Hey there, you fantalinguophile! In this condensed guide, I’m going to give an account of the Black Speech of Mordor: what language it is, who speak it, why, how did it come to life, etc. 😎
If you have watched The Lord of the Rings or read The Hobbit, you may be left wonder: What crazy language is this?
Has Tolkien developed it 100%, as he did with his Elven languages? Why does the Black Speech of Mordor sound like a pressure pipeline about to burst? 💥
And the question that some sceptics (and my whole family) have been asking themselves for a while: Why should I learn bits of Black Speech, with so many interesting languages populating the world? Moreover, it sounds horrible and only despicable people use it. 🤔
Well, the answer is: because it’s more entertaining than it seems at first sight. 😉 The Black Speech of Mordor offers several mind-blowing moments 🤯 thus, it’s worth knowing a little.
Let’s get the ball rolling.
Intro to the Black Speech of Mordor
Frodo: “… there are markings. It’s some form of Elvish, I can’t read it.”
Gandalf: “There are few who can. The language is that of Mordor, which I will not utter here.” 🤐
If Sindarin (Elvish) is the very first, the Black Speech is the third language we hear in the film trilogy of The Lord of the Rings. It will take a while before to hear another superduper language, Khuzdûl, that spoken by the dwarves.
Anyway, Black Speech steps on the scene nearly at the beginning, right after Bilbo’s party: on that occasion, it’s written in the Tengwar alphabet.
Even though it’s the favourite language of… few, it can’t miss the stage: the Black Speech of Mordor is a fundamental piece of the huge Tolkien’s linguistic puzzle and it enables us to explain two main ingredients of his work.
The first ingredient: one of main Tolkien’s criteria, when working on his languages, is phonoaesthetics. In plain words, he develops languages that are pleasant to hear.
He likes elves, therefore he gives them an enjoyable language. But Tolkien works this principle with all the beings of Middle-earth, bestowing each race a language which defines them: Rohirric, Orkish, Quenya, the Entish spoken by the shepherds of the trees, etc.
What to do, then, with the big Evil, with Middle-earth king of the bottomless pit? 🤘
Well, to grant Sauron the Black Speech of Mordor, made for the exact opposite of the Sindarin: to produce auditory torture. 😡
In the history of Middle-earth, there are two Dark Lords: Morgoth is the first, and when he leaves the stage, Sauron takes over. This is why Tolkien crafts the Black Speech in the image of Sauron, as similar to him as dogs to their masters. 🐶
Thus, he fills it with cacophonies, but not simply a bunch of stinging sounds without structure: Tolkien does his best. Yet he reveals little of the theoretical intricacies of the Black Speech.
There are endless debates about whether the Black Speech draws from natural languages, such as those of the Middle East, ancient or contemporary. I, apart from a couple of coincidences, see nothing of it. 🤔
It is also worth noticing that Sauron, in the linguistic history of Arda, set no precedent: his predecessor, Morgoth, had already created a language for himself and his servants. What it was like and how many were fluent in it, no idea.
But there is a second, very juicy ingredient.
The Black Speech in the Elvish alphabet
The Black Speech has no alphabet of its own! What a loser, Sauron. When it comes to writing it down, the evil Maia must resort to the Elvish Tengwar alphabet.
Such detail is no accident: the author wishes it to be so. Languages, language families and historical phases of development are all variables Tolkien loves to play with: and so are alphabets.
The inscription of the One Ring is the only written text in the Black Speech available to us, for we have it in the book of The Lord of the Rings:
- In the chapter The Shadow of the Past, in Tengwar characters, and
- in the chapter The Council of Elrond, in Latin script.
The transcription is as follows:
Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.
Which, as you guess, is:
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to draw them all and in Darkness bind them.
Despite Gandalf being a prominent Istari, he gets scolded by Elrond when he utters the Black Speech: Why? Because the Elves believe that would draw the Eye of Sauron upon them. 👁️
And this is the, shall we say, official version. But there is another…
The Black Speech written in another alphabet
The arrival of The Hobbit trilogy has given us more elements: in the second instalment, The Desolation of Smaug, the Black Speech does have its alphabet. 🤯
We see it when Gandalf meets Thorin, in an analepsis that takes the two back to before the quest of Erebor, when they meet at the Prancing Pony in Bree and the wizard passes something to Durin’s heir…
Gandalf: I ran into some unsavoury characters whilst travelling on the Greenway. They mistook me for a vagabond…
Thorin: I imagine they regretted that.
Gandalf: One of them was carrying a message. It is Black Speech… a promise of payment.
Thorin: For what?
Gandalf: Your head.
I have found no explanation, neither in Tolkien’s books nor from his scholars.
Some scholar says that it did have its own alphabet, but it wouldn’t fit in a ring: that’s why the Tengwar alphabet was used there. Hmmm, I don’t know. If true, we would have in that piece of skin the only specimen of the Black Speech of Mordor in its true writing system.
As you can see, at first glance it would look like a few trivial scribbles. 🤨 However, whether Tolkien had foreseen it or not, the choice of scribbles is an apt one.
Peter Jackson and his crew, in making the films, have the best Tolkien scholars on the planet. Under Tolkien’s logic, it would make sense to give him this graphic system, so unpleasant to the eye: it is the rearrangement on the visual dimension of the Black Speech brutal oral experience. 👂
Another possibility is that it is Orcish, that is, the language of the orcs: one related to the Black Speech, although the orcs would seem to be an illiterate race, i.e. with no usage of writing. However, it is not so clear-cut. 🤨
And there is more. Expressing oneself in the Black speech is not as neutral as doing it in a Brummie twang…
The magic power of the Black Speech
Flashback to the Council of Elrond. When Gandalf uttered the phrase in Westron, not much seemed to happen, but when he does it in the Black Speech:
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.
This leads us to two deductions: first, speaking in the Black Speech warps the space-time around and that doesn’t seem positive. 😒
Secondly, that some Elves did know the language, something corroborated by several scenes: for example, when Galadriel in the film The Hobbit – The Battle of the Five Armies, being in Dol Guldur to rescue Gandalf, gives evidence of understanding the Black Speech. 😟
In that wretched ruin, Galadriel and the entire White Council realise that the Necromancer was not some two-bit sorcerer but the very Sauron. Yet Galadriel responds in Westron, which seems appropriate.
And it is in Peter Jackson’s films that we can find other oral traces of the Black Speech: from Sauron himself and the beings he corrupted. 💀
Bolgo, Azog, the orc who nearly cut off Gandalf’s finger, and several such creatures: in their interactions with each other, what they speak is Orkish. But when Sauron is directly involved, it is Black Speech that we hear. 👂
Truly, the mere fact that these vermin speak the language of Mordor makes them more threatening. 🙀
The facts narrated in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are at the end of the Third Age, but this damned tongue comes from long before.
The history of the Black Speech
Allegedly, this language is not in Tolkien’s initial linguistic project. He already has half of Middle-earth sketched out when he starts writing The Lord of the Rings: in a secondary phase of the writing process, he creates the Black Speech. ✍️
Both novels are set in the latter part of the Third Age of Middle-earth: yet Tolkien chooses to antedate the language of Mordor to the Second Age (that of the pharaonic Amazon series). 🗓️
It is at this time that the Dark Lord creates it to communicate with his subjects, thus replacing the other languages they used, Orkish and Westron among them.
Sauron’s plan takes another blow here: in the long run, the Black Tongue fails to become the official language of Mordor and most of its slaves. 🤬
We do not know how many creatures come to speak it, nor at what level, nor at what time. There are several versions.
According to one, not even in the Second Age is it widely accepted: by the time Isildur cuts off his finger in 3441, the Black Speech is spoken only by Sauron and the Nazgûl.
According to another, up to the Second Age, it is mastered by every last servant of evil: but from then on, it remains the tongue of the ten greatest mischief-makers, i.e. Sauron plus the nine Nazgûl.
In the mouths of the orcs, it would degenerate into a host of dreary dialects, spiced with words from the Black Speech; dialects to which the umbrella term Orkish or Orkish languages has been given. 👺
But as Sauron and his nine wraiths are like cockroaches that resist all disaster, they finally manage to return to Middle-earth in the Third Age. 🌍
The Black Speech at the end of the Third Age
At this time, the use of the Black Speech expands. Among the new speakers, we have the Olog-hai: who are they?
The Olog-hai are a subspecies of trolls, newly shaped by Sauron: huge, powerful, sparing in words but intelligent. 🧠
They are the ones who burst into Minas Tirith as soon as Grond, the battering ram, bursts through the gate, or the grotesque cyclops who lead the vanguard in the Battle of the Five Armies as they are about to lay siege to Erebor.
These are the Olog-hai:
We don’t catch them talking in books or series: I know that in some thematic videogames they do, but as I haven’t been involved in videogames, I can’t confirm. 🕹️
Other speakers are the orcs of Mordor: these, according to some sources, in addition to Orkish they speak the Black Speech; those of Isengard, the north or other lands, on the other hand, do not. Why? 🤔
Because they aren’t smart enough, or because they don’t want to, we don’t know: according to Tolkien, there is a profusion of Orkish dialects, which make comprehension between different tribes difficult.
In short, orcs must resort to their corrupted form of Westron to communicate with one another outside their tribe. 😆
On what basis did Sauron create this language, what criteria did he adopt?
As the Maia he was, he must have been fluent in Valarin, the language of the Valar: one can imagine that this is where at least some Black Speech came from.
It is generally agreed that Sauron’s slaves ignore the Black Speech. Whether they are orcs, men, goblins, uruk-hai, trolls, balrogs or their kin, they know no more than a handful of words: we do not know whether it is because of their limited brain capacity, or the Dark Lord did not approve. 🤨
As for the fluency of the orcs of Mordor in the Black Speech, it is necessary to qualify: what they speak seems to a large extent a variant stripped of sophistication, degenerate as Tolkien would say.
We have proof of it in the chapter The Uruk-hai, still in The Lord of the Rings, the novel. At the end of the Third Age:
Uglúk sha pushdug Saruman-glob búbhosh skai.
Let’s continue now with the structure of the Black Speech.
Elements of theory
The contribution of the Black Speech of Mordor is completed by some place names and more nouns:
Lugbúrz: “Dark Tower”, from lûg “fortress” + búrz “dark”. It is the Tower of Sauron’s eye 🗼.
dagbúrz: “Dark Land”, from dag “land” + búrz “dark”. That would be Mordor
nazgûl: from nazg “ring + gûl “specter” 👻
uruk-hai: “race of orcs”.
olog-hai: “race of trolls” 👻
oghor-hai: the Wild Men
ghâsh: “fire” 🔥 (also got into Orkish)
snaga: slave (a term also used in Orkish by the Uruk-hai, to indicate the other servants of Mordor, inferior beings)
Kutmu nakhash!“: “War is incumbent!” ⚔️
Try to pronounce these names, one after the other: Do you notice what effect the Black Speech has on your oral cavity? Gor-bag, grish-nákh… my mouth mucosa dries up.
We don’t have an extended corpus, we rather have… a couple of sentences. However, this has not prevented academics (and madmen like myself) from embarking on brainy theoretical analysis. 🤓
There are plenty of resources for linguistic analysis: here, I’m going to save you the trouble, because there are people who do it better than me and I want you to bear with me till the end of this post. 😂
What is most striking, even to the less linguophile, is the large presence in the Black Speech of occlusive consonants, which the Elvish languages lack.
The guttural R, represented by ʁ in the international phonetic alphabet, is also widely featured: think of the French R for renard. For Tolkien, it is an unappealing sound, so he gives it to evil creatures and makes the elves share his distaste for it. 🤢
In the vowel archive of the Black Speech there is no E, it seems, and O is scarce. All to make it as unpleasant as possible. 🎵
From here, there is no shortage of people who take what we know of the Black Speech of Mordor for fanfiction, song lyrics or other artistic purposes. 💿 Some are simple amateurs, others are first-rate linguists.
The Neo-Black Speech
The most prominent of them is, of course, David Salo: an American linguist who had already collaborated with Peter Jackson when the latter called him back to create some new phrases in the Black Speech for The Hobbit. 🎥
Salo is probably the biggest contributor to the so-called Neo-Black Speech of Mordor, although to be honest, there could be thousands out there: neo-languages don’t usually have official status, so our Yankee linguist would be the most successful, not necessarily the one with the most developed corpus.
Salo’s task is to shape a language that is “tough, threatening, hard as stone”, he says: when you read it, it seems silly, but when you start to create it, you realise that it’s not so easy. 😯
The Neo-language thing is a nuance that matters only to seasoned Tolkienists: the Black Speech proper would be the one created by Tolkien, and the neo would be what others bring to the original core. 🤓
For true Tolkienists, what appears in the film adaptations is Neo-Black Speech, however true to Tolkien’s words.
This is not unusual: creating out of nothing, or expanding languages already sketched out in literature for cinematic purposes, has become standard practice. Another striking example is the Dothraki language: barely mentioned by George RR Martin and transformed into a functional language by David J. Peterson. 👅
David Salo, then, produces several cool phrases for Peter Jackson’s films, according to the principles he himself tells:
Sauron, I imagined, was a very pragmatic person, who would have made the Black Speech as “perfect” (according to his concept of perfection) as he could, with rigorous consistency and logic, but without any concession to aesthetics. He would not reject borrowings from other languages of Middle-earth, but he would adapt them to his own style.
And now a brief specimen. I promise you that the Shadow will not materialise in your living room: 👤
Necromancer: “Zat thraka akh… Zat thraka grishú. Znag-ur-nakh.”
Necromancer: “We grow in number… We grow in strength. You will lead my armies.”
Azog: “Mod Eikenshkeldu?”
Azog: “What of Oakenshield?”
Necromancer: “Guth-tú-nakash.” ⚔️
Necromancer: “War is coming.”
Azog: “Za nav-gash langúm!”
Azog: “You promised me his head!”
Necromancer: “Thór-lush-shabarlak.” 💀
Nigromante: “Death will come to all.”
What a melodious language, isn’t it? 😅
It must be a real pain for a film director: how to translate a voice like Azog’s or Sauron’s, speaking in the Black Speech, to the screen? 👹
Sir Jackson solves it with dialect coach Leith McPherson, a Jedi of the discipline, and the vocal abilities of Benedict Cumberbatch. Here’s how it unfolds:
The versatile English actor gets it right: as you have just seen, what is put into the films is nothing but his voice recorded backwards and then rewound in the studio. ⏪
It adds a somewhat weird effect, but… anyway, it was Sauron and he hadn’t physical form yet: who knows what phonatory organs he had at his disposal. 😂
Fun fact: one day, Tolkien received from a fan a chalice with the inscription of the One Ring in the Black Speech. Having created it as a cursed language, he did not throw the chalice away but used it only as an ashtray. 🚬
We can expect the Black Speech to return to screens soon, as the Amazon series inspired by Tolkien’s work is set in the Second Age and Sauron was already a very active character then. Rather, it’s when Sauron becomes Sauron. ☠️
If I were Jeff Bezos, I’d wish there was Black Speech in this new project: with over a billion dollars already budgeted, it’s set to be the most spectacular series of all time. 📺
FAQ about Black Speech
Q: Can I put on my CV that I have a B2 in the Black Speech of Mordor?
A: Sure. Bonus points if you show at the job interview with a black cloak, a devious steed of the same colour and a Morgul shaft. 🗡️
Q: Can I learn to write in the Black Speech?
A: As soon as you learn Tengwar, the alphabet used for it, you can make use of it for any language. Black Speech, French, Persian, Cornish.
Q: Is there any real etimology behind the Black Speech?
A: I’m not an expert, but a few words had ground in real languages. Nazg, for example, used in the ring inscription and as a component of nazgûl, comes allegedly from the Ancient Gaelic nasc, which means both “to bind” and “ring” or “collar”. Could you come up with a better word origin?
Q: How did Gandalf and the Elves learn the Black Speech of Mordor?
A: I’ve wondered about that myself, and I haven’t been able to find out. Maybe at the beginning of the Second Age, a redeemed orc set up something like the British Institute of the Black Speech in Gondor, Arnor and the elven realms. 📓
I haven’t found any solid explanation, no matter how much I’ve rummaged through the literature. But since there seems to be a lot going on in the Amazon’s series, The Rings of Power, let’s see if some light is shed there.
Q: Can I truly learn it?
A: You can. Unfortunately, I don’t know any school or self-teaching method, but something you can learn, using Tolkien’s books and this Black Speech course on YouTube.
Keep in mind that the corpus of words and grammar rules is so reduced no one can claim to be even able to order a cappuccino at Starbucks. So learning the few things out there will take you no more than a weekend, truly.
To go further
Here you have all that I own concerning Black Speech:
This book is pure visual and reading pleasure. If you haven’t read it yet, please do. If English isn’t your native language, all the better! It’s like tiramisu turned into a novel.
To get an extra Tolkien nerd stripe on your sleeve, you ought to read this booklet:
The great author used to admit, with a hint of shame, that creating languages was his secret vice 😀 this succinct book explores this Achille’s heel of his.
Conclusions on the Black Speech of Mordor
Here we close this guide of the Black Speech of Mordor.
I hope to have entertained you and planted a little seed of curiosity, in this short walk through the language of Sauron. 🌱
This is how Tolkien answer the question of what language is spoken by those who, in his fictional world, are on the side of Evil: it reflects his considerations about evil in our world, about how we perceive certain languages, phonetic and aesthetic features. 😎
I’ve just provided you with a reason to re-entertain yourself with the nineteen hours of the two trilogies: you’re welcome. 😉
If elves, dwarves and other creatures of Middle-earth appeal to you and you want to know more about their languages, don’t miss the next instalments 😉 there’s a lot to go through.
I bid you farewell from the Shire. 😀
Your Tolkienist linguonaut,