Ideas

Q&A

Talking to ‘Game of Thrones’ conlanger about building languages

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen.
Keith Bernstein/HBO via AP/file 2014
Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen.

A year ago Ideas profiled David J. Peterson, Hollywood’s most prominent “conlanger,” or maker of constructed languages. Languages can take thousands of years to fully develop, yet in just a few months, Peterson can invent a language that only looks like it took that long. And as a co-founder of the Language Creation Society and the author of the upcoming book, “The Art of Language Invention,” he’s become an advocate for the art.

Two of Peterson’s most famous creations are the Dothraki and Valyrian languages for HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” As the series starts its fifth season on April 12, we decided to check in with Peterson himself about the art of building languages, the irregularities of how we speak, and the chance to bring George R.R. Martin’s fantastical books alive.

Ideas spoke to Peterson by telephone.

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IDEAS: Hash yer dothrae chek? (Do you ride well? / How are you?)

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PETERSON: Sek, anha dothrak chek. (Yes, I’m good.)

IDEAS: You relied on fragments from Martin’s original books to create a guidebook on Dothraki for the TV show. How extensive is the language?

PETERSON: Dothraki has about 3,900 words, compared to English, which has over a million. Of course, if you used it to translate anything relevant to the modern world you’d have to rely heavily on on-the-fly compounds, or just borrowing words, because there never will be a word in Dothraki for things like concrete or television or car.

IDEAS: What about the language are you particularly proud of?

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PETERSON: Well, the entire grammar. Dothraki was the first language produced for television or film that can pass as a natural language. That is, its grammar doesn’t look fake or obviously artificial. There are plenty of irregularities, lots of things that you just have to memorize.

I may not have taken it to furthest extent I could. I was thinking of Martin’s fan base. I figured, “Well, if people are going to try to learn this, I’ll try to take it easy on them a little bit.” But after Dothraki, after my position was more secure, then it was like, all bets are off. For Valyrian, any time a choice like that arose, I stuck with the irregularity [cackle]. Valyrian’s a fun one to use.

IDEAS: So Klingon from “Star Trek” has an obviously artificial grammar?

PETERSON: It’s a regular grammar. For example, there are no irregular verbs that need to be memorized. Marc Okrand was intentionally trying to create something that would never be mistaken for a human language. I don’t think there is a natural language that doesn’t have irregularities, and that’s because languages change over time. With a natural language, something has happened to it, the effects of time, thousands of speakers having taken a bat to it. So with the languages I create, I try to emulate those processes.

IDEAS: So how does Dothraki show its evolution?

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PETERSON: The sounds have changed over time, which is why you get a lot of vowels next to each other. In the lexical realm, the word for “girl” is actually the old word for “mushroom.” Young girls, from the back, would look like mushrooms with their hair. So parents would call their daughter, “my little mushroom,” and then, over time, it just became the word for “girl.”

Grammatically, Dothraki shifted from being an aspectual system to a tense-based system. This is why it looks as if to form the future tense in Dothraki, you just add a prefix to the front of the present tense. So that’s an example of what I do.

IDEAS: Why do all that? Why not just use English grammar with new words?

PETERSON: If a show or program is worth its salt, it’s going to be watched and re-watched forever now. One way to look at it is, if you have the opportunity to create a full language, why wouldn’t you? This is another aspect of the production that you can market to fans. Not everybody’s going to be interested, but there will be some. It’s a way to make the world more authentic, and diverse, and rich, and interesting. While at the same time having fans engage with your production on another level. It’s why, I think, productions are so jazzed to see fans cosplaying.

IDEAS: What drew you to this line of work?

PETERSON: There are some assumptions underlying that question that are false [laughs]. This wasn’t a line of work before I did it. There were projects. Like there was the Klingon project for “Star Trek III.” There was the Na’vi project for the “Avatar” movie. There was the Tho Fan project for the “Jade Empire” video game.

But it was unimaginable that this could ever be a career, for anybody. I’d been creating languages for years, starting as a freshman at UC-Berkeley in 2000. And I thought it was just a really different and a really immersive form of artistic expression. I got a lot of feedback on my work and learned a lot from all of the language creators I found online. And I kept at it.

IDEAS: What does it take to be good at doing it?

PETERSON: One is just a sound understanding of language, so it never hurts to have a background in linguistics. But also to have studied as many languages as possible, especially diverse languages. Beyond that, there are some technical aspects to language creation that really appeal to those who are good at puzzles, and programmers. But when it comes to fleshing out the lexicon, you also have to have the writer’s background. Essentially what you’re doing is painting the history of the people.

IDEAS: What has been your favorite language to create?

PETERSON: Most fun, probably the Irathient language for ‘Defiance.’ Irathient uses noun classes, somewhat similar to what one might find in a Bantu language or an Australian language. For example, I created the root “ido” with the intent of creating a word for a boundary, “thido.” What might “ido” mean if it were put into the plants class? The result was “gido,” which means “garden.” It also led to the verb “shido,” which means “to bound” or “to frame.” Then for the class associated with man-made objects, I produced “ekido,” which means “picture frame.” The structure of the language offers these possibilities immediately once a root is coined. It’s fun to imagine how these words will work.

IDEAS: Do you put hidden surprises into your work?

PETERSON: I always put my wife’s name in there. I generally put my cats’ names in there. Or, you know, friends, sometimes enemies.

Matthew Hutson is a science writer in New York City and the author of “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane.”

Listen: Examples of language on ‘Game of Thrones’

(Warning: Contains spoilers.)

For a scene in Season Three, Episode Four Daenerys Targaryen meets with the Astapori slaver Kraznys to carry out a prearranged trade — one of her dragons for his army of Unsullied, a horde of warrior eunuchs. It doesn’t quite go as planned, and in the process Daenerys reveals something key through her use of language: She understands the Astapori Valyrian that Kraznys has been using to covertly insult her all season long. Astapori Valyrian is a descendant language of High Valyrian, the literary language of the upper classes in Essos and Westeros; a relationship somewhat like that of Italian and Latin. The fact that Danaerys grew up speaking High Valyrian is a reminder of her claim by birth to the throne of Westeros.

In preparing the actors to read lines in his invented languages, David Peterson tapes himself reading each one three times: once fast, once slow, and once in English. Watching this scene later, he said, “was a proud moment.”

— Britt Peterson

Translations of the clips above:

1. Kraznys, in Astapori Valyrian: “They have not been tested. The slut had better blood them soon. There are many small cities from here to Yunkai. All the plunder will be hers. The Unsullied care nothing for gold. If she takes any slaves, the masters will take the healthy ones, and will pay well. Who knows, maybe in ten years some of them will be Unsullied themselves! Thus, all shall prosper.”

2. Daenerys, in High Valyrian: “A dragon is not a slave.”

3. Daenerys, in High Valyrian: “Valyrian is my mother tongue.”

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