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The Irish For: Did the Irish language influence the names of Gollum and the orcs in the Lord of the Rings?

J. R. R. Tolkien once tried to learn Irish in Galway but he dismissed the language as suffering from “fundamental unreason,” writes Darach Ó Séaghdha.

Darach Ó Séaghdha

This is the latest dispatch from our columnist Darach Ó Séaghdha, author of the award-winning and bestselling Motherfoclóir. Every Sunday morning, Darach will be regaling (re-Gaeling?) us with insights on what the Irish language says about Ireland, our society, our past and our present. Enjoy.

THIS FRIDAY SAW the release of Tolkien – a biopic about the celebrated South African-born fantasy author.

Tolkien’s books are more popular than ever and his influence spreads beyond fantasy literature into music (the quieter moments of Led Zeppelin), gaming (Dungeons and Dragons, enjoying a spike in popularity right now) tattoos and calligraphy (those cool runes and elf fonts) and “conlangs” – fictional languages like Klingon, Dothraki and Na’vi – all inspired by his painstaking efforts in creating the Elvish tongues.

It is perhaps the latter sphere that would have been closest to Tolkien’s own heart; while it is unlikely that he had tattoos or enjoyed ‘70s prog rock, I have it on good authority that he was a professor of English and worked at the Oxford English Dictionary exactly one hundred years ago.

During a time when the Irish language foclóir owed its existence mostly to the obsessive efforts of a single overworked priest, the OED was sufficiently flaithiúlach to have whole teams devoted to each letter of the alphabet.

Tolkien’s bailiwick a letter which did not feature in Irish at the time – the weird and wonderful letter W.

Tolkien contributed to the entries for walrus, warlock and wampum, and although definitions are regularly updated to reflect current use, his definition for walnut “the large wrinkled edible seed of a deciduous tree, consisting of two halves contained within a hard shell which is enclosed in a green fruit” has been left untouched.

The Irish name for walnut, gallchnó, literally means foreign nut – this is also the literal meaning of walh-hnutu the English term’s Germanic root which Tolkien identified.

Perhaps it was Tolkien’s loyalty to the letter W that fuelled his notorious dislike of the Irish language and his preference for Welsh.

During the 1950s, he frequently visited University College Galway as an external examiner and famously remarked that, after having a stab at learning it, he considered Gaeilge to be “a mushy language” suffering from “fundamental unreason”.

These remarks need to be put in context, however.

Tolkien’s professional activities in Galway would have coincided with the preparation of Tomás De Bhaldraithe’s 1959 English-Irish Dictionary – a work which controversially adapted Roman lettering included hitherto banned letters (JKQVWXYZ), discarded the ponc séimhithe and also simplified the spellings of many words.

Studying – or even just observing – Irish during this period of renovation, when old and new spelling conventions coexisted and were being used interchangeably, must have been frustrating.

Having Welsh, which wasn’t going through such changes, as a point of comparison may have made Irish look relatively untidy to an outsider.

Nonetheless, the fact that Tolkien had some familiarity with Gaeilge has tempted some readers into attributing Irish origins to certain terms in his books.

One theory offered is that Gollum’s name derives from Poulnagollum in Clare (Poll na gColm, Colm’s hole or cave), the longest cave in Ireland.

Another is that the name for the ring in the Black Speech is nazg, sounding awfully similar to nasc (a ring or link) in Irish.

A third is orc, listed in Bishop O’Brien’s dictionary as a piglet or a prince’s son.

When considering whether these purported origins have any merit, it’s important to point out that their claim for authenticity is based on a coincidence of sounds rather than an analysis of Tolkien’s own extensive notes.

Because of this, some pedants will dismiss them out of hand and ridicule those who suggest them. But I’m reluctant to do so.

While I would not present them as proofs, there is something magical in these linguistic serendipities, and their existence has positively informed decisions in the translation of Tolkien’s work into Irish, such as An Hobad, nó Anonn Agus ar Ais Arís in 2012.

Sometimes wonderful things are discovered when you wander through language.

As the man himself said, not all those who wander are lost.

Darach’s new book Craic Baby is the follow-up to his acclaimed Motherfoclóir and is out now under the Head of Zeus imprint.

He runs @theirishfor Twitter account and the @motherfocloir podcast.

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About the author:

Darach Ó Séaghdha

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