Gaming | Film | TV
Gaming | Film | TV

Speaking to David J Peterson, Game of Thrones language creator, about sandwiches

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We spoke to the man who invented the Dothraki and Valyrian languages like it wasn’t no thing at all.

David J Peterson creates languages for a living. It’s a rather rad job, but as proven by David’s meticulous methodology, it isn’t as simple as making stuff up. Discovering the love of languages late in life, his passion and talent is nothing short of brilliant. He promised not to kill me.


What did you have for dinner?

Ah, they were pretty good. I actually had a real craving for a Subway seafood sandwich, but they don’t serve it anymore. So we went to another place for one.

You trust seafood sandwiches?
I’ve made it this far and I’m not dead yet. If five to ten years down the line, something bursts out of my chest, then you’ll know, apparently I made some mistakes in the past.

So you created Dothraki – how the hell…?
Well, with Dothraki it was different to something like Defiance [Syfy TV series where humans and aliens co-exist on Earth] because I was starting with some existing material that was already in the George R R Martin books. So I analysed the material, figured out what I thought it meant and how I thought it worked. Once I’d figured that out, I had to adhere to it so that everything I created thereafter fit what had existed thus far.

The few Dothraki words in place, were they a help or a hindrance?
It limited me in certain ways, mainly how I could order words and phrases – it determined the major word ordering of sentences, adjectives and nouns.  So I just figured out everything that was present and just kind of filled in the gaps. It wasn’t too bad – I’ve seen some examples in other fantasy novels which could have been worse. For not having a full language behind it, it was very well done.

Why is there a need for such a structured approach?
The question is what would you be creating? If you just went through word for word and replaced every word with whatever form you came up with, all you’d be doing is creating a very uncooperative way of speaking English.

khal drogo game of thrones

Shitty, butchered English?
Yeah, English in a different form, one that nobody would understand. So if you’re going with the conceit that what you’re creating is a fantasy language in a fantasy world that is supposed to be realistic, then you have to be realistic in all aspects. So Geroge R R Martin was realistic in creating the various races of his world, and to honour that you have to do it with the languages too. That’s where I come in: you start with an old form of the language and you evolve it, and you produce something that looks, in effect, like a natural language.

Why’s it so important?
There’s a greater level of access. Back in the 80s, the audience was pretty much the same, but they weren’t communicating with one another to the extent that we are now. You see a movie in 1983, you might have an idea about it, you might talk about it with a few of your friends, but how are you communicating with the larger outside world? Whereas now people are talking instantaneously. This raises the level of analysis and interaction. The moment someone has an idea online, they’re sharing it, that’s what we do nowadays. So this raises the audience’s level of awareness and expectations. It really is fan expectation, when fans expect that level of realism then it’s on the producers to deliver that.

What’s you favourite language in sci-fi?
One is Kēlen, by Sylvia Sotomayor, she’s a friend of mine now. She started out with a bit of an oddball idea, which was what if a language had no verbs? She built a very beautiful and quirky, artistic language out of it. It’s one of the best languages I’ve seen.

When studying, did you always want to create languages?
I started at the same time. I took my first linguistics class and it was a couple of weeks in when I got the idea to create my first language. When I was learning about linguistics, sciences and languages in general I was putting them into practice.

Did you have some sick secret language as a kid?
No. I never did.

You missed out.
Yeah, I know, I honestly wasn’t even interested in languages till like my last year in high school when it suddenly just kind of came upon me all of a sudden and I decided I wanted to learn every language I could. And so I sat down and started to learn. When I went to college I took Arabic, Russian, Esperanto and Middle Egyptian. I never stuck with one to become really fluent, because I kept wanting to learn more.

Defiance Pilot Syfy

Some of the actors on Game of Thrones find acting hard enough, how do they find learning a different language?
You know, it’s different for every actor. Some of them do really well with it, some think it’s really cool and jump right in and others just make do. There is a new actress in Defiance, and looking at the first takes, I was astounded – she nailed everything. It sounded great, but you know, that’s not something that happens with every actor.

Dothraki sounds kind of Arabic and Germanic, did you have that in mind?
Not Germanic, but I’ve heard that – I think Jason Momoa was the one that described it as a bit like German. With the sound of it, I always thought of it as if Spanish and Arabic had a love child. Kind of sounds a little bit like that to me. There are a couple of specific phonological cues to Spanish and Arabic I think are pretty neat that I dropped in. But beyond that, it just ends up sounding the way it sounds.

What’s some of your favourite sayings in Dothraki?
[Incoherent Spanishy, Arabicy sound] “I will not kill you.”

Oh goody. Short and to the the point.
Well, when Khal Drogo is going to threaten somebody he becomes rather long-winded, which is kind of fun. I remember a line, “When I’m done with you, beetles will feed on your eyes. The worms will crawl through your lungs. The rain will fall on your rotting skin… until nothing is left of you but bones.”

What are some good Dothraki insults?
“Ifak” means somebody who walks, contrasted with somebody that rides a horse. If you call somebody a walker, you’re insulting them. I didn’t notice it sounds very similar to “fuck,” but yeah, ifak.

David has just finished the Dark Elf language for Thor 2: The Dark World and is currently working on the new season of Defiance, which he promises will be cray.


Featured image: TED Conference (via Flickr)

Inset images: HBO; Syfy


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