This Thursday through Monday: The Long Weekend Of Thrones. Full schedule here.
In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
David J. Peterson won an online contest and ended up with one of the strangest jobs in Hollywood: language creator for the stars. Peterson is a linguist, but his lifelong hobby is language creation—or, as it’s called by those who do it, conlanging. After getting the gig with HBO, his hobby became his job. Peterson created the grammar and vocabulary for all of the languages in HBO’s Game Of Thrones, using material from George R.R. Martin’s books and filling in the substantial gaps on his own. And that’s not all—now he’s the linguist-in-residence for Syfy’s Defiance and The CW’s Star-Crossed, offering hope that even linguistics majors might get cool jobs one day. The A.V. Club sat down with Peterson to ask him about the process of creating Dothraki and Valyrian, as well as Grey Worm’s particularly wonderful Low Valyrian accent (as if he weren’t likable enough).
The A.V. Club: How did you start working with Game Of Thrones?
David Peterson: Well, Game Of Thrones was the first show that I ever worked on. The first time, Dave and Dan [David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the showrunners] were writing the pilot. It had been given the green light. One of the major story arcs for that pilot was Daenerys’ wedding to Khal Drogo. In the books, a lot can be left to narration. In the show, they wanted to have a lot of Dothraki dialogue. Initially, they approached George R.R. Martin and asked if he could give them the rest of the language—and he said there is absolutely nothing more that exists than what you see in the book. So they tried to kind of wing it and do some gibberish lines from the Dothraki, and I guess they just didn’t like the way it sounded—they thought it sounded stupid.
They contacted a woman named Arika Okrent—who had just published a book called In The Land Of Invented Languages about language creation—with their dilemma. She sent them to the Language Creation Society, who had helped her with some of her research. The Language Creation Society then put together an application process, which took the form of a contest. You had to sign an NDA in order to see what show it was, so a lot of good conlangers—those of us who create languages for fun—didn’t take it seriously. But there were still about 40 really excellent conlangers who applied, and I was one of them. There were two rounds of judging. First round of judging was by language creators; the second round was by producers. And I’m the one who made it through both rounds.
I had been creating languages for 10 years. But everybody else applying was equally skilled. So I figured the edge that I had was pretty much an endless amount of time—I was unemployed. I just decided: Well, let’s just try to create the whole thing. In those rounds of judging, I created about 90 percent of the grammar—which is ridiculous for two months. Then I created 1,700 words of vocabulary—which is equally ridiculous for two months. Overall, I produced about 300 total pages of material. I figure that was probably what put it over the top.
AVC: Were conlangers already interested in Game Of Thrones languages? Were you?
DP: I wasn’t one of those people. I had heard of the series A Song Of Ice And Fire before, but I had never read it. Within specifically the Wiki Of Ice And Fire, there were a few conlangers. But I don’t think any of them ever devoted any serious attention to the languages in the book.
Honestly, I’m not sure why—but it’s probably because the conlangers that I know that were already in the community—they were already conlangers, and they were primarily interested in their own projects, which were substantial. Most conlangers I know are really most interested in developing their original ideas. There are some that have done projects with other material, but for the most part, it’s original.
But that would be interesting to look at. I’m not sure if anybody else has developed Dothraki—Dothraki probably not, Valyrian, maybe. Dothraki has a lot of material, but Valyrian was usually the one everybody was interested in. That would be interesting, to see if anybody had done that.
AVC: It sounds like George R.R. Martin didn’t have the same level of investment in his invented languages as, say, J.R.R. Tolkien, who was a linguist.
DP: Martin didn’t—but he has a couple of tricks, and I don’t know if he learned them from somebody, or if he just developed them himself. But he had a couple of tricks that produced results that were not a nightmare for me to work with—which is saying something, because that’s usually what happens with works of fantasy. It’s just a nightmare.
But he recognized that if you look at a language, it has a character. You can look at a series of words and tell if they all come from the same language. He takes common parts with a lot of his names and words. They don’t have meanings—just common letter segments. And then he mixes them up so that words all kind of have the same ending and look the same. The result, even though it doesn’t have any specific meaning, looks like a language. And it was easy to work with it.
But going off of what you were first talking about: There is an intersection with those who are interested in creating languages and those who are interested in using languages, but as far as the Venn diagram goes, I’ve discovered that intersection is small.
If you look among fans of Klingon—there are a lot of people who learn it very well and are able to use it in very creative ways, as Klingon doesn’t have as many words as they’re going to need to be able to speak it. But of those fans, maybe one or two have ever tried to create a language. And maybe one will be a full-fledged conlanger. And then from the other side, many—no, hundreds—of conlangers admire Tolkien’s work, but of those, a smaller portion have tried to learn to use any of the languages. It’s more admiring the construction, seeing what he did with it and learning from it for one’s own project.
AVC: One of the things that’s interesting about what you’re doing is that you have to make these languages sound real and plausible in ways that most of us can understand but can’t quite articulate. What is that stuff we’re picking up on?
DP: First of all, there’s a big difference between producing something that looks like language as text and producing a spoken element that sounds like language. There are two different things going on here. The first is that when I’m creating a language, I’m trying to produce something that’s maximally authentic—so that if a linguist were to look at it, and we said this is a new language that appeared in the middle of Australia, they would look at it and say, “Oh, wow.” It’s got to have that. It has to have the grammar behind it, and the history behind it that produces that grammar.
But when it comes to speaking, that’s a different skill set. And there are people that aren’t even language people, per se, but can produce fluent-sounding gibberish. Language creators have the ability to create inflectional prosody. And that’s the thing that ends up selling a language; it’s something that I create on purpose and try to encode.
AVC: So what’s inflectional prosody?
DP: It’s when you’re listening to the first vocalization programs that computers had. You had them read a sentence, and it’s a fluid English sentence, but it does not sound human at all. And it wasn’t just because of the pronunciation of the sounds. It’s the way that the sentence flows. Every single language has its own intonational pattern—things that get reinforced to help do the grammar, basically. You could take fluent sentences of English, and [Speaks like a robot.] if you read everything exactly the same, that’s what it sounds like. It sounds like Vicki the robot.
If you just look at a creative language and treat it like a whole series of words, you end up pronouncing it like that and it sounds really flat and really fake. It doesn’t sound like people are just living and existing, and the best actors are able to get that. I record all the lines I create—but then it’s also upon the actors to reproduce it. On Game Of Thrones, the best at this is Jacob Anderson [Grey Worm], whose Low Valyrian is so good it surpasses mine. He’s just completely better. I absolutely adore that guy. He’s incredible.
And Emilia Clarke, too. Remember when she was doing Dothraki in seasons one and two—that was a foreign language for her character, and one she didn’t have a lot of time with. So even in the fictional universe, she only developed a certain amount of skill with it. When she was able to reveal in season three, episode four [“And Now His Watch Has Ended”] that this is her mother tongue—the thing that really sold her High Valyrian was getting that unique rhythm down. In fact, her rhythm—it was a little different from mine, a little better than mine. After hearing her performance in season three, I almost changed the way that I spoke the High Valyrian when recording things for season four to kind of match what she did. It just sounded great.
AVC: “History produces grammar”—fascinating. You’re really looking at the details. You’re making these extrapolations. You’re making your theories, and you have to do that in order to create these languages. In some ways, even though you weren’t a fan of this before, you are now the fan of this show.
DP: Yeah. If you look at everything that occurs on this show almost as a prop, language is different from any other prop. When you meet an actor like Charles Dance, he’s not Tywin Lannister. He’s his own man. He’s a different dude. What he needs to do is he needs to be Tywin Lannister for every moment that he’s on the screen. The same goes for the Iron Throne. If you’ve ever sat on one of those iron thrones that they’ve have on the traveling exhibits, it’s like, wow—it feels like you could kind of push it over; it feels very plastic, because it is. It’s actually cool. I think it’s 3-D printed, which is awesome. But what it needs to look real on the show—it needs to look metallic on the show, it needs to look like it was beaten with swords on the show.
Language isn’t really a physical thing. The extent to which a language exists is the extent to which it’s used—either in speech, in writing, or in thought. If suddenly every English speaker on the planet immediately died, English would be gone. It would exist only in books and things like that. People could try to recover it, but some things would be irrevocably lost.
There’s so much dialogue in the show, and I think that’s the key. If you just have one word or one sentence from a supposedly native language, it could be anything. But the more tokens you have, the more sentences you have, the more fluent speech you have with the direct translation. It’s as real as it’s ever going to be. This is a prop that is accessible to any single person that ever watches the show.
What Dave and Dan hoped to realize with this show was to create something that was as faithful to the book as possible and as realistic as possible. And since fans can interact so easily with the language, I wanted to make sure that it was borne out—so that years from now, people can take it down and see that it wasn’t just a prop. It wasn’t like—“Oh, you tricked us into believing that this was a real language.” It’s like: “No, it worked.” Everything works, and there’s a sense to it.
AVC: Do you have to coach the actors yourself, on set?
DP: It depends on the show. I coached most of the actors on Defiance directly, and I did it on the set. Game Of Thrones, I’ve never been to the set. I usually only go out to talk to the actors after their characters were dead. Weird.
I’ve met a bunch by now. It was weird. I met them in weird places, too. I went to see the early cut of the pilot of Dominion, which is a new show I’m working on on with Syfy, at a little post-production studio in L.A. And the boyfriend of one of the actresses was a bloodrider from Game Of Thrones. He was just there because whatever. And I’m like, “Oh my God.”
AVC: It must be interesting to meet people who have learned how to speak your creations.
DP: Yeah. Honestly, I don’t envy them. I’ve recorded every line for every show I’ve worked on. And there are times when it’s just like—recording the line, going, “Fuck, stop. Go back.” But I’ve seen the actors work, especially on Defiance—I’ve seen them work, take after take after take, and then getting these lines. And a lot of times they’re just nailing them, every single time. How do you do that? And then on top of that they have to do everything else that they’re doing in that scene. The same way over and over unless they get a note from the director. So then it’s like, okay, I’ve got to change this and still remember all these lines, and do it again and again and again.
It’s just incredible. It’s really impressive. I have such respect and admiration for them. And this, I think, is what’s key, and what makes a difference between a good performance and a bad one: It’s that they take it so seriously. All the actors I’ve talked to—I’ve had a chance to talk to a lot on Defiance and on Game Of Thrones and also on Star-Crossed—they look at these things, and they think, “Wow, this is fun. This is really interesting and cool.” They all bring their A-game to it. They take it very seriously, and that’s what makes it sound good. I could do everything that I possibly could, but if this lands in the hands of an actor or actress who’s like, “It’s a stupid, fake language,” then it’s going to sound stupid. It doesn’t matter what I do. It’s a unique partnership. I’m really grateful that one of my first speakers was badass Jason Momoa—because once you see him doing that, nobody’s going to be like, “This is fake.” No, it’s like: “I’ve got to be badass.”
AVC: How many languages are you working on in the Game Of Thrones universe right now?
DP: So there’s Dothraki, and that’s a very easy one because it’s just a nice isolate. It’s related to another language in the universe, but we haven’t seen that and probably won’t, I’m guessing, in the show. So there’s that. Then in the very first season, they had me come up with little sketches for something that the White Walkers would speak. And something that Mirri Maz Duur would speak when she was doing the chanting from Asshai’i. That language. Two little sketches—they weren’t full languages. I don’t think that they ended up using either of them, honestly, in the show. I did those things, but I’d say they’re probably non-canon at this point.
Then from the Valyrian family, I created High Valyrian—a dead language that’s still spoken by a lot of people as an academic literary language. Among the Targaryens, it was kept alive as a family language. That’s why Daenerys speaks it—and presumably Viserys, her brother, also spoke it. It just never came up. So there’s that.
Descended from High Valyrian is Low Valyrian—what’s spoken in Slaver’s Bay. The first instantiation of this we saw was Astapori Valyrian. The reason that they spoke this is because the old Valyrian Freehold basically sacked the old Ghiscari Empire five times, and then after the fifth time, they completely obliterated and destroyed their capital city, Old Ghis. That empire was destroyed and became a part of the Valyrian Freehold. At that point, Valyrian, as it was, took over as the primary language spoken throughout Slaver’s Bay, supplanting the old Ghiscari language. All this history, this comes directly from the books.
Astapori Valyrian is an evolved form of High Valyrian. It’s about the same relationship as Italian is to Latin. But there are also a bunch of borrowed words from Ghiscari. Ghiscari hasn’t been developed as a full language, because it’s dead and nobody speaks it. But it has a phonological character that we’ve seen from names in the books. Like Hizdahr zo Loraq and Reznak mo Reznak. So we see a little bit of what it would have sounded like. I sprinkled Ghiscari loanwords through Low Valyrian. Yunkai basically speaks the same language. It might be a little different in spots, but we can treat it as the same language.
The next variety, which has a very different sound, is Meereenese Valyrian. It’s the same language as Astapori Valyrian for the most part, except that it has more Ghiscari loanwords and the sound of it is really, really different. And that was done specifically at Dave’s and Dan’s request. Daenerys understands Astapori Valyrian, which is a bit of a stretch, but we’ll take it. But they want her to not be able to understand the people of Meereen. It’s not a different language. But I made it sound so different that somebody who isn’t completely fluent in this Low Valyrian variant wouldn’t understand it. People from Astapor probably understand it and think it’s somebody with a really, really thick accent. But somebody who isn’t super keyed into it is probably going to get lost, and that’s in effect where Daenerys is. She can’t follow it at all. It just sounds too different.
AVC: Is it about the same amount of words for Dothraki and Valyrian?
DP: No, it’s not the same amount. Dothraki is creeping toward 4,000 words. High Valyrian is at 1,000, and Low Valyrian is probably somewhat less than that—though it could easily be the same amount, because you could just go through the High Valyrian vocabulary and show what happens to every single word. But typically, I’ve just done what I needed for Low Valyrian and focused primarily on High Valyrian. The reason for that is just fairly simple—I’ve got too much work now. One of my favorite things to do as a language creator is just to sit down and create new words. When I was in graduate school and was tired of work, I would sit down and create new words for my languages. I loved doing that. I haven’t had time for that in years.
Now when I create new words, it usually happens when I have to, or when I need them. Or if I anticipate that certain scenes are coming—I’ll sit down and create targeted vocabulary for that to get it up to speed, so that it’s easier when it comes to translation.
AVC: “The Mountain And The Viper” was probably the first entire scene with just two native speakers of a non-Westerosi language. That’s a whole new level of work for you.
DP: I think that you’re right. I was trying to think back if there were any scenes just between Dothraki. I don’t think there were. I think Dany was always there. And yeah, I was excited about Missandei and Grey Worm, too. First of all, because I just want Jacob Anderson to have as many lines as he possibly can. The story should be about him. It was really cool that she’s teaching him English now—which is of course is something that she would be very well equipped to do, and doing it in a good way. I have input on those scenes too. It’s more realistic to make this English error than this one.
The book reader in me was excited because at this point in the books Irri, who’s still alive, is in a bit of a love triangle with Jhiqui and Rakharo, who is still alive in the book. In the show, both Irri and Rakharo are dead. So they did this, which is cool because it still captures a little bit of that, and I think it’s a little sweeter. It’s really nice.
AVC: Did you have any real-world language inspirations for your invented ones on the show?
DP: Language creators, we all grow in phases. And usually the first phase is that you create your first language and think it’s the best thing ever. Everybody goes through that phase. I did. And it’s ironic because you think your language is the best ever, and it’s probably the worst thing that you’ll ever do as a language creator.
The next phase is usually learning about other languages and linguistic phenomena and starting to create languages that are based on real-world languages, to test them out and push their limits. And I went through this. I had a language that was very much like Turkish, a language that was very much like Hawaiian. But then the next phase after that is, you get it. You see how languages can vary and what you can do. You begin to imagine things that haven’t even been done in language. And then you don’t start with anything. You start with: Well, what do I want to do? What do I want this to look like?
AVC: Do you have a sense of Westerosi as a language that’s separate from English?
DP: This is a really, really difficult question. It’s answered very, very simply in the book—and not so simply now that this has become a show. When you’re reading a book, any book—whether it’s set in the real world or it’s set in a fantasy world—there’s a sense of the voice of the language of narration. So if you read The Great Gatsby translated into Russian, you’re reading it in Russian and they’re all speaking Russian, but you know that they’re speaking English. They’re supposed to be speaking English because they’re in America.
In the book, uncontroversially, you can say Westerosi is supposed to be a different language. And we are getting it in English because it’s too much to demand for the reader to read an entire book series written in created language. I wouldn’t do that. I would wait for the English translation, and then if I were interested in the language, I’d give it a look. But no, it’s too much of a thing to learn an entire language just to read a story.
Yes, Westerosi is a completely different language. We are reading it in English because this is how books work. Once you get to the show, things become complicated because you can’t pawn off the other languages on narration the way you can do in the book—you can’t just say, “Right now they’re speaking Valyrian, right now they’re speaking Asshai.” You can’t narrate that. It’s not going to happen. So we’ve reached this weird point of canon where it’s like, well, they’re actually speaking that. And it’s not like there was a Hunt For Red October part where they were speaking something crazy, and then zoom in and zoom back out, and they’re speaking English.
It becomes difficult—this is the thing that was really, really difficult for me—once there started being borrowings from English into some of the created languages. It had to happen in season three, when [Kraznys mo Nakloz] was talking about the “Westeorsi whore.” And so that word pops in. Suddenly there’s this canon dilemma. Is this just an English word that’s kind of a little floofy? Is it a word from Common? What do I do with this? People need to be able to hear and understand it, so I borrowed it in and made a little change so that it wasn’t Westerosi. But it certainly did give me pause, I will say that. And I do think about it from time to time. It’s a little bit of a wrinkle over my brow.
AVC: What’s your favorite language you’ve created? And one you wish you created?
DP: Oh, man. My favorite language that I created is Irathient for Defiance. Love that language. There’s something that I deeply love about each of my languages, but Irathient let me do everything I like. It’s difficult to use. It’s difficult to translate into, so it’s almost like when I have to do translation into it, I hate it. But I love the sound of it. I love the grammar. I love creating words for it. It’s just so much fun. That’s my favorite of my created languages.
A language that I wish I had created—I had a good answer for this. I’m thinking about all the many. I wish I could have done something for The Fifth Element language. That would have been cool. That was a great movie. How did that movie get made at that time? That was incredible! We were gifted with that movie. It’s like, thank you.
AVC: What about a favorite word?
When I was creating Valyrian, there were a small amount of words in the books, but I know that George R.R. Martin wanted it to occupy the status of Latin in that universe. I thought it was very pretty, because a lot of the names are very pretty. I would create words and I would ask: Is this too pretty? But whenever I asked myself that question, I’d go with it. There’s no such thing as being too pretty for this language. You do this language to its fullest.
One of my favorite words in High Valyrian was Daenerys’ last name, because I wasn’t going to borrow in “Stormborn” as an English word into Valyrian. So I got to create that word. I thought, well, there are a number of ways that one could do that name. So I decided to do “Daenerys Of The Storm.” And the word for “storm”—it starts with the word for wind, or weather. Jelmio, the word for wind. It becomes jelmāzma, with the macron over the “a.” Daenerys Of The Storm. I was really pleased with how that one came out.
And I love the way Grey Worm said it. Now when I say it, it’s like I’m imitating him. I’m imitating when Jacob Anderson says it.
DP: Yeah. I was really excited about that project. The fandom is really good about getting stuff together online, but once there’s an actual course that’s published, that gives it some permanence. It gives it status.
For myself, as somebody who just loves to learn languages, that’s what I do for fun. I pick up reference grammars and read them like a novel. It’s like reading other writers. I’m going through every language on the planet, every one that I can get my hands on.
I would love a world where a language creator that had created a really brilliant language could just produce their own teach-yourself manual or produce their own reference grammar. I would absolutely buy those and read them. Having something like this come out, it’s inching closer toward that goal.
Little by little, people are learning about created languages. Decades ago, people would criticize language creators. They’d be like: “Why are you doing this? You should just be learning real languages.” But that’s not the point. It’s a form of expression. It’s a form of artistic expression. You’re presenting a world view, in a sense. There’s an element of engineering that comes with constructing the grammar—and then with the lexicon, it’s pure art. It’s showing people: I’ve decided to encode the world this way, using these words and these associations, these different meanings. It’s a personal unique expression, and that’s why I started creating languages back in 2000. I never stopped. And I never will.