A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Echoes of Númenór

Akallabêth tells us there were three languages in use in Númenór:

For though this people used still their own speech, their kings and lords knew and spoke also the Elven tongue, which they had learned in the days of their alliance, and thus they held converse still with the Eldar, whether of Eresséa or of the westlands of Middle—earth. And the loremasters among them learned also the High Eldarin tongue of the Blessed Realm, in which much story and song was preserved from the be inning of the world; and they made letters and scrolls and books, and wrote in them many things of wisdom and wonder in the high tide of their realm, of which all is now forgot.

Alan and Shawn at the Prancing Pony Podcast reminded me of this. Languages are parallel between Númenór and medieval England:

Númenór England
Common people Adunaic Anglo-Saxon
Aristocracy Sindarin French
Scholars Quenya Latin

This Númenórean social divide persisted all the way through the Third Age, and it shows up in the way Gondorians talk. Let’s look at two words for strong fighting men, both of which make teenage boys snicker: “doughty” and “puissant”.

‘Happily your Caradhras has forgotten that you have Men with you,’ said Boromir, who came up at that moment. ‘And doughty Men too, if I may say it; though lesser men with spades might have served you better.’” The common folk of Minas Tirith hear rumors that “When the Riders came from Rohan, each would bring behind him a halfling warrior, small maybe, but doughty.” Grimbold of Rohan gets that adjective, as would many warriors of the Rohirrim. Frodo describes the Rangers of Ithilien as doughty, and he’s being polite. “Doughty” is a good Anglo-Saxon word, meaning “the guy who gits ‘er done.”  It’s appropriate for Rohirrim, hobbits, and other such plebs.  Boromir, despite being of a noble family, has a strong mixture of base blood, so he uses it to refer to himself and Aragorn.

But the blood of Westernesse runs “nearly true” in Faramir, and when Tolkien says that about him, he means the blood of the Númenóreans who escaped to Middle Earth at the last minute: the Faithful; all from the aristocracy. Now listen to Faramir talking to Éowyn: “You desired to have the love of the Lord Aragorn. Because he was high and puissant…” The word “doughty” is gone, replaced by its French synonym.  Faramir is an expert rhetorician — putting some social distance between his target and his rival is a nice move — though perhaps only a professor of philology would expect such a maneuver to work in that context.

More than three thousand years later, the social-linguistic fracture lines endure in Gondor. And Denethor at least was proud of it.  Florence doesn’t seem so bad any more.


Won’t you be my neighbor?


Multilingual Ents


  1. Nicely done, Joe, a well-observed point. I wonder if we could find more examples of it in Pippin’s conversations with Beregond and Bergil, or in Ioreth’s speech. I think we can see it clearly when Aragorn puts the herb-master at the Houses of Healing in his place by out-too-clever-by-halfing him. Bandy words with the heir of Isildur, will you?

    Two points of puissant:

    1) I once had a student use this word in a paper — and he was smart enough that I believed he didn’t just pick the most fancy-pants words in the thesaurus — and I had to tell him that as much as I loved this word it was much too late in time for it, unless you were Tolkien.

    2) I used to have a girlfriend I encouraged to call me ‘mon puissant seigneur’, but all she would do was laugh.

  2. Kate Neville

    I was struck during that podcast by the fact that, near the end, all Elven languages were banned in Numenor, an evil echoed in Thingol’s banning of Noldorin. It’s interesting that as much as Tolkien loved the ancient languages of England, he clearly reverenced the whole of humanity’s speech craft. And throughout his Legendarium the most noble characters are those who reach out linguistically. Think of Aragorn in the Houses of Healing, rattling off all the names of athelas, and Galadriel speaking to Gimli in his own tongue.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén