This season’s plot twists on HBO’s “Game of Thrones” are closely guarded secrets, but you can bet you’ll be hearing a lot from the horse lords known as the Dothraki, who have Queen Daenerys in their power as the season begins. And you can bet that linguist David J. Peterson has a lot of say over what those horse lords say.
It was Peterson who constructed an entire language for the Dothraki, building on the smattering of words that appear in the George R.R. Martin novels. The 35-year-old also created a fictional High Valyrian language for the nobles on “Game of Thrones,” as well as the Mag Nuk tongue that a giant spoke last season (“Lokh kif rukh?” … which roughly translates into “What the [blank] are you looking at?”)
But that’s not all: On one of his websites, Dothraki.com, Peterson delights in laying out the detailed vocabulary and grammar for the languages he’s made up, explaining how those languages translate into HBO screen time, and putting on haiku contests for his fans. Here’s this year’s winning entry in Dothraki, from Zhalio:
Az ahhaf yera
Fin vahhafa athnithar
mra zhor anhoon?
A blade silenced thee.
Who shall now silence the pain
left inside my heart?
For earthier purposes, you can turn to the list of useful Dothraki phrases that Peterson passed along to Wired a couple of years ago, including “Hash me laz adakha jin zhoris?” (Are these hearts edible?)
“Game of Thrones” isn’t the only sci-fi-fantasy show that’s benefited from Peterson’s linguistic artistry: He has also created languages for Syfy’s “Defiance,” MTV’s “Shannara Chronicles,” CW’s “The 100,” the movie “Thor: The Dark World” and more.
In an email Q&A with GeekWire, Peterson talked about the genesis of Dothraki and what’s next for Westeros’ linguistic maester:
GeekWire: At what point did you get involved in Dothraki and Valyrian? I understand that you built on only about 30 Dothraki words in George R.R. Martin’s books, and I’m guessing a similar number of High Valyrian phrases? How do you select the structure of a constructed language?
Peterson: “I started working on Dothraki in the summer of 2009 when Dave and Dan [David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the showrunners for “Game of Thrones”] hired the Language Creation Society to run a contest to create the language. High Valyrian didn’t have anywhere near the representation that Dothraki did in the books; there was much less to go on. I don’t select the structure of a language: I create it. Consequently I don’t use other languages as ‘models.’ I just build the language from the ground up.”
GeekWire: Any new languages on the horizon, either for “Game of Thrones” or other Hollywood projects? Are there new types of words/phrases that had to be worked out for the new season? For example, what language do the giants speak?
Peterson: “I did, in fact, create a language for the giants last season called Mag Nuk. There was only one line in the show, though. At this point my work on ‘Game of Thrones’ is done for the season, so later this year I’m anticipating working on the next season of ‘Game of Thrones’, the next season of ‘The 100’, hopefully a second season of ‘The Shannara Chronicles,’ if it gets picked up, and then next year perhaps a second season of ‘Emerald City,’ which will likely debut sometime this year. I’m also working on a new show that’s under wraps at the moment, and worked on two movies coming out this summer.”
GeekWire: Have you come across any fun fan-culture clashes? I should think a Dothraki and a Klingon trying to communicate (or insult each other) would be hilarious.
Peterson: “Honestly, I think that Klingons and Dothraki were born to fight each other. I think Dothraki vs. Klingon would’ve made an awesome episode of that old show ‘Deadliest Warrior.’ Would’ve been epic. I think the Dothraki would win easily. Klingons get too hung up on honor. Dothraki are bloodthirsty. They don’t mess around.”
Peterson: “At the moment there’s my Tumblr (http://dedalvs.tumblr.com), and there’s a book out on Dothraki called ‘Living Language Dothraki’ (also has a web course). None of my other languages have a strong web presence, though Trigedasleng from ‘The 100’ has a great fan site (http://trigedasleng.info). Perhaps that will change in the days to come.”
GeekWire: Any other personal twists that you’d like to pass along? I guess the usual image people have of a linguist would be someone older than 35. Are folks surprised at your age? Anything you’d like to say about influence from J.R.R. Tolkien or other writers who have emphasized constructed languages (a.k.a. conlangs)?
Peterson: “Some of the most interesting potential languages from the books are the ones that are only hinted at — like the language of Asshai or the Summer Isles. I’d love to be able to flesh those out someday. George R.R. Martin is someone who actually expected me to be much, much older than I am. The truth is, given how many new faces are coming to conlanging nowadays, I may, in fact, be older than the norm. There are a lot of new conlangers that are in the midteens — even early teens. Before long they’ll outnumber the older crowd.
“Speaking of the older crowd, that’s where I got my inspiration and training from. I learned what I know today by jumping into the online conlanging community and studying their work. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.”
For more about Peterson and language construction, check out his book, “The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words Behind World-Building.”