What are the Languages of Tamriel?

PSA: Having recorded this, one of my fantastic patrons has flagged a few errors here and there with this. I will be doing further investigations into this. I’m not a language scholar by training, so please by all means flag any errors that have come up in this, and I’ll get to them in another episode.

Constructed Languages, Fantasy & Elder Scrolls

Languages in fantasy often have a very core part to play in the creation of the worlds that they are a part of. It’s pretty common knowledge by this point that JRR Tolkien created Middle-earth specifically so that he could have a place for his constructed languages to evolve in. This means that Quenya, Sindarin, Khuzdul and the rest all had a singular vision of what they should be, and how they should work, even if that changed over time. This has, by and large, survived in how these languages are understood today. There are various attempts at neologisms here and there, but most of these languages that are used are the words and grammar that Tolkien envisioned, and can be understood by readers and speakers who learned as part of independent communities. The other claimant for “most famous” fictional language, Klingon, was similarly designed by a single linguist and has the Klingon Language Institute to be a single source of truth for the language’s form and evolution.

That’s not the case with The Elder Scrolls, which have had multiple developers contribute vocabulary and occasionally grammar for various languages at various times, with different influences at different points. This makes it a little difficult to arrive at concrete rules for how the languages evolved and how they relate, as different languages will often have been created in isolation from each other, making them seem a bit odd. 

The best example of this is the treatment of Ehlnofex, supposedly the language of the Ehlnofey and therefore close to what the gods of Tamriel would have spoken on some level. Several examples of this language are in ALL CAPS, like CHIM, ALTADOON, PADHOME etc, while some others, like “beratu” and “Nirn” are not. Personally, I think that “beratu” is some derivative of Aldmeris rather than Ehlnofey, as it sounds far too similar to the Ayleidoon samples we have, so it may be that this is mistaken attribution by Phrastus in The Bretons: Mongrels or Paragons?,  rather than an actual Ehlnofex word. This also tends to mean that the central point of the languages has tended to be to enhance the feel of the narrative and not really exist as independent entities. The languages have evolved in that way to a degree, but the languages themselves are never really “the point”, if you like.

Ehlnofex

This is definitely the case with Ehlnofex, the language of the Ehlnofey. I’m sure I saw something somewhere to say it was the language of the gods as well on some level, but I can’t actually find any sources for that, so I’m assuming that’s speculation I’ve read somewhere. Ehlnofex is a language that is much more intimately connected with magic than other languages, at least in how it’s presented in quite a few places. Granted that is mostly in the 36 Lessons of Vivec, but we do have Ehlnofex words directly called “spells” and “words of power” in that particular text.

If we take Vehk’s Teaching at its word, Ehlnofex feels like something similar to Thu’um, in that the words themselves contain actual power:

As with most characters of that dangerous language [Ehlnofex], the sigil CHIM constantly distorts itself. Those scholars that can perceive its shape regard it as a Crowned Tower that threatens to break apart at the slightest break in concentration.
(emphasis added)

A lot of fans have noted that CHIM is inherently unstable, mostly because CHIM is seen as an unstable state, from everything we hear about it in the 36 Lessons and MK’s other writings. However, this quote says that most Ehlnofex is like that. This means that any Ehlnofex word is tapping into “power”, whatever that might mean.

Another thing: it’s also noted as a sigil here, rather than a word as such. That implies, to me at least, that Ehlnofex is a more pictorial language than Roman characters, and that words in Ehlnofex are constructed through the combination of different graphical elements, in a similar way to Chinese, Japanese, and Korean scripts. That’s purely my imagination, though.

Ehlnofex also forms the basis for several other languages, and you can find Ehlnofex elements here and there in other tongues as well. This is most common in Dunmeris, but there’s also some overlap in Aldmeris as well. Things like “Bal” meaning “stone” according to Gentleman Jim Stacey and being Ehlnofex if you take the 36 Lessons’ VERY SUBTLE DENOTATION OF EHLNOFEX as universal, because it appears in the list of the House of Troubles given in Sermon Thirteen. The most common overlaps are in merish languages, although given the most commonly accepted origins of the sapient races given in the Anuad, you’d expect Ehlnofex to have an influence on mannish tongues as well. It’s a little difficult to discern, as in the modern games everyone seems to speak Tamrielic, which the description of Altmer in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind notes is based on the Altmer tongue, which means that we can’t get a true picture on what mannish tongues sound like from the state of the speech in the games.

Ehlnofex is potentially the oldest language on Tamriel, and as the root of the various merish tongues is one of the biggest ur-languages on Tamriel. The other is that of Dovahzul, the dragon tongue.

Dovahzul

I should also point out that “dovahzul” doesn’t actually appear anywhere in-universe, it’s just easier to say than “the dragon language” all the time, so I’ll be using that going forward.

With its written form based on real-world cuneiform, the world’s oldest surviving written language, Dovahzul seems to be an attempt at creating another ur-language, which was likely developed by the dragons themselves. As well as being based on cuneiform, Dovahzul also has the benefit of being easy to scrape with a claw.

I think this feels like it conflicts with some earlier lore, in Before the Ages of Man. In that, we have this:

The Nord culture hero Ysgramor, leader of a great colonizing fleet to Tamriel, is credited with developing a runic transcription of Nord speech based on Elvish principles, and so Ysgramor is considered the first human historian.

At the time Ysgramor left Atmora, dragon worship was still going on in Atmora, and so you’d expect Dovahzul to be part of Ysgramor’s frame of reference. Unless we infer from this passage that the dragon language was unknown to most of Tamriel’s population, which I think was accurate, given some other texts we have. The Dragon War says this:

Foremost among all animals was the dragon. In the ancient nordic tongue it was drah-gkon. Occasionally the term dov-rha is used, but the language or derivation of that is not known. Using either name was forbidden to all except the dragon priests.
(emphasis added)

The term “dov-rha” is key here, I think. It sounds like a corruption of “dovah”, which could imply that the use of Dovahzul was disallowed among the non-priests in order to reinforce the caste system, and so Ysgramor could simply have developed his writing system because the pre-existing one wasn’t available to him. However, there is some conceptual confusion here, I think. Nine of the Word Walls you find in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyim contain the phrase “NONVUL BRON”, or “Noble Nord(s)”. To me that suggests that the Nords were intended to read these words and understand them. Maybe the inscriptions formed some more ceremonial purpose, where only the dragon priests spoke it, as part of ceremonial pronouncements? We don’t really have enough information, although the fact that some Draugr can shout indicates that there were potentially some Tongues among the secular population as well as the Dragon Priests.

It’s also possible that it wasn’t really a language that allowed a full range of expressions as such. The development of the Dragonrend shout indicates that Dovahzul may be somewhat conceptually limited. I think that’s tied to the purpose of Dovahzul, which is as an extension of the dragons’ sense of self and dominance, which is possibly one and the same thing. In a Loremaster’s Archive, Camilla Calsivius of the University of Gwylim says this:

As I’m sure you already know, Dragons are conquerors by nature. All my research indicates that this thirst for domination is not unlike our thirst for water in a desert. They need to bring the world to heel.

Given that as an important psychosocial imperative, I think this is telling that these words reflect the dragons’ view of reality. Remember that the words of the Dragonrend shout, Joor-Zah-Fruul, or Mortal-Finite-Temporary, were constructed by the Nords as part of their rebellion against Alduin, and weren’t part of the dragons’ own lexicon. That limits Dovahzul as spoken by a “native” to certain forms of expression.

There also seems to be a split between using the language as Shouts that affect the world, and as a means of communication. Several dragons use the words of Dovahzul without them having effects on the world, which contradicts what we read in Children of the Sky, which says this:

The most powerful Nords cannot speak without causing destruction. They must go gagged, and communicate through a sign language and through scribing runes.

If this is equated with the Voice and Dovahzul, which The Elder Scrolls V seems to treat as the same thing, then there must be different forms of the language. Children of the Sky also talks about the word being used as a “kiai”, which may be a misnaming as only Akaviri shouts are called that, but if it’s not, then it also implies that there are other things that go into giving a shout the ability to affect the world. This then means that their use in combat is a different mode of speech than simply using the language to converse. Given Arnegir’s statement that “[t]here is no difference in the dragon tongue between debating and fighting”, there is potentially a rhetorical “mode” of dovahzul that is engaged when persuasion is required. Exactly what that mode entails I don’t think we can tell, as the words of a shout seem to be picked at random from the word walls; there’s no common characteristic of the words that we learn that distinguishes them from the rest of the phrases on those walls.

Languages & Truth

That act of persuasion is similar to that expressed in Reality and Other Falsehoods, that the world can be bent to be another way. The direct quote is this:

To master Alteration, first accept that reality is a falsehood. There is no such thing. Our reality is a perception of greater forces impressed upon us for their amusement. Some say that these forces are the gods, others that they are something beyond the gods. For the wizard, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the appeal couched in a manner that cannot be denied. It must be insistent without being insulting.
To cast Alteration spells is to convince a greater power that it will be easier to change reality as requested than to leave it alone.

Where Dovahzul seems to be different from this that it’s not a request, it’s a shout, a demand. It’s a thing that insists that something is the case. This causes reality to change based purely on the force of the language. It also means that Dovazhul somehow taps into something primal that allows for comprehension and compliance with the shout. When the Tongues shout Joor-Zah-Fruul at Alduin just before they banish him, his response is “what have you done?” not “what did you say?” That means that he comprehended the words that were spoken to him. That’s like me saying “hagwhieojlg”, and you responding with something like “No, I’d prefer it to be Tuesday” without a thought. Something about Dovahzul possibly makes it inherently comprehendible by the universe. That may be why Shouting is considered Tonal Magic by some fans, because it can have those effects in the same way as Ehlnofex.

I also wonder if that very power means it’s difficult to spread it. That quote from Children of the Sky suggests that powerful languages are just not spoken as often as those that have less metaphysical weight behind them, which leaves the core of languages on Tamriel to other tongues. Chief among those is Aldmeris, and its derivatives.

Aldmeris

As well as possibly being a place, “Aldmeris” refers to the language of the Aldmer, which forms a linguistic core to several languages on Tamriel, including Tamrielic itself. The Altmer racial description in The Elder Scrolls III notes that “the common tongue of the Empire, Tamrielic, is based on Altmer speech and writing”, while Hasphat Antabolis notes that Aldmeris “is very close to modern Elven languages”. We get all this bundled together in a statement from Yakum Hairshashishi , who says this when you first meet him “Hello. Yakum. Speak Ashland. Old Elf, not so good speak.” The “Old Elf” he’s referring to is Aldmeris (“Aldmer” literally meaning “first folk”, or “elder folk”). Assuming that the player character is not walking up to random strangers and speaking in Aldmeris (which I think would be like walking up to someone and speaking either Shakespearian English in the UK or Vulgate Latin while in Italy), then we can assume a level of comprehension between Aldmeris and Tamrielic, even though the languages are somewhat different.

I think the comparison to Latin is the best way of thinking about Aldmeris, because we have some evidence that it was spoken as a functional language alongside other tongues, although whether it was a sort of lingua franca isn’t exactly clear. The Dwemer text Hanging Gardens of Western Coridale is written in both Aldmeris and the Dwemer language. As there was no record of full translations of the Dwemer language until the Last Dragonborn helped Calcelmo with his translation of the Dwemer and Falmer languages in 4E 201 (although partial translations can be made using the Hanging Gardens text), we can only assume that Aldmeris was used by the Dwemer to communicate with other races (mostly the Chimer), but we have no real evidence that this practice was widespread outside of Resdayn. 

The existence of the Aldmeris language does hint at a shared cultural heritage for most elves, and it points to many similarities with names and places that are shared across elvish languages. However, it’s not clear where the language itself came from. If the idea of the elves descending from the Ehlnofey and thence the Aedra was the case, then we’d expect some relation to Ehlnofex, but I’m not sure we have enough evidence of similar words or grammar to make that assumption.

Possibly the closest successor to Aldmeris as a language is not actually the language that the Altmer currently speak, despite their claims of a more direct descent from the ways of Aldmeris. The Ayleid inscriptions we see in Cyrodiil have several words that are also noted as Aldmeris in several places, and we don’t have a similar amount from the Altmeri language. It’s of course possible that we only notice this because we’ve got more Ayleidoon than we do Altmeris (is that a word for the language? It is now, I’m using it), but without that caveat that’s what we wind up with.

Language & Nymics

Ayleids were also quite well-known for messing around with the substance of reality, something that the Altmer haven’t had a huge amount of interest in, it seems. However, they didn’t really seem to mess with language-magic too much, which I think is surprising. I also think that the language-magic we have in TES says something about the setting, so I’m going to divert a little bit here.

The Elder Scrolls has something like the “finding out the true name of the demon” trope, introduced in Battlespire with the idea of nymics. These are explained a little rapidly in this exchange:

Chimere Graegyn: I banished Dagon by invoking his protonymic.
PC: Oh. Good work. His what?
Chimere Graegyn: His protonymic. Like a mortal wizard’s true name. The focus of incantory magics. The short hairs.
Chimere Graegyn: Oh, I’m sure it will do you no good. Since his reemergence from Oblivion, he has surely added a neonymic. To protect himself against me, and anyone else who gets his protonymic.

From this we can get that nymics are language representations of the self, although there’s no . Protonymics are potentially undeveloped in a sense, especially as Mankar Camoran states in the Commentaries at one point that he “was once like you, asleep, unwise, protonymic”. Protonymics are the names of a thing that are unchanged, and in their natural state.

Neonymics are things that are added to alter that true name state, which the fandom calls “nymic surgery”. In Battlespire, it’s just something simply added to a thing’s name (or, at least, simply for a Daedric Prince). There’s an idea in the fandom that Mankar Camoran did something similar with Mehrunes’ Razor to do various things, like wear the amulet of kings and “speak fire” as the Commentaries note. However, there’s not a whole heap of evidence to back this up as an actual thing that happened anywhere, so it may not be the real explanation here. I would imagine that there has been some manipulation of Camoran’s nymic though, as he talks about the phrase “protonymic” as his “before” state, rather than his “after”, where at the end of Mankar’s time in the desert he is “red-drink, razor-fed” and can “speak fire”. 

There’s also a sense that language and existence may be linked in the use of some Ehlnofex, if we can backtrack a bit. The word “AE” is the word “is” in the sense of “exists” or potentially “is equivalent to”, according to some parts of the 36 Lessons. I’ve thought it in the past. It supposedly connotes existence, essentially (a little like Tolkien’s “to be” verb, Ëa, which was used to speak Arda into being). However, the Loveletter from the Fifth Era says the following things about AE:

First was Void, which became split by AE.

Death results in reappropriation of spirit towards its aligned AE—either to the god-planet Aedra or the Principalities of Oblivion.

You in the Fourth Era have already witnessed many of the attempts at reaching the final subgradient of all AE, that state that exists beyond mortal death.

Those who do not fail become the New Men: an individual beyond all AE, unerased and all-being.

That’s a bit of an infodump, but I think it’s helpful to have all the references together.

AE here is the thing that splits the Void, which implies that AE is a distinguishing characteristic of something. This is not “exists” in an absolute sense, although there is a portion of the Redguard portion of the Monomyth that may imply this. Instead, I read it as a divisor, “split by AE”, and the split between Aedra and Daedra. Think back to that last quote from the Loveletter, where “beyond all AE” is “all-being”; that is, beyond all division, where the individual is everything. Add to this several passages from the Truth in Sequence where names are themselves instruments of division, particularly this from Volume 2:

The Divine Metronome tells us that “Name” is the wedge that pries gear from pinion. The residue of Lorkhan’s Great Lie that loosens the wheel chain and corrodes the frame. The et’Ada Gears named each and each, in their way. Our lessers see this as a kindness, but the Mainspring Ever-Wound calls it a curse, rooted in selfish pride. To name is to cleave one from another

In that sense, then, AE is that which separates one thing from another, which makes A distinct from not-A. It is identity, in the technical sense of the word, which feels very similar to the work that nymics are doing. Neonymic is different from protonymic, or in other words “I’m not the same person I was before”, or something like that, as an English phrase. This makes nymics and the language used to express them a truth about a person, in the same way that the Thu’um is both an expression of a truth about reality, and the imposition of that truth itself.

I’m not sure whether this is true on the macro level, but it certainly feels that way in this world – languages are emblematic of cultures, and the ability to say or not say certain things affects a particular culture’s outlook, or the things they value. I think this is particularly clear with our most favourite of Dunmeri insults, n’wah, which is translated as variously “slave” and “foreigner”, which means that they equate the two. That reinforces the Dunmer perspective that they are a different type of being to all other cultures in tamriel, reinforcing their superiority. To use a somewhat distasteful real-world example, during the genocide in Rwanda in the early 1990s, the government referred to the Tutsi people as inyenzi, literally meaning “cockroach”. That the Dunmer have a similar linguistic turn towards non-Dunmer shows quite how far their superiority complex goes.

Tamrielic vs Cyrodilic

Speaking of superiority complexes, I want to spend some time discussing the overall language of Tamriel, before we get into some of the lesser-spoken languages. Tamrielic is, as I noted before, supposedly based on the language of the Altmer, while Cyrodilic seems to have different roots to a degree. The book On Wild Elves notes that Ayleids speak “Old Cyrodilic”, rather than Tamrielic, which implies that Cyrodilic has more Ayleidoon influence than Tamrielic as a whole. This would make some degree of sense on the face of it, because we have a potential real-world comparison in the American and British dialects. Both are English, but the accents are very different. This is because of the relative isolation of American culture over time – with exposure to many different cultures through a global empire, British accents changed to a greater degree from the origin point that the American colonies started from.

So we’d expect Tamrielic to essentially be the “British” of Tamriel, in this sense, absorbing all of the different influences of the different provinces while Cyrodilic had fewer influences and stayed fairly static. If that were the case, we’d expect the more mobile upper classes to catch other influences more readily than those who don’t travel as much. However, it feels like the opposite is the case, or something else is going on . Across multiple books and time periods (I note in particular The Wolf QueenA Dance in Fire and the Tribes of Blackwood series), the aristocracy, military and merchant classes all speak Cyrodilic, rather than Tamrielic. If this was a gap between ESO and the other games I could understand it – the Interregnum begins with Cyrodilic as a common tongue that then falls out of use as the Second Empire’s influence crumbles. However, the books that are dated in the Third Era still consistently use Cyrodilic as a speech for these classes. Given that, it feels like the tongue that should change the most because of that should be Cyrodilic, rather than Tamrielic. The only real solution I can see is that there is a distinction between the Old Cyrodilic spoken by the Ayleids and the Cyrodilic spoken by the current ruling class of Cyrodiil. There’s also a letter to Thane Ogvar that suggests that at least some giants speak Cyrodilic in the Second Era. I’m honestly not sure what to make of that.

Exactly when Tamrielic arose isn’t clear from the texts we have, but it’s taken to be the common language in the games, the stand-in for whatever language you’re playing the games in. This is even the case for Elder Scrolls Online, so any elven influence on the language has to have been some distance from any game we’ve actually experienced. I wish we actually had a context for the Altmeri influence on Tamrielic, because then we might be able to know if it’s wrong and any reasons for that. Instead, we just have the Altmer Morrowind race description, stated as close to “word of god” as we get in The Elder Scrolls, which says that Tamrielic is based on Altmer language. However, at the point that was written in the real world, the role of the Ayleids in Cyrodilic culture hadn’t been fully developed – they’re not mentioned at all in the First Edition Pocket Guide’s section on Cyrodiil, and they’re only hinted at as a vague presence in the wilds at that point. So I’m almost tempted to hand-wave the description and say that when they said “High Elven traditions” they meant Heartland High Elves, or Ayleids. That would mean that Cyrodilic and Tamrielic are very closely related, but grown in different directions, with Old Cyrodilic being the root language for both Tamrielic and modern Cyrodilic, which the Ayleids preserved through their isolation from the rest of Tamriel.

Jel, Yoku & Cultural Isolation

There are examples of other languages on Tamriel that are affected by that same isolation in some ways, Yoku and Jel. However, the isolation has had profoundly different effects on their respective languages.

In the case of Yoku, the first edition Pocket Guide states this:

Yoku, the Redguard oral language, was almost entirely replaced as the need for foreign commerce and treaties increased.

Note here that it said almost entirely replaced, not 100%. You can hear some NPCs still using Yoku in The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard, which was set the same year the Pocket Guide was published, and there are some rough signs that Yoku is still around; in the Lord of Souls novel, a Penitus Oculatus agent has some rough knowledge of the language, suggesting it’s still around somewhere. I’d also be surprised if the Na-Totambu let their language wither out, as they are very concerned with the preservation of Yokudan ways. However, it’s clear that much has been lost, even with the efforts of the Crowns to preserve things; The book The Na-Totambu of Yokuda notes this:

Despite this fanatical veneration, much Yokudan knowledge was lost to time and feuds between the factions. The eldest Crown scholars scathingly chide the modern Redguards as mere cultural shadows of their ancestors.

I’d expect that the use of the language would be one of the things to go along with that; the Forebears would have likely dropped the language relatively rapidly; Yoku would have a totally different base from Tamrielic languages, and so not be understood through its similarities. However, for those communities that didn’t have to interact with the outside world, it would have stayed more intact. It would likely have homogenised – as Yokuda was a continent, there may have been many different languages (or at least dialects) spoken there, while we’re only really aware of one. 

Yokudan and Redguard culture may also have a way of shaping the language itself based on cultural taboos that we don’t really see in other cultures on Tamriel. The Unveiled Azadiyeh says this in the Zahkin’s Many Heroes Loremaster’s Archive:

We speak no more of the Left-Handed Elves (may curses follow them into the Eight Abysses), for to recall their abominations but darkens our days—and who can say how many each of us shall have before Tu’whacca beckons us, save that they will be too few?

This is basically saying “we don’t talk about it, because it’s a bad thing”. This is a historian not wanting to talk about history, a sentiment that is echoed elsewhere in that Loremaster’s Archive. This kind of culture would readily not use words and languages that didn’t serve their culture’s purpose, whatever they see that as being.

Jel is likewise shaped by a philosophical outlook that has deeply affected its language. This quote from Murky Time expresses one of those differences best:

You see, as far as I can tell, Jel has no tenses; at least nothing that we’d recognize as a tense. The closest substitution I’ve heard interpreters use is “old” and “new.” They talk a great deal about “changing” and “becoming”- words that imply forward motion. But again, these words are obfuscated by all manner of arcane terms and concepts that even I can’t decipher.

For a language to have no tenses, it’s speaking in an ever-constant present, where past and future are of no real value. That seems to match Argonian values where the present is all that really matters, and all that really matters is a change.

Jel is also not related to any other language on Tamriel, as befits a race that emerged from entirely different origins. It uses body language for its full expression, including elements unique to Argonian physiology. That means that no one other than an Argonian can actually speak Jel – I don’t think it’s a matter of body language providing context and emphasis, but actual words as well, although these are often context to what’s actually being said, such as expressions of emotion. That’s why we get things like “I erect the spine of sympathy” or whatever when Argonians speak Tamrielic – they’re assuming that the expression of emotion that they’re conveying in words should be part of the physiological display of language, which it would be if they were speaking Jel.

Jel has not been snuffed out in the same way as Yoku because it’s not been disrupted in the same way – most Argonians don’t leave Black Marsh, and don’t interact with non-Argonians very much. As a result, Jel carries on being its own thing independently of the rest of Tamriel. I am slightly surprised that we don’t get references to different Jel dialects, as each Argonian tribe has its own traditions so I’d expect their own language variants to follow. Given that Elder Scrolls mentions dialects elsewhere, it’s a little bit of a weird omission.

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