The Iglishmêk sign language of the Dwarves

The War of the Jewels, volume 11 of the History of Middle-earth series, reprints an essay of Tolkien’s titled ‘Quendi and Eldar’, from a typescript dated to 1959-60. Like so much of his work this mostly discusses elven language. But in defining tengwesta – the Quenya word for ‘a system or code of signs’, which includes all spoken languages – he also described a secret dwarvish tengwesta of communication by gestures.

The Dwarves of Middle-earth not only have the shared sacred language of Khuzdul, but all dwarves also learn their community’s secret system of sign-language called iglishmêk.

The Dwarves [possessed a very] elaborate and organized system […] of gestures, concurrent with their spoken language, which they began to learn almost as soon as they began learning to speak. It should be said rather that they possessed a number of such gesture-codes; for unlike their spoken language, which remained astonishingly uniform and unchanged both in time and in locality, their gesture-codes varied greatly from community to community. And they were differently employed. Not for communication at a distance,* for the Dwarves were short-sighted, but for secrecy and the exclusion of strangers.

The component sign-elements of any such code were often so slight and so swift that they could hardly be detected, still less interpreted by uninitiated onlookers. As the Eldar eventually discovered, in their dealings with the Naugrim, they could speak with their voices but at the same time ’by gesture’ convey to their own folk modifications of what was being said. Or they could stand silent considering some proposition, and yet confer among themselves meanwhile.

This ‘gesture-language’, or as they called it iglishmêk, the Dwarves were no more eager to teach than their own tongue.

- QUENDI AND ELDAR in The War of the Jewels (HoMe 11) p. 395

* cf. the elvish hwermë or semaphore-gesture language,
less sophisticated and complex than iglishmêk.

Iglishmêks are fully-fledged tengwesta, and should be treated as language skills, except in game systems where Signalling or a similar secondary skill is handled in enough detail. They are not the most sophisticated of languages, however, not allowing communication more sophisticated than ‘everyday marketplace conversation’.

The iglishmêks of the different tribes of the dwarves across Middle-earth are completely unrelated. One exception to this is that since joining the Longbeards in Khazad-dûm, the majority of Firebeard and Broadbeam dwarves share the iglishmêk of the Longbeards.

Some GMs may prefer to treat each separate dwelling-place of the dwarves as a discreet community with its own unique iglishmêk. But in some times and places, where dwarves can be identified as having a reasonably recent shared common origin, it is reaonable for their iglishmêks to be treated as related dialects. For example, a dwarf knowing the iglishmêk of Thorin’s Halls in the Blue Mountains could use this at half its rating to communicate with dwarves of the Iron Hills and Lonely Mountain (who have sufficient interactions to share the same system). By the same token, the widely-dispersed Ironfist dwarves of Rhûn can use their iglishmêk at its full rating only with members of their own immediate clan group.

Iglishmêk is not as effective as spoken language (Kh.: aglâb) in most situations. It is somewhat slower – say half as quick at best. It is hindered if both hands are not free for use or if the audience is not able to give their full attention to watching the signer,** and it becomes more difficult to read at distance, in poor light etc. But it is flexible enough that if a gesture normally requires two hands, a one-handed approximation is usually clear enough in context to be read correctly. And if something absolutely must be expressed unambiguously it can be spelt out ‘longhand’ given sufficient time.
But its advantages are obviously that it is silent, and can be used covertly – including to comment on or modify a spoken statement.

** It is therefore not readily useable as a ‘battle tongue’ like those conceived by designers for Rolemaster and other systems.


All dwarves should receive the iglishmêk of the community in which they were raised as a starting language (or skill). In game systems where fluency is quantified, this should probably be rated one category or 1-2 ranks (or whatever) lower than their main language skill, to reflect iglishmêk’s relative simplicity.

The simplest use of iglishmêk is for dwarves to communicate secretly amongst themselves. They can be confident that, even if onlookers recognize the fact that they are communicating via iglishmêk, they cannot tell what is being expressed. (Groups of PCs have been learning the Green Dragon language for this purpose since the dawn of RPGs!)

To use iglishmêk undetected requires the potential observer not to have any rating in the iglishmêk in question, and is then an opposed test.
The signer uses their Acting (MERP/RM), Bluff (D&D), Deceit (FATE) or equivalent skill to make their gesture(s) appear to be inconsequential casual movements. The potential observer uses their Perception (MERP/RM), Sense Motive or Insight (D&D), Empathy (FATE) or equivalent skill to recognize that something’s going on — chiefly from the timing of the gesture, or possibly from other ‘tells’, such an insufficiently suppressed smirk! The observer should receive a bonus of 4/20% if they possess skill in any iglishmêk of their own, and another 4/20% if they state that they’re deliberately looking out for such communication.

The difficulty is modified by the amount of information being signed and the amount of time taken. A flurry of full-speed communication at half the speed of spoken conversation will be incredibly obvious, but a single gesture used only once will be very difficult to detect.
Rolls are made at ‘normal’ difficulty for iglishmêk communication of three items – common words, digits or letters where something like a proper-name has to be spelt out – in six seconds. Reducing the amount communicated improves the signer’s chances with a +1 or +5% bonus, or making the roll one difficulty category easier for each reduction, and correspondingly reduces the observer’s chances. Also, spacing out one’s communication makes it easier to appear casual, so each doubling of the time taken affects the signer and the potential observer the same way.

People in front of whom iglishmêk is used repeatedly – especially the same signs, like “stiff-necked elf” or similar – should receive an increasing bonus to recognize it as more than a casual gesture.

Recognizing that iglishmêk is being used is not the same as interpreting its meaning. The likeliest things that might be communicated in a given situation are probably fairly self-evident: Yes, No, Higher, Lower, He’s lying, I’m lying, ATTACK! etc. (Or these could be outlined to a player succeeding in a simple roll on a relevant skill.)
    The actual interpretation of any such short message would likely require a high degree of success in such a roll, which the GM might well wish to have rolled in secret.
    Over a longer timescale, ‘research’ effort may be possible to crack the code of an unfamiliar iglishmêk, by a combination of protracted observation, or possibly more elaborate schemes, imitating the use of a sign yourself and gauging the response, or setting up situations calculated to elicit a specific reaction.

The Iglishmêk sign language of the Dwarves

Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain Osric_of_O Osric_of_O