How do you build an ultra-compelling, feels-so-real fictional world? It all starts from the words up, according to linguist David J. Peterson.
For fans, the premiere of the final season of Game of Thrones means saying goodbye to a beloved second home. It’s a world that many people have grown to love (and fear) as if it were an actual destination. During its eight years, GoT has transported viewers to an imaginary realm in which everything from its economic structures to its dress clasps has been thoughtfully and meticulously constructed. While the TV show has already had more than 500 named characters, some of its most important supporting players aren’t people; they’re the languages which have helped give voice to Westeros.
Just as there are multiple tongues in our world, GoT showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss wanted linguistic variety to resonate through their small-screen adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s much-loved novels. In preparation for the first season, producers contacted the Language Creation Society and put out a call to find someone who could create Dothraki. Of all the applicants, LCS cofounder David J. Peterson’s hyper-detailed, 300-page proposal stood out. (Peterson later devised the Valyrian languages, which have been spoken from the third season onwards.)
For GoT, “subpar scenery doesn’t cut it, and neither does gibberish,” says Peterson, a California-based language creator with a MA in linguistics. “The audience can tell, especially as the number of sentences increases. It’s kind of like the scrolling background in a cartoon; after the characters pass the same tree for the fifth time, you notice.” While actors in the theater can settle for saying “peas and carrots” to simulate conversation, viewers probably would have noticed if Khal Drogo’s intimidating season one monologue in which he vowed to conquer the Seven Kingdoms was a string of nonsense syllables.
Peterson is part of the enthusiastic global community of conlangers (“conlang” is the abbreviation for “constructed languages”), people who delight in building languages as intricately pieced-together as ships in bottles. Sometimes, they do it as a social experiment. Esperanto was intended to serve as the planet’s universal lingua franca and help foster peace and understanding (we humans are still working on it), while Loglan was made to test the hypothesis that speaking a more logical language could make humans think more logically (still working on that, too). Most, however, do it for the personal and intellectual satisfaction — that’s why Peterson started conlanging in 2000. “I simply enjoy that my languages exist,” he says.
Star Trek’s Klingon is one of pop culture’s best-known fictional tongues. But in order to achieve greater authenticity in their filmed worlds, moviemakers and TV producers have been increasingly hiring conlangers like Paul Frommer, the communications professor who created Avatar’s Na’vi, and Peterson, who has more than 40 tongues to his credit (among those currently spoken on TV are Trigedasleng on the CW space drama The 100; Noalath, used by Druids on the MTV fantasy The Shannara Chronicles; and Azrán, spoken in a future dystopia on AMC’s Into the Badlands).
When it came to creating Dothraki and Valyrian, the obvious starting point was the source material: Martin’s books. Still, there wasn’t much to work with. As Peterson says, “I’ve never gotten so much from so little.” Unlike author J.R.R. Tolkien — who once stated that the Lord of the Rings saga was written to show off his beloved invented languages — Martin has limited the Dothraki in the five volumes published so far in his “A Song of Fire and Ice” series to just one sentence and several names and phrases. Valyrian was represented by some personal names, as well as two sentences that the show’s fans know well: valar morghulis (“All men must die”) and valar dohaeris (“All men must serve”).
Peterson’s conlangs mirror how real human tongues work. He says, “language is a gigantic system that comprises many subsystems” — which include sounds, grammar, words and sentences. For GoT, one of his first tasks was to figure out what sounds existed in each language. Dothraki had a “thuh” and Valyrian had a “vee,” things he deduced from their names and which he used to begin building a phonetic foundation. But just as many human languages contain particular sounds that only native speakers can make, Peterson intentionally peppered his conlangs with unfamiliar, tongue-twisting sounds that would be difficult for the predominantly English-speaking cast to voice. “Actors get paid big bucks to do this stuff!” he laughs. “I pull no punches.”
Next, he created a complete grammar for each language. Dothraki and Valyrian do not work like English, since that would have been too easy for Peterson (read: boring). For example, High Valyrian — since it is the ancient language of scholarship and liturgy — has appropriately mystical labels in its grammar. Instead of nouns being assigned a masculine or feminine gender, as languages like Spanish and French do, they can be lunar, solar, aquatic or terrestrial.
Once Dothraki and Valyrian had their sounds and structures, Peterson was able to translate the actors’ dialogue. The producers send him specific lines from scripts, and he sends back both written translations and audio files for the cast to use. Since Peterson isn’t on set to guide the actors, mispronunciations have been inevitable. While he originally decreed that “khaleesi” should be pronounced KHA-lay-see, the producers preferred ka-LEE-see and effectively overruled him. (“I overestimated how seriously my work would be taken,” he sighs.)
At the same time, he’s enjoyed hearing some cast members out-speak him. Peterson says, “Jacob Anderson [who plays Grey Worm] is the first performer I’ve heard who is hands down better at Low Valyrian than I am. He’s amazing.” In fact, after Anderson’s debut in season 3, Peterson began emulating his pronunciation in the recordings.
But creating a GoT tongue doesn’t stop there. For a language to truly feel feel real, Peterson believes words and grammar are not enough; it must be infused with social and historical context. Human societies generally don’t create words for things they never use or have never seen. Just as one wouldn’t expect a rainforest-dwelling people to have a word for “snow,” it would be surprising for the Dothraki — a combative group who spend their days pillaging and holding death matches — to have a word for “book.” While the Dothraki have seen plenty of them, they regard them as worthless. Peterson says, “Generally, Dothraki borrow words for things that others consider important but they don’t.” So he decided their word for book would be “timvir,” a variation on the Valyrian “tembyr,” which would subtly communicate their disdain.
That’s just one way in which Peterson has used language to enhance the verisimilitude of GoT. “It’s unrealistic to go to another country on Earth and expect to hear nothing but English spoken with your accent,” he says. “If the world of Thrones is diverse, it should be linguistically diverse as well in order to actually feel like a real place.”
Take the Valyrian languages. Like human Latin, High Valyrian is a largely dead language of learning and worship; it’s still used by a scant handful of nobles. Low Valyrian consists of a number of vibrant offshoot tongues which evolved from High Valyrian over time, similar to how Latin developed into Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and so on. Towards the middle of the third season, a key scene hinges on Daenerys and her command of Valyrian. The slaver Kraznys has been making filthy remarks about her in Astapori Valyrian to her face, feeling secure that she can’t understand him. Daenerys shocks him by breaking out in the kind of Valyrian that one wouldn’t expect a noble to know.
Just like humans, the way Daenerys speaks has been shaped by her world, her life experiences and her social status, all of which Peterson considered when translating her dialogue. As a member of the House Targaryen, she was raised speaking High Valyrian, but since she grew up traveling around the Free Cities of Essos, she would have been accustomed to hearing different Low Valyrian dialects. Being smart and cosmopolitan, she would have picked up some of them pretty quickly. “It’s a bit like her being able to pick up on Romanian if she spoke Latin, French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese,” says Peterson.
In that scene, he had her make a specific vocabulary choice to emphasize both her intelligence and her dominance over Kraznys. When she growls at him that “a dragon is not a slave,” she uses “budzar” (the Astapori Valyrian word for “slave”) to drive home the point that she understood every single demeaning word he’d said about her and she’d make sure he paid for it. While just a smattering — if that — of GoT’s millions of viewers might have discerned this linguistic nuance, Peterson (and the producers) believe even when they’re not consciously appreciated, flourishes like these add another degree of richness and texture to the story’s world.
As GoT draws to an end, Peterson won’t give specifics about what will happen, largely because he doesn’t know. But he can tell fans about two linguistic developments they’ll never witness in this HBO iteration. There will be no Braavosi. Even though he was eager to create it and, according to a disappointed Peterson, “readers are cuckoo bananas for Braavosi, the producers decided to just do English.” Another thing that will exist only in his imagination: written alphabets for his conlangs. “I wanted to create the High Valyrian writing system more than anything else,” he says. Even in moments when text was needed — such as the “Kill the Masters” graffiti that appeared on the walls of Meereen in season 6 — “they just used the Roman alphabet!” says Peterson. “Blech! Terrible.”
But there is a feature of High Valyrian grammar that will play a role in the series’ conclusion. It centers around the last words uttered by Maester Aemon in the books:
“What fools we were, who thought ourselves so wise! The error crept in from the translation. Dragons are neither male nor female, Barth saw the truth of that, but now one and now the other, as changeable as flame. The language misled us all for a thousand years. […] The dragons prove it.”
His deathbed speech refers to the prophecy of the “prince that was promised,” the one who will save the world from darkness. However, in High Valyrian, the word translated as “prince” is “dārilaros” — a word which, like dragons, can refer to either gender. In other words, it could just as well be “princess.”
Peterson and the thousands of people who’ve worked on the show have painstakingly produced so many threads — ones as small and as significant as a single word — that woven together form the indelible tapestry of the GoT world. When the show ends, so too will his conlangs (at least for now). But, as they say in High Valyrian, vestriarjir morghulis: All stories must die.
Watch his TEDxBerkeley talk now: