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Whatever language the Hobbits originally spoke has been lost to history, much as their specific origins have been lost. The earliest known historical location of the Hobbits is in the upper vales of the river Anduin. It is heavily implied that while there, the ancestors of the Hobbits must have had some contact with the Éothéod, who lived in the same area. Eventually, due to the increasing danger from Greenwood, which would become Mirkwood, the Éothéod migrated south to Rohan and the Hobbits migrated West, in their "Wandering Days", ultimately reaching Bree and then the Shire.
The language of the Éothéod thus seems to have influenced the original language of the Hobbits. To what degree is not certain: speculation ranges anywhere from that the Hobbits borrowed a few words from the Éothéod, to that the Hobbits actually adopted the language of the Eotheod and spoke it as their own. Tolkien himself seemed to imply that the Hobbits almost if not fully adopted the language of the Éothéod, because it has always been common Hobbit practice to adopt the commonly spoken language of the Men they are living near; much as they would later adopt Westron. Thus the earliest known Hobbit-language was a "northern Mannish" tongue learned from the Eotheod. However, a small number of Stoors would move briefly to the Angle where they had some contact with the Dunlendings, picking up a few Dunlending words. When the Stoors later moved to the Shire with the rest of their kin, they quickly adopted the language as spoken in the Shire at the time, but no doubt this brief Dunlending contact serves as the basis for several regional peculiarities in regions that Stoors mostly settled in, such as Buckland and the Marish. When the Hobbits migrated west into Eriador and came into contact with Men in the Bree-land and in the remnants of Arthedain that would become the Shire, as was their practice they once again took up the language spoken by the Men near them and adopted Westron, mostly forgetting their previous language.
The name Hobbit itself is believed to be derived from the Holbytlan (hole builders). These names are also translations of the original Westron Kuduk (Hobbit) and Rohirric kûd-dûkan (hole dweller), of course.
In any case, by the time of the War of the Ring, the Rohirric langauge and Hobbitish possessed many linguistic similarities which were obvious even to a non-linguist like Meriadoc Brandybuck. Simply hearing parts of the language of the Rohirrim, Merry noticed several words which clearly sounded like old words used in the Shire. Merry would in his later years author a book of linguistic study on the relationship, "Old Place Names in the Shire".
Hobbitish was a regional dialect of the Westron language, spoken in a rustic agricultural region. As such, it was mutually intelligible with Common Speech, but is not as "refined" as the true form of the language spoken in Gondor and Rivendell, containing many simplifications or archaisms. The most prominent change in actual grammatical structure from Westron is that Westron has both "deferential" pronouns, and "familiar" pronouns, but Hobbitish no longer possesses a deferential pronoun.
Westron had deferential pronouns for the second person (and sometimes the third person), but this had fallen out of use in the Shire, except in scattered parts of the Westfarthing where is was used more as a light-hearted term of endearment. As Hobbit society was made up almost entirely of farmers and with barely and "government" to speak of, much less a noble class, this simply fell out of use.
The result of this was that when Peregrin Took was speaking to Denethor II, Steward and ruler of Gondor, while he was at court in Minas Tirith, Pippin is actually addressing Denethor using the very informal and personalized familiar pronoun, unintentionally using the same pronouns he might use with a close friend or social equal. This no doubt served as a source of astonishment to Denethor's servants, but the old Steward himself seemed to react to it with some bemusement. This probably gave strength to the rumor that quickly spread that Pippin was a person of very high social rank within his own country, in order to be addressing Denethor as such, eventually leading to one particularly wild rumor that the "Ernil i Pheriannath" had promised 5,000 Hobbits to the defense of the city.
This lack of a deferential pronoun and universal use of the familiar pronoun is what Gondorians are referring to when they repeatedly remark that Hobbit-speech sounds strange.
The major difference between Hobbitish and more proper forms of Westron are many archaic words that Hobbits retained in their vocabulary from whatever languages they spoke in ancient times. Examples would include:
- Smial - "large excavated hole used as a home" (i.e. Bag End, Brandy Hall, or Great Smials of the Tooks).
- Mathom - "old thing which you no longer have a use for but don't want to throw away; a knick-nack; an antique" (i.e. the Mathom-house is a museum)
- Goblin - the evil race properly termed "Orcs" in Common Speech were referred to as "Goblins" by the Hobbits. This is apparently some local colloquialism of uncertain origin. However, while this originated as a Hobbit "slang term" for Orcs, due to the presence of the Shire on the major trade route of the Great East Road, over the centuries this term was actually picked up by members of other races (much as how smoking Pipe-weed was). The term actually gained a high degree of popularity throughout Middle-earth. The term "Goblin" came to more often be used when referring to smaller Orcs, of the type Hobbits were more likely to see (rare roving bands like that led by Golfimbul). Larger soldier-Orcs bred for war were less likely to be referred to as "Goblins", because they never really encountered them, thus larger breeds of Orcs would often simply be called "Orcs".
- Note: Tolkien's conception of what "Orcs" and "Goblins" were exactly fluctuated over time, and in The Hobbit was written when these ideas had not solidified in his mind, and as such in that book he uses the two terms rather interchangeably. Later on, he more fully set down that "Orcs" was the proper term for the entire race, with "Goblins" being a colloquial Hobbit-invented term for Orcs
The highest concentration of unique "Hobbitish" words are of course in the surnames of old families, place names, and calender words such as names for months, days, seasons, et cetera.
Αll of this ties into the fact that "Westron" as it appears in the books written by J.R.R. Tolkien functions under the conceit that "Common Speech" is really a separate foreign language which Tolkien "translated" into English. For example, the name "Meriadoc Brandybuck" is "translated" into English from the "genuine Westron" name Kalimac Brandigamba (which would make it, actually "genuine Hobbitish")
The most obvious linguistic parallel between the "Hobbitish" dialect and language of the Rohirrim is in the name "Hobbit" itself: according to Théoden of Rohan, there are a few legends among the Rohirrim about Hobbit-like creatures they they call the Holbytlan in Rohirric. Rohirric is actually "translated" into Old English in the books just as Westron is into English, because it is an archaic form of Westron. "Holbytlan" in Old English means "Hole-builders", an apt name for the Hobbits. However, in "genuine Westron", the word translated into English as "Hobbit", is actually "Kuduk". The corresponding "genuine Rohirric" word from which it evolved is "Kûd-dûkan".
Portrayal in adaptations
- Adapter Terence Tiller briefly corresponded with Tolkien about what accents should be used. It is unknown if he followed Tolkien's advice.
- There seems to be little contrast in style, other than the rural portrayal of Samwise Gamgee.
- Any dialectical difference is completely removed. Sam talks the same English as the other Hobbits.
- In the two episodes of "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil", Jonathan Adams' portrayal of Sam Gamgee is close to over-the-top rustic. He speaks in a grumbling, low voice.
- Considerable attention was paid to the dialects characters speak with and cast members trained extensively with dialogue coaches. Hobbits in the films speak with basically an English Midlands accent, because Tolkien said that the Shire was based largely on his boyhood home in the Midlands. Of the main Hobbit characters:
- Sam Gamgee speaks with the working-class rustic Midlands accent which was used as the standard for all the other minor Hobbit characters.
- Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, because they are both book-educated, speak with a slightly more refined and less pronounced accent.
- The actor who played Pippin, Billy Boyd, is Scottish, and originally he was supposed to speak like the others, but eventually it was decided that it was adversely affecting his comic timing. The production team then invented the justification that the Took region of the Shire is described as very hilly, so much so that when Saruman's ruffians take over the rest of the Shire they are successfully repulsed from Took-land due to its rough terrain, and thus is it loosely analogous to Scotland. Thus, it was decided that Tooks should speak with a Scottish accent as well, and Boyd was allowed to use his normal Scottish accent when portraying Pippin for the entire trilogy of films.
- Meriadoc Brandybuck is described as being the linguistic "oddball" of the group: he was not from any of the four farthings of the Shire, but a Brandybuck from Buckland, and thus is from a region apart. To reflect this, his accent is noticeably distinct from the other Hobbits seen on-screen, something of an invention between actor Dominic Monaghan and the dialect coaches, to reflect his unique origin.