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Features, Language

Tolkien word of the day: ‘dwarves’

09.02.09 | Kunochan | 2 Comments

Originally posted on JRR Tolkien Examiner on 8/25/09.

These columns will each explore one word invented or popularized by JRR Tolkien.

dwarves, pl. n.; sing. dwarf

Origin: Invented by Tolkien

Language: Modern English

Real World Usability: 4/5

Tolkien did not invent the word dwarf, but he did invent the plural form dwarves.

Some sources give examples of the use of dwarves as far back as 1818, but these uses are mistakes. Tolkien was well aware that the traditional modern plural form of dwarf is dwarfs, but decided to use dwarves anyway.

The original word we’re talking about here is Old Norse/Icelandic dvergr (plural dvergar), which refers to the mythological race of stunted, underground-dwelling beings upon which Tolkien based his dwarves.

From there we come to Anglo-Saxon dweorh or dweorg; the plural is dweorgas; then the Middle English dwerg or dwerf, the plural of which is dwarrows. No, really.

So coming into the present, the plural of Modern English dwarf should still be dwarrows. But only Oxford professors and philologists know this – everyone else says dwarfs.

When Tolkien was creating his Legendarium, he wanted to distinguish his dwarf race from the storybook idea of funny little men popularized in Disney’s 1937 film Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs. His wish was to pluralize the word as dwarrows, but he knew The Hobbit’s young readers would just be confused by this. (Although in The Lord of the Rings, “The Dwarrowdelf” is the Westron term for the Dwarven city of Moria or Khazad-dûm.)

So he pluralized dwarf as dwarves, just as wharf is pluralized as wharves. It’s Tolkien’s idea of philological humor. Also related: calf and calves, knife and knives, leaf and leaves, and scarf and scarves.

This also led to elf and elves (not elfs); and the formation of dwarven to mean “dwarf-like.” I haven’t been able to determine if Tolkien himself ever used dwarven – if you know, please mention it in the comments below.

Whether Tolkien intended it or not (or whether he would have approved or not), dwarves has taken over in English as the plural form of dwarf, based on Tolkien’s popularization, plus the fact that dwarf / dwarves rolls off the tongue better than dwarf / dwarfs. However, pedants will point out that dwarfs should still be used to refer to mythological and storybook dwarfs, and is the proper plural for the medical term dwarf. Dwarves should be reserved for Tolkien’s dwarves, and anything based upon them, for example in modern fantasy literature.

But if you really want to be achingly correct, then use dwarrows. It will make you a better and smarter person, albeit a slightly annoying one.

For more info: Tolkien’s dwarves on Wikipedia; regular countable nouns ending in “f” on ESLCafe.
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