Tag Archives: ring-wraith

Nazgûl

A person who is severely prescriptive in matters of English usage is often called a “grammar Nazi.” I must say I dislike this term. Real-life fascists and racists do not amuse me, and I am resistant to trivializing them. We wouldn’t think it reasonable to call a person a “grammar rapist,” after all, would we?

Various replacements have been suggested, among which I like “grammar numpty” – a numpty being a stupid person (it’s a Britishism). But that’s not quite optimal either; ‘stupid’ is arguably different from ‘obnoxiously purblind’. I find myself more partial to “grammar Nazgûl” (you can leave off the circumflex on the u if you want).

If you’re a Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) fan, I don’t need to tell you what a Nazgûl is, so off you go. You can spend the next few minutes writing a piece explaining something like how Gollum would not fall into lava with the ring; lava, being molten rock, is still so dense that a person falling on it would fall onto it, not into it, and would immediately combust on the surface (and the ring would of course melt). Facts, after all.

For the rest of you: ring? Yes, ring. Sauron, the great sorceror, forged rings of power, which gave their wearers great powers but gave him greater powers over them, for he had the one ring that had power over all of them, a ring that bore this inscription:

Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.

Which means

One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them,
One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

It’s a tidy little exercise in morphology – frankly, I’m surprised it’s not more often used in introductory linguistics classes. You can see readily enough that ash nazg must mean ‘one ring’, that a verb root plus –atul means the verb is done to ‘them’ and a verb root plus –atulûk means it is done to ‘them all’ (meaning –ûk must mean ‘all’, more or less). Other details that are known, though not inevitable from the text, are that burzum means ‘darkness’ and ishi is a postposition, and agh means ‘and’, and in –atul the –at is a verbal ending (meaning something like ‘to’) and –ul means ‘them’. Also, ash means ‘one’ and nazg means ‘ring’, not vice-versa (nothing in the sample itself makes that necessarily so).

So is nazgûl ‘ring them’? No, because of the difference between ul and ûl – the circumflex means it’s a long vowel (literally: hold it longer, just like you hold the /k/ in bookkeeper longer than the one in bookie). That makes it a different sound. Also, nazg isn’t a verb. Nazgûl is from nazg plus gûl, which means ‘wraith’. What’s a wraith? Kind of like a ghoul. Hmm.

Well, it is a constructed language. ‘Bind’ uses the root krimp, like English crimp, for instance. Whether Nazi influenced Tolkien’s invention of nazg here I don’t know (the Nazis did like Wagner’s Ring Cycle), but he was writing this in the 1940s.

What is a Nazgûl, then? A ring-wraith, yes, but what are those? Men who took up rings of power forged by Sauron, came under Sauron’s control, and, after Sauron lost the One Ring, were tasked with seeking it out mercilessly. If anyone was carrying it, and especially if anyone was wearing it, they could sense it, and they would swoop down with the aim of destroying the wearer and restoring the ring to its rightful condition. They descended as if from nowhere, uttering unbearable sounds.

I’m not saying that the parallel is exact. But consider: A person learns a set of tidy rules about English that give a sense of knowledge and control. They believe that in enforcing them they are serving the betterment of English and their own expression, but the rules become ends in themselves, and their enforcement an exercise in condemnation and destruction. They dedicate themselves to seeking out transgressions. A hapless person uses a bit of grammar that falls within their set of magical rules – or, rather, strays against it – and they swoop in as if from nowhere, making sounds terrible to the hearer.

Does that seem a bit of an extreme caricature? Not all that extreme. Look, I was one in my younger days, so I have some idea.

That does mean that, unlike a Nazgûl, one may always stop being one. Nonetheless grammar Nazgûl is at least as viable as any other similar term. And it has a good ring to it.

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