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Klaatu Barada Nicto...

... or something like that.

Truth is, I suck at foreign languages. Always have. Always will.

That can be a real drawback for a fantasist working in the tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien, who set the bar very high where imaginary languages are concerned. JRRT was a linguist of rare talent who invented not one but two Elvish tongues, not to mention dwarvish, Numenorean, the Black Tongue of Mordor, etc. etc. An astonishing feat of linguistic worldbuilding, and one that is never likely to be duplicated.

Certainly not by me. A few years ago, I got a very nice email from a reader who wanted to know more about the vocabulary and syntax of High Valyrian. I blush to admit that I had to reply, "Uh... well... all I know about High Valyrian is the seven words I've made up to date. When I need an eighth, I'll make that up too... but I don't have a whole imaginary language in my desk here, the way Tolkien did."

The same was true of Dothraki. Lots of characters speak the language of the horselords in my novels, and I did pepper the text with a few Dothraki words like khal and arakh... but for the most part I was content just to say, "They were speaking Dothraki," and give the sense of what was said, playing with the syntax and sentence rhythms a bit to convey a flavor.

That would obviously not work for television, however, where you actally have to HEAR what the characters are saying, even if you don't necessarily understand the words. So when the pilot was filmed, HBO brought in a world-class expert to create a Dothraki tongue that went well beyond my "khaleesi" and "khalasar."

His name is David J. Peterson, and here's some more about him and the language he's devising, straight from the good folks at Home Box Office:


David J. Peterson, an expert language creator from the Language Creation Society (LCS), has been chosen to create the Dothraki language for HBO’s upcoming fantasy series GAME OF THRONES, based on the book series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” by George R.R. Martin.

When GAME OF THRONES executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss needed a language for the Dothraki, Martin’s race of nomadic warriors, they turned to the Language Creation Society. The LCS solicited and vetted a number of proposals for the Dothraki language from its pool of experts, with Peterson’s proposal ultimately being selected by the GAME OF THRONES production team.

Peterson drew inspiration from George R.R. Martin’s description of the language, as well as from such languages as Russian, Turkish, Estonian, Inuktitut and Swahili. However, the Dothraki language is no mere hodgepodge, babble or pidgin. It has its own unique sound, extensive vocabulary of more than 1,800 words and complex grammatical structure.

“In designing Dothraki, I wanted to remain as faithful as possible to the extant material in George R.R. Martin’s series,” says Peterson. “Though there isn’t a lot of data, there is evidence of a dominant word order [subject-verb-object], of adjectives appearing after nouns, and of the lack of a copula [‘to be’]. I’ve remained faithful to these elements, creating a sound aesthetic that will be familiar to readers, while giving the language depth and authenticity. My fondest desire is for fans of the series to look at a word from the Dothraki language and be unable to tell if it came from the books or from me — and for viewers not even to realize it’s a constructed language.”

“We’re tremendously excited to be working with David and the LCS,” says producer D.B. Weiss. “The language he’s devised is phenomenal. It captures the essence of the Dothraki, and brings another level of richness to their world. We look forward to his first collection of Dothraki love sonnets.”

Did you know? (Hash yer ray nesi?)

The name for the Dothraki people — and their language — derives from the verb “dothralat” (“to ride”).

The Dothraki have four different words for “carry,” three for “push,” three for “pull” and at least eight for “horse,” but no word that means “please” or “follow.”

The longest word in Dothraki is “athastokhdeveshizaroon,” which means “from nonsense.”

The words for “related,” “weighted net,” “eclipse,” “dispute,” “redhead,” “oath,” “funeral pyre,” “evidence,” “omen,” “fang” and “harvest moon” all have one element in common: “qoy,” the Dothraki word for “blood.”

Dothraki for “to dream” – “thirat atthiraride” – literally means “to live a wooden life”; in Dothraki, “wooden” (“ido”) is synonymous with “fake.”

The word for “pride” – “athjahakar” – is derived from “jahak,” the traditional long braid worn by Dothraki warriors (“lajaki”).

More information about the Dothraki language (and their love poems) will be released over the course of the series.


I look forward to the day when someone translates Shakespeare into Dothraki. They've already done a Klingon translation, and probably an Elvish one as well, so what the hell.

Meanwhile, I need to find out the proper Dothraki for "it is known."


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Apr. 12th, 2010 11:59 pm (UTC)
Wow that sounds fascinating. And it must be a bit of a jazz for you to know someone is putting together a language based on your ideas!
Apr. 13th, 2010 12:01 am (UTC)
That sounds so awesome! I can't wait to hear what it sounds like!
Apr. 13th, 2010 12:05 am (UTC)
This is very encouraging
I was worried I'd have to go back to college and get that linguistics degree, or at least take a few classes in Chinese and Korean.

I may do that anyway. Not for the writing, for travel and restaurant ordering purposes.
Apr. 13th, 2010 12:08 am (UTC)
Are you going to use a bit of this new language in your books?
Apr. 13th, 2010 01:24 am (UTC)
I approve of your avatar. G'kar (and the late, lamented Andreas Katsulas) would probably have liked the Dothraki, if he ever had an opportunity to meet them (in or out of a cagematch).
(no subject) - agent_tomato - Apr. 13th, 2010 02:14 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kainrocket - Apr. 13th, 2010 02:07 am (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 13th, 2010 12:12 am (UTC)
The least you could do to show your appreciation is to become fluent in the language.
Apr. 13th, 2010 12:15 am (UTC)
Hey, I'm that David J. Peterson! Glad to hear you're happy with the work so far. I actually thought "It is known" was in the originally press release, but that must have been an early version. Anyway, I'm happy to be a part of the team!
Apr. 13th, 2010 12:24 am (UTC)
Congratulations on getting the nod for this, David. It's always a good day when fiction takes constructed languages seriously.

As for GRRM's hope for Shakespeare, perhaps you'll work up a sonnet or two (translated from the original Klingon, of course).


Lawrence M. Schoen, Ph.D.
Director, Klingon Language Institute
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Apr. 13th, 2010 12:16 am (UTC)
That is really neat :D

Do you think we'll see any of his work appearing in the books later on?

I'm curious because I think languages are neat, and also from a writing process sort of PoV.
Apr. 13th, 2010 12:20 am (UTC)
Very interesting, thank you!
Apr. 13th, 2010 12:24 am (UTC)
You and Tolkien
You know, I wouldn't worry about comparing language "building" skills to Tolkien. Sure he blew you away there, but he pretty much did that to every author out there. Scott Bakker makes a decent attempt...
But you are way, way up towards the top of the list in character lists, and depth. And nobody better pull the bogus star wars universe card in here- half the cast was invented by someone else and approved by Lucas. All the Ice and Fire cast is pure MArtin. And I wouldn't even begrudge you of borrowing from previous fiction for a name (like Barristan).
So if Tolkien is the grandfather of modern fantasy for his crazy ambitious creation of Middle Earth thru language, I would say GRRM is the Great Uncle of modern fantasy because of unearthly (or perhaps mid earthly) character count. With depth of character I might add.
Apr. 13th, 2010 12:29 am (UTC)
Hell yes! I've been wondering about the Dothraki and Valyrian languages for so long. ♥ Good luck, Mr. Peterson!

Meanwhile, I need to find out the proper Dothraki for "it is known."

I need this like burning. XD
Apr. 13th, 2010 12:32 am (UTC)
Wow, this is simply amazing.

How do you think they'll translate "to be or not to be"? Maybe something like, "to ride or not to ride."
Apr. 13th, 2010 03:42 am (UTC)
That's a stupid question. Ride!
Apr. 13th, 2010 12:35 am (UTC)
that is so exciting! Will a in-depth list of the vocabulary/syntax ever be released to the public?
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 13th, 2010 07:27 am (UTC)
Me too.
Apr. 13th, 2010 12:43 am (UTC)
Wow I am so excited! Sounds great!
Apr. 13th, 2010 12:46 am (UTC)
This is truly cool- I look forward to hearing the language that he created.
Apr. 13th, 2010 01:13 am (UTC)
That sounds like it's going to be an interesting language to hear!
Apr. 13th, 2010 01:36 am (UTC)
I wonder, George - are you going to adopt some of the languages in your books? Possibly let the etymology influence your stories? I'm definitely intrigued by the Dothraki interpretation of dreams.
Apr. 13th, 2010 02:04 am (UTC)
that is really fascinating.
Apr. 13th, 2010 02:43 am (UTC)
This is so awesome! I can't wait to hear it. Will the same thing be done with High Valyrian?
Apr. 13th, 2010 02:50 am (UTC)
I created a dictionary of words for two of my own languages, many moons ago. I'll probably have to do some research on the LCS and perhaps run it by some of their members one of these days, for critique and improvement, if they might be so kind.

World-building is definitely one of the major reasons I enjoy working with fantasy settings. Language may not be an absolute essential, but maintaining some logic to a unique language certainly adds flavor, as Tolkien proved beyond doubt.

I'm happy to read that one more element has been pushed to a new level for your series, George. I'm sure it will all just escalate from this point. Much more to come as the HBO series unveils and your writing becomes that much more popular.
Apr. 13th, 2010 03:09 am (UTC)
I think it's fantastic that you're comfortable and proud enough of your creation that you can let other people freely play in it, and build more of it. I'm pretty excited for the series: moreso now that it seems like it's the collaboration of a lot of talented artists, rather than just the brain child of one awesome one. :)
Apr. 13th, 2010 03:15 am (UTC)
That is really awesome; did you follow along to make sure he had the same Dothraki sense that you pictured? I've always been fascinated with languages, and linguistics is amazing too.
Apr. 13th, 2010 03:44 am (UTC)
"An astonishing feat of linguistic worldbuilding, and one that is never likely to be duplicated."

Robert Jordan (Wheel of Time) was really impressive in linguistic department...
Apr. 14th, 2010 11:43 pm (UTC)
As I recall, Jordan just borrowed words from elsewhere and tweaked them a bit. It's been a while, but I remember the orc tribes names being English words with some pseudo-phonetic spelling and a liberal sprinkling of apostrophes.
(no subject) - mat33 - Apr. 15th, 2010 03:17 am (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 13th, 2010 03:52 am (UTC)
Sounds awesome. Thinking about it, it would seem that Dothraki is the most urgent need because it's a foreign language to the viewpoint character who encounters it, whereas the Common Tongue isn't, so it would be awkward not to have it be represented by English.

I can't recall; is High Valyrian actually spoken (perhaps in religious ceremonies) or is it purely a historical and written language, like Latin in the late medieval period? I'm wondering if enough of it is necessary that is it going to be developed at some point, or if the few words you have will be enough that it would be an unnecessary production expense, much as the fans would love it. ;-)
Apr. 14th, 2010 04:16 pm (UTC)
It seems like the Valyrian that is spoken is a bit different from the written version, but close enough that people like Dany who learned High Valyrian can understand the spoken version. So I think quite a lot closer than for example Latin versus Italian or something.

It will have to be developed also... there are a few cases where I think they will really need it. The chapters where Dany is negotiating the purchase of the unsullied are almost all in Valyrian (with Dany replying in Westrosi and pretending she doesn't understand what's being said).
(no subject) - pixiemotion - Apr. 15th, 2010 07:49 am (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 13th, 2010 04:26 am (UTC)
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