The Dunmer is one of my favorite races to play in the Elder Scrolls series. They’re a jack-of-all-trades race, skilled in combat, stealth, and magic skills. They also have solid racial abilities, primarily a heavy resistance to fire. But when it comes to how the Dunmer are as people in lore? Well, they aren’t exactly the nicest people in Tamriel.
The Dark Elves have a wide range of colorful Dunmeri words that you will regularly hear, like sera, fetcher, and s’wit. But none are as recognizable as the infamous:
If you decide to delve into the marvelous world of Morrowind, be prepared to hear this phrase.
But what exactly does N’wah mean? Let’s find out.
What In Tamriel Is A N’wah?
Growing up, I always thought N’wah was an umbrella slur used by Dark Elves to describe anyone they don’t like. It turns out to have a more specific meaning than that. Depending on the context, N’wah can mean one of three things:
The most controversial aspect about Morrowind is probably slavery. Slavery is near-universally viewed negatively throughout the Empire. The Empire may have absorbed Morrowind, but it came with a price. To avoid war with one another, Tiber Septim and Living God Vivec came to an agreement called the Treaty of the Armistice.
The treaty meant that Morrowind would become part of the Empire but maintain its autonomy. Thanks to this, Morrowind kept its’ local traditions and ways of life, including the practice of slavery. Some Great Houses, particularly House Dres, refused to support the treaty unless they could continue to keep their slaves.
In the eyes of slavers in Morrowind, slaves are property and nothing more. The murder of a slave is considered a property crime, not a murder. Their rights are nonexistent, and their owners generally mistreat them to an extreme degree. Argonians and Khajiit make up the vast majority of slaves in Morrowind.
The way slavers treat their slaves in Morrowind is akin to how the Thalmor treat every non-Thalmor in Skyrim. In other words, they are less than nothing. So it’s not a surprise that the Dunmer would go as far as inventing a slur to remind slaves of their worthlessness.
The Dark Elves of Morrowind are pretty xenophobic and racist, even those with heavier ties to the Empire (In other words, foreigners). And they are not at all shy about expressing their disgust for foreigners to their faces.
What always confused me about this secondary meaning of the word N’wah is that it also applies to Dunmer player characters. I suppose this comes down to cultural issues where you may be of the same race, but if you’re a Dunmer from outside Morrowind, do not follow traditional Dunmer culture.
I don’t think the game ever explains it, but everyone in Morrowind can immediately tell you’re an outlander. Maybe there’s a bright neon sign above your head that says “I’m a foreigner.” and everyone sees it except you. Not even being the Nerevarine will make these people respect you.
It’s very telling how much Dark Elves hate foreigners when a word typically meaning slave also applies to you just for not being a native of Morrowind.
Depending on the context of the dialogue, N’wah may also mean invader. Invader is most commonly used to describe Imperials specifically since they are the ones occupying Morrowind at the behest of the Empire.
So no, N’wah is not an umbrella slur that applies to everyone, though in a way, you can interpret it that way. Dark Elves have no respect for slaves and hate foreigners and invaders. If there were ever a word to use on someone you have utter contempt for, N’wah would be it.
N’wah: Mostly An Ambient Slur
I don’t have many bad things to say about Morrowind, but one thing I can criticize is the local slang’s usage or lack thereof. You will hear N’wah, S’wit, fetcher, sera many times in Morrowind. But it will never be in dialogue.
Chat up any member of the Camonna Tong if you want to see just how much these people hate you. But not even Dunmer Mafia members don’t call you words like N’wah in dialogue. Even though they very well should, especially if you play as anything but a Dark Elf. We’re talking about people who consider outlanders useful as slaves and nothing more.
It’s far from being the most egregious mistake in a video game. But I would’ve loved it if Bethesda had gone all the way on local Dunmer’s racism and xenophobia. Make it so that some Dunmer flat out refuses to speak or do business with you if you’re not a Dunmer. Or even if you ARE a Dunmer. Or make it so that they will begrudgingly associate with you, but only if you bribe them.
It’s very jarring how you can get a Camonna Tong member’s disposition to 100, and they will greet you warmly. Only to then tell you to get out of their face because you’re a dirty foreigner.
A Different Era, A Different Meaning?
In Skyrim, there is a Dunmer woman named Niluva Hlaalu in the city of Riften. She’s a skooma addict who works at the Black-Briar Meadery. You cannot have a conversation with her, but she does have a couple of things to say if you attempt to engage in dialogue with her. One of those things is a passing remark where she refers to her father as a N’wah.
As her surname would suggest, Niluva was/is a member of the Great House Hlaalu, as is her father. Her using a word that means slave, foreigner, or invader when speaking of him makes zero sense.
Niluva is a skooma addict, so this could be her being stupid. But I’m inclined to believe this is Bethesda being Bethesda. They have a notorious reputation for forgetting their own lore, and I’m willing to bet that this is the case here. Niluva doesn’t even pronounce N’wah the way people pronounce it in Morrowind. And seeing as how there’s nothing in Skyrim that suggests or explicitly states N’wah has a new meaning, this is likely a Todd Howard “It just works” moment.
Question: Can you free any slaves in Morrowind?
Answer: Yes. There are various groups or individuals in Morrowind who wish to see the practice eliminated from Morrowind. Until that happens, they secretly assist in freeing slaves and helping them escape Morrowind.
Question: Will any of the native Dunmer attack you for being a foreigner?
Answer: No. Not even the Camonna Tong are bold enough to commit open murder just because they hate outlanders.
Question: How often is the word N’wah used post-Morrowind?
Answer: Given how badly a state Morrowind is in after the Red Year, there may be a lack of foreigners in Morrowind, which essentially renders N’wah a moot and dead term.
N’wah Meaning and Context Guide: Conclusion
As a kid, I loved being a Dark Elf in Morrowind. It was years before I found out about the events of the Red Year and the subsequent Argonian invasion of Morrowind. And I was horrified to learn the terrible fate of my favorite Elder Scrolls race and country.
But knowing how absolutely awful many of Morrowind’s natives were in the Third Era, I feel way less sorry for them. It’s a tragedy for the decent folk of Morrowind who opposed slavery or even the Telvanni, who basically didn’t care about outside things and just wanted to do magic stuff. But maybe out of the ashes of Red Mountain, a better Morrowind will rise and thrive.
I will give the Dark Elves some credit, though. At least they’re more clever about their open hatred than the pompous Thalmor or the stupid Stormcloak Nords. But regardless, the next Dark Elf to call me a N’wah is getting a bonk to the face. Two can play at the Morrowind traditions game.