"Game of Thrones" wouldn't be the same without him: Meet the man who made the Dothraki speak

Linguist David Peterson explains how he created the languages that enrich the world of HBO's "Game of Thrones"

Published October 17, 2015 7:30PM (EDT)


As most readers and viewers know, George R.R. Martin methodically built the world of "Game of Thrones" from the history up -- his latest book, "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms," takes place a century before any of the events chronicled in the respective series -- but there's one challenge he wasn't equipped to face, so when HBO decided to adapt his novels, they turned to linguist David Peterson to create living languages from the scraps of Dothraki and High Valyrian in the novels.

In his new book, "The Art of Language Invention," Peterson describes the process by which he created those languages, and provides a template for neophyte "conlangers" -- people who wish to invent their own foreign tongue -- to produce their own. He graciously spoke to Salon about both process and product.

Could you talk a little bit about the role the Internet played in the development of conlangs generally, and yours in particular?

I started creating my first language in 2000, and I thought it was pretty good. I’d never heard of anyone else creating a language just for their own use, so I also thought I was the only person ever to do so. Had I never met another conlanger, I imagine I would’ve kept right on with that language and never created another. Its lexicon would’ve expanded, I would’ve done translations in it—I might even be fluent in it—so it would be large and functional, but it would also be irredeemably terrible. The language was a mess from start to finish, but having nothing to compare it to except Esperanto, I thought it was the greatest language ever created.

Most conlangers prior to, say, 2010 had very similar experiences with their own creations. Language creation was simply not well known, and generally one didn’t discuss it with others (few friends and family members end up being interested). Once the internet became more common in homes, the first language creation community formed—the Conlang Listserv—and little by little, conlangers began to find one another. This was key in the advancement of the craft, as for the first time in history, conlangers were comparing their work and actively learning from and teaching one another. It was there that I really learned how to do what I do today. Plus, it’s just amazing to be able to talk to another human being about the intricacies of language invention. There’s a camaraderie amongst language creators that’s really encouraging in what—especially prior to 1991—was a truly solitary practice.

What are the biggest misconceptions about conlangs? Do you think they're legitimate, or part of a larger cultural bias against science fiction and fantasy?

Perhaps the biggest misconception is that creating a language is tantamount to creating a code for English, as opposed to creating every single aspect of an entire language. Simlish isn’t a conlang; whatever Furbies are doing isn’t a conlang; the Minions aren’t speaking a conlang; Pig Latin isn’t a conlang. They’re definitely creative uses of language, but they’re either based on English (or some other already existing language), or not linguistically coherent—or, as with, for example, penalty hand signs in American football, they aren’t complete systems.

A lot of the other misconceptions about language creation can be dispelled by recognizing that conlangs are art pieces. No one questions the value of a novel (a “fake” history), and at places like San Diego Comic-Con, we celebrate simply being a fan of something. If conlangs, like novels and television shows, are art pieces, they can be enjoyed and celebrated by anyone without doing any harm to their non-fictional counterparts—the natural languages of the world. Plus, if the language creators and conlang fans I know are any indication, those who engage with created languages are much more likely than those who don’t to enjoy, study, and value the natural languages present on Earth.

As a former linguistics major, I'm very amenable to the idea that people who study language are more open-minded, but could you go into detail of what you mean by that?

As tiny little humans, we naturally assume everyone else is like us until reality shows us something different. If our parents speak one language, and the community we’re raised in speaks one language, we think that’s how language works period; we never imagine a language could work any other way than our own. It’s easy to dismiss or “otherize” someone who speaks a different language—one we don’t understand and which doesn’t work the way we feel language “should” work. The first second language one comes to learn is key. It’s the first time we see that language has the ability to work differently—that the logic can be different. Many in the world are fortunate to have their first exposure to a second language occur simultaneously with their first. For those that don’t, the earlier the exposure comes, the better. If someone who otherwise would not be interested in language at all becomes interested due to exposure to a created language, I can think of no higher compliment to the creator.

What do you think the most successful fictional conlang is? Why?

It depends how one defines success with respect to a conlang. For a naturalistic language, when it comes to depth, ingenuity, artistry, and breadth, I’d think Okuna by Matt Pearson would be a strong candidate. If the size of the lexicon isn’t as much of an issue, I’d nominate Sylvia Sotomayor’s newer language Sodemadu, which is one of the most brilliant concepts I’ve ever seen executed. If one is referring to how well known a language is, it has to be Klingon taking the prize over either of Tolkien’s well-known conlangs, Sindarin and Quenya. Bear in mind, though, that the category of fictional languages automatically disqualifies certain other well-known languages, such as Esperanto, Lojban, or John Quijada’s Ithkuil, none of which are intended for fictional purposes.

Even working within a single category, though, I think it’s rather difficult to define what “successful” means with respect to a conlang. What’s the most successful painting? The Mona Lisa? Starry Night? Something by Thomas Kinkade? It depends on what the measure is and who’s doing the measuring. I don’t think it matters which conlang is more “successful” than which other. What I’d like to see is an audience and champion for every conlang that’s been developed enough to be presented to the world. Though it’s a crowded field, you see this with all other forms of media (music, film, fiction, painting…). It’d be lovely to live in a world where everyone had two or three favorite conlangs and strong opinions as to why.

What's the most difficult state-of-being you've ever tried to represent in a conlang? Or, alternatively, the most creative state-of-being you've encountered in a conlang?

One of the most creative set of “speakers” I’ve ever seen a conlang developed for is Denis Moskowitz’s rikchiks. A rikchik is an alien with a great big globular head with one gigantic eyeball and no mouth or ears or nose. In addition to the head, they have 49 tentacles, seven of which are used to produce glyph-like signs, and these constitute the entire Rikchik language. With the writing system Denis has created, a human being can read and use the language, but no human could ever sign it: we lack the necessary appendages.

Incidentally, created sign languages are underrepresented in created languages across the community. I’d love to see more of them. Part of the dearth is due to a lack of familiarity with the topic (sign languages rarely draw as much attention as spoken languages, even though grammatically they’re just as rich and interesting), and difficulty in encoding and presenting them. Video is the best way to present a sign language, but even with how much easier it is to record video nowadays, it’s still cumbersome when compared to writing something down on paper or typing it up. As technology improves, I hope we see even more created sign languages.

How many hours did you spend creating each of the conlangs for "Game of Thrones"?

I honestly don’t know. I lost a lot of sleep during the Dothraki competition. I’d spend between 14 and 18 hours a day working on my proposal as I was competing with a host of other outstanding language creators to get the opportunity to work on the show. I definitely spent several hundred hours on each of the main languages. And, of course, I still work on them to this day—and hope to until my bones are dust.

How satisfied have you been with the way in which they've been represented on the show itself? Are there any particular examples of an actor or actress really owning both the scene and your language?

For "Game of Thrones," I’ve generally been very pleased. I’m still overjoyed by—and miss dearly -- Jason Momoa’s performance. I’ve spent a good deal of time with him since Khal Drogo died, and I’m continually amazed at the effort and nuance he put into his performance—even planning out the straining and cracking of his voice in certain scenes due to the ferocity of his character’s emotion. He planned every bit of it—and can still do it on command. It’s amazing to behold.

And, of course, one of my all time favorite scenes is Daenerys revealing that she speaks Valyrian to Kraznys (the latter, by the way, played by Dan Hildebrand who likewise did a tremendous job with his lines). That scene of Dany’s is one of my all-time favorites from all the shows I’ve worked on. Just gorgeously executed on all fronts.

I'm guessing this book is going to create a greater interest in the conlang community. Where would you recommend someone just getting into it to start?

My hope is actually that the book isn’t a bad place to start. If you have no background in language at all, you can pick up the book, starting at page one, and at the end of it, you should know a whole lot more about language than you did before. After that, if you want to create languages, don’t be shy! Jump in there! Get your hands dirty! Experience is often the best teacher. At the very least, once you’ve tried it, you’ll know what questions you need to ask, and that’s where the community can be of assistance. In addition, I’ll also be answering questions and giving advice beyond the book on my new YouTube channel also called The Art of Language Invention. Feel free to ask me questions there and I’ll respond as best I can!

Given your affiliation with the show, I have to ask: more shocking moment, Ned Stark's execution or the Red Wedding?

Definitely the Red Wedding. Honestly, there’s no comparison. The beheading of Ned Stark was unjust and simply awful for his family and friends, but Ned Stark didn’t suffer. Say what you will about Joffrey, but Ned Stark’s death was quick and clean. The Red Wedding, on the other hand, was absolutely beastly. Plus, it was shot wonderfully and looked about as realistic as one can imagine. Even knowing what was going to happen—even having worked on the show—it shocked and horrified me. I watched it once, and I honestly don’t think I’ll ever watch it again. That in itself is, I think, a true testament to the skill of the cast and crew involved, and the honesty of their performances. Peter Greenaway would be hard-pressed to match it.

By Scott Eric Kaufman

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Conlangs David Peterson Game Of Thrones The Art Of Language Invention