There are few things in this world that are better than an attractive woman barking commands to an army in a language you don’t understand. This is a known fact that has been proven by years of scientific research, and it is one of the many things that makes Game of Thrones such a good show. “But wait,” you interject, like an impatient child who won’t give me two seconds to get to my point. “How did they come up with the languages Daenerys speaks? Are they real? Or did someone just create them for the show?”
Well, here’s your answer: The two non-English languages on Game of Thrones — Dothraki and High Valyrian — were created for the show by a California linguistics scholar named David Peterson, who also serves as president of something called the Language Creation Society. TIME Magazine caught up with Peterson for an interview recently, and he shed a little more light on the situation.
Peterson, it turns out, got the job through a form of linguistic trial by combat — an exhaustive competition, held by the show producers prior to production, that pitted him against rival language creators. He spent a month tirelessly assembling his concept of Dothraki, incorporating phrases and words mentioned in the books into a deeper language system, supplemented by 300 pages of his own material. “I also made a one-page little summary with factoids,” he says. Peterson’s Dothraki won out, and he has remained HBO’s chosen conlanger for the show.
For High Valyrian, he followed a similar process, though with considerably fewer existing proper nouns and phrases to build on. But he was aided by two Valyrian idioms routinely trotted out in both the books and the show: valar morghulis — “all men must die” — and valar dohaeris — “all men must serve.” That both phrases end with “-is,” a suffix that suggests the modal verb “must,” proved useful. “I developed the entire conjugation system based on those two verbs,” says Peterson. “Only when I couldn’t squeeze any more out of the books did I start the process of creating a set of typological rules and building from there.”
“Yeah, but how in depth does he have to get?” you interrupt, again, as though I’m not about to post another blockquote.
The High Valyrian that Daenerys speaks, for example, is different from that of her interlocutors in the slave city of Astapor, whose argot is a latter-day mix of Valyrian with the other tongues of Slaver’s Bay. Peterson stresses that a key part of inventing a language is establishing its own internal historical logic. “I made sure the language was evolved over a period of time, so that it sounded authentic and had the hallmarks of a natural language,” he says. Like any real language, Peterson’s High Valyrian and Dothraki carry in their morphology centuries of change, migration and encounters with new technology.
“Oh, cool. Hey … let’s say I run into a fetching Game of Thrones superfan at a pond, and I want to make small talk. Does this guy have any helpful little phrases I can use?”
Peterson admits one of his favorite expressions is a sentence in Dothraki: Mori allayafi anna, jin alegra, he says, over the phone. “It’s how a Dothraki person would just say ‘I like ducks,’ but, if you break it down, he’s actually saying ‘I like them, these ducks.’”
“Wow, thanks,” you say, finally, now that all your questions have been answered.
You are very welcome.