m. c. de marco: The Accidental Conlanger

Thorin son of Thrain son of Thror: Phonetic Naming Languages

Having just completed my protracted rereading of The Lord of the Rings, I’m going to skip ahead a few virtual pages to the phonetic approach to creating a naming language. To explain this approach, I will use dwarves' outer names in Tolkien as a model.


In Appendix F, Tolkien claims that his dwarves' names are not in Khuzdul, the secret language of the dwarves; they are instead “of Northern (Mannish) origin.” Nevertheless they are quite distinct from any actual “Mannish” names in the books, due to their peculiarly restrictive pattern of sounds. Consider the following exhaustive list of Third Age dwarves mentioned in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (including appendices):

  1. Durin, Borin, Farin, Thorin, Frerin, Balin, Dwalin, Fundin
  2. Bifur, Bofur, Bombur
  3. Thráin, Náin, Dáin, Gróin, Óin, Glóin, Flói
  4. Thrór, Frór, Grór, Frár, Nár
  5. Dori, Nori, Ori, Fili, Kili, Náli, Gimli
  6. Lóni
  7. Dís (f.)

The more obscure dwarves can be found in the Encyclopedia of Arda. Dis, Thorin’s sister and the only female dwarf named, does not fit the pattern, so we will omit her. Nor do the dwarves, petty or otherwise, from The Silmarillion (Gamil Zirak, Narvi, Telchar, etc.) fit the pattern, their names perhaps originating in some more ancient Mannish tongue. Loni is something of an outlier as well.

Appendix E is rather vague on the exact pronunciation of dwarfish outer names. It would appear that “th” here stands for an aspirated /t/, rather than the English fricative(s) usually written th, while /r/ is the English approximant and not the occasional dwarfish uvular r. The accent marks on the vowels appear to be purely decorative, serving to remind the reader that double vowels are not dipthongs and perhaps that single-syllable names have long vowels. We can drop the accent marks and keep in mind merely that “th” is a digraph for some single sound.


The phonetics here are very simple. The stop (i.e., plosive) consonants are /b/, /d/, /g/, and possibly aspirated /t/ (written as th). The fricatives are /f/ and possibly /th/, if it is not a stop. There are two nasals, /n/ and /m/, and three approximants, /l/, /r/, and /w/. There are no voiced/unvoiced pairs. The vowels are o, a, i, u, and e, presumably pure.

I’ve already grouped the names according to certain patterns. Line #1 above, with Durin and Thorin, would appear to be the average or ideal dwarfish names. Line #2 is similar, but with an unusual /ur/ ending. Line #3 is missing the medial consonants that normally (so far) would have occurred between the two vowels of, say, Nain. The names in #4 have only one vowel. In #5 they have two vowels, but no final consonant. Names #6 and 7 are outliers. We distill this information into some phonetic rules:

All dwarfish names begin with /b/, /d/, /f/, /g/, /l/, /n/, /o/, or /th/, although /l/ occurs only once (in #6). Consonant clusters can occur at the beginning of a name, where they consist of a stop consonant or fricative (b, d, f, g, th), followed by an approximant, usually /l/ or /r/. There are no initial clusters with /b/, no occurrences of /thl/, and one occurrence of /dw/.

After an initial consonant or consonant cluster, a vowel must follow, usually /a/, /o/, or /i/, although there are single instances of /e/ and /u/ (in #1).

After the first vowel, a medial consonant or consonant cluster may occur. This consonant is usually /l/ or /r/, although /f/, /mb/, /nd/, /ml/ and (once, in #6) /n/ are attested as well.

The name may end at a medial /r/ after /o/ or /a/ (#4). Otherwise one of the three endings /in/, /i/, or /ur/ (#2) must be attached, and it may not be /ur/ in the case where there was no medial consonant.


This information can be fed into a tool like the Conlang Word Maker or kwet to generate more dwarfish names, a process that will be described at greater length in some future post.

This is a very simple set of rules, however, with an unusually short list of possible consonants and very restrictive morphology. It’s easier in this case to make up more names by hand than to generate them and then sort through the output for your favorites.

So, here are some suggestions for extra dwarf names, corresponding to the groups listed above:

  1. Thelin
  2. Findur
  3. Dwóin
  4. Brár
  5. Bambi
  6. Rámi
  7. Frís (f.)

Name #5, unfortunately, will have to be rejected on non-phonetic grounds. Name #6 is another outlier. A writer might want to go in the direction of #6 if the Thror-Thrain-Thorin pattern felt too restrictive. It did work for Tolkien, though.

You might want to compare the dwarves' names to hobbit names such as Bilbo, Drogo, Frodo, Bungo, Longo, Bingo, Otho, and Lotho, not to mention Odo, Olo, and Dudo. (Many names that do not appear to fit the hobbit pattern are actually transations, such as Sam, Merry, and the feminine flower names. See Appendix F.) So rumors of a Mannish influence—the hobbits also speak a Northern, Mannish language—are more than merely an excuse for not giving the dwarves Khuzdul names.

The next section (in book order, if not in posting order) will cover another naming language for dwarves, which I invented last week in order to make the names of the characters in a story I was submitting sound more consistent.

October 4, 2008