Back in October, New Zealand Post announced that they would mint special-issue gold coins as a tie-in with Jackson’s The Hobbit. The press release stated:
The rim of each coin is inscribed in both English and Dwarvish with the words “Middle-earth — New Zealand.”
However, the images included in the press release do not actually show Dwarvish. The author of the text is, like too many people, confused by matters of language and alphabet. We see this confusion in occasional queries to the TORn staff, asking for something to be “translated into Elvish” when it turns out that what the person really wants is English, transliterated into Tolkien’s tengwar, i.e., Elvish letters.
While this confusion in terminology may seem like a small matter of interest only to Tolkien language specialists, getting the terms straight may avoid miscommunication (as in the last example), or inadvertent misrepresentation, as in the case of the coin description.
Language and alphabet
To read this paragraph, you require knowledge of two things: the English language, which you would need to understand the paragraph even if someone else were reading it to you; and the Roman (not “English”) alphabet, which is used, with many variations, to represent the sounds of many different languages. Similarly, it is important to distinguish between the Elvish languages (primarily Sindarin and Quenya), and the Elvish letters (tengwar) seen in, for example the inscription on the One Ring.
“I cannot read the fiery letters,” said Frodo in a quavering voice.
“No,” Said Gandalf, “but I can. The letters are Elvish, of an ancient mode, but the language is that of Mordor, which I will not utter here.”
Note here that Gandalf is careful to distinguish the Elvish letters on the Ring from the language for which it is being employed, in this case the Black Speech of Mordor. They (the letters) may also be employed for English, as on the title page of The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, Tolkien used the tengwar for English quite often and created some striking and beautiful pages in this mode, some of which have been published.
The situation with Dwarvish is similar: the Dwarvish language (which the Dwarves call Khuzdûl) is little seen in The Lord of the Rings: think of Gimli’s names for Redhorn, Cloudyhead, and Silvertine: he gives the Sindarin names as Caradhras, Fanuidhol, and Celebdil; and the Khuzdûl names as Barazinbar, Bundushathûr, and Zirak-zigil. We read all of these names in the Roman alphabet. But the Dwarves also carved inscriptions using angular runes called the Cirth — pronounced “keerth” — or the Angerthas. Both are Sindarin words, for the first runic characters were devised by Daeron, the loremaster and minstrel of Doriath. The Dwarves had adapted the runes of Daeron for their own language, and we see those runes on the tomb of Balin in Moria. Note that the tomb inscription is actually bilingual, although it is entirely in the Angerthas Moria: it is inscribed “in the tongues of Men and Dwarves”, comprising English (standing in for the Common Speech) and Khuzdûl; the Dwarvish words are “Balin Fundinul Uzbad Khazad-Dûmu.”
I reckon there’s runes and runes
But in the case of runes, the situation becomes more complicated, because of the illustration of Thror’s map in The Hobbit. The writing on the map is entirely in English; furthermore, Roman letters are used to represent what would have been tengwar on the “real” map. Extending the analogy of Roman letters for tengwar, Tolkien did not use the Cirth for the map’s runes; indeed it does not seem, from information published to date, that Tolkien had even devised the Cirth at that time. Instead, he used Anglo-Saxon runes (futhorc) for the runes on the map and on the dust jacket. Tolkien wrote an explanation of the English runes that appears as part of a brief preface in some editions of The Hobbit. He likely knew that some of his young readers might become interested in languages and ancient writings as a result of this information.
So to return to our New Zealand Post gold coins, the inscription is in English, in both the normal (Roman) alphabet and Anglo-Saxon runes (not the Cirth). There is actually no element native to Middle-earth on the coins at all.
English. The English language, whether written or spoken, but never the writing system used to represent it. In The Lord of the Rings, it is considered to be a translation of the Common Speech of the Third Age, as explained at length in Appendix F.
Elvish. The two Elvish languages seen in The Lord of the Rings are Sindarin and Quenya. Tolkien does use the phrase “Elvish letters” to refer to the tengwar, because they were devised by Fëanor and promulgated by the Elves.
Dwarvish. The English translation of Khuzdûl, the largely secret language of the Dwarves. It might be noted parenthetically that the well-known Dwarf names like Durin and Balin are not Khuzdûl, but actually representations (in a form of Old Norse) of the Northern “Mannish” names used by the Dwarves in public, not their native names in their own secret language. Their appearance on Balin’s tomb was explained (after the fact) by a note in the Appendices that the Dwarves did not inscribe their native names even upon their own tombs.
Roman Alphabet. The alphabet you are reading. It has been adapted to most of the world’s languages, as well as being used to write the Elvish languages, Dwarvish, the Black Speech of Mordor, and others.
Tengwar. The stem-and-bow system created by the Noldorin elf Fëanor and used throughout Middle-earth to represent the Common Speech, the language of Rohan, the Elvish tongues, and even the Black Speech of Mordor. The tengwar are always referred to as “letters”, and never as “runes”.
Cirth. Also called the Angerthas, these are the runes used by the Dwarves of Middle-earth. They can be used to write English (as the Common Speech) as seen on Balin’s tomb, or on the title pages of The Lord of the Rings. They bear a superficial similarity to the English futhorc, which Tolkien attributes to the fact that the Cirth were “long used only for inscribing names and brief memorials upon wood or stone.” The Cirth are always referred to as “runes” and never as “letters”. They are not “Dwarvish” and indeed were first devised by the Sindar of Beleriand.
Futhorc. The English runes that are used to represent the Dwarvish runes, only in The Hobbit. They are not “Dwarvish” nor a part of Tolkien’s world at all, save for their representative use in The Hobbit.
translation. The conversion of something from one language to another, as when one translates French to English. It has nothing to do with any particular writing system. When you translate “Long Beach” into Sindarin, you get Anfalas, not a string of tengwar letters.
transliteration. Transcribing some text from one writing system into another. The runes on Thror’s map are English, transliterated into a version of the futhorc. They are not translated into Dwarvish (nor into Anglo-Saxon).