Entish - say nothing that isn't worth saying

The Ents originally had no tongue, but in contact with Elves they adopted the idea of communicating with sounds. "They always wished to talk to everything, the old Elves did," Treebeard recalls (LotR2/III ch. 4). The Ents loved Quenya, but they also developed their own tongue, probably the most peculiar of all the languages of Arda. Tolkien describes it as "slow, sonorous, agglomerated, repetitive, indeed long-winded; formed of a multiplicity of vowel-shades and distinctions of tone and quantity which even the loremasters of the Eldar had not attempted to represent in writing" (Appendix F). The Ents were apparently able to distinguish between minute variations of quality and quantity and used such distinctions phonemically. Many distinct Entish phonemes would sound like a single sound to a human or even Elvish ear. It seems that Entish also employed different tones, perhaps somewhat like Chinese, in which language a simple word like ma may have one of four meanings (ranging from "mother" to "horse") - and to the Chinese they all sound different, because the vowel a is pronounced with a distinct tone in each case. Entish may have employed many more tones than just four.
          A-lalla-lalla-rumba-kamanda-lindor-burúmë is our sole example of genuine Entish; the tones are not annotated in any way. This may be one of the reasons why Tolkien describes this unique fragment of true Entish as "probably very inaccurate". (Appendix F) We cannot analyze this fragment. It may be noted that the general word-forms seem strongly inspired by Quenya (as far as phonetic style goes, all the elements except burúmë could have been High-Elven; Quenya cannot have b in this position).
          Tolkien also describes Entish as "agglomerated" and "long-winded". This was due to the fact that each "word" was actually a very long and very detailed description of the thing in question. Treebeard said of his own Entish name that it was "growing all the time, and I've lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish as you might say" (LotR2/III ch. 4). On a later occasion, Treebeard started to render the Entish designation of Orcs directly into the Common Speech, then realized that this would take far to long time when he was speaking to human-like species: "There was a great inrush of those, burárum, those evileyed - blackhanded - bowlegged - flinthearted - clawfingered - foulbellied - bloodthirsty, morimaite - sincahonda, hoom, well, since you are hasty folk and their full name is as long as years of torment, those vermin of orcs." (LotR3/VI ch. 6; morimaite-sincahonda is "blackhanded-flinthearted" in Quenya.) So the Entish "word" for Orc was a rather long and very thorough description of Orcs and their attributes. In a few cases, Treebeard also used Quenya elements and strung them together as he would do in his own language, like laurelindórenan lindelorendor malinornélion ornemalin. In Letters:308, Tolkien explains that "the elements are laure, gold, not the metal but the colour, what we should call golden light; ndor, nor, land, country; lin, lind-, a musical sound; malina, yellow; orne, tree; lor, dream; nan, nand-, valley. So that roughly he means: 'The valley where the trees in a golden light sing musically, a land of music and dreams; there are yellow trees there, it is a tree-yellow land.' " Another example of the same is Taurelilómëa-tumbalemorna Tumbaletaurëa Lómeanor, that Tolkien renders "Forestmanyshadowed-deepvalleyblack Deepvalleyforested Gloomyland". By this Treebeard meant, "more or less", there is a black shadow in the deep dales of the forest (Appendix F). These examples give us a glimpse of the exceedingly complex and repetitive Entish syntax. The comment "more or less" is certainly justified. In the truest sense, Entish was probably impossible to render into any human language. A "translation" could only be a very brief and incomplete synopsis of the original statement. Jim Allan speculates: "A speech in Entish, if it could be understood by human ears, would perhaps be like a very verbose and involved kind of poetry. There would be repetitions upon repetitions upon repetitions, with slight variations. If there was anything that we might call a sentence, it might proceed in a sort of spiral fashion, winding in to the main point, and then winding out again, touching all along the way on what has already been said and what will be said" (An Introduction to Elvish p. 176).
          Armed with this knowledge we can better understand Treebeard's own description of Entish: "It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to." The Ent Bregalad got this Elvish name - "Quickbeam" - when he said yes to another Ent before the latter had finished his question; this was considered very "hasty" of him (perhaps the end of the question was only an hour or so away). We understand that Entish is not the language to use if you want to express "pass me the salt". When listening to the deliberations of the Entmoot, Pippin "found himself wondering, since Entish was such an 'unhasty' language, whether they had yet got further than Good Morning; and if Treebeard was to call the roll, how many days it would take to sing all their names. 'I wonder what the Entish is for yes and no,' he thought." (LotR2/III ch. 4) We must assume that the Entish "words" for yes and no were long, repetitive monologues on the subjects "I agree" vs. "I disagree", so even Bregalad's "quick answer" probably took its time. But it appears that the Ents did not always communicate in "dialogues" with one speaking at a time. During the Entmoot, "the Ents began to murmur slowly: first one joined and then another, until they were all chanting together in a long rising and falling rhythm, now louder on one side of the ring, now dying away there and rising to a great boom on the other side". Evidently the debate was a long, pulsating symphony of many opinions being voiced simultaneously, slowly merging into a conclusion. This may explain why it did not take forever before the Entmoot decided upon a course of action.
          Nonetheless, it goes without saying that this was no language for beings that perceive time as we do. Weirdities like these are what we must expect when we are dealing with the language of walking trees.

Ardalambion Index