Accents in The Rings of Power.

Conrad Brunstrom, “an eighteenth-centuryist. Born in London, based in Ireland, fixated by Canada,” writes about the accents in the “new staggeringly expensive Second Age Tolkien adaptation”:

But there’s also been some disquiet over here about the “Irish” accents conferred upon the Harfoots (proto-Hobbits) in the series. […] These Harfoots remind me a bit of Ewoks. I can imagine them taking out imperial stormtroopers with their amusingly rustic woodland booby traps. They are adept at camoflage. And they have sort of Irish accents. Of these accents let it be said that Lenny Henry’s is not the worst. With the gargantuan budget at their disposal, it is clear that inability to afford a qualified dialect coach is not the reason for the erratic vocal stylings of many of these Harfoots. It is rather that these actors perfected an “accent” that satisfied the director and producers. It’s the sort of accent that has no real existence on this island but has a particular “universal” semantic value.

And I suppose what we’re worried about is that there’s an “accent” that is identified globally as “Irish” that somehow still means “primitive”. Since we’ve heard hobbits speak in Peter Jackson movies, the vague assumption is inculcated that once upon a time the shaggy itinerant Harfoots were Irish but they had evolved past that by the Third Age. There’s an undoubted association of Irishness with “pastness” which connects with disturbing teleologies. Although this “Irish” accent is deployed affectionately in the sense that everyone is supposed to like the Harfoots, we are left wondering what is it that the wide world loves Ireland “for”? What do they want from us? Do they want this country to remain the repository of a “backward” pre-industrial set of values?

You can’t treat one accent in isolation. You have look at them structurally and differentially if meaning is to be generated, as we’ve known since Saussure. The top species at the beginning of the Second Age in this series remains the Elves. They speak posh English RP, although Morfydd Clark (who plays Galadriel as an action hero and staggeringly ambitious swimmer) has remarked that she found the Elvish easier to pronounce as a fluent Welsh speaker.

Here, incidentally, is something that has never been tried in a dramatisation – how about having Elves speak English as though it’s a second language? How about they have a Polish or a Czech accent? How about having them slightly slow and stiff in English and rapid and happy in Elvish? But no – posh RP English remains default setting Elvish discourse. Next time.

Dwarves seem to be Scottish, presumably because making them Welsh might subconsciously remind people of a Welsh language that might have inspired Elvish. Humans so far mainly talk like folks from vaguely north of the Trent. These are of course the “left behind” humans many of whom sided with Morgoth in the First Age and who chafe under the well-intentioned governance of the Elvish imperium. We have yet to meet any Numenorians though I suspect we’re about to. Their accents will be revealing.

The orthography of Tolkien’s dialogue, reinforced by the Jackson movies, has Orcs as Millwall supporters. East End Cockney provides the least sympathetic version of English available. A larger survey of the politics of accent hierarchies will wonder if Danny Dyer could ever get to play King Gil-Galad.

I like the idea that Elvish is easier to pronounce as a fluent Welsh speaker and the suggestion that Elves should speak English with a Polish or Czech accent, and how can I resist a reference to Saussure (for whom see this post)? Thanks, Trevor!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Orcs as Millwall supporters

    I feel that the analogy is not primarily linguistic …

    Let the chant ring out:,_we_don't_care

  2. David Marjanović says

    I like the idea that Elvish is easier to pronounce as a fluent Welsh speaker

    That may just be a matter of [r] and actual monophthongs. 🙂

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    Sindarin (at any rate) seems to have [χ] and [ɬ], the latter of which, especially, would doubtless strike most linguistically-unsophisticated Brits as prototypically “Welsh.”

  4. Tolkien’s description of what he meant by lh is ambiguous: he calls it a “voiceless l”, so it could be simply /l̥/ (as in OE hl) rather than [ɬ]. He certainly knew the difference, but he was writing for anglophones who probably didn’t.

  5. East End Cockney provides the least sympathetic version of English available.

    As a native Californian who has lived in both England and New England, I find the version of English spoken in south Boston infinitely less sympathetic than than that spoken in the East End. It’s my candidate for the ugliest accent in any European language.

  6. Ah, I found it. From the Appendices:

    LH represents [L] when voiceless (usually derived from initial sl-). In (archaic) Quenya this is written hl, but was in the Third Age usually pronounced as l.

  7. 1-Conrad Brunstrom may have less to complain about than he thinks: after all, the Lord of the Rings ended with all Elves leaving Middle-Earth forever, with mortals’ accents (humans and hobbits) presumably the only surviving ones (and I have known, on this side of the Atlantic, a few British emigrants who definitely would not mind if, in the real world, Upper Crust (Upper caste?) RP speakers were also to disappear forever (as well, thus, as their accent)).

    2-To MEL: It is, if not a sociolinguistic universal, at least a common sociolinguistic finding, that people find the non-prestige accent they are most familiar with “the ugliest”: as a native Californian, South end Boston English is a more familiar low-prestige English accent to you than London East End English, and I am more than certain many a British hatter would claim the exact opposite, for the same reason.

    I must say that, myself, as a Canadian francophone whose exposure to distinct non-standard accents of English was very limited before adulthood, I find both London East End and Boston South End rather…unremarkable: neither strikes me as very different from Standard English, esthetically (the most beautiful accent of L1 English, to my ear, is probably the more conservative accent of Ireland).

    Unsurprisingly, my vote for the ugliest accent on the planet would consist of some low-prestige varieties of non-standard Quebec French I was most exposed to in childhood…

    This is very unlike a former housemate of mine, of immigrant background, of course, who spontaneously told me that the ugliest language in the world must be Azorean Portuguese…(three guesses as to where his parents came from and what his home language was).

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    I can’t say that I have ever found either former or current London English “ugly”, though it is relatively remote from my own idiolect, admittedly; but then I don’t find Rab C Nesbitt-speak ugly either.

    I might have fallen into the trap of finding Black Country dialects ugly, had I not been educated by going out with a girl from Dudley in my youth, who showed me the better way. (She genuinely believed Birmingham to be the best city on earth, incidentally, as many of the indigenes do; I think it is Nature’s way of reconciling them to their lot.)

  9. As a new resident of Maine, I am trying to master the local accent at least a little bit. I find it totally charming. The shibboleth is a supermarket chain by the name of Market Basket. I think I do a pretty decent job but I haven’t quite nailed it yet. There is a subtle difference between the first vowels in the two words that I haven’t fully grasped.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    That RP, though! All its gratuitous diphthongisation, rampant preglottalisation and slovenly omission of /r/!

    Ugly? It’s perfectly frightful. Least euphonious accent in the WHOLE WORLD (apart from Dutch*, obvs.) At times I could scarcely bear to listen to that nice Boris Johnson because of his atrocious accent. It is a lesson to us all not to rush to judgment of those who have not had our advantages in life.

    * Danish, otherwise a worthy contender, does not count, on account of its being radically incomprehensible in spoken form, notoriously even to native speakers.

  11. What! No Australian accents?

    You do hear them occasionally in “international” films. They’re generally laid back, deadpan, slightly humorous, and at times knavish in a genial sort of way (the loveable rascal type).

  12. PlasticPaddy says

    Re innately ugly accents/languages, there are certain features which can be perceived as ugly by others, e.g., rasp, whine, grunt, nasal, “spitting” consonant, inharmonic vowel or diphthong, etc. Japanese or Italian are syllabically very harmonic, but there are accents in both I would rank as unpleasant (perhaps organised criminals had to develop such accents, in order to be taken seriously).
    Re Australian accents, is it time for a reboot of Crocodile Dundee?

  13. I find Liz Truss’ accent atrocious and grating. When she was younger she had a pleasant enough South Yorkshire lilt, judging from the old videos circulating of her denouncing the monarchy. But today she seems to be trying to hide her accent but not clear what she is trying to replace it with. Her conscious efforts to speak more “sophisticated” may be part of the reason she comes off as so robotic.

  14. Irish complaints have been twofold: it’s insulting to have the harfoots speak with Irish accents, and the accents don’t sound Irish. To my mind these cancel each other out.

    Sean Astin devoted a chapter of his autobiography to his disappointment at not getting nominated for an Oscar for playing Sam Gamgee. Personally, I had been unimpressed with his mummerset.

  15. David Marjanović says

    Danish isn’t ugly. It omits everything that potentially could be ugly, except the last few vestiges of R it couldn’t get rid of. On those it doubles and triples down in a stunningly heroic attempt to produce a pharyngeal trill.

  16. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I haven’t heard the accents in question, but I remember reading somewhere that if we went back to (first) Elizabethan times English (London?) accents would sounds Irish-if-anything, due to features preserved there and not in ‘standard’ English-English.

    Which sounds a bit like arguing that Irish English just is primitive. But Scots hasn’t managed a proper vowel shift, so we can’t talk.

  17. Ugly? It’s perfectly frightful. Least euphonious accent in the WHOLE WORLD (apart from Dutch*, obvs.) At times I could scarcely bear to listen to that [censored for unspeakableness] because of his atrocious accent.

    Quite so, although your illustrious predecessor J.W.T. Grieg put it better: “that silliest and dwabliest of all the English dialects”. Nobody should give up the opportunity to wield one of the words with /dw-/ that in Scots supplement English’s pathetic three survivals, one revival, and one innovation.

  18. David Eddyshaw says

    Wull, it is dweibly, nae doot.

  19. Jen in Edinburgh says

    The OED is mostly full of variants on dwarf – I take it that dwarf, dwell and dwindle are the survivals and dweeb the innovation, but nothing jumps out at me as a revival.

    I have dwam in my reasonably active vocabulary, but for the kind of daydreaming state where you don’t respond when spoken to, not for an actual faint.

  20. PlasticPaddy says

    I thought a dwam was what Jonathan Ross took before going to bed😊.

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    Dwams, for me, are pretty much always wee. My grandmother was prone to them.

    I believe the English say “brown study.”

  22. Which has its own OED entry (not updated since 1888):

    brown study, n.

    Etymology: apparently originally < brown n. in sense of ‘gloomy’; but this sense has been to a great extent forgotten. (The conjecture that brown ‘might be’ the German braune ‘brow’ does not require serious notice.)

    A state of mental abstraction or musing: ‘gloomy meditations’ (Johnson); ‘serious reverie, thoughtful absent-mindedness’ (Webster); now esp. an idle or purposeless reverie.

    c1555 Manifest Detection Diceplay sig. Aiii Lacke of company wyll son lead a man into a brown studdy.
    1578 J. Lyly Euphues f. 24 You are in some browne study, what coulours you mighte best weare.
    1608 E. Topsell Hist. Serpents 251 Nothing but sadnesse, and heauinesse of mind, browne-studies.
    1693 Oxford-act 2 Oft wou’d the new created Sophister Where Boy cry’d, want ye any Coffee, Sir? Start from brown-study.
    1712 R. Steele Spectator No. 286. ⁋3 He often puts me into a brown Study how to answer him.
    1871 J. S. Blackie Four Phases Morals i. 13 He had been standing there in a brown study.

    I love that “does not require serious notice.” The opaque Manifest Detection Diceplay is short for A manifest detection of the moste vyle and detestable vse of diceplay, and other practises lyke the same a myrrour very necessary for all yonge gentilmen [and] others sodenly enabled by worldly abu[n]dace [sic], to loke in. Newly set forth for their behoufe. [Imprinted at London: In Paules church yarde at the sygne of the Lamb, by [i.e. for] Abraham Vele, [ca. 1555]]

  23. thanks for the crosslink, JC!

    dwine ‘pine, waste away’ (of which dwindle was originally a sort of diminutive)
    the diminutive in -l warms the cockles of my האַרצל

  24. David Marjanović says

    the German braune ‘brow’

    Uh, Braue “brow” (generally Augenbraue); braune “brown one” (determinate sg. and/or f. sg. or indeterminate pl.).

  25. I’d say they should bump that entry up to the head of the line for revision.

  26. David Marjanović says

    the diminutive in -l

    was, for verbs, a frequentative when it was productive.

    A few German occurrences have been reinterpreted as diminutives, though.

  27. Lars Mathiesen says

    FWIW, Danish has øjenbryn and skovbryn which do look like an umlauted version of brun. The ON was brún, plural brynn vs brúnn. I have no idea if that makes it more or less likely that it’s the same root.

  28. @DM: o interesting! i wonder (and will nose around a bit about) whether there’s any of that on the yiddish side.

  29. nothing jumps out at me as a revival

    “Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!” —Eowyn Théodensdohtor

    The OED files this under demerlayk, the latest (15C) form they found when they last looked at the word, thus showing another stage in the “slow and outscruciating”[*] death of /dw-/. But Tolkien will have none of that. There has been a semantic shift over the last five centuries, though: the sources show the sense ‘practice of sorcery’, whereas Eowyn clearly means ‘thing created by sorcery’. Her brother Eomer also calls Saruman “cunning and dwimmer-crafty”; clearly these are (nonce?) forms created by the Rohirrim when mentally translating their own language (which corresponds to OE) into the Common Speech. The variant dweomer ‘aura surrounding a magical item’ (in imitation of the OE spelling) is too new for any dictionary except Wikt: the pronunciations given vary from KIT (agreeing with dwimmer-) to DRESS to FLEECE.

    the diminutive in -l

    There are actually two of these in English, the native one, which gives us bramble < broom, kernel < corn, and possibly hovel orig. ‘cattle shed’, if MHG hobel ‘lid, cover’ is indeed cognate; and the Romance one < Fr < -ellus, as in castle ult. < castellum < castrum and mantle ult. &lt. mantellum, whose root form is lost but cf. mantica ‘traveling bag’.

    [*] “By damn, you cut your own throats like with a butterknife, slow and outscruciating.” —Nicholas van Rijn

  30. @John Cowan: That was Eowyn Éomundsdohtor.

  31. “dwimmerlaik” has hardly been revived; AFAIK even Dungeons & Dragons hasn’t really adopted the name for one of its monsters (it’s listed on this website as “homebrew”).Other ghits are a Spanish thrash-metal band and a 1960s Tolkien fanzine.

  32. Manifest Detection Diceplay
    I call dibs on this as a band name or album title.

  33. Remind me again: What’s the difference between speed metal and thrash metal?

  34. I call dibs on this as a band name or album title.

    I think that’s the debut album by Brown Studdy.

  35. @DM: Hermann Paul’s Deutsches Wörterbuch (9th edition, 1992) mentions Braune as a variant (Nebenf[orm]) of Braue, influenced by the plural. Apparently this form was still well known to whoever wrote the OED article in 1888.

  36. That must be what the deal is with this line from Schiller’s Die Räuber (The Robbers):

    Franz: Meine Aug-Braunen sollen über euch herhangen wie Gewitter-Wolken, mein herrischer Name schweben wie ein drohender Komet über diesen Gebirgen, meine Stirne soll euer Wetterglas seyn!

  37. The “brow-study” explanation was offered by somebody in Notes & Queries (the language blog of the 19th century), citing a Glossarium Germanicum from 1737, which indeed has an entry AUG-BRAUNEN, reading in part:

    AUG-BRAUNEN, aug-brawen, supercilia oculorum. …
    Et hactenus litera N. exulat in vetustissimis vocibus, exceptis tamen iis, quibus Septemtrio utitur. … In quibusdam Germaniæ Dialectis supercilia vocantur ogbranen, absque a. diphthongato, quamvis auctoritas ejus sit antiquissima, sive metu confusionis cum braun fuscus, sive quia quorundam aures adeo delicatæ sunt, ut omnes diphthongos tanquam rusticas & horrisonas aversentur.

    i.e., there’s no n in the oldest words, except in North Germanic languages; in some German dialects the eyebrows are called ogbranen “…either for fear of confusion with braun ‘brown’, or because the ears of some people are so delicate that all diphthongs are avoided as rustic and horrisonous”!

    OK, North Germanic languages *do* have an n on the word for (eye)brow, e.g. Danish bryn. Where’d that come from?

  38. PlasticPaddy says

    4) motsv. BRY, v. 6 (8): hufvudbry, grubbel, funderande, spekulerande; äfv. (jfr 3): möda l. besvär att fundera ut l. reda ut ngt. Jag har bry nog med att klara det jag har, utan att skaffa mig något nytt bry. Genom godt förstånd, genom bry och hjernbråk af goda regenter (regnar) guld .. nid. Eneman Resa 1: 135 (1712). Jag har ett evigt bry med bara bokstafvera. Bergklint Vitt. 34 (1772). De .. gissade gåtor, hvilka lilla Sven hade mycket bry att få reda på. Strindberg SvÖ 2: 170 (1883). — jfr HJÄRNE-, HUFVUD-, TANKE-BRY.

    This older Swedish form might fit with brown study. Regarding the n in modern bryn, the oldest N. Germanic forms are without it, i.e., brú.

  39. Lars Mathiesen says

    @PP, I’m afraid that’s a brown herring. Danish and Swedish authorities agree that it’s from LG brüden ~ ‘tease’ (originally more like ‘to bride’ euphemistically for ‘rape;’ that’s some bleaching for you!)

    Danish has hovedbrud and verbally at bryde sig om ~ ‘to like / to care about / to give a damn’, corresponding to Swedish huvudbry and att bry sig [om]. (Danish more or less conflates it with bryde/brud = ‘break’ v and n — not so much Swedish where those are bryta/brott).

    And where do you get an older N. Germanic form than ON brún? Wiktionary suggests (under the ON lemma) that PG had *brūwǭ with the plural *brūniz < *brūwōniz, whence ON plural brýnn and analogical -n in the singular. (Presumably, it’s not spelled out. But -nR should go to -ðr like in maðr, I thought).

  40. PlasticPaddy says

    Thanks-i did not know the history of this bry 😊. Also I think I conflated bridge and brow (similarity of form?).

  41. David Marjanović says

    “Bridge” and “brow” have been considered related, though that’s difficult to get to work consonant-wise.

    at bryde sig om

    That strikes me as brüten “brood literally or metaphorically”.

    (Not “breed”. That’s züchten.)

  42. Lars Mathiesen says

    Not breed, bride. I guess it would be brauten in High. Commit adultery -> make mischief -> tease -> trouble (oneself).

    Also the Norwegians agree. NAOB sv bry verb:

    fra nedertysk brüen, eldre nedertysk brüden ‘tøyse med, erte, plage’, trolig av middelnedertysk brūden ‘drive utukt med’; beslektet med brud

    Norwegian allows both the weak preterite brydde and the strong brød that continues ON braut to brjóta which it otherwise seems to have lost. (Danish still has bryder/brød/brudt from that inherited word and as I mentioned above, the LG loan has merged with that, morphologically if not semantically. Swedish keeps bryter/bröt/brutit apart from bryr/brydde/brytt).

  43. Back on Welsh and Sindarin, Tolkien at one point seemed to say pretty clearly that Sindarin had the same sound as Welsh:

    ‘In the transcription of Elvish Sindarin in The Lord of the Rings ll is used in the manner of modern Welsh for the medial voiceless l’ (Vinyar Tengwar 42, p. 27)

    This is for instances of medial ll that come from assimilations of *l plus a voiceless sound. He’s not very phonetically precise in these descriptions, but he doesn’t mention initial lh, so maybe he intended a distinction between initial [l̥] and medial [ɬ].

    ‘That may just be a matter of [r] and actual monophthongs.’

    No doubt that’s the most of it, along with [x] or [χ] and the occasional [ɬ], as mentioned by David Eddyshaw — but I’m not sure there’s any ‘just’ about it compared to the Anglophone norm. Surely these things would go a very long way towards making Sindarin easily pronounced correctly, rather than something needing a good deal of conscious effort?

  44. from LG brüden ~ ‘tease’ (originally more like ‘to bride’ euphemistically for ‘rape;’ that’s some bleaching for you!)

    not unlike indian english journalistic “eve-teasing” for sexual harrassment and assault.

  45. David Eddyshaw says

    Or Modern Greek γαμώ.

  46. @ John Cowan,

    haven’t heard from Nicholas van Rijn in a long time…

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