Unutterable Words

Two Rings
David Salo — 22 June 2013
Analytical ArticlesAnalytical Articles: These articles provide a detailed overview of the theme they cover. However, they require some prior knowledge of the main works of J.R.R. Tolkien.

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 lingua franca. 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-, --, -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.

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langues/english/midgardsmal/unutterable_words.txt · Dernière modification: 25/10/2021 11:26 par Elendil
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