Why Game of Thrones is the New Standard for Fictional Languages

Game of Thrones, Sci-Fi Fantasy, and the Key to Convincing “Conlangs”

In the fictional and diverse lands of Westeros and Essos from George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Fire and Ice” book series and subsequent Emmy-winning HBO show “Game of Thrones”, more goes on behind the scenes for the complex web of cultures and languages than what we might expect. Throughout the books written thus far, a developed backstory behind the language families and local dialects persists.

Over in Westeros, the White Walkers speak a strange, inhuman language called Skroth, and the Andals have their two languages the Old and Common tongues. Back in Essos, the Valyrian language family is split up by numerous local dialects and its ancestor High Valyrian, the Dothraki from the vast central plains of the continent speak a guttural and coarse language called Dothraki, the Lhazareen speak Lhazar, the Qartheen speak Qarth, the Asshai speak Asshai’I, and on and on. But despite a rather intricate linguistic map, Martin has openly admitted that he doesn’t have the same interest in language creation that, for example, J. R. R. Tolkien had in creating languages for the “Lord of the Rings” books.

Enter David J. Peterson and the Language Creation Society.

Constructing “Conlang” Languages

Peterson is the brains behind the handful of languages spoken throughout the “Game of Thrones” TV series. The producers of the show had decided early on that they wanted to add a realistic aspect to the project to make the cultural differences between groups of people in the show more convincing. And since Martin had only used a handful of phrases, words, and proverbs in the books, they had to have someone create the languages for them. After holding a contest among conlang enthusiasts, Peterson won out with a month of work designing the Dothraki language, drawing the evolution of the language, its geographic and cultural significance for the Dothraki people, and ultimately submitted 300 pages of notes.

George R. R. Martin

Game of Thrones is just the latest example of constructed languages, or conlangs, showing up in pop culture. A Polish doctor created Esperanto to help with international communication in diplomacy and business. Tolkien, being an expert linguist and professor of Anglo-Saxon at Cambridge University, created some highly developed and complex languages for his mythical characters. “Star Trek” spawned the intentionally difficult Klingon language. And Paul R. Frommer designed the Na’vi language for the large blue inhabitants of Pandora in “Avatar”. But with the two most prevalent languages used in the series, Valyrian and Dothraki, a new craze has been born with inserting convincing languages rather than just incoherent sounds into films and TV for the languages of mythical beasts and aliens.

“Creating words is the easy part; anyone can string together nonsense syllables. But Mr. Peterson, like Tolkien, took the trouble to give his words etymologies and cousins, so that the word for ‘feud’ is related to the words ‘blood’ and ‘fight’.” à from an August 5, 2017, article from The Economist

David J. Peterson

Duolingo, the popular language-learning mobile app, has put High Valyrian into beta testing for English-speakers wishing to relate more closely to their favorite TV characters. Dothraki bled over into “The Office” when Dwight tried to teach coworker Erin the verb conjugations for “throat-rip”. And back in 2012, 146 newborn girls were given the name “Khaleesi”, the Dothraki word for the wife of a king, up from around 30 the year before.

Dothraki – lekh dothraki

The Dothraki people are a nomadic tribe that live in the central plains of Essos, known as the Dothraki Sea. Their language came with some challenges and constraints for Peterson when he was working on the initial construction. Besides being an illiterate society, whose language has developed in the mythical history of Essos in relative isolation due to the Dothraki not engaging in long-distance trade, Peterson had to be sure to make the language something that would make sense for them to speak. He himself described the two main hurdles to overcome with this language: “First, the topography of the area, which helps determine what these people do and don’t have words for, and what their lifestyle is like. The second factor is their level of technology. The world of GoT is at a significantly lower level of technology than the modern world. And in the case of Dothraki, they are at a technology level that’s below even that.”

As the Dothraki are known for their focus on horses, common phrases assumed horse-related lingo. Distances are measured in horse-terms. Some verb conjugations revolve around the root “to ride”. The standard inquisition in English, “How are you doing?” is literally translated in Dothraki as “Do you ride well?” or “Are you riding well?” Peterson borrowed concepts, grammatical structures, and ideas for syntax from a number of real languages, like Turkish, Russian, Estonian, Inuktitut (indigenous language of the Inuit people in Canada), and Swahili. He had submitted more than 1,700 words of the Dothraki language to HBO before “Game of Thrones” began shooting, the language had 3,250 words by December 2011, over 4,000 words by May 2015, and Peterson has expressed his desire to grow the language to 10,000 words.

“You know, most people probably don’t really know what Arabic actually sounds like, so to an untrained ear, it might sound like Arabic. To someone who knows Arabic, it doesn’t. I tend to think of the sound as a mix between Arabic (minus the distinctive pharyngeal) and Spanish, due to the dental constraints.” à from an April 22, 2010, interview with Ellen B. Wright at Tor.com

Valyrian – valyrīha udrir

Valyrian is much more complex than Dothraki in that it’s not one single language but a family of languages, local dialects that emerged from a common ancestor of High Valyrian, similarly to how the Romance languages emerged from Latin in Medieval Europe. The history goes that the ancient Valyrian Freehold spread its language, High Valyrian, throughout the various cities it subjugated. And just like when Latin was spread throughout the Roman Empire, the various Valyrian-speaking areas began to develop distinct forms of the language. Peterson, being a meticulous linguist and conlang enthusiast, couldn’t settle for designing one Valyrian language and having characters speak in accents to demonstrate varying dialects. He crafted High Valyrian along with two derivative dialects, Astapori and Meereenese Valyrian, again utilizing the scattered vocabulary from the books as a base.

The entirety of the grammar for the language began with two phrases Martin had written in the books: Valar morghulis (all men must die) and valar dohaeris (all men must serve) as well as the word zaldrīzes (dragon) and dracarys (dragonfire). In a more quirky turn of linguistic events, Peterson created the word keli, meaning “cat”, which is his cat’s name; and the word trēsy, meaning “son”, was named after his 3,000th Twitter follower @Tracee2ez.

Dothraki and Valyrian aren’t the first occurrence of a well-constructed language, even since the languages from Lord of the Rings. And it definitely won’t be the last constructed language. Audiences of science fiction and fantasy have caught on to the trend of writers and directors looking to add a new depth and dimension to their productions. The films where alien or mythical languages are incomprehensible sounds strung together are over, and constructed languages are here to stay.


About the Author:

Daniel is based out of Chicago and works as a writer, editor, and translator.

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