Black Speech

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Black Speech
Created by J. R. R. Tolkien
Date c. 1945 – 1973
Setting and usage Mordor in Middle-earth
Users None since J. R. R. Tolkien. 
Purpose
Language codes
ISO 639-3 None (mis)

The Black Speech is a fictional language created by J. R. R. Tolkien.

One of the languages of Arda in Tolkien's Middle-earth legendarium, it was spoken in the realm of Mordor. Tolkien describes the language as being created by Sauron as an artificial language to be the sole language of all the servants of Mordor, thereby replacing the many different varieties of Orkish and other languages used by his servants. Tolkien describes the language as existing in two forms, the ancient "pure" forms used by Sauron himself, the Nazgûl, and the Olog-hai, and the more "debased" form used by the soldiery of the Barad-dûr at the end of the Third Age.

Two timelines[edit]

For Black Speech, as for all the languages invented by Tolkien, we must distinguish two timelines of evolution:

  • the external one, concerning the evolving conceptions of the language, its actual development done by Tolkien;
  • the internal one, dealing with the fictional historical evolution of the language inside the imaginary world of Middle-earth.

External story[edit]

The Black Speech was not intentionally modeled on any style, but was meant to be self consistent, very different from Elvish, yet organized and expressive, as would be expected of a device of Sauron before his complete corruption. It was evidently an agglutinative language. [...] I have tried to play fair linguistically, and it is meant to have a meaning not be a mere casual group of nasty noises, though an accurate transcription would even nowadays only be printable in the higher and artistically more advanced form of literature. According to my taste such things are best left to Orcs, ancient and modern.[1]

From a fan, Tolkien received a goblet with the Ring inscription on it in Black Speech. Because the Black Speech in general is an accursed language, and the Ring inscription in particular is a vile spell, Tolkien never drank out of it, and used it only as an ashtray.[2] The Black Speech is one of the more fragmentary languages in the novels. Unlike Elvish, Tolkien did not write songs or poems in the Black Speech, apart from the One Ring inscription.

Internal story[edit]

Sauron attempted to impose Black Speech as the official language of the lands he dominated (ultimately, to include all of Middle-earth) and all his servants, but he was only partially successful. The Nazgûl, the Uruk-hai (the elite Battle Orcs of Mordor), and several of Sauron's major lieutenants and officers (e.g. the Mouth of Sauron) learned and used the Black Speech, but it never really caught on with the Orcs, or the various groups of Men from the east and south that Sauron conquered. The Orcs tended to corrupt and debase any language they were exposed to, so while Black Speech strongly influenced their vocabulary and perhaps grammar, it soon mutated into the myriad Orkish dialects, which are not mutually intelligible. By the end of the Third Age, while Orc vocabulary was peppered with certain terms from Black Speech, even they generally communicated using Westron, albeit heavily debased. The Elves refuse to utter Black Speech, as it attracts the attention of the Eye of Sauron.

The One Ring Inscription[edit]

The only example of "pure" Black Speech is the inscription upon the One Ring:

Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.

When translated into English, these words form the lines:

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

These are the first two lines from the end of a verse about the Rings of Power. This corresponds to the following table as explained by J.R.R. Tolkien.[3]

Black Speech English
ash one
nazg finger ring
durb- constrain, force, dominate
-at verb ending, like a participle
ulûk verbal ending expressing object 3rd person pl. "them" (ul) (sic) in completive or total form "them-all".
gimb- seek out, discover
-ul them
thrak- bring by force, hale, drag
agh and
burzum darkness
ishi in, inside
krimp- bind, tie
hai- folk
uruk- orc
olog- troll

Other examples[edit]

Some other Black Speech words are known, given by Tolkien in Appendix F of The Return of the King. These include Lugbúrz, meaning "Dark Tower" (Barad-dûr), snaga, meaning "slave", and ghâsh "fire". The name Nazgûl is a combination of "nazg" meaning "ring" and "gûl" meaning "wraith(s)", therefore giving the translation "ringwraiths".[4] Many Orkish dialects had adopted words from it. A substantial sample of debased Black Speech/Orkish can be found in The Two Towers, where a "yellow-fanged" Mordor Orc curses the Isengard Uruk Uglúk:

Uglúk u bagronk sha pushdug Saruman-glob búbhosh skai!

In The Peoples of Middle-earth, Christopher Tolkien gives the translation: "Uglúk to the cesspool, sha! the dungfilth; the great Saruman-fool, skai!". However, in a note published in the journal Vinyar Tengwar, this alternative translation is given: "Uglúk to the dung-pit with stinking Saruman-filth, pig-guts, gah!"

Film use[edit]

For The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, the linguist David Salo used what little is known of the Black Speech to invent two phrases:

Gu kibum kelkum-ishi, burzum-ishi. Akha-gum-ishi ashi gurum.
("No life in coldness, in darkness. Here in void, only death.")

The word burzum-ishi ('in darkness') is taken from the Ring Verse, and three other abstract nouns are invented with the same ending –um. The word ashi, meaning 'only', is taken from ash ('one') in the Ring Verse. The other words were made up by Salo.

Parallels to natural languages[edit]

Russian historian Alexander Nemirovski identified an ergative suffix: in durbatuluk, the suffix –tuluk means "them all", relating to the verb's object rather than to its subject. Verb forms related to object are specific to ergative languages. Nemirovski claimed a "strong lexical similarity" to Hurrian (also an ergative language),[4] which had recently been deciphered at the time of the writing of The Lord of the Rings, E. A. Speiser's Introduction to Hurrian appearing in 1941.[5] The four -atul- morphemes suggest that the language was agglutinative.

In music[edit]

As its more common subject matter includes fantasy and dark, demonic or diabolical themes, some black metal bands have taken their names and occasionally song and album titles from Black Speech or invented their own Pseudo-Black Speech:

  • Burzum is Black Speech for 'darkness', as seen on the One Ring.
  • Summoning, particularly the song "Mirdautas Vras" from Oath Bound, the first song not part of the Lord of the Rings soundtrack written entirely in their pseudo-Black Speech.
  • Za Frûmi have numerous concept albums centred around the exploits of a tribe of Uruk-hai. All lyrics are in a Pseudo-Black Speech created by the band and the translations are included in each album.
  • Nazgul, an Italian black metal duo influenced by medieval folk music, are named after the Nazgûl.
  • Lauri Penttilä, now a member of black metal band Satanic Warmaster, used "Nazgul" as his alias while he was a member of Horna.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ J.R.R. Tolkien, "Words, Phrases and Passages in Various Tongues in The Lord of the Rings", Parma Eldalemberon 17, p. 11-12.
  2. ^ The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 343
  3. ^ J.R.R. Tolkien, "Words, Phrases and Passages in Various Tongues in The Lord of the Rings", Parma Eldalemberon 17, p. 11.
  4. ^ a b Fauskanger, Helge K. "Orkish and the Black Speech". Ardalambion. University of Bergen. Retrieved 2 September 2013. 
  5. ^ The annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research, v. 20, N.H. 1941.

External links[edit]