The Afrikaans word for an Elephant is an 'Olifant' which is phonetically similar if not identical to the mythical elephant-like creatures called the Oliphaunt. There is even a scene in the movie where Sam and Frodo look at the evil men that Sauron calls to the gate and Sam sees these creatures and uses this word. If I remember correctly it is just when Faramir's men ambush the evil men and Frodo and Sam are taken captive by Faramir.

Tolkien did spend some time in South Africa and in the early 20th century South Africa may have still been pretty wild. So it may not have been impossible for him to have seen an actual elephant and hear it being called by its Afrikaans name.

I wonder if my hypothesis has any credible canonical verification?

Here is a link to the scene in the movie.

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    @Valorum - fair point, less so about the meaning of the word, rather about the inspiration behind it
    – fez
    Commented Jan 2, 2022 at 13:12
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    – user128845
    Commented Jan 2, 2022 at 13:30
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    It may very well be that the Afrikaans language has the same ancient source for the word than Tolkien had. It may not be impossible that many Germanic languages share the same ancient source for the derivation of related words.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Jan 2, 2022 at 17:11
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    Much of Afrikaans comes directly from Dutch, and various old dialects of French and Germanic languages seem to have used "oli-" rather than "ele-" for this animal, so I don't think an explicit South African link is likely, unless you have other examples of Tolkien's influence from there. He was a language scholar, and used a lot of ancient words as part of his world building.
    – IMSoP
    Commented Jan 2, 2022 at 19:05
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    There is some question about whether Tolkien intended them to be mythical creatures at all. See Do the books ever say oliphaunts aren’t elephants?, for example. I always thought they were just elephants in the books, and that seems to be consistent with the quotes below.
    – N. Virgo
    Commented Jan 3, 2022 at 4:47

2 Answers 2


Probably not.

When guiding translators on how to properly render the word "Oliphaunt", Tolkien explicitly said that he had derived it from the Old French 'Olifant', saying that the intent was to insert a foreign sounding word. He then mentions that in Dutch (which Afrikaans is derived from), the current word is still Olifant and so his dutch translator kept the word as is, thus losing a critical aspect of the name.

Oliphaunt. Retain this. 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. This detail might be retained simply by substituting O for the initial E of the ordinary name of the elephant in the L[anguage of] T[ranslation]: the meaning would remain sufficiently obvious, even if the LT had no similar archaic form. In Dutch olifant remains the current form, and so is used by the translator, but with loss of the archaic colouring. Oliphant in English is derived from Old French olifant, but the o is probably derived from old forms of English or Germanic: 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)

Seeing how Tolkien specifically says he was using the archaic versions of the word in Old French and Old English, while at the same time acknowledging that he is aware of the current Dutch/Afrikaans word, and saying that the current word does not have the effect he is going for, I think we can conclude that Tolkien did not consciously borrow this word from Afrikaans.

Could he have subconsciously borrowed it? Maybe. Tolkien was born in South Africa, and tended to by a local nurse. Tolkien has said that Afrikaans was one the languages he was exposed to as a young child, though also that he forgot most of it when he was older. I think it's a somewhat reasonable (but completely unprovable) claim to say that he was being influenced here.

In his lecture "English and Welsh" Tolkien commented that his ‘cradle-tongue was English (with a dash of Afrikaans)’ (The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, p. 191), that is, the official language of the Orange Free State (now part of South Africa), developed from Dutch. Whatever the source of the ‘dash’ – picked up from his parents’ servants, from his nurse, or from employees at his father’s bank, or a deliberate desire by his parents that he should grow up bilingual – Tolkien left the land of his birth when he was only three, and in his mind ‘there would remain no more than a few words of Afrikaans’ (JRR Tolkien: A Biography, p. 15).
J.R.R. Tolkien: Companion and Guide - "Languages"

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    Being a translator for a linguist like Tolkein must have been simultaneously brilliant and also way more work than usual.
    – dbmag9
    Commented Jan 3, 2022 at 9:55

Oliphant is simply an old spelling and/or pronunciation of elephant.

The word "elephant" is based on the Latin elephas (genitive elephantis) ("elephant"), which is the Latinised form of the Greek ἐλέφας (elephas) (genitive ἐλέφαντος (elephantos1), probably from a non-Indo-European language, likely Phoenician.2 It is attested in Mycenaean Greek as e-re-pa (genitive e-re-pa-to) in Linear B syllabic script.[3][4] As in Mycenaean Greek, Homer used the Greek word to mean ivory, but after the time of Herodotus, it also referred to the animal.1 The word "elephant" appears in Middle English as olyfaunt (c.1300) and was borrowed from Old French oliphant (12th century).2


I note that in medieval times many surnames came from where people lived, and that inns were named after the images on their signs, images which sometimes included elephants. And presumably the ancestors of actor Peter Oliphant were named after the elephant on the sign of their inn.


So Tolkien the language expert probably knew all about the former spelling of oliphant instead of elephant.

But it is possible that Tolkien may have been familiar with the Afrikaans world olifant and as a child continued to say olifant instead of elephant for some time after travelling to England where everyone else would say elephant.

If Tolkien ever did see any African elephants as a child in South Africa, he may have noticed how different the zoo and circus elephants in Britain, mostly Asian elephants, were. So possibly at some time Tolkien as a child spoke of wild "olifants" in Africa and much smaller tame "elephants" in Britain.

Tolkien was a child less than a lifetime after the African bush elephant was accepted as a separate species, Loxodonta africana from the Asian elephant, Elephas maximus. It is quite possible that the adults in Tolkien's family were not aware they were separate species and considered them to be races or varieties of a single species. If Tolkien was more observant as a child, he might have insisted African "olifants" were different from Asian "Elephants" until the time he was old enough to learn that they are classified as separate species and genera, Loxodonta africana and Elephas maximus.

And as an adult Tolkien would have read about extinct proboscidean species such as mammoths and mastodons which survived until about ten thousand years before Christ and thus co existed with modern elephants. Thus Tolkien could imagine that several species of proboscideans existed at the time of the War of the Ring, and were collectively called "Olyphants" by Hobbits, and that the Mumakil was the largest species in that era.

But that is only speculation about what Tolkien might have known or felt about the "Olifants" in Africa as a child.

What we do know is that Tolkien knew about the origins and variant forms and archaic spellings of the words that he used.

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    This seems like a lot of speculation. Tolkien as a child didn't even realize that his Grandmother's house in Birmingham was a different place from home in South Africa. What [a child] tries to do is to fit the new memories onto the old. I've got a perfectly clear vivid picture of a house that I now know is in fact a beautifully worked out pastiche of my own home in Bloemfontein and my grandmother's house in Birmingham. I can still remember going down the road in Birmingham and wondering what had happened to the big gallery, what happened to the balcony.
    – ibid
    Commented Jan 2, 2022 at 21:47

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