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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Middle-earth TV Series Discussion:
Modern English dialects in the Second Age


Dec 16 2019, 8:55pm

Post #1 of 9 (701 views)
Modern English dialects in the Second Age Can't Post

Prince John: And why should the people listen to you?
Robin Hood: Because, unlike some other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent.

Robin Hood: Men in Tights

I believe an important part of the appeal of fantasy (if not the only important part) is the audience's immersion, or to a lesser degree, willing suspension of disbelief. Modern filmmakers have quite an array of tools available to them to enable their audience's immersion, even as the importance of that immersion, I feel, has become somewhat neglected since the ironic '90s. But that's another discussion.

One tool for aiding (or impeding) immersion is language, which I believe is an important concern many of us have for the upcoming Amazon series when we talk about "fidelity to Tolkien". Of course, anyone who studies Tolkien's works in detail can see the pains he took to represent his sub-creation, which was inseparable from his development of the Quenya and Sindarin languages, in a way that could speak profoundly to a modern English-speaking audience. Just as he argued the author of Beowulf used language that was archaic at the time of its writing to produce a certain effect for the original audience of the poem, Tolkien himself used some language that was archaic in his day (and revived some long-extinct words, such as "mathom") to produce a similar effect for the readers of Lord of the Rings.

The object of such language is to lend authenticity to the claim that the story actually took place "a long time ago". Balanced against that concern is the opposing concern of intelligibility to an audience that speaks Modern English or some other modern language. If that were not a concern, Robin Hood would be speaking a dialect of Middle English rather than Modern English in our movies, and Samwise Gamgee would be known as Banazîr Galpsi, and would speak some dialect of Westron. Nevertheless, characters from medieval fantasies are typically depicted speaking a British English dialect because characters from medieval England are also typically depicted speaking British English dialects, because those are the dialects currently spoken where those events occurred, albeit many centuries ago.

Given that the dialog in the Amazon series must be largely in modern English, with perhaps the occasional Sindarin, Quenya, Adûnaic, etc., how do people feel the characters of the Second Age should be represented linguistically? Peter Jackson chose to use British English dialects for all of the characters. Elijah Wood and Sean Astin, both Americans, imitated a southeastern and a southwestern English dialect, respectively. Australian and New Zealand actors also imitated British English dialects. John Rhys-Davies, who grew up in southwestern England and Wales, imitated a Scots English accent. Some of the Orcs had (or imitated) Cockney accents. As far as I recall, the actors in all six of Jackson's films studiously avoided non-British accents when speaking English.

There is, perhaps, a good reason for this convention, given that Tolkien himself was English, and depicted modern English dialectal speech among the Hobbits, and also given that the Shire and surrounding areas are supposed to be in the same location as Oxford and its surrounding areas (although location does not determine language). However, this convention appears to stretch as far as Dale, Mordor, and Gondor, at least.

A question I have for the forum is this: Should the characters in Amazon's series all speak British English, or are other non-British dialects acceptable, perhaps to represent certain lands? Related to this: Are there some British English dialects (e.g. Cockney) you would not wish to hear in the series? Should certain accents be associated with certain places? Should the actors attempt to imitate an accent, or should they speak their own native dialect?

Hêlâ Auriwandil, angilô berhtost,
oƀar Middangard mannum gisandid!


Dec 16 2019, 9:28pm

Post #2 of 9 (692 views)
It's not just British English that Tolkien writes in; it's early 20th C. British English. [In reply to] Can't Post

A lot of what makes LotR and its accessory materials distinctive to the modern ear and reading eye is that it was written, as of now, over 70 years ago. That alone is enough to give it some patina of age, even before he began inserting neo-archaisms to convey his characters' mock-medieval states of mind.

That was something Jackson's screenwriters absolutely abhorred, and did their best to "update". The result, as many fans remarked, was that only at times did the film's dialogue "sound like" Tolkien.

This is not about Butterbur and the Gaffer with their rusticisms, the Rohirrim with their Old English rhythms, or the High Elves or Gandalf and Aragorn at their most elevated styles. This is about the hobbits, Strider, Bergil and Beregond, Faramir and Gimli and even Legolas most of the time. They talk like regular Englishmen of Tolkien's own time, within the genre of modern-day adventure fiction. And they talk like they live in about 1920 - because they do. Here are some examples of what I call Tolkien's 'plain, modern English.'

  • ‘Don’t be alarmed! I mean just this: I will tell you what I know, and give you some good advice - but I shall want a reward.’
  • ‘I am wide awake now, and I remember so many things that want explaining. Why were you delayed? You ought to tell me that at least.’
  • ‘Bless the old hobbit! I love him more than ever. I hope we get a chance of telling him about it! ‘
  • ‘You speak for me, Gimli. Though I would sooner learn how they came by the wine.’
  • '...for you are weary. And so are we. We are going now to a secret place we have, somewhat less than ten miles from here.'

  • I suggest that any of these lines would be updated to a more modern idiom or syntax by a 2020 screenwriter - or, possibly, be rendered more "epic" by the addition of more inversion, 'high style', or other tricks. They would not be left as is, because they sound dated. And they are dated. But to me, this dated style of writing is at the heart of Tolkien's appeal. It's on this simple but educated English of his own time and genre that he builds all his more formal, medieval, or magical variations. And this simple but educated English is very hard for unskilled moderns to reproduce easily or naturally when writing original 'mock-Tolkien' - of which this new project will need hundreds and hundreds of pages.

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    Tol Eressea

    Dec 16 2019, 10:03pm

    Post #3 of 9 (683 views)
    Well-stated [In reply to] Can't Post

    This is indeed the high challenge these writers face- how will they sound like Tolkien? Will they succeed or fail miserably?

    It is no easy task to take on the challenge of writing to sound like a philologist, and a brilliant one at that. Not only that, but as you said they're dealing with early 20th c. British dialect as well as similar vocabulary, interspersed with a rich array of old words that have been revived as a direct result of Tolkien's works.

    Accent-wise I think it depends on the viewership. British viewers would no doubt feel that the story is more "local" and less "exotic" if their accents are used (British Tornsibs feel free to jump in here to either verify or refute this claim I won't be offended but rather appreciative if you do), much in the same way it throws us Americans off when you watch behind-the-scenes and hear the American actors speaking with the same accent as themselves. At least, that was my case. I watched the recently posted behind the scenes clip (well, recently posted on Facebook) and hearing Brad Douriff (sp?) speaking my accent behind the scenes after stabbing Saruman was like WHOA that's WEIRD and totally sounds out of place.

    So, speaking as an American myself (with an interesting accent I'm sure, since I've moved 29 times and my parents have moved a lot so I honestly don't know what American accent I actually have...I'd be curious if others hear it and can pinpoint it better than I can), I don't want to hear an American accent on the show. It would throw me out of the show faster than a catapult tossing burning embers on Minas Tirith simply because it's too familiar/not foreign enough.

    However, I also have a sharp ear for accents (spend 5 minutes talking to someone with one and I sound just like them without even meaning to), so there are certain accents that would immediately make me think "this person's from Australia, or this person's a Kiwi, or this person is Irish, etc" rather than believing that said person is someone from Middle-earth.

    I didn't hear this too much/too badly in Jackson's films, possibly because the voice training/accent training was so well-done (with a few exceptions, like when Sam's accent slips to American a few times. But Pippin's rolling off the tongue/Billy Boyd's real accent was kind of strong as well). I think the strength of using various British accents is that there are so many even if the Isles are so small that it is easy to find one that is more "remote" to the American ear than "obviously pinpointing a specific real-world location".

    So I would say...I think the best way for them to establish that it is Middle-earth and not somewhere in our real world is to try and avoid using VERY DISTINCT large regional accents like Australian, strong Kiwi, southeastern American (or any American really, just because it would be too familiar to a very large audience due to America's 300 mil population), thick Irish (for some reason, Gimli's thick Scottish brogue wasn't too dialectal for me, but I did notice it), etc. The nice thing about British accents, at least for me, is that they're more subtle and yet still distinct enough that it is believable that the cast is from the same world as each other, but not from our world.

    Or, you know...they could have people speak using Tolkien's phonetics but in early 20th c. English dialogue-basically give them the accents they would have if they natively spoke Tolkien's languages, BUT have them speaking words we can all understand (to quote Gimli Wink).

    A good example of this is Legolas's rolling the r's in his speech even though British English doesn't (as far as I know) roll their r's that much (but Sindarin does, and it is his birth tongue so it's expected that he would speak Westron with a Sindarin accent Wink).

    So if the show can do something similar to what PJ did with Legolas's Sindarin accent influencing his Westron speech and apply that to all the characters, and combine that with early 20th c. dialogue like Tolkien used, then they'll hit the nail on the head as far as I'm concerned. And Westron should absolutely be British in origin IMHO because that's where the story was created and no doubt when Tolkien read Westron he intended for it to sound British. But it should be a subtle accent, not distinct like Cockney.

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    uncle Iorlas

    Dec 16 2019, 11:02pm

    Post #4 of 9 (678 views)
    I feel for what you're saying, Squire [In reply to] Can't Post

    and I am certainly cautious as well on this score, but I seem to find myself a little less pessimistic. Certainly it's possible for contemporary writers to draft dialogue that could plausibly pass muster with the professor. Downton Abbey, for example, has made a good display of British English circa 1920, and the people who made that are still alive.

    It comes down to the people in charge. If there's a producer who has a gut understanding of this quality of Tolkien's use of language, or if the director does, or since this is TV maybe more importantly the showrunners, there's a real fighting chance that it could be presented quite satisfactorily. No sure thing, but a chance. Jackson was deaf to these considerations, but this is a new roll of the dice.

    balbo biggins

    Dec 17 2019, 9:34pm

    Post #5 of 9 (403 views)
    No American si? [In reply to] Can't Post

    There should under no circumstance be a hint of an American accent.

    I vote for a primarily geordie accents with maybe a little Brum and cornish, just to throw everyone off.

    (This post was edited by balbo biggins on Dec 17 2019, 9:35pm)


    Dec 21 2019, 12:00pm

    Post #6 of 9 (286 views)
    speech styles [In reply to] Can't Post

    Well we can look at it from various angles, like we can say from in-universe perspective the style of English which is used as a stand in, or translation from westron or common tongue is used to differentiate somewhat person's background, look at speech pattern of gondorians, even simple soldiers like Ingold:

    ‘Yea truly, we know you, Mithrandir,’ said the leader of the men, ‘and you know the pass-words of the Seven Gates and are free to go forward. But we do not know your companion. What is he? A dwarf out of the mountains in the North? We wish for no strangers in the land at this time, unless they be mighty men of arms in whose faith and help we can trust.’

    And it's noted in-universe that Gondorians used a particular speech style, and as seen in our perspective as of readers it is a bit more antiquated a bit more high style English with more archaisms:

    In the days of the Númenórean kings this ennobled Westron speech spread far and wide, even among their enemies; and it became used more and more by the Dúnedain themselves, so that at the time of the War of the Ring the Elven-tongue was known to only a small part of the peoples of Gondor, and spoken daily by fewer. These dwelt mostly in Minas Tirith and the townlands adjacent, and in the land of the tributary princes of Dol Amroth. [..] in Gondor whence it came the Westron kept still a more gracious and antique style.

    The Return of the King, LoTR Appendix F, The Languages and Peoples of the Third Age: Of Men

    'Gracious and antique style' this is what is described as in appendices. Even Frodo notes when meeting Gondorians in story their speech pattern:

    [Mablung and Damrod] spoke together in soft voices, at first using the Common Speech, but after the manner of older days, and then changing to another language of their own.

    Common Speech after the manner of older days. Hobbits have their own more casual style (and apparently as Beregond notes they have 'strange accent' to a Gondorian, but he also points they too can be 'fair spoken') and even Orcs have their own style of sorts:

    'Hullo, Pippin!' he said. 'So you've come on this little expedition, too? Where do we get bed and breakfast?'

    'Now then!' said Uglúk. 'None of that! Hold your tongues. No talk to one another. Any trouble will be reported at the other end, and He'll know how to pay you. You'll get bed and breakfast all right: more than you can stomach.'

    Orcs in Tolkien works actually don't particularly sound cockney-ish at all (that would be more part of Troll's speech patterns), in fact various Orcs speak quite eloquently. Like good old Grishnakh:

    'Well, my little ones!' said Grishnákh in a soft whisper. 'Enjoying your nice rest? Or not? A little awkwardly placed, perhaps: swords and whips on one side, and nasty spears on the other! Little people should not meddle _in affairs that are too big for them.' His fingers continued to grope. There was a light like a pale but hot fire behind his eyes.

    The thought came suddenly into Pippin's mind, as if caught direct from the urgent thought of his enemy: 'Grishnákh knows about the Ring! He's looking for it, while Uglúk is busy: he probably wants it for himself.' Cold fear was in Pippin's heart, yet at the same time he was wondering what use he could make of Grishnákh's desire.

    'I don't think you will find it that way,' he whispered. 'It isn't easy to find.'

    'Find it?' said Grishnákh: his fingers stopped crawling and gripped Pippin's shoulder. 'Find what? What are you talking about, little one?'. For a moment Pippin was silent. Then suddenly in the darkness he made a noise in his throat: gollum, gollum. 'Nothing, my precious,' he added.

    The hobbits felt Grishnákh's fingers twitch. 'O ho!' hissed the goblin softly. 'That's what he means, is it? O ho! Very ve-ry dangerous, my little ones.'

    'Perhaps,' said Merry, now alert and aware of Pippin's guess. 'Perhaps; and not only for us. Still you know your own business best. Do you want it, or not? And what would you give for it?'

    'Do I want it? Do I want it?' said Grishnákh, as if puzzled; but his arms were trembling. 'What would I give for it? What do you mean?'

    'We mean,' said Pippin, choosing his words carefully, 'that it's no good groping in the dark. We could save you time and trouble. But you must untie our legs first, or we'll do nothing, and say nothing.'

    'My dear tender little fools,' hissed Grishnákh, 'everything you have, and everything you know, will be got out of you in due time: everything! You'll wish there was more that you could tell to satisfy the Questioner, indeed you will: quite soon. We shan't hurry the enquiry. Oh dear no! What do you think you've been kept alive for? My dear little fellows, please believe me when I say that it was not out of kindness: that's not even one of Uglúk's faults.'

    How this will be rendered in the show, no idea, though I expect that if the care even a little they should try to emulate Tolkien's use of language and better yet use actual lines he wrote like it was sometimes the case in Lotr films. Of course other languages like Adunaic or Sindarin, Quenya could appear in some capacity. What sort of accent the English speaking actors should use I've no clue, it will probably come out in terms of how they will try to stylize this entire show, what sort of point of reference they will take. Still it should be that Numenoreans and Elves when speaking in common tongue of sorts whether we accept it as sort of translated elvish or native numenorean, it should seem more high style, (or as Tolkien would write 'lofty' :)) to make them seem more educated, well spoken and eloquent. Second Age also sees the first emergence of actual Westron as in Common Speech that is the main language used in Third Age in communication between various people, how this detail will be addressed is yet to be seen (westron arises in time of numenorean colonization, with the steady use of native Adunaic more, while the earlier Numenoreans used more often elven tongues, which in the end made them able to communicate with Elves on their terms).


    Dec 21 2019, 2:24pm

    Post #7 of 9 (286 views)
    I love the idea of the Amazon series explicating the evolution of Numenorean speech from Sindarin to Westron throughout the Second Age [In reply to] Can't Post

    I also don't think it will happen.

    Your basic point is so good: that any production of Tolkien's stories should have a working 'theory' of what English represents (assuming an English-language production, of course). It's the only artistically faithful response to the author's complex and quasi-realistic attention to the role and evolution of language in a multi-cultural world over millennia of development and migration.

    But I've never heard that the New Line films did that. To their credit, they did hire people to work out the foreign languages (Elvish, Dwarvish, etc.) enough to be used credibly; but the English spoken, in terms of dialect, style, and tone, seemed to follow the whims of the screenwriters and even the actors almost on a scene by scene basis.

    I don't think I'm making a big leap of imagination to assume that this new production will take a similar approach - especially since almost none of what we will hear spoken will be based on anything Tolkien wrote.

    squire online:
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    Lights! Action! Discuss on the Movie board!: 'A Journey in the Dark'. and 'Designing The Two Towers'.
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    Dec 21 2019, 2:59pm

    Post #8 of 9 (280 views)
    Unfortunately [In reply to] Can't Post

    Tolkien didn't leave enough of Quenya or Sindarin, much less Adunaic, to be usable as dialogue. The idea of furrin-with-subtitles is appealing, but for that you first have to have the furrin!

    (And, no, I don't mean following PJ and using bogus 'Salorin' dialogue)


    Dec 22 2019, 4:43am

    Post #9 of 9 (264 views)
    bogus 'Salorin' dialogue [In reply to] Can't Post

    For those who may not know what this is referring to, the language consultant for Jackson's films was a fellow named David Salo who is a fairly controversial figure in some circles in that he has developed what is sometimes called "neo-Elvish" which is an extrapolation from Tolkien's work. The most detailed commentary on this was written by Carl Hostetter (who posts here occasionally as Aelfwine. It is well worth reading:

    “Elvish as She Is Spoke”

    'But very bright were the stars upon the margin of the world, when at times the clouds about the West were drawn aside.'

    The Hall of Fire


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