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The Languages of Game of Thrones

CAS linguist on the origins of Dothraki, Valyrian

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Athchomar Chomakaan!

Huh?

That means “Hello” in Dothraki (but only when directed at a non-Dothraki), one of the languages spoken in the HBO hit show Game of Thrones, whose seventh season starts Sunday night.

The Dothraki and the High Valyrian heard on the show were invented by linguist David J. Peterson, who won a 2009 contest dreamed up by the Game of Thrones creators. They contacted the Language Creation Society (Peterson is a cofounder) and asked members to create the Dothraki vernacular, since Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin had not developed the language in his books.

Peterson’s skills have impressed linguists around the world, including admitted “medium-size” fan of the show and the books Alexander Nikolaev, a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of classical studies and of linguistics. An expert in ancient languages, Nikolaev has led workshops on fictional languages in Game of Thrones, Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings. He was recently named a Center for the Humanities junior research fellow for the coming academic year.

BU Today spoke with Nikolaev about the real-world history that went into creating the Game of Thrones plot, how languages are created, and what he, as a linguist, thinks of the phrase “Valar morghulis.”

BU Today: When George R. R. Martin was creating the world of the Song of Ice and Fire series, did he have any real history in mind?

Nikolaev: Yes, absolutely. Basically, the history of Westeros is a mirror-image of the history of the British Isles: the original population of Westeros were the Children of the Forest, later ousted by the First People, who in turn had to move to the North when the Andals came along. Then came the Rhoynars, who took control over the southern part of the continent. Finally, with Aegon’s Conquest, the era of Targaryens begins.

Now think of the British Isles: the mysterious Picts, whose artifacts are found in northern Scotland, may or may not have been the earliest inhabitants of Great Britain. They probably had to move to the north when people who spoke Celtic languages (today’s Irish and Welsh and Scottish Gaelic) migrated from the continent. But Celts in turn had to move, first when the Romans came in the first century CE and then again when Great Britain was invaded from the continent by Germanic tribes (Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, collectively referred to as Anglo-Saxons) in the fifth century. And then of course there was the Norman conquest in 1066, with William the Conqueror being the prototype for Aegon, bringing new gods and new language to Westeros.

This is something that I find great pleasure in, with Martin and even more so with J.R.R. Tolkien and some other writers. When I read their books, it always becomes an intellectual game of sorts—when I see a plot twist, a name or a historical figure, I can sometimes say, OK, I see what you are doing here, I know exactly where you got this from. Tolkien, as I said, is a bit more fascinating for me personally since I have worked on some of those languages and texts that Tolkien taught as a professor at Oxford and that were the source of inspiration for him as he created the universe of the Middle Earth. This is Old English language and literature, but also Old Norse and the awesome world of Scandinavian mythology, Old Irish with its heroic saga, and the Finnish epic Kalevala. If you have read that stuff, it often becomes possible to identify Tolkien’s sources exactly and know where he gets the names of his heroes.

Why did the creators of the TV show need Peterson to create the languages of Dothraki and Valyrian?

In contrast to Tolkien, who was a language nerd, Martin is not a language guy. By his own admission, constructing languages isn’t Martin’s strength. He creates wonderful plots and fascinating relationships and strong characters. The only thing in the books that Martin had by the way of language was the phrase “Valar morghulis,” meaning “All men must die.” It was more or less the only phrase in a foreign language that he managed to coin, and it is not a very clever coinage, if you think about it: “morghulis” just reeks of the English word “morgue”—it’s not inventive. He took the word “morgue” and made a foreign verb out of it. Come on, you can do better than that. “Valar” is clever, because we can immediately connect it with the city Valyria. This is why the creators of the show were looking for a linguist to create the languages for them.

“Valar morghulis” is the only thing Peterson had to go on when he started, and he did an admirable job.

It was pretty clear from the books how many languages he had to create and also what the historical and sociolinguistic context there would have been. We know for instance that Targaryens are the only ones who speak High Valyrian natively; it’s a dead language used as the language of learning and education among the nobility of Essos and Westeros. But in the show, there is also Low Valyrian, a group of vernaculars spoken in places like Astapor and Braavos. As a model for this, Peterson clearly took the history of the Romance languages. Those languages, like French and Portuguese and Spanish, have descended from Latin, or rather its postclassical form known as “vulgar Latin,” the language that the legionnaires spoke when the Roman Empire started dissolving. But even though Latin was no longer a living language (it was not anyone’s first or native language) throughout much of European history, it was still maintained as the language of liturgy, scholarship, and science—just as High Valyrian is.

When you watch the show, what do you find interesting as a linguist about the Dothraki and Valyrian languages?

I think Dothraki culture was clearly inspired by the Mongols. Khal Drogo’s words, “My son, the stallion who will mount the world,” is something Genghis Khan would have said in the 13th century, or 14th-century conqueror Tamerlane two centuries later. The idea that the Dothraki have no word for “thank you” matches these historic models rather well. I don’t think there is much, if any, Dothraki in the books, but Peterson did a wonderful job here as well. One extremely clever thing he did is that the main auxiliary verb, verbs like “is” and “are,” in Dothraki, is the verb with the lexical meaning “to ride a horse.” In the question, “How do you do?” in Dothraki, it’s “How are you riding?” Horses play such a large role in the daily life of Dothraki that it affected their language.

What is the process of making up a language? What are the necessary tools?

Frequently when people think of languages, they think of writing systems. You think of Arabic, and you think of the Arabic calligraphy. You think of Chinese and you think of characters. But writing systems, more or less, have nothing to do with language proper. It’s the spoken language that is primary. In 99 percent of cases, any language can be written in any written system. My primary language is Russian, and I could write Russian using English letters, or using Arabic letters, whatever I want. Peterson and his team developed some special writing symbols for the show, I think, more or less inspired by Scandinavian runes, but this is the last step of creating a fictional language.

First you need to decide if you want to create a natural language or an unnatural language. In fiction, an example of nonhuman language is Klingon. How do you do that? You violate some universal properties of human language. You have to be a really good linguist to know how language works. Linguists have discovered that languages that may look very different in fact all operate on the same underlying principles. There is this thing called universal grammar, which we think is something that children are born with, a set of innate rules that makes it possible for children to achieve the extremely hard task of acquiring their language with full proficiency. One of the big questions of linguistics is how on earth can one- or two-year-old kids—who really aren’t that smart and cannot do much on their own (you have to change their diapers)—perform this formidable task and learn to speak a language without making any mistakes. As grown-ups, we are supposed to become smarter, and yet we take 10 semesters of German later in life and then can’t form a single sentence.

Back to Klingon. The creators of this language did a very smart thing: they skillfully violated some core rules of human language. For instance, the way that sounds in Klingon work, there’s no language on our planet, out of 7,000 languages, that has a similar phonological inventory, a set of sounds. What is considered to be impossible in a human language becomes a feature of an alien language.

Then you need a grammar and a lexicon. What linguists mean when they say grammar is a set of rules that govern the creation of words and sentences in a language. It is best viewed as a tiered structure with several levels: phonology (sounds being the building bricks for words), morphology (word forms built out of roots and suffixes), syntax (sentences built out of word forms), and semantics, in other words, the meaning. We still don’t know what happens exactly in our heads when we speak, but it seems that within nanoseconds, our brain performs multiple operations at all of these tiers in order to generate sentences. And then there is lexicon, or vocabulary, and that’s where you can exercise your fantasy in creating fictional words and forging etymological connections between them. One clever thing Martin did was making valar the word for “men” (plural) and using the same root in the name of the ancient capital city Valyria, which we can now translate as “city of men” or maybe “men’s stronghold”

How many languages do you speak?

We linguists get this question a lot. The problem with this question is that linguists and polyglots are two different things. A linguist doesn’t have to be a polyglot. We work with language as the object of scientific study. As a linguist, I may come to a new country and only speak a few phrases, but I can notice things about how the language works that the native speakers would never know.

I deal with dead languages, languages that no one speaks anyway, so I have an easier time with this question. I am a historical linguist and my specialty is ancient Greek and Latin, but I also work on Sanskrit, Iranian languages, Celtic languages, Anatolian languages that used to be spoken in modern day Turkey, and so on. I would say I have dabbled in about three dozen ancient and medieval languages, but of course there is no question about conversational fluency.

Have you ever created a language?

It’s been said that every college professor has a novel in the drawer. As a humanities guy, I would probably write a novel first, create a fictional universe, and then create a language for it.

Are you a big sci-fi fan?

I’m a big fan of Isaac Asimov (Hon.’80), who was a faculty member at BU, Clifford D. Simak, and Ray Bradbury.

The seventh season of Game of Thrones premieres Sunday, July 16, at 9 p.m. on HBO.

1 Comments
Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

One Comment on The Languages of Game of Thrones

  • Victor Brunko on 07.12.2017 at 11:17 am

    A very good and deep interview. Good answers Alexander. Keep it on! I’m pretty sure, somewhen you’ll be invited to have a chance to invent/upgrade the language for either big movie/show. Thanks.

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