In the game Hearthstone, when the dwarven Innkeeper greets players with a hearty, “WELCOME to the Inn!” he sounds like he’s channeling some cartoonish ideal of the Scottish accent. And he’s not alone. Standard fantasy dwarves speak with a Scottish or generally Northern European brogue, but how can that be true when such a race never really existed? The same can be said for the lofty English tone of the elves, or the working-class Cockney of many orcs and trolls.
While slight variations on these themes exist, fantasy races seem to have as much of a stereotypical sound as any real-world dialect. And they tell us more about the characters than you probably realize.
Long before elves, orcs, and dwarves populated the pages of Dungeons & Dragons sourcebooks, Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth film adaptations, and video games like World of Warcraft, they developed out of mythology, fan imagination, and more than anywhere else, the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. And even though his works were purely textual, the ways that common fantasy races sound today have their roots in his vivid fantasy world.
The most commonly occurring pop fantasy races—elves, dwarves, trolls/orcs, even humans—have their roots in European mythology. From the dwarves and elves of Nordic poetry to Scandinavia’s trolls, the basic shape and cultural texture of many of these beings can be linked directly to ancient folklore. But it wasn’t until Tolkien’s works, which were heavily inspired by such myths, that the tropes we are familiar with today really fell into place.
“Elves wouldn’t even really be a thing, at least not in the way they currently are, if it weren’t for Tolkien,” says Corey Olsen, noted Tolkien scholar and creator of The Tolkien Professor podcast. “Dwarves are another thing. A lot of the things that we associate with dwarves, we owe a lot of that to Tolkien.”
Throughout The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the reams of related histories Tolkien wrote about Middle Earth, he established whole societies, histories, and languages for a handful of races that still inform how they are depicted today. Elves are ancient, beautiful, and have pointy ears; dwarves are short, tough, and love to use axes; orcs are filthy brutes who live for destruction.
Of course the original readers couldn’t hear what Tolkien’s creatures sounded like, but the intense focus he placed on developing their languages gave people a pretty good idea. “Tolkien was a philologist,” says Olsen.“This is what he did. He studied language and the history of language and the changing of language over time.”
Tolkien would create languages first, then write cultures and histories to speak them, often taking inspiration from the sound of an existing language. In the case of the ever-present Elvish languages in his works, Tolkien took inspiration from Finnish and Welsh. As the race of men and hobbits got their language from the elves in Tolkien’s universe, their language was portrayed as similarly Euro-centric in flavor.
For the dwarves, who were meant to have evolved from an entirely separate lineage, he took inspiration from Semitic languages for their speech, resulting in dwarven place names like Khazad-dûm and Moria.
“When dwarves actually talk, they don’t sound Scottish at all,” says Olsen. “They sound like Arabic or Hebrew.” Tolkien’s choice here was originally based solely on how different Semitic languages sounded, although later he would admit to accidental similarities between dwarves and Jewish people.
However, the dwarves of the Lord of the Rings movies don’t speak with an Israeli accent, and the elves of Warcraft don’t have a Finnish inflection. This comes down to the differences between how Tolkien portrayed his fantasy races and how he imagined they should talk, and the readers’ interpretation.
As radio and film adaptations of Tolkien’s works were released in later decades, you can see the slow evolution of the dwarven accent from the low British of 1977’s cartoon version of The Hobbit, to the more stylized accents of the pair of dwarves in 1985’s Legend, to the Welsh-by-way-of-Scotland grumblings of John Rhys Davies’ Gimli from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, right into the aggressive rolled R’s of Hearthstone’s dwarven Innkeeper.
“What you get is a sense of Celticness,” says Dominic Watt, Senior Lecturer in Forensic Speech Science at the University of York. Watt explains that many of the virtues associated with the stereotypical fantasy dwarf are also associated with the Scottish accent. “Scottish accents tend to be evaluated pretty positively,” he says. “Shrewdness, honesty, straight-forward speaking. Those are the sorts of ideas that the accent tends to evoke.” Watt also says that there are similar cultural stereotypes surrounding the drinking habits of dwarves and Scots.
Tolkien’s elves similarly took on their own identity, as lofty, immortal progenitors of Middle Earth. They were ethereal, distant, and wise beyond their youthful looks—but above all, above it all. Their voices would come to take on this lofty nature as well.
From the first Lord of the Rings radio plays, elves were depicted speaking in a high-born English accent, owing both to the general Englishness of Tolkien’s texts and to their place in Middle Earth. This vocal portrayal has rarely strayed since.
“The impression I’m always given when I hear elves speak in the English accent you always hear in movies, which again, is very much a Tolkien thing, is that first of all, they are more culturally sophisticated,” says Olsen. Be it the High Elves of Skyrim, Tom Baker’s peaceful elf healer in the Dungeons & Dragons movie, or Cate Blanchett’s ethereal Galadriel, the typical elves of today sound like they were inspired by English royalty.
“If you want people to seem like they are the wisest and they surpass the races of men, and they’re immortal, I can imagine that […] they are not going to give them West Country accents like they give hobbits,” says Watt.
Maybe the fantasy accent that can be most directly tied to Tolkien’s text is the working-class Cockney accent so often given to orcs and other sentient brutes in modern fantasy. Here we can look directly at the depiction of the trio of trolls in The Hobbit, which are written in a strangely modern dialect—a technique Tolkien rarely used, and later regretted. “In particular, he regretted making their language so recognizably modern. They wouldn’t say words like ‘blimey,’ for instance,” says Olsen.
In the later Lord of the Rings books, Tolkien’s orcs would speak in harsh, but basically correct common parlance, but in the larger view of the fantasy genre, the damage was done. Echoes of that Cockney speech can be found in a number of versions of fantasy bruisers, most notably in the orcs of the Lord of the Rings films and the Warhammer universe.
There isn’t any one instance in which dwarves first sounded like dwarves or orcs first sounded like orcs, and given the breadth and imagination of modern fantasy, it’s not inconceivable that our accepted versions of fantasy dialect will come to change in the near future. For the time being, the accents we take for granted in our fantasy stories are here to stay, still informed, like almost all of the genre, by Tolkien’s influence.