Dear Language Nerd,
I am a huge fan of the Game of Thrones shows, and I was wondering, when the characters speak in the horse rider language, are they just saying nonsense? Or do the words mean something?
– Amerila James
Nonsense? Does a language with two kinds of noun-noun compounds and different pronoun cases for alienable and inalienable possession sound like nonsense to you? Because it certainly does not to me. In fact, it sounds awesome. On the other hand, if you were to ask this question about the books, I’d have to answer “yes, kinda.”
So. George R.R. Martin. I like the guy, but he ain’t no linguist, despite clearly being inspired by a certain other fantasy author who was very very serious about inventing languages.* Martin tends to toss out a few words at a time, when they’re needed, and wiggles out of using the language too much via his viewpoint character, Daenerys the Baller Dragon Queen.** At first, it’s unintelligible to her, so other people translate (“‘Tell Khal Drogo that he has given me the wind.’ The fat Pentoshi […] repeated her words in Dothraki…”). As the books go on, she learns the language so well that it’s auto-translated for us in her chapters (“‘Not in this place, blood of my blood,’ she said [to Jhogo], in his own tongue.”).
For the show, this clearly wouldn’t work – even if you start out with a character nearby to translate all the Dothraki into English, the Dothraki actors still need to have something to say in Dothraki. And having the language change to English as Danaerys understands it better would be all kinds of confusing. So HBO had to make a choice. They could have had the actors just yammering on in jibberish. They could have done that. It would have wounded my soul, but it was an option, and one that many a lesser show has taken.
Instead, the good people of HBO decided to up the Dothraki ante and hire someone to flesh out Martin’s language. They sought out the Language Creation Society, and the LCS managed to summon up about a zillion applicants*** for the job (language-creators receive fewer offers of fame and glory than one might think). LCS editors reviewed the many Dothraki possibilities for “fidelity to canon, aesthetics, linguistic cohesiveness, originality, [and] thoroughness/clarity,” and sent their finalists back to the HBO folks, who seem to have been rather flummoxed by the level of enthusiasm. And HBO chose David Peterson. This was a good choice.
Before he even started, Peterson had two huge caveats: all the Dothraki from the books had to make sense, and the actors had to be able to say their lines. (So no <ng> at the front of words, for example.) He took the vocab from the books, put together his sound system, and started building words.
Peterson’s Dothraki is kind of amazing. For one, he doesn’t just randomly make words. Going mad with word-building power is one of the great joys of writing a language – no word for “fire”? Now it’s “blundasmootz”! But Peterson ignores this extremely tempting route. Instead he researches the etymology of the word in English and a maybe a couple of other languages too to see how it would naturally come about, and whether he should be making a new word at all or just deriving one from something he’s already got, and just generally doing a lot of work for a lot of words that probably no one is ever going to hear or see. And he carefully makes sure he’s keeping the world of the books relevant. For example: color words. As you may recall, colors are usually named after physical objects, and Peterson sensibly names “green” after a type of grass. But he also sensibly names “brown” after the color of a chestnut horse, which is just damn elegant. It’s a nod to the culture of the speakers, it makes sense linguistically, and it’s not gimmicky — he didn’t shoehorn references to horses into every color, just used them in the one color that horses are a primo example of.
Here’s another one: not only did Peterson build up the language proper, he used the mistakes that Drogo makes speaking English to write out how Dothraki-accented English sounds and how English-accented Dothraki sounds, which he puts in throughout the show strategically to show competence or lack thereof in ways that are going to be totally invisible to the audience unless they speak Dothraki. I love it. I love it so much.
So this whole having-killer-languages thing seems to be working out at HBO, because they hired Peterson to do Low Valyrian too. For that he first invented High Valyrian, and then Ghis, and then used the latter as a substrate for the former and derived the different cities’ current dialects via regular sound changes. This is what we call attention to detail, y’all.
The Language Nerd
*Actually, linking back to that previous post has reminded me of just how terrible fantasy languages can be, so let’s give Martin his due for having multiple languages at all, with notable differences from English (like Dothraki having no copula). Golf claps all around.
**I’m pretty sure that’s her official title.
***Alright, thirty-five. Same diff.
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Oh man, have I got plenty o’ references for you today.
Quote from the LCS and discussion of the application process from this interview. Supplemented by this one, which also has lovely examples of immediate past and future tenses! And here’s HBO’s press release.
Language bits come from Peterson’s Dothraki blog, which I have maybe possibly read from start to finish. Specific pages include colors, compounds, (in)alienable possession, and Valyrian history. There’s also a great Dothraki wiki.
How to invent your own conlang is going to have to wait for another day, though you could do worse than starting at the LCS, and I do enjoy the Language Construction Kit. I’ll leave you with two signs that you’re looking at a person’s first conlang: the words are full of A) apostrophes and B) the letter q.