Friday, April 25, 2014

Orc-language and why it is corrupt

In class, we asked the question: Why does Tolkien say the Orc-language is a “perversion” of speech?  In what way is Orc-language different from all other languages?  One answer given was that the purpose of language is to communicate and Orc-languages are not mutually intelligible--that is, one Orc-tribe can’t understand the speech of another Orc-tribe (unless they use the Common Speech), so their languages are not successfully communicative.  This, however, crumbles under further investigation, because the states of being successfully communicative and being mutually intelligible with other languages are completely different.  Nowhere (so far as I have seen) does Tolkien say that languages are superior that are mutually intelligible. The hobbits do not understand elf-speech, yet this is neither a judgment on them nor on the language itself.  This would be a little silly, really: to say that a language is not communicative because other languages exist.  This would mean that no language in the world is communicative.  So the differences between Orc-dialects cannot account for why Orc-language is a “perversion.”
Another answer posed was that Orc-speech does not change, and language-change is essential to the growth of a healthy language.  This seems possible, although I don’t remember anything about this from the readings or from the Lord of the Rings.  However, the ancient secret speech of the dwarves doesn’t change, either, but that speech isn’t evil.  It seems to me unlikely that Tolkien finds unchanging--dead--languages inherently evil or perverted.  In fact, he expresses (in the Letters, I believe) the pure joy of learning a dead language (which I can speak to myself, as a dabbler in Latin, ancient Greek, and ancient Egyptian).  Dead languages by nature do not change, yet Tolkien finds them beautiful and joyous.  One could argue that dead languages are OK while they’re dead, but speaking a language without allowing it to grow somehow makes the language abhorrent.  To that, I would reply that what is abhorrent here is not the result that the language doesn’t change, but the cause.  
Why can’t Orcs change and grow their language?  The answer, I think, is that they are incapable of sub-creation.  Orcs are themselves unnatural and evil, and this bleeds into their speech.  All the languages of various peoples reflect their values and histories: the ent-language is slow, just as the ents are slow; elf-song sounds like rushing water, as the elves are tied to and obsessed with the sea; the speech of Rohan is formal and heroic, just as they value old-fashioned formality and heroism; the speech of the hobbits seems to them sort of country-bumpkinly, just as they are.  Language and race/people bleed into each other in Tolkien’s world, and I argue that the people are responsible for the nature of the language, not the other way around. People alter their languages to fit them.  The Tree of Tongues implies this.  Tolkien was a philologist, and it was important to him that his world reflected our primary world, so he applied the same linguistic rules there as apply here.  When daughter languages branch off from mother languages, this is simply because the daughter-language speakers alter the mother language--they start speaking a little differently.  As time goes on, the daughter languages often diverge more and more, changing because of the people.  I don’t think any real linguist--Tolkien included--would claim that a mother language splits on its own without speakers altering it.  A language has no will of its own when it has no speakers!  The speakers reflect their nature onto the language, changing it to fit them (often unintentionally).  So, Orc-language reflects the nature and values of the Orcs.  Growth and sub-creation are not values that they hold, so Orc-language can never grow, but that stagnation is not why their language is evil.  The language is evil simply because Orcs are evil.  In Tolkien’s world, each race speaks a language appropriate to them, and thus Orcs speak an evil language.  Note that they are capable of learning other languages, including the Common Speech, but even that sounds harsher coming from them, because their evil natures pollute their speech.  

On the other hand, there is another reason why Orc-language does not change. We discussed how a history of language is a history of peoples interacting with one another.  Someone claimed that Orc-language is corrupt because Orcs can’t really interact with anyone.  This may be true, but I am not sure.  I doubt that Tolkien would say that in order for languages to interact, there needs to be a positive, friendly interaction; the history of the world is full of situations in which a conquering people really do everything they can to subjugate the people they are conquering, but over time, the languages end up blending.  One could claim that this blending happens due to assimilation, so that even though the relationship between the two peoples started out negative, it became positive.  I don’t know whether this is true.  It seems unlikely--language change is rarely intentional, so it seems unlikely that a people would ever say, “Hm, these conquerors use SVO word order, but I don’t like them, so I won’t use it.  These neighboring peoples, though, are pretty cool, and they use SOV word order.  I think I’ll start using that!”  Living in close contact with another people seems to just cause languages to combine, regardless of whether the two peoples like each other.  However, I’m not sure it is totally true that this is the reason Orc-language doesn’t have influences of other languages, and that is what makes it corrupt.  Orcs, in fact, interact with all sorts of peoples.  They threaten and torture people who speak many languages.  However, they don’t cohabitate, as they live in Mordor, and that fact alone could explain why their language doesn’t pick things up from other languages: language assimilation requires prolonged close contact (as far as I know).  So, perhaps it is true that Orc-language stagnates partly because it has no outside influences, but this is mostly due to the nature of where they live, not necessarily their evil nature.

Anna M


  1. I like the philological musing you're engaging in here, very in the spirit of Tolkien, and I think you're on to something with your observations about the orcs. We might think of other figures whose language is warped by their character, Saruman and Gollum seem like the most obvious examples. Theoden when beguiled by Wormtongue or Boromir when succumbing to temptation might be other examples. Another question that occurs to me is whether this warping of language exists in a reciprocal relationship with our character, rather than simple cause and effect. In other words, are the orcs made more evil by their evil speech? I would suspect that Tolkien would say yes

    Finally, I'm not sure I agree with your statement:

    "It seems unlikely--language change is rarely intentional, so it seems unlikely that a people would ever say, 'Hm, these conquerors use SVO word order, but I don’t like them, so I won’t use it. These neighboring peoples, though, are pretty cool, and they use SOV word order. I think I’ll start using that!'"

    Dialect and native language can quite often be a tool of oppressed peoples, we can think of, for example, the use of Irish in Ireland or Scots and Gaelic in Scotland. To my eyes though, this doesn't detract from your argument. In fact, it strengthens it because intentionally not changing is itself an interaction with other languages, simply a negative one.

  2. Don’t forget that Tolkien’s definition of a “dead” language was not the one we think of today, that is, not being spoken as a primary language. Instead, he considered languages such as Latin and Greek to be completely alive because they had an associated set of a tales and myths; on the other hand, he did not consider modern constructed languages such as Esperanto to be alive because they had no mythology (letter 131). We do not know to what extent orcs are supposed to have a mythology, but it seems unlikely that they are intended to have much of one. They appear to engage in only a few examples of what might be deemed any sort of creation, mostly making weapons and singing war-songs. It would not fit their character for orcs to come up with complex myths; myths attempt to explain how and why things are the way they are (for example, Creation myths across cultures or Tolkien’s mythology explaining why the Earth is round instead of flat) and orcs are unlikely to be concerned with such matters. Moreover, if Tolkien intended orcs to have such a mythology, he probably would have showed it to us; the fact that he did not would seem to indicate that Orcish is not a “real” language (in the sense of being alive).

  3. I know there are a whole week's worth of newer posts up already, but since I brought up the Orc's language in class I was specially interested in reading your thoughts on it here, and adding a couple comments. First of all, I really appreciate your point about lack of growth/change not indicating that the language is bad or evil, e.g. the Dwarves' secret speech. But I am not convinced that "dead" languages like Latin are relevant to this, since they changed and grew when they were still spoken by living men, whereas the Orcs' language seems to be described as somehow fundamentally incapable of developing or growing--exactly the reason why the Orcs do use Common Speech when they need to communicate.
    Second, about your idea that "The language is evil simply because Orcs are evil," I would point out that in the Lhammas (pg 194 of HME 5) we are told that "the speech which he [Morgoth] taught [to the Orcs] he perverted wilfully to evil." This directly contradicts a claim in Appendix F of LotR that the orcs perverted language, but regardless of which version we accept we should, I think, at least consider the implications of both. Perhaps you would say then that this language is evil simply because Morgoth is evil? "But Morgoth himself spoke all tongues with power and beauty," much unlike the Orcs speaking a harsher version of Common Speech. I think there has to be something about the language itself that Tolkien thinks is bad or evil, somewhat apart from the badness of the speaker; what that quality is I'm not sure.

  4. I’m interested in re-examining some of what you’ve said here in light of everything we’ve discussed about good and evil in the last few weeks. According to the view of evil as perversion of creation, then Morgoth’s twisting of the Orcs’ language seems comparable to his twisting of the Men/Elves who became Orcs. The language is evil then because it was made evil. I can’t make much sense of the view of evil as unwillingness to relinquish sub-creation, pride, or selfishness in relationship to the Black Speech. However, I think that your comment about the use of language as a tool of subjugation is precisely the reason that the Black Speech is evil according to our third definition of evil (refusing free will to others). One of the only examples we have of the language of Mordor in all of the Lord of the Rings is Gandalf’s quotation of two lines of the Ring-Speech. These two lines clearly show both the phonetic harshness of the language and its main use, which was solely to dominate the wills of others. The languages of the Orcs and of Sauron, I think, are evil because their only communication was through domination.

    --Marguerite Meyer

  5. I really find your analysis of Orc-language interesting. When Orc-language was brought up in class, I was confused when it was stated that orcs could not communicate across tribes because they could not use other languages, yet they obviously all know the Common Speech because they communicate with hobbits, men, dwarves, wizards, and each other. But then I was confused because if the orcs could use other languages, then the orc-language itself would not be a cause of the orcs being unable to communicate. That would mean that the orc language could not be evil for preventing communication. So this post clarifies a lot for me why the orcs' language is evil, but I also find what David said above is interesting, namely that Morgoth created the orcish speech. If Morgoth willfully corrupted the speech he gave to orcs, then it is not just evil because Morgoth made it. Remember that Morgoth was directly responsible for frost and rain, but Iluvatar says that these make Arda even more beautiful, and are therefore not Evil. So not everything Morgoth creates is Evil. But when he does something with the intent to usurp Eru (something Anti-Hamlet), that is Evil. Creating the orcs in the first place was evil, and the orcs are evil. Creating a language for them makes it easier for them to communicate and do evil deeds, so the language that is made for them would also be evil.