The languages of Middle Earth at the end of the Third Age
By P. A. Stonemann, CSS Dixieland
The War of the Ring is a useful assistance for grouping the linguistic map of
Middle Earth at the end of the Third Age, because with very few exceptions,
speakers of each language have allied themselves with one or with the other of
the two sides at war. Let us list those peoples by their military alliances.
-Mordor, Isengard, and their respective allies.
The Black Speech is the official language of Mordor, but in practice it is
mainly used in government administration, official proclamations, and by the
ruling class. In spite of the efforts of Sauron for imposing the Black Speech
as the national language, the results have only known a partial success. Only
in the capital city of Barad-Dur and in Minas Morgul is relatively usual to
hear Black Speech being spoken, and not by every one. Black Speech is more
the exception than the rule in most of Mordor (save in the capital and in the
semi-autonomous city of Minas Morgul).
The Olog-Hai and some elite military units use Black Speech, but many other
units of the huge Mordorian Army use different Orcish dialects, or Haradish
dialects, and when speakers of different dialects need to communicate they
tend to do it in some broken form of Gondorian Westron (Common Speech),
rather than in the Black Speech that supposedly is their national language.
-Autonomous parts of Mordor. Minas Morgul:
The Black Speech originated in Minas Morgul, and it is much more common there
than in most of Mordor, perhaps because Minas Morgul is smaller and also
because the Nine Ring Wraiths that rule the autonomous city have been careful
in keeping their language alive. Nonetheless, Gondorian Westron is also well
known in the city, and of necessary use for communication with many Mordorians
or with most Haradrim, who do not know Black Speech well enough, or at all.
-Allies of Mordor. Harad:
The Haradrim speak a diversity of languages or dialects whose classification
has not been studied. Harad does not form a single political entity, it is
the name given to a vast region South and East of Mordor, composed of various
independent or autonomous states, each with its own linguistic peculiarities.
Gondorian Westron is comparatively little known in most of Harad (with the
exception of territories near the boundary with Gondor), but Mordorian Black
Speech is almost completely unknown to nearly all Haradrim, save to some
Haradrim who live in the Mordorian cities of Minas Morgul or of Barad-Dur.
-Allies of Mordor. Isengard:
Saruman is a polyglot, and his dominions reflect a certain linguistic
diversity. Gondorian Westron is used in the capital city of Orthanc and in
the Valley of Nan Curunir, but Dunlandish and various Orcish dialects are
also heard. Even Rohan Speech is not unknown. From Nan Curunir to the South,
at the West of the River Isen and the Gap of Rohan, Dunlandish gradually tends
to predominate over other tongues (in Dunland it is almost the only language
heard, see Dunland below).
The Uruk-Hai (who are hybrids of Orcs and Dunland Men) know Dunlandish, but
normally they use Westron. The Orcs of Isengard use their own dialects among
themselves, but Westron with other peoples or even with other Orcs. The Men
of Dunland use almost exclusively Dunlandish, and reluctantly consent to use
Westron out of necessity. There are a few speakers of Rohan Speech, who also
resort to Westron when they have to communicate with other peoples.
-Allies of Isengard. Dunland:
Dunlanders are strongly proud of their language and do not renounce to it.
When two Dunlanders meet anywhere, we are sure to hear them speaking in
Dunlandish with complete disregard to whomever may be round them. Curiously
enough, Dunlandish is distantly related to the Numenorean language spoken by
the Dunedain Rangers, but the Dunedain are spread in small groups over a vast
part of Middle Earth from Annuminas to Ithilien, while the Dunlanders are
concentrated in Dunland, with some speakers in Isengard and a few stragglers
in Bree or in the Shire (in the Shire they are now forbidden to enter).
Much of what is now Rohan was formerly inhabited by Dunlanders. They were
pushed to the West of the River Isen by Eorl the Young and his successors.
Consequently, Dunland is the traditional enemy of Rohan (as Harad is the
traditional enemy of Gondor, due to other reasons), and these feelings count
much for the decision of Dunland of helping Isengard against Rohan (and for
the decision of Harad of helping Mordor against Gondor).
-Gondor, Rohan, and their respective allies.
The language most used in the West of Middle Earth is Westron, also known as
Common Speech. It originated in the river ports of the Anduin near the sea
coast, and thence it freely spread to the North and to the West (but not so
freely to the East, where Haradish or Orcish dialects, or Mordorian Black
Speech, are either predominant over Westron or in competition with it).
Most Gondorians are monolingual speakers of Westron, as it is often the case
with a language that commands strong influence over many territories. The
language belongs to the Numenorean Family (together with Dunadan, probably
Dunlandish, and perhaps Rohan Speech), but while Dunadan has changed very
little, and Dunlandish seems to have evolved along its own lines, Westron is
a typical example of a language strongly debased by the illiterate populace.
It is important to notice that all books are written by hand (the invention
of printing has not reached Middle Earth), and therefore they are extremely
expensive. Only the rich can afford to possess a sizeable bibliographical
collection, and only relatively few individuals can read or write with ease.
Others may be capable of reading with difficulty, of writing with even more
difficulty, and they perhaps possess one manuscript or two on topics of their
interest (such as Healing, Counting, Horse-Breeding, Sea-Faring, Star-Lore,
various handcrafts, et cetera).
There are private tutors who teach for a fee, and who often also act as
professional amanuenses or scribes for the author who dictates a book, or for
that who needs to write or read a personal letter or another document, but
literacy is by no means common. Most people learn a profession by beginning
as apprentices in the work place of a practicing professional (farm, sailing
vessel, shop, workshop, or whatever). Some individuals can pay complementary
studies in one of the rare institutions that impart knowledge, or can learn
by themselves, or with the aid of a tutor, or can expand their horizons by
travelling, but the vast majority is attached for life to the soil where they
came to the world or where they grew, and not surprisingly, they learn the
little that they know from some older relative, neighbour, or acquaintance.
These social realities should be borne in mind when we consider the evolution
of language. The closest thing to a news network are the official heralds, and
the information travels by word of mouth and by hearsay, therefore being much
distorted in the end. Language itself is distorted as well. Westron is not
homogeneous in all the widely separated parts where it is spoken, from the
Shire of the Halflings to the Mouths of the Anduin. Yet it has succeeded in
becoming the main language in all the West of Middle Earth.
-Allies of Gondor. Rohan:
There is considerable debate amongst linguists on whether or not the Speech
of Rohan could be classified as belonging to the Numenorean Family, or at
least somehow related to it. Dunadan is clearly Numenorean, Westron is a
debased form of it, and Dunlandish seems to be distantly related, but with
regard to the slow sonorous Speech of the Rohirim, nothing can be affirmed
for sure. Historical data are incomplete, and linguistic data controversial.
It is known that the original land of the Rohirim was in the upper part of the
Anduin, between the Great River and Mirkwood Forest. Since those lands were
more inhabited by Elves in the past than they are today, it might be surmised
that the Rohirim were somewhat influenced by the Elfish tongue (or tongues).
On the other hand, linguistic comparison shows that Numenorean is clearly more
Elfish than the current language of Rohan. The truth is that we do not know.
Rohirish is little known outside the Mark, but inside it is the predominant
mother tongue used in the home, the farm, the town, or the Halls of Edoras.
However, perhaps due to the long-time alliance between Rohan and Gondor,
Westron is a kind of second language known to nearly everyone of the Rohirim.
The Masters of Horses travel to Gondor quite often (much more than Gondorians
travel to Rohan), and become acquainted with Westron at an early age.
Commerce helps this relationship, with Rohan as exporter of horses, cattle,
wool, leather, equestrian implements, agricultural produce of all sorts, and
certain handcrafts, and with Gondor as exporter of dry fish, salt, weapons,
armour, tools, and luxuries in general. Only during the short-lived influence
of Grima Wormtongue, counsellor of King Theoden and a secret ally of Isengard,
were the Rohirim compelled by royal decree to use their own speech instead of
Westron. Before and after that time, the two languages coexist peacefully in
the Mark, with Rohirish as predominant among what is essentially a bilingual
-Allies of Rohan. Fangorn Forest:
Two tree-like people inhabit Fangorn, the Ents and the Huons. The Ents
defeated Isengard by conquering Nan Curunir (except Orthanc, which suffered
siege and was taken much later), while the Huons helped Rohan by defeating
thousands of Isengarders and Dunlanders who were attacking the Fortress of
The Entish language seems completely different from any other known language.
Some attempt has been made to represent its strange sounds in writing, but
the two common scripts of Middle Earth (the Angerthas Runic Alphabet of the
Dwarfs and the Tengwar Cursive Alphabet of the Elves) are clearly insufficient
for the purpose. Entish is a tonal language, and it has phonemes that do not
exist in any other known language. Entish is also much more slowly spoken than
even Rohirish (to which it is clearly unrelated). According to the Ents,
nothing is worth saying unless it take a long time to say it. Ents despise
hasty words, and their conversations may last for many hours, even for days.
The Ents are open to foreign visitors in their meetings, but all efforts at
learning their language have ended in the desperation of linguists. So far,
only Ents (and perhaps Huons) can speak Entish.
As for the Huons, it is not even known whether they have Entish as their own
language, or whether they possess another language of their own. It is clear
that they communicate with the Ents, so presumably they know Entish. Nothing
else can be said in this respect.
In their communications with other peoples, Ents use Westron. Huons are not
known to communicate directly with other peoples. If they have to do it, they
use Ents as their representatives or intermediaries.
-Allies of Gondor and Rohan. Druadan Forest:
The Druadaners are the oldest known aboriginal Men inhabitants of Middle
Earth. Elves are older, and Ents (perhaps also Huons) much older, but those
races are not Men. Druadan Men inhabited in the distant past all the mountain
range that divides what is now Rohan from what is now Gondor. Some contacts
between Druadaners and Dunlanders may have existed before the arrival of the
Rohirim, but whether those contacts were peaceful or violent, it is unknown.
Perhaps the Druadaners inhabited the mountains and the Dunlanders inhabited
the rolling plains at the North of those mountains, or perhaps in an older
time the Druadaners also inhabited those plains, and were driven out by the
arrival of the Dunlanders. Much later, the Dunlanders themselves were driven
out by the Rohirim. The only evidence of Druadan presence in the mountains
that are now occupied by Rohirim, are the monuments and inscriptions known
as "the Pukel Men".
The Pukel Inscriptions have not been deciphered so far. They may be a kind of
pictographic, ideographic, or hyeroglyphic script, which may perhaps represent
objects, ideas, or even some sounds of the language, such as syllables of
proper names. Khan Buri Khan, current chieftain of Druadan, has not been of
help to archeologists who requested his assistance in understanding the Pukel
Inscriptions. He may not know their meaning, or he prefers to keep the secret.
The two races of Druadan and Dunland are physically very different, and their
languages are very different as well. Most linguists consider Dunlandish as
distantly related to the Numenorean Family (a few consider it as a language
isolate), but every linguist agrees that Druadanish is a language isolate.
Although not as difficult as Entish, the study of Druadanish is nonetheless
made difficult by the secretive disposition of the Druadan people, who are
little inclined to act as informants for linguists or for archeologists.
-Allies of Gondor and Rohan. Elfish states (Imladris-Rivendell, Mirkwood
Forest, Lothlorien, Grey Havens):
There are two main forms of Elfish. The oldest is known as Quenya or High
Elfish, the newest is called Sindarin or Common Elfish. Sindarin is clearly
derived from Quenya, but now it is different enough that it justifies being
classified as a separate language. Books and official documents are almost
always written in Quenya, while personal letters and private documents may be
written either in Quenya or in Sindarin. The predominant spoken language for
everyday business is now Sindarin, in the three Elfish states of Imladris-
Rivendell, of Mirkwood Forest, and of Lothlorien. However, in the important
Elfish port of the Grey Havens (near the Westron extremity of Middle Earth),
Quenya has survived as everyday spoken language. In all those four states,
Quenya is always used for official ceremonies.
Every Elf knows the two languages (and most Elves know Westron as well). The
level of literacy tends to be higher among Elves than among most Men, and
there is a strong cultural Elfish movement that calls for the preservation
of Quenya, if not for its daily use. The average Elf may thus freely speak
Sindarin during a working day, and switch to Quenya in a holy day (a sacred
day, a ceremonial day), then switch back to Sindarin in another working day.
This is the case for Rivendell, Mirkwood and Lorien, because in the Grey
Havens Sindarin is of course known, but not normally used.
Elves use Westron when speaking to most non-Elves, except when speaking to
the Dunedain Rangers, because all Dunedain are fluent speakers of Quenya,
Sindarin and Westron, besides their own Dunadan language.
-Allies of Gondor and Rohan. Dwarfish states and Far North Men states:
Men of the Far North, at the East of the Sources of the Anduin, speak little
known languages that may be related to the Speech of the Rohirim. In their
contacts with Dwarfs, with Elves, or with other Men, they now use Westron.
Dwarfs have their own language, or languages, which they stubbornly guard as
a well-kept secret. Even their own individual names they are unwilling to
disclose. They are known by the fancy names that they apply to themselves
when dealing with other peoples. They use Westron for such dealings, and
being more literate than most Men, write it in the Angerthas or sometimes
in the Tengwar Alphabets. In spite of a traditional hostility between Dwarfs
and Elves, the War of the Ring at least has had the result of approaching
those two peoples. There is now regular trade and peaceful relations between
Elves and Dwarfs, to an extent that was unheard-of before the War.
-Allies of Gondor and Rohan. Dunedain:
The Dunedain Rangers have kept their Numenorean language almost pure, in spite
of the fact that the Dunedain are few, and that by their profession they are
constant travellers, spread in small groups or as single individuals over an
enormous extension of Middle Earth. All the Dunedain are professional scouts,
they work as messengers, guides, interpreters, and the like, hired and well
paid by tradesmen or by military commanders, or for their own errands.
All Dunedain are accomplished polyglots, which is an essential part of their
occupation. Their own Dunadan language is kept well alive, and they fluently
speak Westron and the two main Elfish languages (Quenya and Sindarin). Some
Dunedain have been known even to address Dunlanders or Rohirim in their own
tongues. Aragorn son of Arathorn, descended in direct line from Isildur King
of Gondor, and thus Heir Apparent to the Throne of that state, kept his rank
as Captain of the Dunedain while also restoring his rights as Legitimate King
of Gondor. Being one of the most widely travelled Men in Middle Earth, he has
provided historians and linguists with a treasure of valuable data.
-Divided forces. Order of the Istari Wizards and White Council of the Wise:
The Order of the Istari was composed of five Wizards, of which Saruman the
White of Isengard was the leader. The White Council of the Wise included all
these five Wizards, plus Elrond of Rivendell, Galadriel of Lothlorien, and a
few others of the most learned individuals of Middle Earth. The White Council
was also presided by Saruman of Isengard.
Each member of the Order or of the Council lived in a different place. Some
travelled frequently, such as Gandalf Mithrandir the Grey, Radagast the Brown,
or to a lesser extent, Elrond of Rivendell and Galadriel of Lothlorien. They
all kept among themselves a regular correspondence by means of trained
messenger birds, and from time to time they all met in assembly.
Before the War of the Ring these savants, besides pursuing each his own
individual studies, acted as respected counsellors, diplomats, engineers,
planners of public works, scientists, discoverers, inventors, and other
activities of research and development, for the various states of Middle
Earth who hired their services, or of which they were rulers, or for their
own intellectual curiosity. All of them were polyglots, and all of them wrote
books on the subjects of which they were masters.
Saruman of Isengard secretly used one of three surviving Palantiri, to keep
discrete contacts with Sauron of Mordor and perhaps with Denethor of Gondor,
who had the other two Palantiri in their possession. Through the Palantiri,
Sauron managed to convince Saruman that the military power of Mordor was
unstoppable, and that Isengard would do better as an ally of Mordor than as
an ally of Gondor. Thus, Saruman finally switched sides, much to the despair
of Denethor, Steward of Gondor, who was an intelligent but also a weak man.
In spite of some well founded suspicions, the treason of Saruman was not
discovered until it was too late for efficient action against him. Gandalf
Mithrandir, who sternly refused to help Saruman in this vile game, was made
prisoner in Orthanc but fortunately escaped with the help of Landroval the
Eagle. Gandalf immediately tried to warn the Rohirim against the impending
danger of an attack coming from Isengard, but King Theoden, who at that time
was under hypnotic influence of drugs made by Saruman and administered by
Grima Wormtongue, did not listen to the desperate entreaties of Gandalf.
Some Rohirim saw the gravity of the situation, such as Prince Heir Theodred
and Marshall Eomer, but with their King being opposed to any drastic measures
against the growing Army of Isengard, these men were forced to obey and keep
quiet. So time went by, until Isengard began murderous raids against the
North-West frontier of Rohan. Isengarders and Dunlanders attacked in masse at
the Gap of Rohan, crossing the River Isen, and killed Prince Theodred in
battle. Even then, King Theoden was not sure that he had to muster all the
Rohirim for War. Such was the ascendancy that Wormtongue had gained over him.
Gandalf was more successful with Elrond of Rivendell and with Galadriel of
Lothlorien. These two Elfish rulers already suspected the double game of
Saruman. Elrond immediately summoned a meeting of all free peoples of Middle
Earth, which was attended by representatives of the other three Elfish states
(Lothlorien, Mirkwood and Grey Havens), by Hobbits of the Shire and Buckland,
by Dwarfs of Ereborn, by Men of Gondor, by Dunedain, and by some other powers.
Rohan was not represented at this important meeting.
After much controversy, the decision was taken of destroying the One Ring by
throwing it into the volcanic lava of Mount Doom. This is like proposing to
hang the bell from the neck of the cat. Who is the mouse that can summon the
courage for approaching the cat ? Mount Doom is deep into enemy land, right
in the middle of Mordor, surrounded by many thousands of soldiers. It could
not be done by all the forces of Elves, Dwarfs, Men and Hobbits in a combined
assault upon Mordor. It had to be done in complete secret.
To be sure, Saruman guessed what was going on, but he did not warn Sauron.
That who is a traitor one time, will be a traitor again. So, a small group
of nine volunteers started in their desperate quest, with Gandalf leading the
group. Their incredible adventure has been beautifully told by Mister Tolkien,
and will not be repeated here. Only to say that, with the treason of Saruman,
the Order of the Istari and the White Council of the Wise suffered a severe
blow from which they have never fully recovered.
Radagast, honest man, could not believe that Saruman was a traitor. He tried
to help Gandalf before the treason became evident. After that, he chose to
hide himself and declined to attend the meeting summoned by Elrond. Most of
the other Wizards of the Order of Istari, and also most Savants of the White
Council, acted along similar lines of astonishment, confusion, and inactivity.
Such is sometimes the case with learned men, who cannot always confront the
unexpected with the decision and the activity that new circumstances demand.
After the conquest of Nan Curunir by the Ents, with Orthanc being under siege,
Theoden and Gandalf had a parley with a defeated Saruman, but who was still
protected by that immense tower and defended by a handful of his followers.
Theoden almost yielded to the persuasive words of Saruman, but Gandalf, being
much more realistic than the King of the Rohirim, formally deposed Saruman of
all previously held authority, taking oficially the Leadership of the Order
of Istari, the Presidency of the White Council of the Wise, and the name of
Gandalf the White. Thus in theory restoring the honour of Order and Council.
In practice, though, the Order and the Council had almost ceased to exist. Of
the Order only Gandalf remained in full activity, and of the Council the only
other active members were Elrond and Galadriel. An Order of one member and a
Council of three, which was the sad result of the treason staged by Saruman.
The other members of the Order or of the Council chose to keep themselves
hidden like rats, out of indecision, confusion, or downright cowardice and
fear. They did not show up again, until the War of the Ring was well over.
-Neutral or non-belligerent states (Old Forest, Bree, Shire, Buckland):
The Old Forest is little inhabited, other than by its ruler Tom Bombadil, a
few Barrow Wights, the Old Trees, and some occasional visit by the Hobbits of
Buckland or of the Shire. Bombadil and Goldberry use Westron in their friendly
contacts with visitors, and so do the not-so-friendly Barrow Wights and Old
Trees. What Bombadil and Goldberry speak in their own house, the Barrow Wights
in their mounds, or the Old Trees of the Forest, it is not known.
The small city-state of Bree, and the nearby towns that are part of that
state, is inhabited mainly by Bree Men and Bree Hobbits, with some Dunlanders
and with frequent visits by the Dunedain. The common language is Westron,
although the Dunedain, and especially the Dunlanders, each of them uses its
own language among themselves. Most Bree Men and Hobbits speak only Westron,
or rather a regional variety of it.
The Hobbits (also known as Halflings) of Buckland and of the Shire speak only
the same regional variety of Westron that has been mentioned for Bree. In
very ancient times other Hobbit groups (such as those of which Deagol and
Smeagol-Gollum were part) spoke Men languages probably akin to that of the
Rohirim, or of the Far North Men states of today, but they lost that contact
when they occupied what is now the Shire, Buckland and Bree, and at some
point accepted Westron, which although modified by them, it is the only
language that they know at the present time.
Hobbits possess one of the highest literacy rates of Middle Earth, at least
as high as that of Elves or of Dwarfs, and certainly higher than most Men.
The Shire and Buckland have a well organised postal service. Bree has not a
public postal service, but Bree Hobbits are reported as more literate than
Bree Men. Nonetheless, few Hobbits ever travel abroad. Only five Hobbits have
been known to go beyond Bree during the War of the Ring, or in the years
prior to it.
The first traveller was Bilbo Baggins of the Shire. He accidentally discovered
the One Ring in the possession of Smeagol-Gollum, and took it, wholly unaware
of the importance of his discovery. After years of concealment in the Shire,
a team of four Hobbits carried the One Ring first to Imladris-Rivendell, and
later as part of the Fellowship of the Ring, to its final doom, thus forcing
Mordor, Isengard and their allies to anticipate the War that they had been
secretly planning against Gondor, Rohan and their allies.
These heroic Hobbits were Frodo Baggins, Sam Gamgee and Peregrin Took of the
Shire, shortly later joined by Merriadoc Brandybuck of Buckland. Perhaps the
best known historian of that memorable quest, and the whole military campaign,
is J. R. R. Tolkien, a linguist who carefully studied the available documents
(not all of them written in Westron), and wrote a dramatised but realistic
account of the War.
We must finally mention Smeagol-Gollum, who incidentally was instrumental
(against his desires) in bringing the One Ring, and thus the power of Sauron,
to a timely end. Smeagol spoke the language of an old Hobbit band who dwelt
near the Sources of the Anduin in an ancient time. He may well have been the
last surviving speaker of that language. He lived almost isolated in a huge
cave for five hundred years, during which he learnt a broken form of Westron
from his rare contacts with different groups of Orcs.
Bilbo Baggins reported that, in his first contact with Gollum, this strange
creature spoke a very curious form of Westron, extremely peculiar, but yet
understandable. Probably a mixture of the broken Westron uttered by Orcs, and
of his own, half forgotten, old Hobbit language. It would have been of high
interest to linguists to know, through Gollum, the details of that language
spoken by the ancient Hobbits of which Deagol and Smeagol were part. Sadly,
no one who came in contact with Gollum requested him to inform of a language
of which very probably he was the last living speaker. Thus, he died in the
volcanic lava of Mount Doom, and the old Hobbit language died with him.
-Peripheral states (Ice Bay of Forochel, Troll country, et cetera).
-Snow Men of the Ice Bay of Forochel:
It has been reported that some Snow Men of Forochel can make themselves
understood in Westron, with more or less difficulty. Other than that, their
language is completely unknown to outsiders. Although they are not located
very far at the North and North-West of Annuminas and Fornhost, roads do not
exist, and contacts with the rest of Middle Earth have been scarce in the
Third Age. Only the Dunedain Rangers, or the Elf mariners of the Grey Havens,
have had some occasional contact with the Snow Men of Forochel.
The Country of the Trolls is located well North of Rivendell. Some Trolls
enlisted in the Army of Mordor, they were seen in the Mines of Moria and in
the Battle of Minas Tirith. Mordorian prisoners have reported that these
enlisted Trolls used some of the Orcish dialects, or a broken form of the
Black Speech of Mordor. What they speak in their own Troll Country is a
mystery, and likely to remain so for years, considering that Trolls are not
particularly distinguished by their hospitality to foreign visitors.
Thus ends this report on the languages of Middle Earth at the end of the
P. A. Stonemann, CSS Dixieland