Different peoples in the world of Arda have their own typical traits that make them special and different from other races. The Dwarves are known to be rather secretive about their own selves. They tend to keep to themselves and very little is known about them or their traditions to the peoples of Middle-earth. One of the aspects of the Dwarvish culture, in which their secrecy shows very vividly, is their language of Khuzdul.

To better understand why the Dwarves guarded their language, we should look into their history. So impatient was Aulë to share the wonders of Arda with other living beings, that he could not wait for the Children of Erú to come to life. Before either the Elves, or the Men awakened in Middle-earth, he created the race of the Dwarves in secret. Even though this deed was a very mild rebellion not in accordance with Eru’s design, Aulë was pardoned because of his humility and the Dwarves were allowed to live as Eru breathed the flame of life into them. They, however, had to lie sleeping until the awakening of the Elves and Men. This story led to the general secrecy of the Dwarves concerning their culture and traditions, as well as to their complex relationship with other races.

The Dwarves received their language from Aulë as after creating the them, the Vala began to instruct his wards in the tongue that he had devised. Tolkien described Khuzdul as complex and cacophonous, and, even though there are very few known Dwarvish words, certain similarities between Khuzdul and Valarin were noticed. Most of the words known in the language of the Dwarves were toponyms applied either to the Dwarvish habitations of the present or the past, or other significant landmarks. Even prominent Elvish linguists did not undertake learning Khuzdul, nor were the Dwarves willing to teach it to anyone. One of the most known exceptions to this was Curufin, who was a skilled craftsman and, thus, won the respect of the Dwarves. During his life in Beleriand he became friends with them and learnt their language. In other cases the Dwarves chose to speak to others in their own languages. Khuzdul was the Dwarves’ secret:

Yet in secret (a secret which unlike the Elves, they did not willingly unlock, even to their friends) they used their own strange tongue, changed little by the years; for it had become a tongue of lore rather than a cradle-speech, and they tended it and guarded it as a treasure of the past. Few of other race have succeeded in learning it.

(Return of the King, p. 514)

With the secrecy being in their blood, it is only natural that the Dwarves guarded Khuzdul so much. Any language is a huge treasure chest of cultural information about a people. Words, phrases, idiomatic expressions and sayings contain a lot of links to the culture of a certain race, to their lifestyle, traditions, values and beliefs. Thus, if one learns a language, they automatically learn more about the people speaking it. There was another very personal application of Khuzdul as well: the Dwarves were given names in that tongue that none outside the very limited circle of the Dwarves knew. With the idea that a name reflected the character of a bearer or their special traits, thus containing a lot of information about an individual, it was only natural for the Dwarves to keep those names secret. Besides, a name given in ones own tongue can serve as protection or be just reserved for the close ones for private communication, and so such names were never explicitly public.

There were very few cases when the Dwarves used their language among strangers. In The Lord of the Rings Gimli gave the Dwarvish names of the peaks of the Misty Mountains above Moria (Barazinbar for Caradhras, Zirakzigil for Celebdil, Bundushathûr for Fanuidhol and Khazad-dûm for Moria) and the Mirrormere (Kheled-zâram). Those places bore a great significance for him as the locations connected historically with his forefathers, so there was pure nostalgia and reverence in his words. Other instances of Gimli’s applying Khuzdul were all based on pure emotions at the spur of the moment. His battle cry of Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mênu! (‘Axes of the Dwarves! The Dwarves are upon you!’) during the battle of the Hornburg was full of rage and far from secret: many enemies had heard that battle cry before. On the other hand, Gimli’s weird dance and his singing in “the strange dwarf-tongue” at the sight of Gandalf returned was full of joy. At that time Gimli had already learnt to trust his friends and was willing to express his feelings in his own tongue and use, contrary to other cases, not universally known words.

Despite all the secrecy, we hear Khuzdul used by a character of a different race, and that is Galadriel. Just when it seemed that the conversation between Galadriel, Celeborn and the Fellowship took a turn that offended Gimli deeply, Galadriel stepped in to save the day:

Dark is the water of Kheled-zâram, and cold are the springs of Kibil-nâla and fair were the many-pillared halls of Khazad-dûm in Elder Days before the fall of mighty kings beneath the stone.

(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 467)

It was Galadriel’s usage of just three toponyms in Khuzdul that turned Gimli towards her. The effect of those words on the gloomy Dwarf was soothing and healing:

And the Dwarf, hearing the names given in his own ancient tongue, looked up and met her eyes; and it seemed to him that he looked suddenly into the heart of an enemy and saw there love and understanding. Wonder came into his face, and then he smiled in answer.

(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 467)

Galadriel demonstrated both the knowledge and respect to the Dwarvish culture and that was very important for Gimli at that very moment, given the circumstances and also the background of the Elvish-Dwarvish relationship, which was not particularly cloudless. We ourselves know how pleasant it is to hear our native language used by somebody whose mother tongue is different. Here it had the proper effect on Gimli, and Galadriel’s action built a bridge between the two cultures at a very tense moment. The sound of the names in his own language spoken by an Elvish lady healed all the discomfort from the previous negative experience Gimli had had in Lothlórien (the attempt to blindfold him alone and the accusation of the Dwarves’ waking up the Balrog of Moria) and also healed the feud between the Elves and the Dwarves, which was later sealed by the strong friendship between Gimli and Legolas.

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s books languages in their characteristics reflect the nature of the people speaking them. Khuzdul is complex, harsh, has a lot of consonantal clusters and is kept secret by its speakers — the Dwarves — who are just as tough, enduring, secretive and unchanging as their native tongue.

Further reading:

What’s in the spelling?

Works consulted:

1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.

2. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.

Featured image: pixabay.com

4 thoughts on “The secret tongue.

  1. That’s a good point about all the cultural information embedded in a language. Khuzdul is so much fun to speculate about. I imagine that they had different words for water coming up from below and water coming down through the ceiling, the latter being extremely impolite.

    1. Ah, true! The Professor left us a lot of space to speculate about Khuzdul. Great point about water! And just imagine how many words for ‘stone’ they might have!

  2. A wonderful exposition! Thank you. You’ve put a lot of information in an understandable and readable form. Gimli is without doubt my favorite dwarf in the legendarium, though Balin is an awfully close second. I imagine Tolkien rather liked him too!

    1. Thank you so much!
      I totally share your view on Gimli. The more I read the stories, the more I like him. It’s like discovering more and more new qualities of somebody you’ve known for a long time!

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