In the chapter titled "The Bridge of Khazad-Dûm", in The Fellowship of the Ring, Legolas is the first member of the Fellowship to see the Balrog known as "Durin's Bane". He proceeds to alert the others by crying out:

"Ai! Ai! A Balrog! A Balrog is come!"

Whatever it means, "Ai!" is probably one of the least important words in this sentence. Still, I can't find a single canonical translation of the word. Some sources translate it as "Ah!", which doesn't make sense in this context. Others translate it as "Oh!", which makes only slightly more sense. And some translate it as "Hail!", which does make sense in this context (I think we might interpret this as something like "Hey!" in modern English).

Are any of these translations accurate, or does it mean something else entirely? Does it mean anything at all, or is it simply an exclamation with no inherent meaning of any kind (like, for example, "AAAAAAAAAHHHH!")?

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    Were I guessing, I would say that it means exactly what it would mean in English. As you say, just an exclamation. I'm fairly sure that I've seen exclamations written exactly like that in other works. – jamesqf Jun 16 '15 at 4:27
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    FWIW, 'ai' is a legal word in Scrabble. – jamesqf Jun 19 '15 at 5:25

As another answer states, ai is used for "Alas" in Sindarin. However, it's not clear that Legolas is speaking Sindarin at this moment. Typically, when a character is speaking a foreign language, Tolkien points this out by putting their speech in italics. We see here only ordinary roman type; and were further told that Legolas was "wailing". This being the case, it seems as if Legolas was simply crying out in fear: "Aaaaaaai!"

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    Actually, the other answer states (correctly) that ai! means ‘alas!’ in Quenya (not sure if we know whether it does in Sindarin too?). Legolas, and Middle-earth elves in general, do go back and forth quite a bit between Sindarin and Quenya in certain common phrases—but realising you're looking at an all-but-immortal demon of fire bearing down upon you doesn't seem like an obvious time to switch to speaking Latin (as it were). I agree that he's probably just saying “Aaaiaiaiai!” here. “Holy fucking shit!” would probably have been a bit provincial for Tolkien’s tastes. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 17 '15 at 22:07
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    (Actually, upon closer inspection—aka a quick Google search—it seems that, according to Etymologies [NAY-], ‘alas’ in Sindarin was nae. According to this dictionary, ai means simply ‘ah’ or ‘O’ in Sindarin.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 17 '15 at 22:10
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    @JanusBahsJacquet - So "Ai!" is just Legolas' version of Hudson's "Game over, man, game over!" speech from Aliens? :) – Wad Cheber Jul 13 '15 at 4:12

According to Tolkien Gateway, 'Ai' means 'Alas' in Quenya

The page cites the following reference: "J.R.R. Tolkien, Donald Swann, The Road Goes Ever On, "Namárië (Farewell)", line 1"

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    I'm not sure how much sense 'Alas' means in the context of your quote, but thought I'd put it in anyway! – Often Right Jun 16 '15 at 1:03
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    Strange that the reference it cites translates the word as "Ah!". But apparently, "Alas!" was originally a combination of "Ah!" and "Las", which means "unfortunate" or something like it. "alas mid-13c., from Old French ha, las (later French hélas), from ha "ah" + las "unfortunate," originally "tired, weary," from Latin lassus "weary" (see late). At first an expression of weariness rather than woe."" – Wad Cheber Jun 16 '15 at 1:43
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    I can't argue with Tolkien, but I would have guessed it meant something like "uh-oh" or "yikes". – user14111 Jun 16 '15 at 2:02
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    @MattGutting - 'alas' (at least this is they way I've used it) is like a sigh of regret, just formalised into language – Often Right Jun 16 '15 at 2:28
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    @MattGutting - I think "alas" technically means "ah, unfortunate" or "ah, loss", but most people probably use it without thinking about what it means. It is, as N Soong said, a sigh of regret, formalized into language. I don't think I have ever said it, except perhaps in an ironic manner, but until today, I also never thought about what it meant. – Wad Cheber Jun 16 '15 at 2:42

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