Friday, January 4, 2013

Writing with Dwarf Runes

Dwarvish Index         » More About Dwarf Runes »         » Khuzdul Language »   

Dwarf runes are easy to use – unlike the Dwarvish language (Khuzdul), and unlike Elvish writing (Tengwar).  Dwarf runes behave exactly as speakers of English expect an "alphabet" to behave – one letter per sound, whether vowel or consonant, and all written left to right.

This lesson is based on Appendix E of Lord of the Rings.

History of Runes
The Cirth ("Runes") were originally developed in by the Sindar Elves of Doriath, for writing Sindarin.  The runes are traditionally attributed to the loremaster Daeron.  The Sindar were slow to adopt writing, but the Dwarves who visited and traded with Doriath took readily to the runes, and spread them widely, both among Dwarves and other races.  Over time, the runes were adapted for various languages.  The Noldor of Eregion are credited with adding a number of characters for sounds not found in Sindarin.

(This is at least how the Elves tell the story.  We have no record of the Dwarves' version of the history.  It seems farfetched to me to say that those early-adopter Dwarves waited centuries for the Noldor to invent characters for the sounds distinctive to Khuzdul, so perhaps the history, as recorded, has some elf-centric spin.) 

The runes as used by the Dwarves of Moria. 
These are probably the oldest Dwarvish version of the runes.

 "Glottal" is a sound, or change in sound, that does not register in the brains of most speakers of English, since it never affects the meaning or spelling of English words.  If you are writing Khuzdul, you will need that character.   (If you aren't writing Khuzdul, you probably won't have any occasion to worry about that character.)

There are references to both "Y" and "X" being used for the sound N.

Tolkien describes the "uh" and "eh" sounds as "vowels like those heard in English butter."  Those characters are used especially for the indistinct little vowel sounds, which apparently were as common in Dwarvish as in English. 

This is how Balin's name appears on his tomb.
The Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain ("Erebor") used a few distinctive variants in the runes.

 (The name "Erebor" is Sindarin Elvish for "Lonely Mountain."   I wonder how the Dwarves feel about using an Elvish name for their home?)

Here is a line from the title page of Lord of the Rings. Can you translate it?
Here Tolkien uses "<" as the rune for S, which is an older, Elvish usage.

 (Use your mouse to highlight over the white space, to see the answer.) The Lord of the Rings translated from the Red Book

Thror's map, in The Hobbit, is not written in Cirth at all. It is written in (mostly) Anglo-Saxon futhark. At the time The Hobbit was originally written, that story was set in a generic fantasyland. After Tolkien's publisher requested a sequel, and that sequel began to develop into Lord of the Rings, Tolkien realized that The Hobbit must have been set in the Silmarillion's Middle-Earth universe. Tolkien made a few minor changes to later editions of The Hobbit, the better to fit it to the Lord of the Rings. However, the runes on Thror's map remained unchanged.

Edit January 5, 2013:  Correct typo "Eregion"

Dwarvish Index         » More About Dwarf Runes »            » Khuzdul Language »     


  1. Fascinating! I'd never realized the map wasn't in the same runes. I wonder if I once tried to translate it and was frustrated?

    (Small copyediting nitpick: I think "Noldor of Ergion" is missing an E in your first paragraph about the history of the runes.)


  2. Since Elrond and Gandalf told the Dwarves what runes say, you have a Rosetta Stone. ;)

    My edition of The Hobbit has a note at the beginning (after "Note on the Text" and before "Chapter 1") which includes "Their {Dwarves'} runes are in this book represented by English runes, which are known now to few people. If the runes on Thror's Map are compared with the transcriptions into modern letters (on pp. 20 and 50), the alphabet, adapted to modern English, can be discovered."

    And thanks, I fixed "Eregion."