Scandinavian Influences on Orkish

Anders Blixt: Hagervagcn 16, S — 122 39, Enskede, Sweden

Byrdi betri
berrat madr brautú at
en sé manvit mikit.

(Better burden
can no man bear
than much common sense)

— Hávamál (Norse1 collection of wisdom)

When I first glanced through the seven-page English-Orkish dictionary appearing in the Iron Crown module Empire of the Witch-king, written by Graham Staplehurst and Heike Kubasch, my eyes were caught by the familiar word sjuk,” which in my native Swedish — and in Orkish as well, it seems — means sick” or ill.” I could not believe it to have been a coincidence, as an English-speaker would hardly by chance begin a word with so unwieldy a consonant cluster to the Anglo ear as sj” (a common construction in Swedish and Norwegian, pronounced like sh” in English). As a quick glance through the glossary revealed a number of recognizable words in various Scandinavian languages2, I decided to undertake a more thorough investigation. The reason for doing this was a mixture of amusement and curiosity — being a author of Middle-earth modules, I like to find out how other game writers work.

The Glossary Table

The foregoing table on the next page excerpts those words from section 11.3 of Empire of the Witch-king which contain the most obvious Orkish/​Scandinavian correspondences (I may have overlooked some Icelandic ones, since I have poor knowledge of that tongue). I have not found any pattern behind the choice of words; they rather seem to have been picked at random.

I have not included the many two- and three-letter words where the meanings assigned in Orkish differ significantly from their Scandinavian equivalents, since these may be pure coincidences. Similarly, I have excluded a few words (e.g. rændi), which look and sound Icelandic or Norse, but whose Scandinavian origin I have been unable to verify. Words for which the Orkish and original meanings are more or less identical have been italicized.

Scandinavian Languages in Middle-Earth Perspective

When we read his scathing (and justified) criticism of tike Ohlmarks’ poor Swedish translation3 of The Lord of the Rings, it is obvious to us Swedes that J.R.R. Tolkien was a man for whom languages, names and words were of great importance. Tolkien knew Swedish well enough to be able to read Ohlmarks’ text and to spot a number of embarrassing and silly errors. The two professors quarreled over the matter and, eventually, Ohlmarks was forbidden to translate any of Tolkien’s other work.

If Professor Tolkien would have put Scandinavian languages in Middle-earth, they would most likely have been used to demonstrate the relationship of an existing Endorian language to Westron, which is represented by English. Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian have the same relation to Norse as English has to Anglo-Saxon (the latter serving to represent the tongue of the Rohirrim, which was supposed to be related to Westron). Norse and Anglo-Saxon were contemporary in our world — siblings descended from the common Germanic tongue that was spoken in Roman times.

Thus, without straining the inner logic of Arda, the Scandinavian tongues should, at the end of the Third Age, be spoken by Northern peoples living at a distance from the Anduin vale and Eriador, perhaps in Dorwinion4. A Westron-speaker would have a hard time understanding them in speech, but in reading their texts would see many similarities.

It is therefore unlikely that Professor Tolkien would have put Scandinavian words into the mouths of Orcs, unless they were straightforward loans from these Northman languages. For that reason, I disapprove somewhat of the Orkish vocabulary created by Messrs.Staplchurst and Kubasch; perhaps they should instead have used the same approach to words and languages as the original sub-creator himself.

Orkish Translation Real meaning Language
auga eye eye Ic
baum plant tree Ge
braun rib brown Ge
daga dawn dawn (vb) Sw
draugur ghost water-undead Ic
dyr animal animal Da
eitur poison poison Ic
flak dash flow Sw
gagna help benefit (vb) Sw
galin crazy insane Norse
glima wrestle gleam (vb) Sw (correct sp: glimma)
gnyja5 rage rage (vb) Ic
goltur boar boar Ic (correct sp: göltur)
grop hollow hollow Sw
halz lame lame Sw (correct sp: halt)
hnifur knife knife Ic
hugi mind thought Norse
huka squat squat (vb) Sw
hundur dog dog Sw
hund nose dog Sw
illa worst bad Sw
illska hatred anger Sw (correct sp: Ilska)
jarn iron iron Sw (correct sp: järn)
karg tear barren Sw
kasta throw throw (vb) Sw
kista chest cheat Sw
korn cart (a grain) Sw
kurv whore basket Da
laga magical repair (vb) Sw
lundar ship copses Sw
mattugur powerful powerful Ic (correct sp: máttugur)
nat night night Sw (correct sp: natt)
onreinn dirty unclean Ic (correct sp: óhreinn)
pafund abyss dea Sw (correct sp: påfund)
rifa demolish demolish fc (correct sp: rífa)
sjuk sick sick, ill Sw
skamma revile, scold shame (vb) Sw (correct sp: skämma)
Skator hell magpies Sw
skugga shallow shadow Sw
sma little small Sic (correct sp: små)
stor huge big Sw
varg chain wolf Sw

Glossary Excerpts (Da = Danish, Ge = German, Ic = Icelandic, Sw = Swedish, vb = verb)

Note: The diacritic signs (e.g. å, ä/​æ, ö/​o etc)5 that are so important in the Scandinavian languages are absent in Staplehurst and Kubasch6. There are a few other minor spelling errors, too.


  1. Norse and Icelandic use the letter d” for Sindarin DH

  2. The sister-languages Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish are very closely related and mutually intelligible — at least in writing. Icelandic is a more distant and archaic sibling, closer to the common ancestor Norse, and hence more difficult for us Swedes to understand. German is related to them, but more distantly, as is English. 

  3. Professor Åke Ohlmarks (a linguist who died a few years ago) was a very fast and very sloppy translator. He is known for some remarkable feats, like translating the Koran into Swedish without knowing Arabic (he used an English translation as source material). It is hard to understand how he was able to dupe Swedish publishers for such a long time. The Ohlmarks LotR translation is still printed, despite its lousy quality, and I look forward to the day when a new Swedish translation is commissioned (preferably to Roland Adlerbert, who did a good job with The Silmarillion). 

  4. I have given Norse names to some Northron NPCs originating from the Mirkwood area (e.g., Arn and Wulfr in the Pale Riders” adventure in The Kin-strife module). 

  5. Å is pronounced as Sindarin O. Ä (Æin Danish and Norwegian) and Ö (Ø in Danish and Norwegian) are pronounced as in German. Icelandic sometimes uses diacritics to mark diphthongs: Á = Sindarin AI, AU = Sindarin El. 

  6. Presumably, Orcs are too stupid to bother with such calligraphic sophistications. 


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