Black Speech

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 having 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.

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

Little is known of the Black Speech except the inscription on the One Ring. Scholars note that this is constructed to be plausible linguistically, and to sound rough and harsh. Some similarities with the ancient Hurrian language, which like the Black Speech was agglutinative, have been described.



The Black Speech is one of the more fragmentary languages in The Lord of the Rings. Unlike his extensive work on the Elvish languages, 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.

Tolkien's attitude to the Black Speech may be discerned in one of his letters. 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 the goblet, and used it only as an ashtray.[2]

Fictional history of the languageEdit

The linguist and Tolkien scholar Carl F. Hostetter wrote that the Dark Lord Sauron created the Black Speech "in a perverse antiparallel of Aulë's creation of Khuzdul for the Dwarves".[3] Sauron attempted to impose Black Speech as the official language of the lands he dominated and all his servants, but in this he was only partially successful.[3][4] Black Speech influenced the Orcs' vocabulary, but soon mutated into many Orkish dialects, which were not mutually intelligible. By the end of the Third Age, Orcs mostly communicated using a debased Westron. Tolkien described one Orc's utterances as being in "the Common Speech, which he made almost as hideous as his own tongue".[5]

The language was used "only in Mordor", Tolkien stated, and it was "never used willingly by any other people"; for this reason, "even the names of places in Mordor are in English", representing Westron.[6]

The One Ring inscriptionEdit

The only text of "pure" Black Speech is the inscription upon the One Ring. It is written in the Elvish Tengwar script, with flourishes:[7]


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

( Pronunciation)

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.

The couplet is from the Rhyme of the Rings, a verse describing 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

Sound and meaningEdit

The Black Speech was by Tolkien's real intention, and Sauron's fictional one also, a harshly guttural language "with such sounds as sh, gh, zg; indeed," wrote Hostetter, "establishing this effect, as well as the bits of grammar needed to lend the Ring-inscription linguistic verisimilitude, seems to have been about the extent of Tolkien's work on this language."[3]

The Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey wrote that the word durbatulûk encompasses a whole phrase, "to rule them all", illustrating Tolkien's view expressed in his 1931 essay "A Secret Vice" that sound and meaning went together;[8] Shippey commented that

certainly, the harsh vowels and jagged consonants and consonant clusters lend themselves to rough and rasping pronunciation, a fitting evocation of the voices of Orcs.[8]

Other examplesEdit

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".[9]

The only known sample of debased Black Speech/Orkish is in The Two Towers, where a "yellow-fanged" Mordor Orc curses the Isengard Uruk Uglúk:[10]

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!"[10]

Film useEdit

For Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, the linguist David Salo used what little is known of the Black Speech to invent two phrases:[11][12]

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.[11]


Comparison with Elvish languagesEdit

The Swedish linguist Nils-Lennart Johannesson compared the Black Speech with Tolkien's two major Elvish languages, Quenya and Sindarin in terms of phonology and syllable structure. He found that there were more sonorant sounds and more open syllables in Elvish than in either English or Black Speech. He stated that these consistent differences were "sufficiently prominent" to make Elvish sound "pleasant and harmonious", whereas Black Speech sounded "harsh and strident".[13]

M. G. Meile, labelling the Black Speech as "Sauron's Newspeak" by analogy with George Orwell's dystopian language, noted that it was "doubly artificial": where the Elvish languages were his invention, the Black Speech was also supposedly an invention in his invented Middle-earth, since it had been created by the Dark Lord Sauron as an "evil Esperanto" for his slaves. He stated that as the only language of this type in Middle-earth, this made the Black Speech more important than it would appear from the few words Tolkien defined for it. Further, Tolkien wrote that it was made in mockery of Quenya, in other words that it was an evil language shadowing "the linguistic embodiment of good", and indeed, Meile wrote, it had many correspondences with Quenya. For instance, the word for Orcs, the monsters made in mockery of the Elves, is Quenya "urco, orco", which becomes Black Speech "Uruk".[14]

The linguist Joanna Podhorodecka examines the lámatyáve, a Quenya term for "phonetic fitness", of Tolkien's constructed languages. She analyses them in terms of Ivan Fonágy's theory of symbolic vocal gestures that convey emotions. She notes that Tolkien's inspiration was "primarily linguistic"; and that he had invented the stories "to provide a world for the languages", which in turn were "agreeable to [his] personal aesthetic". She compares two samples of Elvish (one Sindarin, one Quenya) and one of Black Speech, tabulating the proportions of vowels and consonants. The Black Speech is 63% consonants, compared to the Elvish samples' 52% and 55%. Among other features, the sound /I:/ (like the "i" in "machine") is much rarer in Black Speech than in Elvish, while the sound /u/ (like the "u" in "brute") is much more common. She comments that in aggressive speech, consonants become longer and vowels shorter, so Black Speech sounds harsher. Further, Black Speech contains far more voiced plosives (/b, d, g/) than Elvish, making the sound of the language more violent. Podhorodecka concludes that Tolkien's constructed languages were certainly individual to him, but that their "linguistic patterns resulted from his keen sense of phonetic metaphor", so that the languages subtly contribute to the "aesthetic and axiological aspects of his mythology".[15]

Parallels to natural languagesEdit

Black Speech has been compared to the Hurrian language, seen here on the Foundation Tablet, c. 2000 BC

The Russian historian Alexandre Nemirovski claimed a strong similarity to the extinct Hurrian language of northern Mesopotamia,[9] 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.[16][17] Fauskanger corresponded with Nemirovski, and notes that Nemirovski argued that Tolkien designed Black Speech "after some acquaintance with Hurrian-Urartian language(s)."[9] The evidence that Nemirovski presented for this is entirely linguistic, based on similarities of the elements of the agglutinative forms of Black Speech; Hurrian was similarly agglutinative.[9]

Some of Nemirovski's perceived similarities between Black Speech and Hurrian[9]
Black Speech English Hurrian Meaning (possible interpretation?)
durb- to rule turob- something predestined to occur (an evil destiny?)
-ûk completely -ok- "fully, really"
gimb- to find -ki(b) to take, to gather
burz- dark wur-, wurikk- to see, to be blind (in the dark?)
krimp- to tie ker-imbu- to make longer fully (if of a rope, to tie tightly?)

See alsoEdit


  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 c Hostetter, Carl F. (2013) [2006]. "Languages Invented by Tolkien: The Black Speech". In Michael D. C. Drout (ed.). The J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia. Abingdon: Routledge. p. 343. ISBN 978-1-1358-8033-0.
  4. ^ Hammond & Scull 2005, p. 239.
  5. ^ Hammond & Scull 2005, p. 376.
  6. ^ Hammond & Scull 2005, p. 739.
  7. ^ Hammond & Scull 2005, p. 83.
  8. ^ a b Shippey, Tom (2013) [2006]. "Poems by Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings". In Michael D. C. Drout (ed.). The J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia. Abingdon: Routledge. pp. 245–246. ISBN 978-1-1358-8033-0.
  9. ^ a b c d e Fauskanger, Helge K. "Orkish and the Black Speech". Ardalambion. University of Bergen. Retrieved 2 September 2013.
  10. ^ a b Appendix E typescript, Vinyar Tengwar, 26:16, 1992
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ 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)
  13. ^ Johannesson, Nils-Lennart (2007). "Quenya, the Black Speech and the Sonority Scale". Proceedings of the First International Conference on J.R.R. Tolkien's Invented Languages Omentielva Minya: 14–21.
  14. ^ Meile, M. G. (2020) [1996]. "Sauron's Newspeak: Black Speech, Quenya, and the nature of mind". Semiotics around the World: Synthesis in Diversity. De Gruyter Mouton. pp. 219–222. doi:10.1515/9783110820065-030. ISBN 9783110820065.
  15. ^ Podhorodecka, Joanna (2007). "Is lámatyáve a linguistic heresy. Iconicity in J. R. R. Tolkien's invented languages". In Tabakowska, Elżbieta; Ljungberg, Christina; Fischer, Olga (eds.). Insistent Images. Iconicity in language and literature. Proceedings of the Fifth Symposium in Language and Literature. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. pp. 103–110. ISBN 978-9027243416.
  16. ^ The annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research, v. 20, N.H. 1941.
  17. ^ Speiser, Ephraim A. (2016) [1941]. Introduction to Hurrian. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers. ISBN 978-1-4982-8811-8. OCLC 957436981.


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