Khal Drogo’s guttural, single-mindedly emphatic insistence that he will one day give his son the Seven Kingdoms in season 1, Daenerys Targaryen surprising the slave master Kraznys by revealing she speaks fluent Valyrian, culminating with her one-word order to set him on fire (“Dracarys!”) in season 3 and Jaqen H’ghar’s enigmatic valar morghulis (“All men must die”) to Arya Stark moments before he takes off his own face in season 2 – some of Game of Thrones’ best moments have hinged on the use of complex, invented languages. And the fans know it – at last count, more than 1.2 million had signed up to to learn High Valyrian on language app Duolingo .
But for linguist David Peterson, who’s been crafting Dothraki and variations of Valyrian for the show, there wasn’t much to go off when he began. George R. R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire novels, on which the series is based, contained just 56 Dothraki words, of which 24 were names. There were just two Valyrian phrases, valar morghulis and its rejoinder, valar dohaeris (all men must serve).
Still, he says, it was enough to work with. “The sound of each language was drawn from the material in the books. They really strongly determined the phonological character of the language, even if other options were possible.” In the show, Valyrian, much like Latin, is a dead language no longer used for communication, but for learning among the nobility of the fictional continent of Essos. Peterson envisioned it as having a longer, drawn out sound and plenty of trills. To nail its sound, you need to be good at pronouncing an alveolar trill or rolled R’s, he says. While Dothraki is spoken by nomadic horse riders of Essos, its roots are more familiar. “If you can pronounce Spanish and Arabic fluently, you can pronounce Dothraki.”
Peterson got his job in the most Game Of Thrones way possible. He won it. In 2009, the show’s producers contacted the California-based Language Creation Society, which Peterson co-founded, looking for someone who could create Dothraki. He beat out the competition by submitting a 303-page-long proposal including “the full grammar and dictionary of the Dothraki language, translations of all the material for the pilot, plus a bunch of extra ones as background, some cultural idioms, a 10-page-long summary of the material, and one page of fun facts.”
By then, he’d been “conlanging” or “constructing languages” for the past nine years. “A conlang is an intentionally created language. All languages are ultimately created by humans, but they usually evolve gradually and unintentionally simply through use. A conlang is planned and then executed for international communication, for fleshing out a fictional world, or just for fun,” he says. As a student at the University of California, Berkeley, Peterson’s interest in the subject was piqued after he attended a class on Esperanto, a language created for international communication. He went on to do an MA in linguistics from University of California, San Diego .
Peterson says that the first thing he thinks about when he begins the creation of a new language is its purpose. “A language that doesn’t have a specific purpose runs the risk of becoming a really poor language—trying to fulfil mutually contradictory goals, with the result being a mess.” Next, he works on its grammar. Dothraki, he says, places the important part of the phrase before the less important part of the phrase. High Valyrian places the most important part of the phrase last. The nouns in High Valyrian, instead of being based on biological sex (masculine and feminine), like Hindi and Spanish and Arabic, are based on four nominal properties – hūra (“moon”, lunar), vēzos (“sun”, solar), tegon (“earth”, terrestrial), and iēdar (“water”, aquatic). “Since the words for “man” (vala), “woman” (ābra), “boy” (taoba), and “girl” (riña) all belong to one gender (the lunar), it made no sense to distinguish something like masculine and feminine. Instead, it made a lot more sense to separate them based on some other meaning, and so I separated it out the way I did,” he says.
For Peterson, culture plays no role in the grammar or the sound of a language, but heavily influences the types of words you get. Since the Dothraki have a lot of contact with cultures on the fringes of the Dothraki Sea, but not much contact with, for example, Westeros, the “world” of its lexicon is consequently a lot smaller than the world of A Song of Ice and Fire. “Additionally, their lifestyle has varied so little for many generations that idioms relating to their nomadic way of life pervade daily conversations, such that the verb “to ride” (dothralat) is used in expressions like “How are you?” (Hash yer dothras chek?), and even in simple grammatical constructions, like “I just ate” (Anha dothrak adakhatoon),” he says. Inspiration for the language also came from an unlikely source – The Office. The third episode of the ninth season, ‘Andy’s Ancestry’ sees Dwight Schrute teach Erin Hannon the language. Peterson was so impressed with a type of compound used, he decided to make it an official part of the language, naming it the ‘Schrutean compound’.
While Peterson has George R. R. Martin’s general approval for the languages he’s created, they’ve never worked together on account of how busy the author is. Since he never works with the actors directly either, mispronunciations are inevitable. The biggest one? Khaleesi. “The correct pronunciation, according to the international phonetic alphabet is Kha-lay-see. It’s no big deal, though. It’s just something I chuckle about now,” he says. One actor who really impresses him is Jacob Anderson, who plays Grey Worm, a part that requires him to speak reams of Astapori Valyrian. “It’s a joy to watch him perform! He is an absolute marvel, and I feel so privileged that he was there to speak the language I created,” he says.
Peterson’s also worked on conlangs for Thor: The Dark World (2013), Doctor Strange (2016) and his work will feature in Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming Dune adaptation. Given the ever-expanding pop-culture landscape and new fictional worlds being created every day, it seems like a great time to be a conlanger. Not quite, says Peterson. “It’s great that conlang work is being featured on so many shows and movies, but it’s still very difficult for a given conlanger to get work. The good news is there are more opportunities than ever; the bad news is it’s as difficult as ever to have your work recognized, and to be hired. Change will come, though! I’ll make sure of it.”