages are in Middle-Earth?
J.R.R. Tolkien invented more than fifteen different languages to populate his world of Middle-Earth.
The author was a dedicated linguist, fascinated by languages. He spoke thirty-five living and classical languages and first created a language of his own while still just a teenager!
However, like conlangs in general, the fifteen or more languages of Middle-Earth vary in depth and complexity. Only two are what we might think of as fully developed – Quenya and Sindarin, two of the languages of the Elves.
These languages aren’t quite as useful or flexible enough for everyday communication, yet people can and do write and speak them.
The Rings of Power: the Languages of Middle-Earth
Quenya is one of the languages of the Elves. By the time of the Third Age (that’s the period in Tolkien’s mythology in which The Lord of the Rings movies are set), its status is something like Latin in the real world. Some elves still use it and write with it, but it’s not really spoken anymore.
In The Rings of Power series though, it’s still a living language. It derives from the original Elvish proto-language, which Tolkien named Primitive Quendian.
However, in the context of the series, die-hard fans have spotted a mistake. They point out that at this time the elves in Middle-Earth (as opposed to those in Valinor) would have spoken the other Elvish language – Sindarin – as they’d had a falling out with Fëanor’s people in Valinor and banned the use of Quenya.
In terms of inspiration for Quenya’s creation, Tolkien was initially heavily inspired by Finnish. He later said of his first forays into learning the language, “It was like discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me.”
As he continued to develop Quenya though, Tolkien drew on his knowledge of several Germanic languages as well as Latin, Greek, and Spanish to create a unique language that is more than the sum of its parts and quite unlike anything in the real world.
Sometimes called Grey Elven or The Noble Tongue, Sindarin is the “other” language of the Elves in The Lord of the Rings (LotR) and The Rings of Power (RoP). By the time LotR is set, most elves speak it and so do many men. Quenya has been relegated to something used for songs, magic, and poetry.
In the time of The Rings of Power, the vast majority of the elves of Middle-Earth should speak Sindarin in daily conversation (although, as we’ve seen the creators of the series may have made a small faux pas here).
Tolkien’s main inspiration when creating Sindarin, which he wanted to derive from Quenya, was Welsh – one of his favourite languages. He showed this derivation in clever ways, linking words and grammatical rules in Sindarin with both those in Quenya and their real-world inspirations, like Latin.
One of the key features of Celtic languages like Welsh is that the first consonants of words change to indicate grammatical information. Sindarin does this too, but again it borrows features from many languages to create something vaguely familiar but just alien enough to our ears no matter what language we speak in the real world.
In The Rings of Power, Khuzdul is the language of the Dwarves. Like the dwarves themselves, Tolkien envisioned it as a language that was enduring and very resistant to change.
To that end, in The Silmarillion – one of Tolkien’s lore books that The Rings of Power is partly based on – we find out that Dwarves only learn the language as they get older to make sure it remains unaltered.
In theory, this had the effect of keeping the language the same across great distances of geography, time, and the small cultural boundaries between different clans of Dwarves. This meant they could always communicate clearly without worrying about dialect differences.
It’s interesting to note that, again according to the books, Khuzdul was a language that Aulë, the creator of the first Dwarves, had “devised for them”. Essentially, it might be said to be a conlang within the setting too!
The real-world inspirations for Khuzdul were Hebrew and other Semitic languages. The Dwarven language shared Semitic language features such as triconsonantal roots (e.g. kh-z-d). In fact, Tolkien drew specific parallels between his invented race the Dwarves and real-life Jews, saying that both could perhaps in some regards be said to be, “at once natives and aliens in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue.”
4) The languages of Men
Sometimes called “Mannish” as a group, J.R.R. Tolkien created or hinted at the existence of many different languages of Men (as he referred to the humans) in Middle-Earth.
Unlike the languages of Elves and Dwarves, Tolkien’s work on the Tongues of Men was not as extensive. However, Tolkien did create some grammar and vocabulary for three of them.
From the point of view of The Rings of Power, the most important of these is Adûnaic. In Tolkien’s timeline, this is the main language of most men until an event called (possible spoilers!) the Fall of Numemor. It’s the tongue of the Numenoreans, sometimes called proto-Westron or simply Nûmernórean.
In The Rings of Power TV series, English seems to be used as a stand-in for Adûnaic. This is probably because it’s an easy way to show English-speaking audiences how Adûnaic would eventually become the Westron or Common Speech of Middle-Earth in The Lord of the Rings.
Other languages of Men that may come to feature in future seasons – depending on how the creators decide to handle the timeline (with the agreement of the Tolkien estate, this is hugely compressed in the first season of RoP) – include Taliska, Soval Pharё, Dalish, Rohirric (actually inspired by Old English), Rhovanion, Haladin, Dunlendish, Drûg, Haradrim, and Easterling.
5) The Black Speech
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s world of Middle-Earth, the Black Speech is the language of the servants of Sauron. Harsh and guttural, Tolkien designed it to be deliberately unpleasant for most people to hear.
In The Rings of Power, the most prominent use of the Black Speech is the “Nampat!” (“Death!”) war chant of the orcs as they invade and enslave the Southlands.
By the time of The Lord of the Rings, this region will (more possible spoilers!) have become Mordor – the dark land that Frodo and Sam journey into to destroy the One Ring. The lingua franca of Mordor is the Black Speech.
Again, it’s interesting to note that the Black Speech is another language that is an in-world conlang. Tolkien stated that Sauron created it for his followers to overrule the primitive tongues of the orcs.
Are the languages in The Lord of the Rings “real”?
The languages of The Lord of the Rings and The Rings of Power are invented, created by an author who was a life long-lover of languages as well as a professor of linguistics and literature.
Despite being artificial, Tolkien’s knowledge and creativity mean that his languages are logical and follow the general rules of languages. This makes them sound “real” or at least “realistic” to us.
However, only Quenya and Sindarin are functional enough to be used to properly communicate. Even these languages are much easier to use to, say, compose some clever prose than they are to hold normal conversations. The author simply didn’t create the entire necessary vocabulary.
Tolkien also kept evolving his languages. This means that there are some inconsistencies of meaning even in his most developed conlangs. Yet scholars of these languages do exist. They also lend the world Tolkien created incredible depth and flavour.
Perhaps, in the end, what the languages of Middle-Earth in The Rings of Power and The Lord of the Rings really are most of all testaments to Tolkien’s love of linguistic communication in all its many and varied forms.
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