Hey, are you also crazy about Tolkien’s Middle-earth and the languages spoken there? In this post we talk about Orcish (occasionally Orkish): no, it’s not the language of the orchids 🌸 but that spoken by orcs. 👹
As with the other languages created by the British philologist, there is more to this than meets the eye. Tolkien portrays the orcs in one way, Peter Jackson in his films represents them in another one.
The temptation is to write the whole thing off, thinking: “well, they are just useless slaves of Sauron, dirty, ugly, pure brutality”. Hmmmm nope.
In reality, orcs have a social structure, factions, likings and aversions, language and… even soul. Poking over and over, a few questions arise: Where do orcs come from❓
Why are some huge and others small? Why do some seem intelligent and others dull? Are they all evil?
And in our case, also: Why do some express themselves in the Black Speech, others in the Common Tongue, and others speak Orcish? And what kind of language is Orcish? 🤔
In this post I try to shed some light on it: you’ll see how it all is more interesting than it would seem at first. 🤓
But now let’s start with who they were.
Who are the Orks
To know what the Orcish language is all about, you have to know who its speakers are. It is not that easy. Tolkien calls them by various names, in the original English: orc, glamhoth, orch, goblin.
We also have other detestable creatures in the Legendarium: olog-hai, uruk-hai, balrogs, dragons. However, we could say that the bulk of the Evil army is made up of orcs. 👹
Evil, in Middle-earth, essentially comes from two upsetting creatures: Sauron is the best known, but before him, there was Morgoth, who was even worse. Much to his annoyance, Sauron is often nicknamed “servant of Morgoth“. 😅
Despite wielding great power, both lack one fundamental faculty: neither of them (nor Saruman, after his betrayal) can generate life: neither beautiful nor ugly.
None but Eru Ilúvatar, the all-powerful God of Arda, can: the Princes of Darkness can only corrupt already existing life forms.
Eru, of course, does not put any orcs in Arda, at the beginning of creation. It follows then that the orcs, before, were, if not noble, at least ordinary beings who, for one reason or another, fell prey to Evil. 👾
Thus there were no orcs at the beginning of time. However, we wouldn’t wait for long: orcs were already there before the arrival of men.
This fact reinforces the belief that the orcs are nothing more than elves, captured and deformed by Morgoth. Later, Sauron and Saruman will also participate in the grotesque task, increasing the orcish population of Middle-earth. 👹👹
So, we have orcs in the First Age, but also fresh hosts in the Second and Third Age.
We do not know where they would end up in the Fourth, after the final defeat of Sauron: some suppose that they would have fled to distant moors in the North, or that, already disbanded and lacking orientation after the fall of Barad-dûr, they would eventually be annihilated like outlaws with no other reason to live.
The debate here could become endless… I’m just giving out a few notions. 🖌️
About the orcs, Tolkien delivers contrasting ideas, in time: besides the elven origin thing, he also opens to the possibility that they were human, or dwarves; that they got maybe corrupted by means of a magic or another…
A mess made even messier by something Tolkien only hints at: despite their unfortunate fate, orcs must have some kind of free will, however little. Free will! So, despite their evil essence, they might harbour a germ of redemption. But as the British genius doesn’t quite make it clear, we are left with only speculation. 💭
Now, let’s proceed to the Orcish language.
The Orcish language
In the work Morgoth’s Ring, which is part of the collection The History of Middle-earth, we can read:
(…) hey were begotten with hatred and with hatred they have been filled. Their voices were like clashing stones, and they did not laugh, except in torment and cruel acts.
We deduce therefore that, from the outset, their voice was unpleasant, whatever they spoke: we see this reflected in Sir Jackson’s films. 😓
Then, another great source of information is Appendix F of The Lord of the Rings. There we read that at the beginning of time, the orcs:
(…) had no language of their own, but took what they could from others and perverted it as they pleased, still they only managed crude jargons, barely sufficient for their needs, unless they were curses and insults.
From the get-go, it seems to be the opposite of any elvish language. 😶
Orcish is an umbrella term for all these speeches. But as I was telling you, there’s more: they could be crude, but they were still bilingual. 😸
Orcs are polyglots
It is a proven fact: the average orc spoke Orcish and Common Tongue. We read in the chapter The Uruk-Hai, in The Lord of the Rings – The Two Towers:
One of the orcs sitting nearby laughed and said something to a companion in his abominable tongue. ‘Rest while you can, you little fool!’ he uttered to Pippin, in the Common Tongue, which he made as detestable as his own language.
I summarise here the main points made so far:
#1 Orcs possess terrifying voices. On a spectrum between 0 and 10 where 0 is pure horror and 10 is Norah Jones’ mellifluous speech, they are -12. 🤢
#2 They speak Westron (the Common Tongue of Middle-earth), in a degenerate form: so it is seen in the films, so it is described in the novels.
#3 Each group has a language of its own, a distinct Orcish, which is a collage of other languages they have come into contact with.
#4 To an individual, their Orcish language is of little use beyond their tribe, for Orcish itself is an agglomeration of often unintelligible dialects. 🤨
There are several proofs of this, not least the meeting of different factions on the occasion of the capture of Merry and Pippin: there, orcs from the North, Isengard and Mordor meet and if it were not for Westron, they would not be able to communicate.
There is one exception, though: the orcs of the North and the Misty Mountains, who, as Tolkien makes clear in Appendix F of The Lord of the Rings, did not speak Orcish but only the Common Tongue; though of course, grotesquely, as one might expect of them. 🤐
Now, one of the big open questions: didn’t the orcs, being Sauron’s puppets, speak the Black Speech?
Don’t orcs speak Black Speech?
Ehm, not exactly.
According to some tolkienophiles, in the Second Age Sauron’s followers spoke Black Speech: it would be interesting to see if the screenwriters of the upcoming Amazon series would explore this aspect. 😻
However, one way or another, during the Third Age there are no orcs fluent in Black Speech, with a few exceptions: Azog, the Pale Orc; his son Bolgo, plus maybe a few more.
Nonetheless, because of the orcs’ closeness to Sauron, could the Black Speech contribute to Orcish? Yes, it could, at least in some cases. 🧐
The words that follow are David Salo’s, the linguist to whom the creators of the two Lord of the Rings trilogies and The Hobbit turn for the entire linguistic component:
In stark contrast to the relatively compact organisation of the Black Speech, Orcish languages were to be simple, disorganised and inconsistent, the result of years of rapid and uncontrolled evolution.
There would be grammar, of course, but also a fair amount of tolerance for variation, and a continuing tendency to proliferate new words and abandon old ones. They would show a strong influence of the Black Speech, at various stages of their development, but would not adhere to its rules.
It couldn’t be clearer.
Salo talks about Orcish languages too: indeed, for The Lord of the Rings, he manufactured three of them 😉
The Orcish variants
Initially, for The Lord of the Rings films, the American conlanger plans to create three variants of the Orcish language:
#1 Mordor Orcish: a direct descendant of Black Speech, but spoken in an unstructured way.
#2 Moria Orcish: independent of Black Speech, with only a few loanwords. ⛰️
#3 Isengard Orcish: unrelated to Black Speech, no known loanwords. But shooting a film is a very tough business, time is pressing, and David Salo ends up changing his plans, also at the direct request of the Weta bosses. 💨
The result is that all three variants are descended from a hypothetical Proto-Orcish, with some nuances:
#1 Mordor Orcish: it sounds harsh and guttural, reflecting the inhospitable wasteland that is Gorgoroth, the area of Mordor that Frodo and Sam wander through. 🌑
#2 Moria Orcish: more distant from the Proto-Orcish than that of Mordor, with hissing and creeping sounds (more fricatives), like auditory reverberation from the tunnels of Khazad-dûm.
#3 Isengard Orcish: also far from Proto-Orcish, with harsh sounds, to reflect the nature of Saruman’s uruk-hai, more powerful, disciplined and evil than other orcs. 🗼
A sample of Salo’s excellent work:
But then, ten years later, Salo was called back for The Hobbit trilogy. It is at this point that he develops another variant: Gundabad Orcish, spoken in the mountainous region in the north.
So, in The Hobbit trilogy:
- The language of Sauron and anyone who speaks with him is Black Speech;
- what’s spoken in Gundabad and by Gundabad orcs, it’s Gundabad Orcish;
- it’s Moria Orcish that of the daily life of Azog, Bolg and the rest; the most widely heard, in other words.
Haven’t you noticed all this watching the movies? I certainly didn’t until I dug deeper. It’s the same as listening to Mandarin Chinese, Korean or Japanese without having any idea of Asian languages: it just sounds like East. 🙃
As I said, this is the main Orcish variant in The Hobbit trilogy. A small sample below: it’s the conversation that takes place on the summit of Amon Sûl, between the lowly orc Yazneg and the pale orc Azog, both from Moria.
In violet, their mother tongue; in black, the English translation:
Yazneg: Khozdayin… Dorguz, zuranimid… Shûgi golagai gelnakhanishim…
Yazneg: The Dwarves… Master, we lost them. Ambushed by Elvish filth, we were… 😔
Azog: Shâ nargiz ob-hakhtil. Nargiz khobdi… Rani Khozdil!
Azog: I don’t want excuses. I want the head of the Dwarf king! 👺
Yazneg: Murganish dum… turim hagshad, zorzor go-kairaz obguraniz!
Yazneg: We were outnumbered… there was nothing we could do, I barely escaped with my life.
Azog: Ki go-kairag baganig. Ombar bûnish! Khozd shrakhun gud shâ kilyash-zag. Giryash-i taryash kirgayil. Zidgar obod tung nash ru khobdud.
Azog: Far better you had paid with it! The Dwarf-scum will show themselves soon enough. Send out words, there is a price on their heads.
And then Azog skews good ol’ Yazneg with this pointy arm and demotes him to… feed for wargs. 🐺 Yum.
Hence, the development of Orcish(es) by Salo is an important task. And now, another point: how did the orcs write the Orcish language?
Orcish graphic system
Ehm, actually, neither in films nor in books do we see any.
On the Internet, you can find some dudes saying it is written in Cirth: when asked where, and what their sources were, they lose interest in the conversation. Tolkien provides us with several words in Orcish, but transcribed in Latin alphabet: we have to suppose that the Orcish civilisation has always been illiterate. 🖊️
But but but… good David Salo admitted to having invented an Orcish alphabet: not altogether beautiful, but not altogether wretched either. To my knowledge, he has never made it public. And… another who confessed to having created a draft Orcish alphabet is Daniel Reeves, the calligrapher of Middle-earth! Daniel is responsible for everything you see written in Elvish, Dwarvish and Latin script in Peter Jackson’s two trilogies.
He himself said years ago that, amidst all the linguistic and calligraphic feats,
(…) the idea that every culture in Middle-earth has its own long, fascinating linguistic history. (…) I even sketched out a Beginner’s Guide to Orcish.
Maybe with the Amazon series, one of them will get around to putting it out there. 💡 For a while, I assumed this was an Orcish written fragment:
Gandalf makes indeed clear at once that it is in Black Speech, but:
- We know next to nought about written forms of Black Speech of Mordor, other than the One Ring inscription. 💍
- Gandalf could have simply said Black Speech because Thorin didn’t care whether it was Black Speech or a First Age south-western Orcish form.
Let’s see if Amazon’s new series on the magical world of Arda makes the matter clearer.
Is Orcish only for orcs?
The issue is not trivial when you consider the huge mix of races and languages in Middle-earth.
Valar who speak Telerin, Elves who study Khuzdûl, Men who speak Sindarin, Ents who speak Quenya (on top of Entish, of course): we can suppose that among the non-orcs, someone may have learned some Orcish. Some scholar among the Men or Elves, for example, or Saruman.
Possibly Gandalf knew some Orcish. He said before the Doors of Durin in Moria: 🧙
There was a time when he knew every spell in every language of Elf or Man or Orc.
Maybe he was merely exasperated for not managing to enter. However, I am inclined to think he knew some Orcish: according to the book, in the attack the company suffered in the Chamber of Mazarbul, on the other side of the door he could hear ghâsh, which is Orcish for “fire”. Of course, the damned balrog was about to come… 🔥
A few words in Orcish:
- Sharkû: old man
- garm: wolf 🐺
- khozd: dwarf (a word very much heard in The Hobbit trilogy, from Khuzdûl khuzd)
- azgar: war (from Adunaic zagar)
- tark: men with blood of Númenor (maybe because tar, a Quenya prefix for “noble, high”, was that used by the rulers of the island). 🏝️
- ghâsh: fire, existing also in Black Speech, perhaps coming from Valarin uruš.
- bolum: pain
- durdur: very soon (reduplication of dur = soon)
- loga: horse rider 🏇
- golug: Noldor elf (probably coming from golodh, Sindarin word for “elf”)
- kibul: silver (from Khuzdûl kibil)
- golgi: Noldor she-elf
- shada: destruction, void
- gast: to fear 😨
- shoru: pale
- buzb: worm, fly (from Eldarin buzb, likely)
- kharb: beast
- zeyborz: day (a cycle of day and night)
- abgur: hunt, persecution
In Mordor Orkish, which is a direct descendant of the Black Speech, we have this example:
Uglúk sha pushdug Saruman-glob búbhosh skai.
Uglúk is the leader of the Uruk-hai of Isengard. We do not know its meaning, as Tolkien does not explain it; we know that the orcs of Mordor and the orcs of Isengard detested each other.
To utter interjections like hey, hooray, well, they seem to scream: hola, hai, yoi, ya, hoi, harri.
- Orcs have a set of languages of their own;
- they are so messy, that neither Morgoth nor Sauron can bring them together under a single language;
- Elves love languages, orcs loathe them; elves were philologists, orcs rather misologists.
Now the matter is in Amazon’s hands: the ongoing The Rings of Power series should feature, according to dialect coach Leith McPherson, a good deal of Orcish. In an interview she waxed emphatically
(…) it should feel awful to speak and to hear. (…) it’s guttural. It’s harsh. It’s full of rough consonants. All language is a physical act upon the listener. Elvish is a beautiful experience. Orcish is awful.
Most sociolinguists, I guess, giggle. If you made elves talk Orcish and orks Quenya, chances are much of the resistance to guttural sounds would vanish. 🙃 But I still think she’s a pro.
Q: Did Sauron’s other beasts have a language of their own?
A: Buf, a topic too vast to handle it here. One day I’ll write about it
Q: Do orcs in other mythologies have languages?
A: Good question. To date, I have no idea. If you know anything, comment down here, please.
Q: Didn’t trolls have a language of their own?
A: Nope. At the beginning of time, according to Tolkien, the trolls as stupid as hell and expressed themselves like beasts: but Sauron came along and, allegedly, put the capacity for language into them, but no actual language. 👅
There are about six, seven kinds of trolls in Middle-earth. The stone trolls, which are the only ones that communicate in the books and films, spoke a degenerate version of the Common Tongue, which they would have learned in the north.
Of the others, we have no direct record of their speech: we only know, from Tolkien, that from their dealings with the orcs, they learned some Orcish.
A whole ‘nother world are Olog-hai, though it is not clear whether they are a subspecies of orc, troll or a different monster altogether: they would express themselves in the Black Speech, the language of Sauron’s elite.
Q: Are you sure Tolkien didn’t copy the orc language from any human language?
A: Yes I am.
Q: Do the orc languages in The Elder Scrolls, Skyrim, World of Warcraft or Warhammer have anything to do with Tolkien’s Orcish?
A: Uhmm, I don’t know, but if some gentle geek knew anything, I’d be delighted to learn about that. 🤓
Q: Can I transform Orcish into a full-functional language for everyday usage?
A: Absolutely. Crafting artificial languages is great fun. Besides, of all the languages Tolkien created, Orcish definitely isn’t the most developed. If for Quenya and Sindarin you have plenty of conlangers working on their expansion, Orcish has, shall I say, less competition.
To go further
We can’t begin elsewhere:
The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings Gift Set: the beginning and the end of this all. The gift set is more delicious than a marmalade jar.
We can’t miss this tome either, either for orcs or for anything else Tolkien-related:
The Silmarillion: it’s a loose compilation of all that you may have missed in Tolkien’s two main masterpieces. The book sheds lights on many doubts you may have after reading/watching The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
And now it gets real:
The Complete History of Middle-earth: Boxed Set: this is the real juggernaut of Tolkien’s production. Twelve books gathered in three hardback volumes, with all the juicy info you’ve always wanted about Middle-earth: races, events, alliances, betrayals. All of it.
If you’d like to slain a few orcs for fun, without getting bruised:
Fantasy Flight Games – Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-Earth: this game is spectacular. Particularly suited for takeaway pizza, fresh beverages and hours of fun with friends.
A tribute to the immense talent of Weta’s art designers:
Figurine of beak-elm orc: a comforting piece to have on one’s mantelpiece.
Amazon’s The Rings of Power
The best chance to keep updated, if I may say, about Tolkien’s orcs again is Amazon’s series: dealing with the Second Age of Arda, there’s going to be orcs galore. 👹👹👹
With the precedents set by Peter Jackson, if I were Jeff Bezos I’d put a lot of Orcish in the orcs’ mouths: it adds lots and lots of texture to the storytelling. If Amazon has already budgeted over a billion dollars for the series… I think the orc can fit. 📺
On the other hand, according to some scholars, in the Second Age Sauron’s followers spoke Black Speech: it would be interesting to see if the scriptwriters would explore this aspect.
So far <SPOILER ALERT>, of the little Orcish we’ve seen there, I’d say the mourning chant is the most notable:
Now, if you consider that they call their leader Adar, which is Quenya for “father”… where’s the Orcish in all this?, you may wonder. Let’s see how the story unfolds.
Conclusions about the Orcish language
There would be more to say about Orcish languages (who knew, eh? 😅) but I’ve just stolen ten minutes of your life and that’s enough for today.
I hope you’ve enjoyed yourself for a while, joining me in this exploration of the language of the servants of Sauron.
Like everything in Tolkien’s fantasy, there are multiple levels of interpretation: knowing the linguistic structure of his work allows us to get closer to his genius and delight even more in the books and films. 😎
Having read all this, you have an excuse to re-watch the two trilogies without feeling guilty. 🤣
I bid you farewell, with an evil laugh 😈 and an elvish
Your linguistic guide to Middle-earth,