As the manuscripts of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings made their ways to the publishers in their respective time, Tolkien faced an unexpected problem. All of the instances of Dwarves or dwarvish and elvish or elven were corrected to Dwarfs, dwarfish, elfish and elfin to coincide with the standard dictionary spelling. Tolkien had a lot of issues with those corrections, and in the present reflection I am going to look into the example of Dwarves.

It was usually the case with Tolkien that if there was a mistake, a discrepancy, a non-standard form or something else that did not fit in in one way or another, the Professor tried to find an explanation either within the Legendarium itself, or outside it, but to provide valid reasons for using the seemingly incorrect forms. The same happened with Dwarves.

In Appendix F to The Lord of the Rings Tolkien wrote:

It may be observed that in this book as in The Hobbit the form dwarves is used, although the dictionaries tell us that the plural of dwarf is dwarfs. It should be dwarrows (or dwerrows), if singular and plural had each gone its own way down the years, as have man and men, or goose and geese. But we no longer speak of a dwarf as often as we do of a man, or even of a goose, and memories have not been fresh enough among Men to keep hold of a special plural for a race now abandoned to folk-tales, where at least a shadow of truth is preserved, or at last to nonsense-stories in which they have become mere figures of fun.

(Return of the King, p. 520)

So, let us see what exactly seemed so wrong with the form dwarves and why dictionaries prescribed dwarfs instead. The answer lies in history. The word did not follow the path it should have followed, as Tolkien wrote, and having become dwarrows in the Middle English period, was still reduced to the standard form dwarfs after a while for the reasons Tolkien stated in the aforementioned quote. But why should it be dwarfs and not dwarves? If we look at how nouns ending in -f form plurals in modern English, we will see three ways of doing so. First, the final -f changes into -v, like it does in thief-thieves, shelf-shelves, half-halves, wife-wives. Second, the final -f remains unchanged, like in cuff-cuffs, muff-muffs, cliff-cliffs, gulf-gulfs. Third, some words can be either changed, or remain unchanged, like it is the case with hoof-hoofs/hooves. Why does this happen?

A look at history will reveal that most of the words, with a few exceptions, that change the final -f into -v when forming plurals, originated from the Old English period. In those days there existed different plural suffixes that were added depending on the gender and case of the noun in question. However, there was usually a vowel involved when a plural suffix was added to a word. In most cases where the f —> v change takes place these days, in Old English the plural suffix occurred either near vowels, or voiced consonants (cnīf-cnīfas, wulf-wulfas, hlāf-hlāfas, wīf-wīfes, healf-healfa). Thus, under the influence of a vowel or a voiced consonant, the final voiceless sound [f] became pronounced like a voiced [v]: in Old English [v] was the allophone of [f], though the spelling did not reflect that (another important thing to remember here is that in Old English all the letters were pronounced and there were no silent letters like there are today). Later on, when today’s standard plural -s suffix began to oust all the other suffixes and [v] became an independent phoneme under the influence of French borrowings, the spelling changed to coincide with the pronunciation.

Most of the words, with, again, a few exceptions, where the final -f remains unchanged when the plural -s is added, belong to the Middle English period or later and do not have the voicing of the consonant due to the absence of vowels before the plural -s suffix: with the new rules according to which no vowel was inserted before the plural suffix, except after sibilants, -s was added directly to the voiceless -f and thus no change of pronunciation and spelling occurred. Moreover, borrowing led to occurrences of [f], but not [v] in intervoiced positions (e.g. muffle) which also played its crucial part.

In the course of history the word dwarfs did not retain the irregular form dwarrows due to the little frequency of use, but acquired the more common plural form: dwarfs, according to the new rules of plural nouns formation. It had two meanings: “a very short human being” or “a supernatural being of a short stature”. Besides, the meaning from the Germanic mythology, “a short being dwelling in rocks and skilled with metals”, might have diminished after the Middle English period and returned back in later XVIII century [3]. The form dwarves that Tolkien used was also recorded.

The whole orthography issue was rather acute for Tolkien, as he kept on correcting the publishers’ forms back to his own spellings of choice. Though he referred to using such a form as “a piece of private bad grammar”, the usage seems to be deliberate:

Even the dwarfs are not really Germanic ‘dwarfs’ (Zwerge, dweorgas, dvergar), and I call them ‘dwarves’ to mark that. They are not naturally evil, not necessarily hostile, and not a kind of maggot-folk bred in stone; but a variety of incarnate rational creature.

(Letters, № 156)

Thus, with this “piece of private bad grammar” Tolkien wished to draw a clear distinction between the Dwarves of his Legendarium and the characters of folklore. Besides, it fitted well with the spelling style of Elves and elvish and, in some instances when the form dwarves was corrected, the rhythmical pattern of poems was broken. Tolkien was rather stern about the whole matter in a letter to Rayner Unwin from 1961: “[…] I should have thought it might have occurred, if not to a compositor at least to a reader, that the author would not have used consistently getting on for 300 times a particular form, nor would your readers have passed it, if it was a mere casual mistake in ‘grammar’” (Letters, № 236).

Interestingly, the form dwarrow, which Tolkien considered nice, but a bit too archaic (though later the Professor wished he had used it throughout his stories anyway), does make an appearance. Dwarrow appears in the name Dwarrowdelf — to represent the name for Moria in Common Speech, Phurunargian, meaning “Dwarf-delving”.

There was one curious case of dwarfs being used in favour of dwarves as authorised by Tolkien himself. In 1964 there came an offer to publish the adaptation of The Hobbit in the magazine Princess for young girls. Tolkien agreed to that, but suggested using the form dwarfs instead of dwarves. His decision was prompted by the case of a teacher who corrected a child’s spelling of dwarves into dwarfs, but was shown The Hobbit as the proof of the correctness of his version. Tolkien stated: “I am all in favour of spelling being taught, and do not wish a master’s authority to be damaged by the quirks of a professor!” *

In Tolkien’s writings spelling and word choices can create a special effect if they are used in an unusual, non-standard way. It is clearly seen in the example of dwarfs vs dwarves spelling. For Tolkien it was a matter of principle and he stuck by his decision. These days both forms are considered acceptable, with the distinction that the former is usually used about people of a very short stature, very small animals or plants, while the latter is referred to the characters in fantasy literature.

Notes and acknowledgments:

* I am sincerely grateful to Constantin Pirozhkov for sharing this bit of information and the quotation with me. Besides I cannot think my fellow Tolkien scholar and philologist enough for the help he provided me with while I was working at this reflection. Thank you, Constantine! 

Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
  2. B. Hayes – Introductory Phonology; Wiley-Blackwell; 2009

Featured image: Creative common lisence at

14 thoughts on “What’s in the spelling?

  1. Fantastic piece, Olga! I’ve laways wondered abotu the ‘dwarves’ spelling, because I knew it was a conscious choice Tolkien made against the common use of the word, but I never read why it was so.

    1. Thank you, Sarah! Tolkien did know a lot about language, didn’t he? He could apply it perfectly to get the exact meanings and implications he wanted.

  2. I am in awe of your expertise in English Olga!

    There is a related point, to do with the word (if word it be) ‘Dwarven’. I used to scorn this as a fan-word, invented on the analogy of ‘Elven’, and I supposed the correct form was ‘Dwarvish’. Then I found out the Professor used ‘Dwarven’ himself. It’s in a draft of Bilbo’s Earendil poem (“runes entwined of dwarven gold”). It’s also used to describe the original segregated-entrances concept of the Moria West-gate, i.e. Dwarven and Elven-doors. (From HOME 7, ‘The Treason of Isengard’_

    1. Thank you so much, sir!
      What I really like about Tolkien’s choices of words or spellings is that in most cases he was able to offer a viable explanation about why he had made those choices. His care with details was amazing.

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