8

Houyhnhnm - Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift

Rohirrim - The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien

I have been reading Jonathan Swift's excellent Gulliver's Travels, and one of the many strange peoples described in the book are the Houyhnhnm, who are talking horse-people.

Since I'm a non-native English speaker, the two words sounds much alike. However, I cannot find any cross-reference between the two fictional peoples, nor can I tell whether Tolkien had read Swift's book.

Apart from the obvious horse reference and bizarre name resemblance, are there any other characteristics that we can use to link them? Is it possible Tolkien just liked how the name sounded and tried to use it for a totally different (horse) people, or did the writers just get both names from the same source/reference/root?

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    For what it's worth I can't see any resemblance in the two words. – TheLethalCarrot Dec 11 '17 at 16:10
  • @TheLethalCarrot In risk of asking too much but can you point any audio where I can compare how it actually sounds? – jean Dec 11 '17 at 16:20
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    "Houyhnhnm" is meant to sound like a whinny. It sounds absolutely nothing like "Rohirrim". – Martha Dec 11 '17 at 16:46
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    "Houyhnhnm" is pronounced like "hoo-in-um". Rohirrim is proncounced more like "row-hih-rim". Very different. – DisturbedNeo Dec 11 '17 at 17:05
  • @DisturbedNeo my bad I supposed hn sounded like hin – jean Dec 11 '17 at 17:10
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Similarity is completely coincidental.

It is commonly assumed that Swift meant for the word Houyhnhnm, as well as other words from that language to sound vaguely like a horse's whinny. Houyhnhnm itself is pronounced who-in-em (or who-ee-in-em) which does appear to be modeled after a whinny.

Rohirrim on the other hand is derived from Sindarin, the Elvish language that Tolkien constructed before writing his books. In fact, Tolkien says just this in Letter 297 where he is responding to a man who inquired, among other things, if the word "Rohan" was derived from the norse word "rann". Tolkien explains in great detail how he devised the word from the rules of Sindarin, without ever once attributing an external source.

Rohan. I cannot understand why the name of a country (stated to be Elvish) should be associated with anything Germanic; still less with the only remotely similar O.N. rann 'house', which is incidentally not at all appropriate to a still partly mobile and nomadic people of horse-breeders! In their language (as represented) rann in any case would have the A-S form ræn (<rænn <ræzn <razn; cf. Gothic razn 'house'). The name of [the] country obviously cannot be separated from the Sindarin name of the Eorlingas: Rohirrim. Rohan is stated (III 391,394) to be a later softened form of Rochand. It is derived from Elvish rokkō 'swift horse for riding' (Q. rokko, S. roch) + a suffix frequent in names of lands. Rohirrim is a similarly softened form of roch + hîr 'lord, master', + rĩm (Q. rimbe) 'host'.
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien - Letter 297

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    I'd add something about the fact the two words are not actually similar, at least not for any meaningful value of "similar". – Martha Dec 11 '17 at 16:50
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    @Martha - I'm not enough of an English geek to be able to demonstrate with any competency how that is true. As a native speaker, and as someone who would not be able to pronounce half the words they read, I can see the confusion. – amflare Dec 11 '17 at 16:54
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    @amflare: As a native (US) English speaker, I can't see that the words should be pronounced the least bit alike. But I'm often surprised at how words I know from reading, especially ones derived from other languages, are actually pronounced. (And let's not even think about Irish Gaelic :-)) – jamesqf Dec 11 '17 at 18:44
8

The name has a straightforward etymology in Sindarin, one of Tolkien's constructed languages that was well developed by the time he wrote The Lord of the Rings.

According to Tolkien Gateway:

Rohirrim is a Sindarin name meaning "the host of the Horse-lords", consisting of the element roch + hîr ("lord, master") + rĩm ("host")

So any similarity to Swift's fanciful names is most probably coincidence.

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    The inspiration for using those words in Sindarin to mean horse and master could still have come from Swift. – Edlothiad Dec 11 '17 at 16:43
  • @Edlothiad: The inspiration for Sindarin, as I recall, is Finnish - believed to be a Proto-Uralic](en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proto-Uralic_language) rather than a Proto-Indo-European language. Any similarity to English etymology would be truly conicidental – Pieter Geerkens Dec 12 '17 at 1:11
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    Oops! Quenya is based around Finnish, while Sindarin is a derivation from Quenya largely influenced by Welsh. Link. Still definitely not English. – Pieter Geerkens Dec 12 '17 at 1:15
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From History of Middle-earth 5: The Lost Road

The Etymologies contains all three elements of Rohirrim, thereby establishing that the three elements existed before the Rohirrim entered the Legendarium. Swift was therefore not an influence on the formation of these three elements.

From History of Middle-earth 7: The Treason of Isengard

The Rohirrim enter the Legendarium, but - crucially - they are not yet named "Rohirrim" - the name used at this stage is Rohiroth. This conclusively proves that Tolkien conceived of and named his Horse-masters without reference to Swift.

From History of Middle-earth 8: The War of the Ring

While developing the Helm's Deep chapter Tolkien experimented with different forms, including Rohirwaith, Rochirchoth, Rohirhoth and - at last - Rohirrim. This appears to be where the name Rohirrim first arises and, like the other variations, uses absolutely standard plural formations.


The conclusion is therefore that while Tolkien could have been influenced by Swift, there is no evidence that he was and the balance of probability is that he was not. At best any similarity (real or imagined) between the names may have led him to prefer Rohirrim over other options, but the form Rohirrim falls totally naturally out of the invented languages and we can conclusively state that there was no Swiftian influence on the elements that form it, nor on the existence of Tolkien's Horse Masters.

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