April 9th, 2012
01:11 PM ET

'Game of Thrones' linguist: How to create a language from scratch

Editor's NoteDavid Peterson is the creator of the Dothraki language used in the HBO show 'Game of Thrones.' Peterson also is a member of the Language Creation Society.  A 30-minute profile of Peterson will air on CNN's "The Next List on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET.

The work of a language creator is often regarded with skepticism. "What's the big deal?" many ask. "All you have to do is make up words." And, indeed, one could proceed as follows:

a = blork
abandon = glurg
abate = plurfle
abattoir = gluff

And so on until there was a unique form for every word in an English language dictionary (in fact, with a computer program, one could produce dozens of "languages" like this in a matter of minutes). And while the resultant language would look different from English, functionally and semantically, it would be identical-a mere notational variant.

The reason, of course, is that language doesn't exist in a vacuum. While one can mix up the sounds of an existing language, by copying its vocabulary, one unconsciously duplicates the culture of that language's speakers along with it.

In building up the Dothraki language, I paid special attention to the cultural information a reader is able to glean from George R. R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire." At the most basic level, we see a nomadic race of warriors tied inextricably to their horses: they ride horses, they give horses as gifts, they eat horse meat, they worship a horse god-even their alcohol comes in the form of fermented mare's milk. The word dothraki itself translates to "riders". As horse riding is so central to Dothraki existence, it seems natural that the concept would crop up in their language in a variety of ways.

For example, the basic way to inquire after someone's state is, Hash yer dothrae chek? That translates literally to, "Do you ride well?" or, "Are you riding well?" In English, though, an appropriate translation would be simply, "How are you doing?"

In another area of the grammar, Dothraki expresses immediate pasts and futures using the same verb: dothralat, "to ride". Here are some illustrative examples:

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  3. Dave B in MN

    @ Will S

    If we ever do establish official contact with an alien species, we may need to try many things to fully understand the aliens. Exolinguists may find something in these made up languages to help them.

    April 10, 2012 at 1:30 am |
    • pacman357

      Sure. Deconstructing another language in order to understand it couldn't be all that tough, could it? Shoot, we could probably just gather up a few geeks who speak Klingon.

      April 10, 2012 at 4:35 am |
  4. Will S

    Or you could learn/use Spanish (or French, or German, or Arabic, or Russian, or Finnish, or Bulgarian, orChinese...) which is actually useful. Why invent a new language for stuff like this? What a waste of time.

    April 9, 2012 at 10:55 pm |
    • Aaron

      Because even fantasy writers need to have their works grounded in reality in order for them to create a world that the reader can find themselves immersed in without breaking the spell. Think of a dream where something so jarring or inconsistent happens that it wakes you to the fact that you are in a dream and the dream ends. Dothraki, a race of people on an imaginary world, could never conceivably speak French or Spanish, and to make them do so would distract the reader and break the spell of the narrative.

      April 10, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
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