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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
  • "Oh {filtered}!"
    – EvilSnack
    Mar 22 '20 at 20:10
  • The Wilhelm scream hadn't been recorded yet, so he had to improvise! Jul 20 at 4:13
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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. 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.) 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
  • Ai only means alas in Quenya. In Sindarin it means hail.
    – ibid
    Jul 19 at 22:31
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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! 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 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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"Ai" has a meaning in both Quenya and Sindarin, however it seems that Legolas is using the regular english word "ai" here, not an elvish one.

Some time after the publication of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien began working on a linguistic companion volume that would go through and explain all the examples of elvish found in the book. Tolkien has several lists he prepared of the various elvish words found in the published book that he prepared while working on this, and at least four of reach past this point in the text. They are all published in Parma Eldalamberon 17. None of these lists include the Legolas's "Ai" as an example of elvish, and the only word from Legolas's "Ai! ai! A Balrog! A Balrog is come!" that appears on Tolkien's lists is "Balrog". We therefore can reasonably conclude that he was just using the english "Ai".

Quenya - interj. "ah, alas"

Used by Galadriel in "ai! laurië lantar lassi súrinen", translated in LotR as "ah! like gold fall the leaves in the wind", but the word for word translations in The Road Goes Ever On and Parma Eldalamberon 17 translate it as "alas".

Sindarin - interj. "hail!"

Used by Glorfindel in "Ai na vedui Dunadan! Mae g'ovannen.", translated in Parma Eldalamberon 17 as "Ah! at last, Dunadan! Well met!", with the note "ai in Sindarin like 'hail! ' or less formally 'ha there you are'."

English - interj. "An exclamation of surprise, regret, pain, etc."

This definition is from the Oxford English Dictionary, which notes that the word dates back to at least 1682, in the phrase from Thomas Flatman "Ai me! I've lost a sweet Companion."

(Also note that the one elvish word Legolas does use, "Balrog" is a Sindarin word. So if "Ai" was elvish as well, it would probably be the Sindarin "Hail!", not the Quenya "Alas!".)

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    Perhaps if Legolas is polite to the balrog he will be eaten last? Hmmm…
    – Jon Custer
    Jul 19 at 23:37

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