Black Speech

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Black Speech
Created byJ. R. R. Tolkien
Datec. 1945 – 1973
Setting and usageMordor in Middle-earth
Language codes
ISO 639-3None (mis)

The Black Speech is one of the fictional languages constructed by J. R. R. Tolkien for his legendarium, where it was spoken in the evil realm of Mordor. In the fiction, Tolkien describes the language as being created by Sauron as a constructed language to be the sole language of all the servants of Mordor, thereby replacing (with little success) the many different varieties of Orkish, Westron, 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 Barad-dûr at the end of the Third Age.

Development by Tolkien[edit]

The Black Speech is one of the more fragmentary languages in The Lord of the Rings. Unlike Elvish, Tolkien did not write songs or poems in the Black Speech, apart from the One Ring inscription. He stated that:[1]

The Black Speech was not intentionally modelled 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.

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]

Fictional history of the language[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 Olog-hai (the elite Battle Trolls 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:

One Ring inscription.svg

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

Translated into English:

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 last two lines of a verse about the Rings of Power. This corresponds to the following table as explained by Tolkien.[1]

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
burzum darkness
ishi in, inside (placed after noun usually in Black Speech).
krimp- bind, tie

Other examples[edit]

A few Black Speech words are given in Appendix F of The Return of the King. These include Lugbúrz, meaning "Dark Tower" (Barad-dûr), snaga, "slave", and ghâsh, "fire". The name Nazgûl is a combination of "nazg" meaning "ring" and "gûl" meaning "wraith(s)", hence "ringwraith".[3] The only known 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, it is translated: "Uglúk to the dung-pit with stinking Saruman-filth, pig-guts, gah!”[citation needed]

Film use[edit]

For The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, the linguist David Salo used what little is known of the Black Speech to invent two phrases:[4][5]

Gû kîbum kelkum-ishi, burzum-ishi. Akha gûm-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.[4]

Parallels to natural languages[edit]

The Russian historian Alexander Nemirovski claimed a strong similarity to Hurrian,[3] which had recently been partially deciphered at the time of the writing of The Lord of the Rings, E. A. Speiser's Introduction to Hurrian appearing in 1941.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b 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, #343 to Sterling Lanier, 21 November 1972
  3. ^ a b Fauskanger, Helge K. "Orkish and the Black Speech". Ardalambion. University of Bergen. Retrieved 2 September 2013.
  4. ^ a b Salo, David (24 June 2013). "David Salo on Black Speech, orc dialects and the mind of Sauron". David Salo, on Midgardsmal. Archived from the original on 7 July 2013. Retrieved 25 August 2020. Since I had so little direct linguistic information about Black Speech to go on other than what could be gleaned from the Ring-inscription (object suffixes -ul, -ulûk; verbal infinitive (perhaps) ending -at; abstract ending -um in burzum “darkness”, containing the same burz element seen in Lugbúrz “Dark Tower”; postposition -ishi “in”) I had to go on à priori notions of what a language such as Black Speech might be like — I had to get inside the mind of Sauron, and try to figure out what somebody like the Dark Lord of Mordor might put into his language.
  5. ^ Smith, Susan Lampert (2003-01-19). "Linguist Is A Specialist In Elvish, The Uw Grad Student Provides Translations For Lord Of The Rings Movies". Wisconsin State Journal. William K. Johnston. p. C1. ISSN 0749-405X. Retrieved 2007-11-14.[dead link] (also available here Archived 2004-12-05 at the Wayback Machine)
  6. ^ The annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research, v. 20, N.H. 1941.

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