Let Us Dispute About Noises: Guest Post

As you know, I have begun working as a Preceptor for Signum University/The Mythgard Institute. This University offers courses in fantasy literature and sci fi, and I’m on the faculty team for the Lewis & Tolkien course. So it seems appropriate to continue posting news, articles, and discussion related to these two writers, close friends of Charles Williams, The Oddest Inkling.

Recently, in response to a question of mine, Corey Olsen (“The Tolkien Professor“) released a podcast about how to pronounce names in Tolkien’s works. Dr. Ed Powell is a member of the Board and the Curator of Computational Complexities for Signum and Mythgard. Here he shares his thoughts on Tolkien’s pronunciation, including lots of helpful background information and the results of a poll. If you did not get a chance to vote in the poll, please leave your vote in the comments. Enjoy! 

2014-06-07 18-01-12 -- EdThere has been a lot of discussion of the names of Thorin’s father and cousin, Thrain and Dain, especially since Professor Olsen’s recent podcast on the subject. After the podcast, and listening to the Professor’s arguments, I wanted to know how you pronounce these names.

The results of the survey are shown below, but first a bit of background.

Vowels and Diphthongs

First a note about vowels. In first grade we all learned about vowels in English: Long vowels such as the a in fate, and short vowels, such as the a in fat. Similarly for the rest of the vowels e, i, o, and u. Then when we learned French or Spanish in later grades it was a shock to discover that their vowels were different. French a was pronounced like short o: the o in hot and the a in father. The vowel i was pronounced not like the i in kite or the i in kit, but like a long e as in machine. These are very approximately the vowel sounds of Middle English and Latin.

So why do our modern vowels not sound the same as the Middle English vowels? The explanation lies in the strange and wondrous tale of The Great Vowel Shift, which occurred in English in the mid-second millenium. Read the Wikipedia article or the more daunting article about The Phonological History of English Vowels. Intrepid students might also want to listen to the seriously outstanding set of courses on Linguistics by Professor John McWhorter offered by The Great Courses (née The Teaching Company).

Tolkien gives his prefered pronunciation of his vowels in the Appendix E of The Lord of the Rings:

For vowels the letters i, e, a, o, u are used, and (in Sindarin only) y. As far as can be determined the sounds represented by these letters (other than y) were of normal kind, though doubtless many local varieties escape detection. That is, the sounds were approximately those represented by i, e, a, o, u in English machine, were, father, for, brute, irrespective of quantity.”

Finally, instead of the standard first-grade English maxim “when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking” that was drilled into our head at an early age (e.g., hear), many vowel combinations are diphthongs (“two adjacent vowel sounds occurring within the same syllable”–Wikipedia). In fact, many “vowels” that we know and love, for example the long a in fate, are not vowels at all, but diphthongs. Say the word fate slowly and notice how your tongue moves during the a sound. It starts at a place that roughly corresponds to the long e sound in French (père), close to the short e in English bed, then glides to the English long e sound (feet). The long a vowel sound in English is really the diphthong “ei” (spelled “[eɪ̯]” in the International Phonetic Alphabet or IPA). Similarly, the long i in kite is actually a diphthong, too. Again say the word kite slowly and pay attention to your tongue as the i sound progresses from a sound like the a in father (or the o in pot) to the long e sound like the i in machine (or the e in tree). The long i sound is really the diphthong “ai” (spelled [aɪ̯] in IPA).

Tolkien’s instructions for diphthongs are also given in Appendix E:

“In Sindarin the diphthongs are written ae, ai, ei, oe, ui, and au. Other combinations are not diphthongal. The writing of final au as aw is in accordance with English custom, but is actually not uncommon in Fëanorian spellings.

All these diphthongs were ‘falling’ diphthongs, that is stressed on the first element, and composed of the simple vowels run together. Thus ai, ei, oi, ui are intended to be pronounced respectively as the vowels in English rye (not ray), grey, boy, ruin; and au (aw) as in loud, how and not as in laud, haw.

There is nothing in English closely corresponding to ae, oe, eu; ae and oe may be pronounced as ai, oi.”

Tolkien also describes the purpose of accents in his names in Appendix E:

“Long vowels are usually marked with the ‘acute accent’, as in some varieties of Fëanorian script. In Sindarin long vowels in stressed monosyllables are marked with the circumflex, since they tended in such cases to be specially prolonged ; so in dûn compared with Dúnadan.”

Now we have all the background we need to understand the various arguments for the pronunciation of the name “Thrain”. Or do we?

More Evidence

So Tolkien just said that ai was pronounced as in rye, so Thrain is obviously pronounced Thrine. QED. Right?

Not so fast, Buckaroo. Tolkien’s directions above apply to words derived from Sindarin and Quenya, not for names derived from other languages. “Thrain” is not a Quenya or Sindarin name, but an anglicisation of the name “Þráinn” from the Dvergatal (list of dwarves) in the Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress”), the first poem of the Poetic Edda, a collection of Old Norse poems.

There are two items of note in this. First, the name Thrain is an anglicisation, not the original name itself. Many names in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are anglicized and are pronounced using modern English pronunciation. For example, Bilbo is pronounced as it reads in English, with a short i and a long o. it is not pronounced Beelbo, as it would be under the Tolkien’s Sindarin rules described above. Nor is Samwise pronounced Sahmweeze. English names and other anglicized names are pronounced as normal English speakers would pronounce them. Tolkien never pronounced the name “Thrain” as far as I can tell, but he did pronounce the names of all the dwarves in Thorin and Company, which you can listen to in a very poor recording here. There are some strange elements here:

  1. Dwalin and Balin are pronounced such that the a is the a in hat, not father.
  2. Fili and Kili are pronounced more like Filly and Killy than Feely and Keely
  3. Dori, Nori, and Ori are all pronounced as you would expect, with the long o as in the word or, and the final i as in machine.
  4. Oin and Gloin are pronounced Oh’-in and Glow’-in with two syllables. They are not pronounced to rhyme with coin.
  5. Bifur and Bofur are pronounced as Biffer and Boffer, rather than Bee’-foor (or Beye’-foor) and Bo’-foor
  6. Surprisingly Bombur is pronounced with the oor sound for the last syllable, following Tolkien’s rules in Appendix E of The Lord of the Rings. This is different from Bifur and Bofur where the last ur is pronounced er (with the schwa e). Bombur is Bomboor.
  7. Elsewhere (not in this clip) Thorin is pronounced in the usual way.

What can one conclude from these? First, there is no consistency with respect to pronunciation rules, whether English or Sindarin. Balin and Bifur just blew me away–Tolkien’s pronunciation was so unexpected. Who knows how he might have pronounced Thrain?

The second item of note is that the language of the original name (“Þráinn”) is Old Norse. The accented á in Old Norse is pronounced ou as in loud. Click here for a lesson in Old Norse pronunciation. This name would have been pronounced Throu’-in if I am hearing the Old Norse properly. Could this be a possible pronunciation?

Finally, to confuse us more, Tolkien added accent marks to many of the dwarves’ names in The Lord of the Rings. Thus, from The Council of Elrond:

‘Balin will find no ring in Moria,’ said Gandalf. ‘Thrór gave it to Thráin his son, but not Thráin to Thorin. It was taken with torment from Thráin in the dungeons of Dol Guldur. I came too late.’

‘Ah, alas!’ cried Glóin. ‘When will the day come of our revenge?’

What Tolkien meant by these accents other than his comment “Long vowels are usually marked with the ‘acute accent’” is unknown. How would anyone pronounce Thror differently from Thrór? What does it mean in Thráin? There are many theories. It could be to mark out that the ai is not a diphthong, but as in Oin and Gloin, simply two letters next to one another both of which get pronounced separately. In this case the i next to the a would be short, pronounced as in the word kin.

However, we are not talking about how Thráin is pronounced in The Lord of the Rings, we are talking about how Thrain is pronounced in The Hobbit. As Professor Olsen makes abundantly clear in his lectures, we need to take The Hobbit as a work on its own and judge it for what it is, by itself, not necessarily judge it based on hindsight after reading The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and other works. Tolkien had plenty of opportunity to modify The Hobbit and add in the accent over the a in Thrain. He took this opportunity to clean up a lot of other confusions, mistakes, and typographical errors. That he did not place the accent in The Hobbit tells me that he thought it was unnecessary complexity for a children’s book, so he sacrificed accuracy for readability, and thus produced multiple generations of children, including the makers of the Hobbit films, who understandably pronounce Thrain as Thrane. He must have understood that would be the result of his inaction.

At this juncture, the evidence ends, although additional research in Doug Anderson’s The Annotated Hobbit and John Rateliff’s The History of the Hobbit could be done. Let the speculation and argumentation begin!

The Arguments

Each of the choices in the survey are based on a possible interpretation of the evidence, laid out above. The survey looked like:

Here are the rationales for each possible choice:

  1. Thrane – like in “train”. Rationale: Standard English pronunciation of a name that has obviously been anglicised, just like all the other dwarf names taken from the Völuspá.
  2. Thrine – like in “brine”. Rationale: The favorite of many who have read Appendix E and have seen Tolkien’s dictum that ai is pronounced like the i in kite.
  3. Throu’-in – where the “ou” sounds the same as in “loud”, and the “i” is short. Rationale: Tolkien keeps the Old Norse pronunciation of the á, and the name is two syllables.
  4. Thray’-in – where the “ay” is the same as “stay”, and the “i” is short. Rationale: Standard English pronunciation of the name if we understand the ai is not a diphthong but two vowels pronounced separately.
  5. Thrah’-in – where the “ah” is the same as in “bra”. Rationale: Similar to the previous entry, except using the a sound from father rather than from fate, which fits in better with Tolkien’s pronunciation rules in Appendix E.
  6. Throu’-een – where the “ou” sounds the same as in “loud”. Rationale: Two syllables, but the first vowel is as in Old Norse and the second vowel is long. (This is unlikely given Tolkien’s other choices, but is here for completeness).
  7. Thray’-een – where the “ay” is the same as “stay”. Rationale: two syllables, the first vowel modern English long a, the second Latinate long i (ee), which to be fair is used a lot in modern English as well.
  8. Thrah’-een – where the “ah” is the same as in “bra”. Rationale: Still two syllables, but both vowels are Latinate and long. (This is unlikely given Tolkien’s other choices, but is here for completeness).
  9. Other. Rationale: Mythgard Students are creative, perhaps someone thought of another possible pronunciation.

The Tolkien Professor

In his podcast of July 6, 2014, titled “Riddles in the Dark Bonus: Pronunciation Guide“, The Tolkien Professor made the case that all names should be pronounced according to the guide in Appendix E, whether Elvish or not. He gave the example of Smaug with the au pronounced as the ou in loud, not the as the aw in saw. This is indisputably true. (And the S in Smaug is pronounced like the s in see, not the sh in shell, in case Peter Jackson is reading this blog post). However, The Tolkien Prof omits the evidence presented in Appendix F: On Translation, where Tolkien discusses how he “Englished” a number of the Hobbit names. While he discussed dwarves here, he does not specifically address dwarf names; however, it is abundantly clear that he did in fact “English” the dwarf names too, since he took them from the Völuspá when writing The Hobbit. He also ignores the obvious anglicised names that are counter-examples to his earlier conclusion about all names following the Appendix E guidelines, and himself uses anglicised pronunciations rather than saying Beelbo Bahggeens, Peeppeen, Sahmweeze, Thoreen, Golloom, and my absolute favorite example of misusing Appendix E, Gahndalve.

He continues by discussing the names Beowulf and Beorn as names with vowel combinations that are essentially two syllables, both derived from Old English/Old Norse pronunciation. He indicates that the accent in Thráin should mean that the two vowels a and i should be pronounced separately, and that the a is long. He compares the ai vowels in the dwarf names in the figure at the end of Appendix A with the obvious oi in Óin and Glóin and the certitude that they are pronounced in two syllables.

Finally, the Tolkien Professor concludes the name is pronounced Thray’-in. However, he does not make the case for the distinction of the a being pronounced as in fate rather than in father. Indeed, the modern English long a would by his argument from above (about using Appendix E for all names) be excluded, as that sound (which itself is the diphthong [aɪ̯]) would never be represented in a Tolkien language as just a single a. The Professor’s argument, if followed consistently, would lead to Thrah’-in, not Thray’-in. Also, it is an argument from The Lord of the Rings, not from The Hobbit.

My conclusion

My view, which you may already have seen above, is that when Tolkien appropriated Thrain from the Völuspá when writing The Hobbit, he anglicized its pronunciation to either Thrane, or Thray’-in (if, as The Tolkien Professor mentioned, it was meant to be consistent with Oin and Gloin’s multiple syllables). However, when he rationalized the pronunciation of names when he was revising The Lord of the Rings, he modified the pronunciation of Thráin from the above (Thrane or Thray’-in) to the more subtle Thrah’-in, which fit better in his invented language scheme. One thing is for sure, none of us really know, since his pronunciation of all the other names of the dwarves in Thorin and Company are so unexpected.

Your Conclusions

After the Tolkien Professor released his Pronunciation Guide, I put forward a poll using social media, asking the question, “How do you personally pronounce Thorin Oakenshield’s father Thráin’s name?” I admit that adding the accent over the a is non-canonical when looking at The Hobbit on its own and thus may have skewed the result; nevertheless, the results are in from 90 responders. We have crowd-sourced the pronunciation of the name of Thorin’s father, and it’s Thrane by a fair margin:


–Ed Powell
If you have any comments, questions, or snark, please send me an email at powell (at) mythgard.org

About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a PhD student in English and Presidential Scholar at Baylor University. She also serves as Chair of the Language and Literature Department at Signum University, online. Her latest publication is an academic essay collection on "The Inklings and King Arthur" (Apocryphile Press, December 2017). Her interests include British Modernism, the Inklings, Arthuriana, theatre, and magic. She holds an M.A. from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. Sørina blogs about British poet Charles Williams at The Oddest Inkling, wrote the introduction to a new edition of Williams’s "Taliessin through Logres" (Apocryphile, 2016), and edited Williams’s "The Chapel of the Thorn" (Apocryphile, 2014). As a creative writer, Sørina has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" (2007) and "Caduceus" (2012).
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4 Responses to Let Us Dispute About Noises: Guest Post

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Dr. Powell,

    Does the first edition of E.V. Gordon’s An Introduction to Old Norse (to which I have no access) throw any possibly weighty light on the subject?

    “Other”: if disyllabic, what of the ‘a’ value that struck you as unusual in Tolkien’s recorded pronunciation of ‘Dwalin’ and ‘Balin’? (Does Gordon shed light on them?)

    Do we have any audio evidence of how Christopher Tolkien pronounces it?

    (By the way, do you pronounce ‘Powell’ as in Enoch or as in Anthony?)


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    If with the ‘a’ as in ‘hat’ value, conceivably almost more like a diphthong than a disyllable with glottal stop between, with the ‘i’ short?


  3. Sharon Hoff says:

    Confusticate and bebother these dwarves… and their names!

    I took the poll shown above and rather than answering how I thought Thrain should be pronounced given all the available information, I answered how I do pronounce it in my head while reading and in conversation. Right or wrong, usage will influence “correctness” over time. Using all of the evidence and information still leaves me uncertain. I concur with the comment above by David Llewellyn Dodds and say “let’s ask Christopher.”

    Nice work Dr. Powell


  4. jubilare says:

    I always pronounced it “Thrane,” but after all this I think I’d go with “Thray-in.” What I REALLY want to know, though, is what the Dwarves real names are. Alas for that mystery!


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