Don’t Speak of Cold Misty Mountains

Tolkien’s haunting verse in The Hobbit speaks of ‘the Misty Mountains cold’, which was excellent.  But when as a child he had written about ‘a green great dragon’, he was told this was wrong.  He wondered why.  And so do I.

Dragons, green or otherwise, are a peculiar notion arising from a number of interacting human cultures.  For no clear reasons, they are much the best-known of a vast number of chimeras that we have imagined.  Creatures that blend the real features of several actual animals, and which are mostly given near-human minds.

Attempts to put dragons on a scientific basis are ridiculous.  They are nothing like the fearsome two-legged flesh-eating dinosaurs that perished a very long time before we emerged.

In English, if we wish to talk of a dragon that is both green in colour and large in size, we would call it a ‘great green dragon’.  Native speakers who are past childhood would never call it a ‘green great dragon’, as Professor Tolkien once did while still quite young.  His mother corrected him, as he describes in his letters:

“I first tried to write a story when I was about seven.  It was about a dragon.  I remember nothing about it except a philological fact.  My mother said nothing about dragons, but pointed out that one could not say ‘a green great dragon’, but had to say  ‘a great green dragon’.  I wondered why, and still do.  The fact that I remember this is possibly significant, and I do not think I ever tried to write a story again for many years, and was taken up with language.”  (From a letter to W.H. Auden, 7 June 1955.  Published in The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Emphasis added.).

Thanks to mothers and others, native English-speakers grow up able to reject phrases like ‘a green great dragon’ as wrong.  They would do this without hesitation –  but would almost always be unable to explain just why it was wrong.  It ‘sounds wrong’: they could put it no more clearly than that.

That Tolkien himself does not give the rules is surprising.  It may be that he could have easily given the formal rules, but was still wondering how those rules had come to be.  Regardless, I will detail later how native English speakers follow a complex set of rules for the order of adjectives; rules that we normally apply perfectly without being consciously aware of them.  But that’s just English: French does it differently, often putting the adjective after the noun and in some cases changing the meaning depending on the adjective’s position.  And there are languages in which the order of adjectives is unimportant.  Where there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ for this aspect of grammar.

I must add that a subtly different set of rules apply to English songs and poetry.  Tolkien’s The Hobbit has the dwarves sing a song beginning:

  • “Far over the misty mountains cold
  • “To dungeons deep and caverns old”

In prose, this would have to be “far over the cold misty mountains, going to deep dungeons and old caverns”, which sounds far flatter.  The poem used an iambic tetrameter, thought with the occasional mismatch.  Most lines (though not the first) break into two halves.  And the pattern, which I got with help from a Tolkienian Facebook group, is:

  • far OVer the MISTy MOUNTains COLD
  • to DUNeons DEEP and CAVerns OLD

This isn’t quiet iambic, but much closer than if the natural word order had been used.  And I’ll say more about Green Great Dragons later on.  I’ve been working on the idea for some years, trying with little success to get others interested.  It recently seems to have taken off on the internet, quite independently of my efforts.

I was also curious as to how Tolkien at seven could make such an error.  From a talk given a few years back at a Tolkienian gathering called Oxonmoot, I have a suspicion that Tolkien’s ‘green great dragon’ may have belonged in a poem.  But we were particularly asked not to repeat the details, bland though they were.  I assume a book on the matter is planned, though apparently not yet published.

The significant point is, poetry or song might allow the irregular form.  Maybe you could get away with a song like:

  • On merry days we raise a flagon
  • To celebrate a green great dragon

It sounds better because it follows a “da DUM” pattern, an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, known technically as an iambic.  On this matter, I remembered a man called Peter Brooke in a long-out-of-print essey saying:

“The point is that not only is it quite easy to write in iambic pentameters, it is often quite difficult to avoid it. ORDinARy PROSE is OFTen IN iAMbics.”

In English poetry, there is greater tolerance for unusual word order when it helps the sounds to fit a pattern, iambic or something close to it, as with Tolkien’s dwarf song.  Perhaps Tolkien’s mother was being over-fussy; perhaps not.  It’s unlikely we’ll ever have the luck to find Tolkien’s original.  Regardless, all native English speakers would reject a ‘green great dragon’ in ordinary speech or prose writing.  But could not explain just why.

Whatever Professor Tolkien may have thought, I found myself drawn to the phrase as a nice illustration of how our lives can be built around rules we do not notice.


Standard English insists that adjective relating to size must come before adjective relating to colour: and that adjectives must always come before their noun.  English would not allow a ‘green great dragon’,  A ‘dragon green great’ would be an even worse goof.  But the rules are different in other human languages, as I will detail later.

Even for English, we are dealing with a language that was shaped by a series of historic accidents.  If the weather in 1066 had been slightly different, England might never have suffered a Norman conquest.  Such an England would speak something very different from our English.  Maybe more like Dutch.  Probably even more like the obscure languages spoken by about 500,000 Frisian people living on the southern fringes of the North Sea in the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark; but hardly any of us would know anything about Frisian languages.  They are different enough to be unintelligible to English-speakers.

The Wiki gives an example of Frisian:

Us Heit, dy’t yn de himelen is
jins namme wurde hillige.
Jins keninkryk komme.
Jins wollen barre,
allyk yn ‘e himel
sa ek op ierde.

I doubt many English-speakers would recognise this as the first five lines of the Lord’s Prayer, even supposing they knew this prayer from childhood or otherwise.  Taught at a state school with Anglican religious instruction including the 1662 Anglican Book of Common Prayer, I knew it as:

Our Father, which art in Heaven
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy Kingdom come.
Thy will be done,
in earth as it is in Heaven.

In Standard Dutch, the same Aramaic verse known to us via Greek and Latin would be:

Onze Vader die in de hemelen zijt,
Uw naam worde geheiligd;
Uw Koninkrijk kome;
Uw wil geschiede,
gelijk in de hemel alzo ook op de aarde.


Complex open-ended speech is assumed to have made us human.  A few very clever animals can talk about particular facts: only humans are able to talk about anything.  Only humans can talk about creatures like dragons, which don’t actually exist.  This has no obvious purpose, but comes along with a language flexible enough for cultural changes.  Ways to pass on discoveries important to hunter-gatherers, such as how to tell a well-fed lion from a hungry one, or where to dig up edible tubers.  It would also have enabled some unrecorded genius to persuade their fellow pre-humans that carrying round a set of well-made stone tools would be easier than making a fresh set every time there was a fresh animal carcass to butcher.  This last must have allowed humans to spread well beyond regions with useful flint outcrops.  Allowed them to obtain fresh flint by gift-exchange with neighbours: but such social complexities are hardly likely without language.

Languages also have grammar.  Some people think that Chinese does not: actually it has plenty of grammar, but very little inflection.  Words normally remain the same whether they are singular or plural.  Past, present and future are all the same.  You don’t have the complexities of he/she/it/they.  The Chinese can of course express these things and much more, but usually by adding extra words.  And when they learn English, they have problems learning the correct inflections.

One nice example I overheard while working in an open-plan office.  A Chinese lady with twin daughters was asked about her daughters’ exam results.  And she replied ‘I have twin’.  That’s to say, she understood ‘daughters’’ as meaning ‘daughter’s’, a matter relating to a single daughter, and wished to correct the misunderstanding.  But she also forgot the proper inflexion for English plurals and did not say ‘twins’.

English-speakers trying to master Chinese can do just as badly.  Standard Chinese (Mandarin) has four tones, with the tones mostly distinguishing different and unrelated words.  Some time back, I came across a story about lady learning Chinese who managed to confess to having sex with cats, when she was only trying to say she had a cold.  I asked on the questions-site Quora, and was told that it was probably someone saying “wo3 gan4 mao1 le” when they meant “wo3 gan3 mao4 le”.  And that ‘had sex’ was the polite version.  But any Chinese would be expecting errors like that from a foreigner.

Though even Chinese can get confused between different dialects, as one of my respondents mentioned:

“A children’s song that went ‘I’m a little dragon, I have many little smiles, little smiles’

“And I heard it as: ‘I’m a little dragon, I have many little boobs, little boobs.’  As a weirdo child, I imagined dragons as COWS.”

Note that I am using numbers to represent the four tones of Standard Chinese, as they did.  Diacritical marks, commonly called accents, would be more scholarly.  But I’ve used them in the past for foreign words, mostly names such as Schrodinger, and then seen computer software turn them into something meaningless.  A document may look fine in Microsoft Word, and then turn letters with diacritical marks into weird symbols when posted to the web.

This matter is another example of humans laying down inconsistent rules, decades ago.  A lot of early electronic systems stored letters in a code called ASCII, which stands for American Standard Code for Information Interchange.  ASCII was originally a set of 128 characters for telecommunication.  They included numbers and both upper-case and lower-case letters, but not the diacritical marks that written English mostly refuses to use to clarify its inconsistent and unpredictable spelling.  This also meant that computers could store letters as units of seven ‘bits’, a bit being something with two possible states, normally represented as 0 and 1.  Computers normally store their data like that, binary numbers.  But computers were also standardised to work with eight-bit units called bytes.  I’m old enough to have actually used computers that used six-bit bytes, made by a UK company called International Computers Limited, long since absorbed by Fujitsu. But eight bits soon became the norm.

So, computers could store seven-bit ASCII in eight-bit storage blocks.  But this was wasteful, particularly in the early years when memory was expensive – my first job was with a mainframe computer doing accounts for an electronics company, and it had 48K of memory, using an obsolete technology called core-store.  So to meet more complex needs, ASCII was expanded to be a set of 256 characters, conveniently stored in one ‘byte’ of computer memory.  This including some characters with the diacritical marks used by most European languages.  But sadly, this was done several times, and inconsistently.  The code for an accented letter in one version of ASCII can mean something completely different in another version.  This weakness survives in software that was probably developed using different brands of computer.  There is a much superior system called Unicode, which uses extra computer memory to encode more than 128,000 characters covering 135 modern and historic scripts and includes all sorts of letters with diacritical marks.  It was started for Chinese ideograms, given the need to easily convert between traditional ideograms and the simplified versions that are part of Mao’s legacy.  But the world of computing and the internet has not so far standardised on Unicode, which is slower and takes up more space when held electronically.

Electronic codes and language can be confusing: human languages are worse.  Another case of confusion between foreigners and Chinese hampered the work of missionaries in China.  The West after the Opium Wars imposed both Christian missionaries and a system of ‘free trade’ that was ruinous for China.  Missionaries were in China with the explicit aim of drastically changing or perhaps abolishing traditional Chinese culture.  This only partly succeeded: Chinese traditions collapsed but the imported Western culture was inadequate and mostly produced chaos.  Christianity asked people to swallow absurd beliefs, but the Chinese soon noticed that the rich and powerful in nominally Christian countries didn’t act as if Christianity was their core belief, in the way that rulers of China had almost always had a genuine belief in Confucian values.

Most Western writers on China nowadays assume that ‘capitalism plus democracy’ should have been the answer.  Of course the blend they recommend didn’t actually exist until the 1980s, and hasn’t been very good for the West.  In the century before that, secular liberalism had told interested Chinese about all of the faults and inconsistencies within Christianity, but was also unable to remake China.  It came loaded with a vast number of assumptions about society that were not true for China.  ‘Green great dragon rules’ that they took for granted, but did not come naturally to people from a wholly different background.

There was also some very understandable strong resistance from traditionally-minded Chinese intellectuals.  Some of them used dishonest writings to stir up popular fears:

“The pamphlets were carefully calculated to stir up the mob violence and superstitious hysteria…  Christianity was termed throughout ‘the pig-grunt religion’, a term originally derived from the unfortunate fact that the Roman Catholic word for God was Tien-chu (Lord of Heaven) and that ‘chu’ when pronounced in a different tone also meant ‘pig’.”  (Barr, Pat.  To China with love, page 159)

‘Chu’ is the older way of expressing in English a Chinese word now written as Zhu, though an English-speaker would probably transcribe it as ‘joo’.  Zhu1 is pig: Zhu3 is owner, lord or god.

As someone who has taken a lot of interest in Chinese Communism, I could not help thinking of the Chinese words ‘mao’ and ‘zhu’ in relationship to Mao Zedong and to Zhu De.  Zhu was Mao’s partner in creating the original Red Areas in China.  Originally his superior, until Mao became unofficial party leader during the Long March.  And a vital supporter right up to his death a few months before Mao.  It turned out that his name is yet another Chinese word: Zhu4, meaning vermillion.  His name could be understood as ‘Red Virtue’, a curious accident since this was his name long before he became political.  Chinese would also probably not take it so literally, just as Britons would not be literal about names like Goldsmith or Ivy Smith.  Yet alternative meanings are always there.  Agnes Smedley mentions in her biography that at school Zhu De was teased by richer pupils who said his name as Zhu1, pig.

Mao is even more interesting.  His name is Mao2, hair, but jokes are occasionally made about it being ‘cat’ when spoken in a different tone.  His full name could be translated as ‘Hair Anoints the East’, which is rather appropriate.  Even more interestingly – and I think I am the first to make this particular link – there is another noted soldier/politician whose name also means something like hair or hairy – Caesar.

(It is also worth noting when English-speakers say ‘see-sar’ for Caesar, this is an error inherited from Italian, which had a number of sound-shifts from the original Latin.  I remember one confusing conversation between myself, my brother and his Finnish-born wife, who had no idea who ‘see-sar’ was until she recognised him as Kaiser.  Kaiser, or Tsar in Russian, is probably much more like the name as spoken by Romans in the time of Julius Caesar.)

One extra: in Mandarin, even Mao2 can be the sound for more than one word, just as English has bear and bare.  I’d also recalled a Taiwanese actress called Angela Mao, best known for her short role as the sister of Bruce Lee’s character in Enter the Dragon.  She was also a star in many other lesser kung-fu films, a few of which I watched when I was a fan of the genre.  But her Mao2 is written with a completely different Chinese character, and means ‘spear’.  In Standard Chinese the names would sound the same.  They are pronounced differently in Cantonese, and perhaps also in other Chinese dialects.

Chinese once had more tones than the four used by Standard Chinese.  It keeps some of these in its many dialects.  It is believed that the North-Chinese dialect that became dominant was simplified for the benefit of barbarian conquerors of the Chinese Empire: conquerors whose original languages had mostly not been tonal.  That’s how humans keep shifting realities while communicating with other humans.


To get back to Tolkien.  Just what rule for English is broken by a phrase like Green Great DragonThe Wiki says:

“In many languages, attributive adjectives usually occur in a specific order. In general, the adjective order in English is:

  • “Determiners — articles, adverbs, and other limiters.
  • “Observation — postdeterminers and limiter adjectives (e.g., a real hero, a perfect idiot) and adjectives subject to subjective measure (e.g., beautiful, interesting), or objects with a value (e.g., best, cheapest, costly)
  • “Size and shape — adjectives subject to objective measure (e.g., wealthy, large, round), and physical properties such as speed.
  • “Age — adjectives denoting age (e.g., young, old, new, ancient, six-year-old).
  • “Color — adjectives denoting color (e.g., red, black, pale).
  • “Origin — denominal adjectives denoting source of noun (e.g., French, American, Canadian).
  • “Material — denominal adjectives denoting what something is made of (e.g., woollen, metallic, wooden).
  • “Qualifier — final limiter, often regarded as part of the noun (e.g., rocking chair, hunting cabin, passenger car, book cover).

“This means that in English, adjectives pertaining to size precede adjectives pertaining to age (‘little old’, not ‘old little’), which in turn generally precede adjectives pertaining to color (‘old white’, not ‘white old’). So, we would say ‘One (quantity) nice (opinion) little (size) round (shape) old (age) white (color) brick (material) house.’

“This order may be more rigid in some languages than others; in some, like Spanish, it may only be a default (unmarked) word order, with other orders being permissible.

“Due partially to borrowings from French, English has some adjectives that follow the noun as postmodifiers, called postpositive adjectives, as in time immemorial and attorney general. Adjectives may even change meaning depending on whether they precede or follow, as in proper: They live in a proper town (a real town, not a village) vs. They live in the town proper (in the town itself, not in the suburbs). All adjectives can follow nouns in certain constructions, such as tell me something new.”

A foreigner reading the rules might suppose that ‘tell me a new something” was correct, but of course it is not.  But our encoded rules are much as the Wiki says: other sources give similar views.  But the example of French is very interesting.  It is a member of the same language family as English: both are part of the vast Indo-European assemblage.  But its grammar is very different.  A French account of a Eurostar journey might be literally translated as ‘I march along the road of iron to The Paris’.  The actual title of the translation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit is Bilbo le Hobbit, though the Peter Jackson films appear as Le Hobbit.

In French, it is normal for adjectives to come after the noun.  Putting them before the noun sometimes changes the meaning.  Thus un hospital ancien is an old hospital, but un ancien hospital is a former hospital.  And un grand homme is a great man, but un homme grand is a tall man.

“Some adjectives can go before or after the noun, depending what they mean. For a literal meaning, place the adjective after the noun; for a more figurative meaning, you place it before.” (Website)

On Quora, I asked about how the rules vary between languages.  I was told that in Indonesian, adjectives may be in any order.  In Hebrew, the adjectives come after the noun, but in any order.  Russian has the same order as English.  Chinese has its own rules:

“If the adjectives are disordered, I will find it kind of weird, but couldn’t tell why.  The rule is very complex. i.e., it may be related to the rhythm, the emphasis, or just how many characters these words has.”

The topic is something that people with a better knowledge of languages than mine could usefully expand on.  But what I have shows how a rule that’s solid in one language may be different in another language, and not observed elsewhere.  These are human matters with are no fixed rules.  Just rules that large groups of humans have chosen to live by, mostly by custom and habit and cultural influences.

This is a from a much longer and more diverse article, Physics and the Nature of Reality,  which has relevant references.  You will also find the sections of this article separated by other observations