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In the movie adaption of The Two Towers, Sam and Frodo see a battalion of Haradrîm marching through the Ithilien vale. Along with the Haradrîm are several of their war elephant creatures. Sam says something to the effect of

Look, Mr. Frodo! An oliphaunt! The folks back home'll never believe this!

In most materials relating to LotR, however, those elephant like creatures are called mumakîl, and I can't recall one time that they're called oliphaunts in the books. What is the difference between these terms? I would guess that one is Common and one is Harad, but I don't think that is even ever spelled out anywhere. Where did the difference in naming come from, and why was it introduced?

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    He does say Oliphaunt in the book. Book IV, Chapter 4 Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit near the end.
    – Mr Lister
    Jul 22, 2012 at 6:35

3 Answers 3

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"Oliphaunt" is only used by the Hobbits, and is derived from their legends of such beasts.

Mûmak is used by the Gondorians in the Westron tongue, adopted from the Haradric term:

Of the speech of Men of the East and allies of Sauron all that appears is mûmak, a name of the great elephant of the Harad.

That is an extract from the People of Middle-Earth from an early draft of Appendix F.

Overall the difference is similar to finding a giant lizard that one calls a dragon, only to find out the locals call it a ora, buaya darat or biawak raksasa.

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Hobbitish was the term given for the sub-dialect of Westron (Common Speech) that was spoken by the Hobbits of the Shire.

The original language of the Hobbits is lost to history, as their specific origins. The earliest known historical location of the Hobbits is in the upper vales of Anduin and while there, they must have had some contact with the Éothéod, who lived in the same area.

Thus the earliest known Hobbit-language must have been a northern Mannish tongue learned from the Éothéod. Eventually, due to the increasing danger from Greenwood, the Éothéod migrated south to Calenardhon and the Hobbits migrated West starting their "Wandering Days".

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:

  • Hobbit (kuduk) - the word Hobbits called themselves. It is thought to derive from the name the Northmen gave to them in the Vales of Anduin.

  • Smial (trân) - "large excavated hole used as a home" (i.e. Bag End, Brandy Hall, or Great Smials of the Tooks).

  • Mathom (kast) - "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)

  • Thain - the title of the ruler of the Shire after the loss of Arvedui.

  • Withywindle - river name, peculiar to the language of the Shire.

  • Swertings - a word referring to the Swarthy Men.

  • Oliphaunts - archaic name of the gigantic beasts, also known as Elephants.

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.

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    It gives me a headache when I think that "Hobbit" is actually a modern "translation" (by Tolkien, presumably) of the real word Kuduk (which is made up, of course). So whenever you read Hobbit in the book, the real word is supposed to be Kuduk. I think Tolkien was taking things too far with that... :P
    – Andres F.
    Jul 22, 2012 at 16:23
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    +1, would it be possible to add sources (at least book names) for this? Jul 23, 2012 at 0:38
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Oliphaunt is the name the Hobbits use, and Mûmak is the name the Gondorians use.

Oliphaunt is used by the Hobbits.

`Were there any oliphaunts?' asked Sam, forgetting his fear in his eagerness for news of strange places.
The Lord of the Rings - Book IV Chapter 3 - "The Black Gate is Closed"

The language that the Hobbits speak is translated into Modern English in the book, so the name follows a similar etymology that it would follow assuming English speakers only new of elephants as a distant legend. As Tolkien explains it in his guide to translators:

It is an archaic form of elephant used as a ‘rusticism’, on the supposition that rumour of the Southern beast would have reached the Shire long ago in the form of legend. ... Oliphant in English is derived from Old French olifant, but the o is probably derived from old forms of English or German: Old English olfend, Old High German olbenta ‘camel’. The names of foreign animals, seldom or never seen, are often misapplied in the borrowing language. Old English olfend, etc. are probably ultimately related to the classical elephant (Latin from Greek).
Nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings (Published in The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion)

Mûmak is used by the Gondorians

'Ware! Ware!' cried Damrod to his companion. 'May the Valar turn him aside! Mûmak! Mûmak!'
The Lord of the Rings - Book IV Chapter 4 - "Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit"

Tolkien says that this was a direct loan word from the Easterling tongue, and that this was the name by which these creatures were known in Harad.

Of the speech of Men of the East and allies of Sauron all that appears is mûmak, a name of the great elephant of the Harad.
earlier draft of The Lord of the Rings Appendix F (published in The Peoples of Middle-earth)

mûmak, Harad word for great elephant; pl. mûmakil, III 118.
"Words, Phrases, and Passages in The Lord of the Rings" (published in Parma Eldabaron #17)

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