With principal photography in full swing, now seemed like a good time to talk about HBO’s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy tale, A Game of Thrones, and the steps they are taking to give the show a high level of authenticity. Besides having Martin on board to help guide the project, they hired professional language creator, David J. Peterson, to essentially create a language from scratch for the nomadic horse warrior tribe, the Dothrakis.
Creating a new language is no small feat, but one that Peterson is used to. The trained linguist has created more than a dozen languages and was eager to share his skill with HBO on this project. To learn more about the Dothraki language — and what it took to create it — I asked Peterson some questions about himself, the adaptation of the epic book and his inspiration for the language.
GeekDad: Tell us a little about yourself — what’s your background and what drew you to constructed languages (conlang)?
David J. Peterson: Going into Berkeley as an undergraduate, I was an English major and an aspiring writer (still am, at base). Somewhere in the middle of my first year I discovered linguistics and language creation (first the one and then the other, I think). Shortly thereafter I joined the Conlang online mailing list and met a bunch of wonderfully talented and helpful individuals who shared my passion for language. I’ve been learning and conlanging ever since. Conlanging helped me with linguistics (in a way, conlanging is to linguistics what writing is to the study of literature), and I followed it to graduate school. Now, if I’m not working with one of my languages, I suppose I’m likely to be found reading (Orlando Furioso at present), writing or working at web design — or doing a little bit of all three over at Speculative Grammarian, an online linguistics humor magazine.
GD: You’re involved with the Language Creation Society, what’s the mission of LCS and what do you do?
DJP: The Language Creation Society incorporated in 2007 with the express intention of promoting language creation and serving the language creation community. Since 2007, that’s precisely what we’ve been trying to do. Currently, our major task is putting on the Language Creation Conference. We’ve held three so far, and are looking to hold a fourth some time in 2011. Most of our behind-the-scenes work is directly related to the conference. In addition, though, we’ve recently undertaken a number of new projects. Currently we’re working on the first issue of a new online and print journal devoted to language creation. Hopefully, it’ll be out before the year’s up. We also maintain a number of web resources, such as the Conlang Blog Aggregator (a blog that syndicates twenty or so conlanging blogs), the LCS Podcast and blog, and the Conlanger’s Library: A huge collection of conlang references. We’re constantly seeking new ways to serve the conlanging community. We provide hosting for a number of community projects (such as the Conlang Atlas of Language Structures), and, in general, are looking to help out conlangers in any way we can.
GD: You have created other languages before — which ones and what were they for?
DJP: There are, essentially, two types of conlangers: Those who create one language and work on it for the rest of their lives (e.g. Sylvia Sotomayor’s Kēlen, Sally Caves‘ Teonaht, Doug Ball’s Skerre), and those who create several — or even dozens — of conlangs that they work on sporadically for the rest of their lives (e.g. Henrik Theiling, Jan van Steenbergen, Jeffrey Henning). I’m definitely one of the latter. Though some of my languages have never advanced beyond the level of a sketch, I have, at one time or another, created at least thirteen languages not including Dothraki. “What for” is a good question. Even in the popular press, there’s a sense that one creates a language for something: international communication, religious expression, a novel, a movie, a television show… In reality, the vast majority of conlangs are created for fun. If undertaken seriously, creating a language is a unique and complex form of aesthetic expression, and it’s precisely that that the majority of conlangers engage in. To learn a new language is to learn a new way of looking at the world: To invent a new language is to invent a new way of looking at the world.
For me, it’s always been about fun. In my most fully-developed and (probably) best-known language, Kamakawi, for example, I recently started a word of the day blog. (At present, I’m counting down my top ten favorite Iron Maiden songs, translating lyrics into Kamakawi along the way.) I’ve done this for no other reason than it seemed like a fun thing to do. After all, languages are fun! They’re mighty creatures to be respected, for sure, but if you can’t kick off your shoes and play around with them once in awhile, what’s the point?
GD: As someone very involved with languages, you must be multilingual. How many languages do you speak?
DJP: My home languages are English and Spanish. In addition, I’m fairly conversational in French and ASL. I’ve had instruction in Arabic, Russian, German, Middle Egyptian and Esperanto. I’ve at times tried to learn Turkish and Hawaiian, and I spent a fair deal of time in graduate school working with an African language called Moro. If properly threatened, I can probably produce a few words in Swahili, Hausa, Finnish and Hindi, and I’m becoming increasingly comfortable with anime Japanese (meaning I know words like “nakama”, “shinigami” and “tachikoma”, but have no idea how to say, “Where’s the bathroom?”).
GD: Were you familiar with A Song of Ice And Fire before being contacted by HBO about this job?
DJP: George R.R. Martin is a giant in the world of fantasy and science-fiction, and very active online. For a “new millennial” like me (or am I too old for that tag now?), it would have been impossible not to be familiar with A Song of Ice and Fire. Plus, my wife Erin’s been a huge fan of the series for years. She always described Martin to me as “the guy who consistently kills off the characters you’re supposed to like”.
DJP: Applying was an intense process. There were more than thirty who applied initially, along with some of the biggest names in the conlanging world. In the end, there were four proposals given to Dan Weiss and David Benioff: those by John Quijada (creator of Ithkuil), Olivier Simon (creator of Sambahsa), Bill Welden (translator for the Lord of the Rings movies), and me. They had glowing praise for all the proposals, but as for why they chose mine specifically, I couldn’t speculate. They basically got four excellent proposals that were jam-packed with material and had to choose one.
GD: What kind of rules did you consider when creating the Dothraki language — without anything but an imagined history to work from, where did you begin? And how difficult was it to work with words and structure Martin had already created in the book?
DJP: My goal, from the very beginning, was to create a language that looked and felt like the small number of snippets present in the books. There wasn’t much to work with (about thirty words, most of them names – and male names, at that), but there was enough to suggest the beginnings of a grammar (for example, there is strong evidence of noun-adjective order, as opposed to the adjective-noun order found in English). That was my starting point: Everything that appears in the books had to remain intact, since the books are canon.
In order to get going, I took down all the words in the books and extrapolated a phonology (a list of sounds with which to create words). I had some fun with it, though. For example, in all the words and names in the four published books, the letter “u” occurs only after “q”, suggesting a [kw] sound, and once on its own in the third book, though I believe that’s a misspelling (the City of Bones, Vaes Tolorro, is referred to once in the third book as Vaes Tolorru [and it happens in speech in a moment of passion; Ser Jorah may have just screwed it up]). I took that opportunity to leave the vowel [u] out of Dothraki entirely, giving it a four vowel system.
After I settled on a sound system, I extrapolated a morphological system. Some elements had to be maintained (for example, in the books, we see “dothraki” for the people [plural], “Vaes Dothrak” for the Dothraki city, and “dothrae” meaning “rides”. This suggests that /-k/, /-i/ and /-e/ are somehow involved in the paradigm for the stem “dothra-“), but for the most part, I was free to run wild. After I had a fairly stable morphology (verbal paradigm, case paradigm, and derivational morphology, in particular), I set to work on the best part: creating vocabulary. For that, the main inspiration came from the books. These are warriors that spend a lot of time with horses, have a kind of aversion to salt water, and disdain walking on foot. Just those ideas are enough to give rise to a thousand words or more. If I ever needed further inspiration (especially for guidance on how a pre-industrial culture views the world), I’d delve into my Hawaiian language materials. (A question I once found myself pondering: Does Hawaiian have a native word for “boring”? It turns out it does: manakā.)
GD: Was Dothraki a language you developed on your own or did you have help?
DJP: Aside from the words from A Song of Ice and Fire, it was just me.
GD: Is Dothraki based on any natural languages — where did you find your inspiration?
DJP: Dothraki’s vocabulary is entirely à priori (meaning it’s not based on any other language’s vocabulary). Certain elements of it were inspired by other languages, though. For example, the way I derive nouns from roots in Dothraki is similar to the way I generate vocabulary in Zhyler (one of my languages). Verbal derivation is reminiscent of Kamakawi, in some ways. The stress system is very similar to Gweydr‘s stress system (that’s another of my languages), but the system itself goes back to an Optimality Theory class I took in graduate school. There was an element of the case system that was directly inspired by Russian, and the sound of it owes a lot to Arabic and Spanish (it’s kind of like Arabic plus Spanish divided by two … squared). Elements of it will seem familiar to those who know other languages, but I wasn’t largely influenced by any one language in particular. After you’ve created ten or so languages, influence is a difficult thing to trace.
GD: How many words are in the Dothraki dictionary now? Has that evolved based on script changes or has it stayed pretty static from the original project?
Of course, the specificity of that number belies the inaccuracy inherent in my unscientific counting system–not to mention the as yet unresolved status of the word itself as a linguistic unit. In one sense, for example, “eat”, “eats” and “ate” are different words, but in another sense, they’re all the same word. Let’s call 2,356 (at the time of writing) a conservative estimate.
The initial batch of words (about 1,700) has expanded both with and without the scripts I’ve been working on. I anticipated a lot of the vocabulary that would be needed and created it ahead of time, though surprises always pop up in translation.
GD: Will you work with actors on the set to ensure proper pronunciation and rewriting as the script might change or is your work done?
DJP: A conlang is never finished. As for the actors, they get a ton of material (including phonetic pronunciation guides and .mp3′s of me speaking all the lines), and are in good hands on set (I’ve been in communication with the dialogue coach there, Brendan Gunn, who’s done a lot of great work in the past). I’d love to be on set, but I haven’t found the time to jaunt on over to Belfast just yet… I’d love to see Malta, though.
GD: Did anyone within the production share with you why they decided on this high degree of reality instead of just making up words?
DJP: From their point of view, it was a necessity. David and Dan are huge fans of the books, and from the beginning it’s been their goal to ensure that the whole thing comes off perfectly. They felt that a full language was necessary to bring the Dothraki to life on screen. In general, I think that Hollywood is taking notice of the fact that, more than ever, fans crave authenticity. They demand the best from their shows, and I think that’s a real driving factor in determining whether or not something like a fully-functional conlang is a worthwhile investment for a major production.
GD: Are there plans to make the language available to the public and fans of the books?
DJP: As of yet, HBO is focusing on filming the series. Considering the fact that no one has seen a single episode of Game of Thrones yet, I think the amount of attention this series has gotten has come as quite a surprise (well, to some, at least–certainly not to fans of the books). I’m open to any opportunities that may arise in the future. Having a hard copy Dothraki dictionary would certainly put less strain on my mousing wrist while translating…
GD: I see you have a fan site now. As a classically trained linguist, how does it feel to have fans?
DJP: It’s always nice to feel appreciated, as many a classically-trained linguist will avow.
GD: Do you have a favorite phrase in Dothraki that you can teach us?
Here’s a phrase I came up with early on that I’m rather fond of:
Oqet vichitera oma vafikhoon.
“A sheep shivers without its wool.”
The Dothraki have an adversarial relationship with the Lhazareen, whom they call disdainfully refer to as the Haesh Rakhi, the “spawn of lambs”. They also shun armor, considering it cowardly. This phrase kind of marries those two prejudices, comparing men who wear armor to sheep.
You’ll be able to hear Peterson’s work on the Dothraki language and experience HBO’s adaptation of A Game of Thrones when the series hits the small screen, premiering tomorrow.
[This post was originally published on GeekDad in August of last year.]