Orkish and the Black Speech - base language for base purposes

I: Orkish

Concerning the language of the Orcs in the Elder Days "it is said that they had no language of their own, but took what they could of other tongues and perverted it to their own liking, yet they made only brutal jargons, scarcely sufficient even for their own needs, unless it were for curses and abuse" (LotR Appendix F). One example of their taking "what they could of other tongues and pervert[ing] it" can be found in UT:92, where we learn that Golug was an Orkish name of the Noldor, plainly based on Sindarin Golodh pl. Gelydh and apparently an arbitrary distortion of this Elvish word. However, it is also said that Morgoth, the first Dark Lord, "had made a language for those who served him" (VT39:27).

In Frodo's day, the linguistic situation was unchanged: "The orcs and goblins had languages of their own, as hideous as all things that they made or used, and since some remnant of good will, and true thought and perception, is required to keep even a base language alive and useful even for base purposes, their tongues were endlessly diversified in form, as they were deadly monotonous in purport, fluent only in the expression of abuse, of hatred and fear" (PM:21). Indeed "these creatures, being filled with malice, hating even their own kind, quickly developed as many barbarous dialects as there were groups or settlements of their race, so that their Orkish speech was of little use to them in intercourse between different tribes" (LotR Appendix F). Hence there is no single "Orkish" language for us to analyze. The only thing that seems to be true of all Orkish languages at all times is that they were "hideous and foul and utterly unlike the languages of the Q[u]endi" (LR:178). Indeed "Orcs and Trolls spoke as they would, without love of words and things" (Appendix F). Hence their attitude towards Language was totally different from that of the Elves, who loved and cultivated their tongue. Tolkien was himself a philologist, which title literally implies lover or friend of words, and in his invented world, total absence of love for language could only be a characteristic of evil.

The diversity and mutability of the Orkish tongues was of course an obstacle for a Dark Power using Orcs as its storm-troopers. So for the purpose of efficient administration (sc. absolute totalitarianism), Sauron took the time to make an Esperanto for his servants. In doing so he apparently imitated his original master Morgoth, as is evident from VT39:27 cited above.

II: The Black Speech

"It is said that the Black Speech was devised by Sauron in the Dark Years," Appendix F informs us, "and that he had desired to make it the language of all those that served him, but he failed in that purpose. From the Black Speech, however, were derived many of the words that were in the Third Age wide-spread among the Orcs, such as ghâsh 'fire', but after the first overthrow of Sauron this language in its ancient form was forgotten by all but the Nazgûl. When Sauron arose again, it became once more the language of Barad-dûr and of the captains of Mordor." Later it is stated that the Olog-hai, the fell Troll-race bred by Sauron in the Third Age, knew no other tongue than the Black Speech of Barad-dûr. Olog-hai was itself a Black Speech word. The term "Black Speech" may not have been Sauron's own name for his language, but rather one given in contempt by others. On the other hand, the Black Speech name of Barad-dûr was Lugbúrz, meaning Dark Tower just like the Sindarin name, so perhaps Sauron himself actually liked to be associated with darkness and used black as his official colour. It certainly seems to be the dominant colour in the uniforms of his soldiers.

Tolkien himself did not like the Black Speech at all. One admirer sent him a steel drinking goblet, but to his disappointment he discovered that it was "engraved with the terrible words seen on the Ring. I of course have never drunk from it, but use it for tobacco ash" (Letters:422). He evidently shared the opinion of Elves and Men back in the Third Age, who certainly did not think any better of the Black Speech than they did of the other tongues used by Orcs: "It was so full of harsh and hideous sounds and vile words that other mouths found it difficult to compass, and few indeed were willing to make the attempt" (PM:35). There being no objective standards for what constitutes a "harsh and hideous" sound or a "vile" word, these statements must be seen as subjective, reflecting a general prejudice against all things Orkish and everything proceeding from Sauron (though it can of course be argued that this prejudice was a thousand times deserved). It is difficult to pinpoint the "harsh and hideous sounds". The Black Speech possesses the plosives b, g, d, p, t, k, the spirants th, gh (and possibly f and kh, attested in Orc-names only), the lateral l, the vibrant r, the nasals m, n, and the sibilants s, z, sh. This may not be a complete list, given our small corpus. The vowels are a, i, o, u; the vowel o is stated by Tolkien to be rare. The Black Speech does not seem to use e. Long â and û are attested (the latter is also spelt ú, but An Introduction to Elvish p. 166-167 is probably right in assuming that this is simply inconsistent spelling on Tolkien's part). There is at least one diphthong, ai, and au occurs in an Orc-name. (As it is uncertain what language such names belong to, they are not further dealt with here.)

What, then, was perceived as unpleasant by the Elves? It is stated that the Orcs used a uvular r, like the R that is common in French and German, and that the Eldar found this sound distasteful. It has been suggested that this was the standard pronunciation of r in the ancient Black Speech (An Introduction to Elvish p. 166). The Black Speech also had certain consonant clusters that did not appear in contemporary Sindarin: sn, thr, sk initially and rz, zg finally. Whatever the cause, the language was generally perceived as singularly harsh: When Gandalf quoted the inscription on the Ring during the council of Elrond, "the change in the wizard's voice was astounding. Suddenly it became menacing, powerful, harsh as stone. A shadow seemed to pass over the high sun, and the porch for a moment grew dark. All trembled, and the Elves stopped their ears" - quite a reaction! The conclusion that this was largely based on hatred of everything "under the Shadow" rather than some inherent ugliness in the Black Speech itself seems inescapable.

Where did the vocabulary of the Black Speech come from? Surely Sauron had no more "love of words or things" than his servants had, and one might well think that he simply invented words arbitrarily. This may be true in some cases, but it appears that he also picked words from many sources, even the Elvish languages: "The word uruk that occurs in the Black Speech, devised (it is said) by Sauron to serve as a lingua franca for his subjects, was probably borrowed by him from the Elvish tongues of earlier times" (WJ:390). Uruk may be similar to Quenya urco, orco or Sindarin orch, but it is identical to the ancient Elvish form *uruk (variants *urku, *uruku, whence Q urco, and *urkô, whence perhaps S orch). But how could Sauron know Primitive Quendian? Was he the one who took care of the Elves Morgoth captured at Cuiviénen, and perhaps even responsible for the "genetic engineering" that transformed them into Orcs? As a Maia, he would easily have interpreted their tongue (WJ:406). To the first Elves, Morgoth and his servants would be *urukî or "horrors", for the original meaning of the word was that vague and general, and Sauron may have delighted in telling the captured Elves that they were to become *urukî themselves. In his mind, the word evidently stuck.

But there were also other sources for Black Speech vocabulary. The word for "ring" was nazg, very similar to the final element in the Valarin word mâchananaškâd "the Doom-ring" (WJ:401, there somewhat differently spelt). Being a Maia, Sauron would know Valarin; it could indeed be his "mothertongue", to use the only term available. If it seems blasphemous to suggest that the tongue of the Gods may have been an ingredient in Sauron's Black Speech, "full of harsh and hideous sounds and vile words", it should be remembered that according to Pengolodh, "the effect of Valarin upon Elvish ears was not pleasing" (WJ:398). Morgoth, technically being a Vala, must have known Valarin (or at least picked it up during the ages he was captive in Valinor). According to LR:178 he taught it to his slaves in a "perverted" form. If so, Valarin naškâd "ring" may have produced nazg in one Orkish dialect of the Second Age, from which Sauron took it.

What happened to the Black Speech after the fall of Sauron? In ever more debased forms it may have lingered for a while among some of his former subjects. Even today, it is not wholly dead.

The corpus analyzed

"The inscription on the Ring was in the ancient Black Speech," Appendix F informs us, "while the curse of the Mordor-orc...was in the more debased form used by the soldiers of the Dark Tower, of whom Grishnâkh was the captain. Sharku [sic, read sharkû?] in that tongue means old man." (Does "that tongue" mean Black Speech as such or the debased form? The wording is not perfectly clear, but probably the latter. In the footnote in LotR3/VI ch. 8, sharkû - the origin of Saruman's nickname Sharkey - is said to be "Orkish".)

Our sole example of pure Black Speech, then, is the inscription on the Ring: Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul. "One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the Darkness bind them." (LotR1/II ch. 2) Nazg is "ring", also seen in Nazgûl "Ring-wraith(s)". Ash is the number "one", agh is the conjuction "and", disturbingly similar to Scandinavian og, och. Burzum is "darkness", evidently incorporating the same element búrz, burz- "dark" as in Lugbúrz "Tower-dark", the Black Speech name that Sindarin Barad-dûr translates. Hence, the -um of burzum must be an abstract suffix like the "-ness" of the corresponding English word "darkness". Burzum has a suffix ishi "in". In the transcription it is separated from burzum by a hyphen, but there is nothing corresponding in the Tengwar inscription on the Ring, so this may be considered either a postposition or a locative ending. (It is remarkably similar to Quenya -ssë and may support the theory advanced by Robert Foster in his Complete Guide to Middle-earth, that the Black Speech was to some extent based on Quenya and a perversion of it. The element burz- "dark" is also vaguely similar to the Elvish stem for "black", MOR.) Though burzum-ishi is translated "in the darkness", there does not seem to be anything corresponding to the article "the", unless it is somehow incorporated in ishi. But the evidence is that the Black Speech does not mark the distinction between definite and indefinite nouns; see below.

In the word durbatulûk "to rule them all" the morphemes may be tentatively segmented as durb-at-ul-ûk "rule-to-them-all" (the alternative is durb-a-tul-ûk, but suffixes of the pattern vowel-consonant create a tidier system; remember that we are dealing with a constructed language). Similarly we have gimb-at-ul "find-to-them", thrak-at-ul-ûk "bring-to-them-all" and krimp-at-ul "bind-to-them". Verbs with the ending -at are translated by English infinitives: durbat, gimbat, thrakat, krimpat = "to rule, to find, to bring, to bind". Hence we may speak of verbs in -at as infinitives, though it may also be a specialized "intentive" form indicating purpose: The Ring was made in order to rule, find, bring and bind the other Rings of Power. The Black Speech does not only employ a suffix -ul to express "them", but also, and more remarkably, a suffix rather than a separate word to express "all": -ûk.

Then there is the curse of the Mordor-orc: Uglúk u bagronk sha pushdug Saruman-glob búbhosh skai (LotR2 III:3). In PM:83, this is translated "Uglúk to the cesspool, sha! the dungfilth; the great Saruman-fool, skai!" (There also exists another translation; see below.) This is said to be a "debased" form of Black Speech, but it is of course difficult for us to tell how it diverges from Sauron's original standard. The sound o is used thrice, though we are told that "in the [original?] Black Speech, o was rare". But the sound u is used five times (excluding the Mannish name Saruman), so this cannot simply be due to u having become o in this Orkish dialect. Tolkien did not state that o was absent in the Black Speech (cf. the word Olog-hai below).

The following observations can be made: Sha and skai are evidently simply interjections of contempt; they are not translated. Compounds consisting of two nouns have their main element last, just like in Quenya and English: hence "Saruman-fool" is Saruman-glob rather than **glob-Saruman. (Hence bag-ronk = "cess-pool" and push-dug = "dung-filth", tentatively segmenting the elements of the compounds in the way that seems most likely - but of course it may also be ba-gronk or bagr-onk, pushd-ug or pu-shdug). Adjectives follow the noun they describe: "the great Saruman-fool" is Saruman-glob búbhosh rather than *búbhosh Saruman-glob (cf. also Lugbúrz *"Towerdark", *Lug Búrz being spelt as one word). The translation thrice employs the definite article the, but it has no equivalent in the Orkish words (u must be the preposition "to"). This suggests that the Black Speech does not mark the distinction between definite and indefinite nouns (which is not in itself a defect, since this is also the case in major languages like Russian and Chinese). It is less likely that the naked stem of the noun is by default the definite form, for in that case ash nazg should translate as "the one ring", not "one ring". (On the other hand, Gandalf introduced his translation of the Ring Inscription with the words "this in the Common Tongue is what is said, close enough", a wording that suggests that the translation is not 100 % accurate. In theory it is moreover a translation of a translation, since Tolkien later rendered the Common Tongue version appearing in the Red Book into English...) We note that a preposition u "to" is used, indicating that the Black Speech has prepositions as well as suffixed postpositions like ishi (or is this one of the points where this "debased" form of Black Speech differs from Sauron's standard? May "to the cesspool" be *bagronk-u in pure Sauronian Black Speech?)

A quite different translation of the Orkish curse has been published in Vinyar Tengwar: "Uglúk to the dung-pit with stinking Saruman-filth, pig-guts, gah!" This translation seems to be later than the one mentioned above. It seems that Tolkien had forgotten the original translation and simply made up a new one. We choose to accept the translation given in PM:83 as the genuine one, though this choice is admittedly arbitrary.

Except for the inscription on the Ring and the curse, the corpus consists of little more than the words Olog-hai and Uruk-hai, denoting races of especially tough and war-like creatures evidently developed and bred by Sauron: varieties of Trolls and Orcs, respectively. Hai evidently denotes a folk or race.

It is remarkable that the word Nazgûl is used both in a singular and a plural sense. Perhaps a simple noun is neither singular nor plural, but has a very general or generic sense, and some qualifier like ash "one" or hai "folk" is added if the meaning has to be further specified. So when making statements about the Ringwraiths in general, it may be OK to say simply Nazgûl, but one specific Ringwraith is *ash Nazgûl (perhaps meaning either "a certain Ringwraith"/"one Ringwraith" or "the one Ringwraith"). The entire "race" or category of Ringwraiths may be specifically *Nazgûl-hai. But all this is pure speculation. We have never seen the word Nazgûl in a Black Speech context.

(For an independent analysis of Black Speech grammar, see the article A Second Opinion on the Black Speech by Craig Daniel.)

Black Speech Wordlist

Orc-names, the meanings of which are unknown, are excluded. DBS means "debased Black Speech" and in effect marks words from the curse of the Mordor-orc, except in the case of sharkû. Of course, some of these words may not differ from their form in pure Sauronian Black Speech. We shall never know.

          agh "and"
          -at infinitive suffix, or possibly a specialized "intentive" suffix indicating purpose: Ash nazg durbatulûk "one Ring to rule them all"
(DBS) "cesspool", possibly bag+ronk "cess+pool"
(DBS) "great"
"dark", (isolated from Lugbúrz, q.v.), burzum "darkness"
"filth", tentatively isolated from pushdug, q.v.
"rule", infinitive durbat, only attested with suffixes: durbatulûk "to rule them all". The verb durb- is remarkably similar to Quenya tur- of similar sense.
"fire" (stated to be derived from the Black Speech, may or may not represent Sauron's original form of the word)
"find", infinitive gimbat, only attested with a pronominal suffix: gimbatul, "to find them"
(DBS) "fool"
"any one of the major invisible servants of Sauron dominated entirely by his will" (A Tolkien Compass p. 172). Translated "wraith(s)" in the compound Nazgûl, "Ringwraith(s)".
"folk", in Uruk-hai "Uruk-folk" and Olog-hai "Troll-folk"; cf. also Oghor-hai.
"in", a suffixed postposition: burzum-ishi, "in the darkness".
"bind", infinitive krimpat, only attested with a pronominal suffix: krimpatul, "to bind them"
"tower". Isolated from Lugbúrz, q.v.
the Dark Tower, Sindarin Barad-dûr (Lug-búrz "Tower-dark")
"ring": ash nazg "one ring", Nazgûl "Ring-wraith(s)"
"Ring-wraith(s)", nazg + gûl (q.v.)
"Drúedain" (UT:379; this may or may not be pure Black Speech)
a variety of Troll apparently developed by Sauron. Olog-hai "Olog-people".
(DBS) "dungfilth", possibly push+dug "dung+filth"
(DBS) "pool", tentatively isolated from bagronk, q.v.
(DBS) interjection of contempt
(DBS) interjection of contempt
(DBS?) "old man"
"slave" (May be DBS.) Used of lesser breeds of Orcs (WJ:390).
"bring", infinitive thrakat, only attested with suffixes: thrakatulûk "to bring them all"
(DBS) "to"
          -ûk "all", suffixed to pronominal suffixes: -ulûk, "them all"
          -ul pronominal suffix "them".
          -um "-ness" in burzum "darkness".
a great variety of Orc. According to WJ:390, Sauron probably borrowed this word "from the Elvish tongues of earlier times".

APPENDIX: Was the Black Speech based on Hittite/Hurrian?

The historian Alexandre Nemirovsky, who specializes in the history of the Hittites and the Hurrians that lived in the Late Bronze Age, believes Tolkien's Black Speech may be inspired by the languages of these ancient peoples. As we know, some of Tolkien's invented languages were definitely influenced by pre-existing tongues; it is well known that Quenya and Sindarin were originally inspired by Finnish and Welsh, respectively. The following is a slightly edited version of the argument Nemirovsky sent me; he has kindly granted me permission to use it here:

1. On the morpheme ûk. As it is suffix, not a word (Tolkien writes all words separately in his transliteration), it can hardly express "all". This is because "all", being a pronoun, would remain, I think, a separate word. I propose to identify this ûk as a verbal suffix with the meaning of full accomplishment of the action expressed by the verbal root, so that literally it would be translated "completely, fully", which would correspond well to the translation "all", because "to rule them fully" and "to rule them all" mean the same in this context.

2. Main traits of grammar: cases are expressed by postlogs (ishi); only the Nominative case has a zero ending (nazg); the most important feature to my mind is that the personal pronoun naming the object of a transitive action is included in the verbal form only. It does not remain a separate word. Moreover, some verbal suffixes can even come after it in such a case (root + ul "them" + ûk "completely, to the very end"). In other words, we see an agglutinative ergative language - i.e. a language of non-Indo-European type, really alien to almost all others, and of a very archaic type.

3. Now my main hypothesis is that this Black Speech was designed by Tolkien after some acquaintance with Hurrian-Urartian language(s). On the possibility of such an acquaintance see Note 4 below. For now I want to emphasize that Hurrian really is an agglutinative ergative language, where personal pronouns are included in the verbal forms; by the way, jussive forms in Hurrian never include the pronoun expressing the agent/subject of a transitive action, but often include the pronoun, expressing its object. Cf. the presence of a "them"-formant, but absence of any formant expressing the agent, in the verbal forms of the Ring inscription. In Hurrian all cases except the Nominative are expressed with various flexions; Nominative is expressed with zero flexion - again just as in the Black Speech.

Of course, here we see only grammatical parallels; but many words of the Black Speech have much in common with Hurrian-Urartian words. Consider the following list (Black Speech forms are given in bold, Hurrian-Urartian forms in italics):

ash "one" / she (root sh-) "one"

durb- "to rule" / turob- "something (disastrous), which is predestined to occur; enemy". (This rendering of the main semantics of Hurrian turobe as "predestined evil" rather than just an "enemy" is based on the context of El-Amarna letter #24, where this word turns up in a construction of a type "if turobe will happen, - let it not happen! - we'll aid one another with military forces". The verbs give the impression that "an evil destiny in form of an enemy" is the meaning of turobe.)

at - formant of jussive/intended future in verbal forms / ed - formant of future in verbs

-ul "them" as object of action in transitive verbal forms / -lla, -l "them" as object of action in transitive verbal forms

-ûk "completely" as a morpheme in a verbal form / -ok- formant with a meaning "fully, truthfully, really" in a verbal form

gimb- "to find" / -ki(b) "to take, to gather"

thrak- "to bring" / s/thar-(ik)- "to ask, to demand to send something to someone", so meaning "to ask for/to cause bringing of something to someone" is implied.

agh "and" / Urartian aye, the same as "mit" and "bei" in German

burz- "dark" / wur- "to see" in fact, but the root is present in wurikk- "to be blind" and really would express something opposite to "see, seeable" with any negative particle, while there is a particle z in Hurrian with the possible meaning "to be at the very limit of, up to the end of, complete". So wur + z could really give the meaning "where the seeing is near/at its limits" - of course not Hurrian as such, but a quite possible "play" of any linguist with the Hurrian material.

krimp- "to tie" / ker-imbu- "to make longer fully/completely/irreversibly", if it respects to a rope, e.g., it nicely fits the concept of "tie tightly"

By the way, Sauron would mean "He Who is Armed with Weapons", "He Who is Armed" in Hurrian (Sau "The Weapons" + -ra, comitative case-ending, + n - "He" or -on, onne, a nominalizing ending). [The name Sauron is not Black Speech, but Quenya. Nemirovsky's observation is interesting all the same. - HKF.] Uglûk can be translated as "Frighten-everybody!", as ugil- means "to provoke fear in somebody" in Hurrian.

Taking into account the fact that we know very few Orkish words, this new fact that so many of them have possible parallels in Hurrian-Urartian seems more significant than it would be otherwise, and it may indicate that we face here something more than pure coincidence.

4. Could Tolkien know anything about Hurrian? Yes, definitely. The problem of identifying Hurrian as non-Indo-European language, the connection between Hurrians and Aryans, the Aryan inclusions in Hurrian language - these matters constituted one of the top-priority problems of Indo-European research, especially in relation to ancient history, from the 1920s and into the 1940s. It was just an English Semitist and Bible-scholar, Speiser (author of a famous commentary on Genesis), who was the most active explorer of this language: In 1941 he published his fundamental Hurrian Grammar, which made a real revolution in this field. Any English linguist deeply interested in Indo-European studies, ancient languages and Bible studies (and Tolkien perfectly fits all of these criteria) not only could, but, I think, simply had to know about all this stuff. So Tolkien had every opportunity to read Speiser’s work (not to mention previous works), and to read it with interest.

Of course, it is no more than a purely hypothetical proposal. But taking into account all common features of Hurrian and Orkish (by the way, their phonologies have something in common too, and roots of "CCVC", "CVCC" and "VCC" types are typical to Hurrian - a very "harsh" language if compared to other languages of the Ancient East) and the position of the Hurrian problem in some linguistic studies in England in the twenties, thirties and forties, I can't but ask myself: What if JRRT really used some kind of acquaintance with Hurrian while designing his Black Speech?


E.A.Speiser, Introduction to Hurrian , The annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research, v. 20, N.H. 1941.

M.E. Laroche Glossaire de la Langue Hourrite. // Revue Hittite et Asianique Tome XXXIV-XXXV, 1976-1977

N.M.Hacikyan. Hurritskij i urartskij yazyki. Erevan, 1985.

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