Undoubtedly one of the biggest modern sensations in television has been the HBO series Game of Thrones. Based on George R.R. Martin’s as-yet-unfinished series of fantasy novels, A Song of Ice and Fire, the TV series, like the books, has taken the world by storm.
The richly detailed world that Martin created has a mythology and history of its own, as well as its own invented languages.
When it comes to epic fantasy fiction, it’s almost impossible not to make a comparison to J.R.R. Tolkien, the master of the genre. What made Tolkien’s world so impressive was his obsession with creating the entire mythology, including the languages of Middle Earth. As a linguist, Tolkien added a level of detail and authenticity that was (and still is) unprecedented. The depth of his world went far beyond just The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. The Silmarillion, amongst other works, gives readers a detailed history of this world and its languages. Not only did Tolkien invent the languages of Middle Earth, but he went as far as to trace their fictional histories.
George R.R. Martin, on the other hand, is not a linguist. In an interview, he talks about how Tolkien built up the whole iceberg – not just the surface of the world you see in the book, but the entire depth beneath it, including complete linguistic frameworks. In contrast, Martin sees himself as simply creating a magician’s trick – giving just enough of the world and history, the tip of the iceberg, but without having built up the entire system underneath. Of course, as the years passed, and with the pressing interest of obsessive fans, more of the world has been fleshed out, and the book The World of Ice and Fire was born, offering a full history of Westeros.
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But, since he is not a linguist, Martin did not create the actual structure or vocabulary of the languages of the world of A Song of Ice and Fire. Instead, through a carefully constructed method of naming characters and a sprinkling of words from the world’s languages, he gives the readers just enough to invest themselves in the authenticity of his invented world.
What Martin lacks in linguistic creation, he makes up for in a solid understanding of his creation’s mythology. For example, his strategy of naming characters and places meticulously align up with the history of Westeros and beyond. The First Men had simple names, such as Stark, while the Andal names were more elaborate and exotic.
He gives us a glimpse of the evolution of language in Westeros. Old Tongue, as an example, is the language brought to Westeros by the First Men, now only spoken beyond the wall. The harsh language is not fleshed out, but a few scattered words are used such as sygerrik (deceiver), magnar (lord) and skagos (stone). In the time the novels are set in, the majority of characters speak Common Tongue.
From across the Narrow Sea come another whole set of exotic languages, and this is where language in the series gets interesting. High Valyrian is one of these languages. High Valyrian is the Latin of Westeros – largely a literary or dead language, but still has its influence on languages across the Kingdoms, particularly in descendent languages. Arguably the most famous invented words of the novels come from High Valyrian: Valar Morghulis (all men must die) and Valar Dohaeris (all men must serve).
The other major language that is introduced in the books is Dothraki, the language of the nomadic horse people from Essos. It is referenced many times in the book, following the storyline of Daenerys. Words like khal (leader) and khaleesi (wife of a khal) are given to us in the books, but little else was fleshed out. In total there are just 56 Dothraki words in Martin’s novels, of which 24 are names.
When the HBO series Games of Thrones was created, however, there was suddenly a need to have a more complete language. One of those reasons was to make it more authentic, and to fully draw readers into this fantasy world.
In order to create this language, the producers approached the Language Creation Society. The conlangers (people who construct languages) held an internal competition to create Dothraki for the series.
David J. Peterson, a linguist and and language creator, won out, with an 180-page proposal. He took the 56 given words from the books and started by determining the phonological character of the existing words to develop the sound of the language.
From this, he created the rest of the language, building an entire grammatical structure and inflectional system. Going over and above what was needed in the show, Peterson grew Dothraki into a complete language with 4,000 words at present and growing. Not only does his own website, dothraki.com (@Dedalvs), document the language, but there is even a Game of Thrones wiki, and countless websites and guides dedicated to the fictional language.
Just like Star Trek’s invented language of Klingon, Dothraki has become a spoken language as fans have set about learning to speak it.
It’s become something of a cult phenomenon, even making it onto another television show, The Office, with Dwight teaching Erin how to speak Dothraki. Fun fact: This scene, unknowingly, helped expand the grammatical structure of the language.
Dothraki is not the only language Peterson created. Eventually David was also asked to expand on High Valyrian. Not only did he create that, but he also created one of its derivative languages, Astapori Valyrian.
What is remarkable about Peterson’s work on Game of Thrones is the high level of detail that has gone into the languages he has created. He has thought through how the language would have evolved, based on the history of Westeros presented in the books, how it would be misspoken by those learning the language (for example Daenerys when she is learning Dothraki), and how parts of it would be borrowed from the other languages of the novels.
Peterson’s incredible work has led to other language creation jobs, including creating Kinuk’aaz for the show Defiance and Trigedasleng for CW’s The 100. He has also gone on to write a book, The Art of Language Invention. It’s clear that he is a master of language, recognising that there is far more to languages than just their grammatical structures. He has managed to recreate the history and evolution that shape real-world languages in his own creations, and is truly a master and artist of languages.
This wonderfully detailed approach to creating languages has paid off. Listening to Dothraki and the Valyrian languages in Game of Thrones, it is clear that the actors are not just speaking random foreign sounds. It really is a piece of artwork for the fantasy nerds and language lovers among us.
So if you’re a big Game of Thrones fan, and a language lover, you can easily learn Dothraki or High Valyrian online, thanks to the immaculate detail that Peterson has put into creating workable fictional languages.