Game of Thrones’ language creator, David J. Peterson, details his extraordinary career as Hollywood’s linguist-in-chief
Best known for creating the fictional languages for hit series such as Game of Thrones, Defiance, and The 100, Peterson talks to Judy Heflin about his journey to mainstream success in language creation and his upcoming book, The Art of Language Invention.
Language Magazine: Can you give a brief summary of constructed language and how it’s different from natural language? When people think of constructed language they often also think of Hebrew and Hawaiian, but you say in your book that those don’t technically count as constructed languages.
David J. Peterson: No, definitely not. A constructed language is any language which is consciously constructed by one or more people. In the case of Modern Hawaiian and Modern Hebrew, that was really just a very successful revitalization effort. These are languages that did exist at one point in time, that did have fluent speakers, and did have full systems in place, but they died out a little bit—not completely, I wouldn’t say they went extinct. Those are examples of extremely successful revitalization efforts, definitely more successful in the case of Modern Hebrew than of Modern Hawaiian. Now, naturally, the languages aren’t going to look the same today as they did back then, but no languages do, all languages change, and every so often a language will have some sort of a modern intervention. You know, we got a ton of vocabulary from Shakespearian English, and there was a fellow who in 1900 wrote an Estonian dictionary—he was an Estonian speaker who just whole-cloth created whole swaths of words. More than a thousand, I think, and many of them actually ended up sticking around in the language. Still, that’s just not the same thing as creating a language, starting off with a concept and creating every single bit of the grammar, every single one of the words, and doing so very deliberately with the intention of creating something new that hasn’t existed before. That, I think, is the real difference between constructed language and natural language.
LM: Within constructed language, or what you call in the book conlang, there are subdivisions that you mention such as artlang, auxlang, and engeleng. Can you describe those as well?
DJP: Yes, so constructed languages, we divide them up based on their general purposes. That is, whenever you sit down to create a language, there has to be some sort of reason that you’re doing it. The reasons are going to really strongly dictate what exactly you’re doing when you’re creating a language. So, for example, sometimes people will create a language that they just want to use in their daily lives, in which case you’re probably not dealing a lot with fictional speakers or fictional histories. You’re dealing with your own real life and coming up with lexical concepts that make sense to you and are useful to you in your daily life. So you’ll have plenty of words for “cell phone,” and “email,” and “movie,” and things like that. Whereas if you’re creating what we call an artlang, or artistic language, this will be different.
There are many different types of artistic languages, but one subbranch of artistic language is the naturalistic language—that is, creating a language that looks as if it could have existed on the planet somewhere and could have evolved in the mouths of millions of speakers like our languages do on Earth. In that case, what you’re trying to achieve is verisimilitude with the languages that we speak today. So you’re trying intentionally to create a fictional history over thousands of years, fictional sound changes, fictional grammatical changes, fictional lexical changes, in addition to the fictional culture that your speakers have created. The end result of that should hopefully be a language that a linguist could look at and they would not be able to tell if it actually was a natural language here on Earth or a constructed language.
Then there are still different goals that language creators have. When language creators create an engeleng, or engineered language, usually they have identified some sort of linguistic goal or linguistic quirk that no natural language takes advantage of, and they try to create a language specifically to reify that quirk. For example, John Quijada’s Ithkuil is a language that tries to be as precise as possible and as unambiguous as possible in as small a space as possible. The result is a language whose phonology is extremely large and complex, making distinctions that few, if any, natural languages do, and a grammar that is more precise than any language on Earth. The result is also a language that is nearly unpronounceable and very difficult to use. It is definitely the farthest thing from a natural language that one can imagine. It takes John a couple of hours to compose a single sentence in Ithkuil, but for someone like me it might take a couple of days, and even then I might not do it right. It’s very, very difficult to use, but that’s just something that language creators can do. They can try to test things out that would never occur in a natural language, and then, beyond that, sometimes people just create languages for fun. They create parody languages or joke languages or languages that are purely visual and artistic in a really abstract sense. Like, I saw somebody who created a language, or kind of a language I guess, that was just three symbols. It involved a program that caused these symbols to shift and recombine in various ways, and you just kind of stare at it and see what you see.
LM: I read something lately about a language that only had positive words, so when you use it you’re supposed to be forced to look at things in a positive way.
DJP: Which is silly, but yes, there’s actually a subclass of languages called minimalist languages, and there have been many of those. I actually created one myself in 2001 where the goal was to come up with a word list, just like nouns and verbs and a very small closed class of pronouns and a couple prepositions, no more than 200–300 words, without any grammar. The goal was to just use those words to communicate, producing what grammar you could, but only using that word list. Those types of things are fun language experiments.
LM: Do you speak a natural language other than English fluently?
DJP: I’m not perfectly bilingual, but I’m a heritage speaker of Spanish. I’m half Mexican, and the only family I knew was from Mexico.
LM: So learning a language in school wasn’t what started your passion for languages?
DJP: No, it happened probably when I was about 17, I just woke up one morning and was really ashamed that I didn’t speak French and that there were millions of people who spoke French. So I was determined to learn as many languages as I could, and I set about it right then. I started with French. I gave it a go, but I didn’t realize in the beginning that French is pronounced differently from Spanish. I started working on it with my girlfriend at the time, who spoke French, and she was laughing at me as I was trying to pronounce it. After that, I just started learning languages for fun. I started studying Latin on my own. I was taking German in addition to AP Spanish at my high school, and in college I took Arabic, Russian, Esperanto, Middle Egyptian, and an actual French class, and then moving on I took American Sign Language, and then I started to study more languages on my own, like Hawaiian, Turkish, Akkadian, Hindi, Attic Greek, Modern Greek, and Japanese.
LM: Do you have a favorite natural language?
DJP: Yes, Hawaiian. It’s perfect, there’s never been a better language. It’s wonderful. I would love to speak Hawaiian fluently.
LM: You talk a lot in your book about the brand identity of languages. What would you say the brand identity of Hawaiian is?
DJP: For Hawaiian, the brand identity definitely lies in its phonology. If you’re looking at Hawaiian grammatically, you’re basically looking at any other Polynesian language. They’re all very similar in terms of grammar.
Hawaiian’s phonology, though, is so interesting because, depending on how you analyze w, there’s only one fricative, and it’s h. Then you have the glottal stop. You have no t, at least in most dialects of Hawaiian, and you have this really minimalist sound that is not so heavy on the alveolars. The alveolar region for languages is really productive, it’s where you get t, d, s, z, r, l, and n, all of these really heavy hitters, and in Hawaiian you just have n and l and that’s it. So it’s a very distinctive sound. Even a language like Rotokas, which only has six consonants, has a very even spread amongst labial, alveolar, and velar sounds. So Hawaiian’s sound has a really lovely, distinct flavor.
LM: Do you have a favorite Hawaiian word?
DJP: I don’t know if it’s my favorite, but one of the funnier ones is mania, which is spelled exactly likemania in English, but it’s a native Hawaiian word that means “the feeling that you get in your stomach when you’re standing on a very high cliff.”
LM: Something that was interesting to me about your book was thinking of language as a cultural categorization of sound. You say that when creating languages you like to start with sound. Why is this usually your starting point?
DJP: I think that in studying language and in creating language, morphology is the most interesting to me and the thing that I most like to create. I like to create systems, especially nominal systems, and phonology is the easiest. For me, [sound] helps to ground the language in some sort of reality. You can’t just sit around playing with abstract grammatical forms unless they have some sort of phonological realization. I need that in order to progress with my work, so I have to start there. Even if I start off with a grammatical idea, I end up just making up some fake forms to start with and work with something before I go back and do the full phonology.
LM: Can you give a general summary of how you took the few Dothraki words that George R. R. Martin provided you with in his books and made them into a full language that people actually use and learn and add to?
DJP: The first step was rounding up all the words he had created. It wasn’t too hard, because there were only 56 and a good number of them were names. Once I had the 56 words and names, I wrote them all down and figured out how they should be pronounced based on how I thought the readers thought they would be pronounced and that it was supposed to be a foreign-sounding language to English speakers. So I analyzed all of that and charted out the phonology that had to exist to support those words. I saw where the gaps were and filled them in if I felt they needed to be filled in. Once I had done that, I went back to the words, and to every place that there were two words that had some sort of a meaning, I analyzed the grammar. What I found was that the material there supported a strongly head-initial language where the verb comes before the object, the noun comes before the adjective, and there are prepositions and so forth. Then, I went about filling out the rest of the language with the understanding that it was going to be a head-initial language. Those were the first steps, but after, that I could just do what I do as a language creator. I decided what I wanted the grammar to be like, provided that all of the stuff in there still worked. I decided what new words there were going to be and just went from there.
LM: Is Dothraki more developed than other Game of Thrones languages, since you’ve been working on it longer? As opposed to, for example, Valyrian?
DJP: Dothraki definitely does have more vocabulary. The grammars, I’d say are both complete, but yes, Dothraki has more vocabulary than High Valyrian. It’s interesting, because Dothraki ended up dropping out of the show entirely and in season five it was just Valyrian, but next season Dothraki is coming back in a really, really big way.
LM: Do you have a Dothraki word you’re most proud of?
DJP: For Dothraki, I don’t really have a favorite word. There are a couple that I really like, but there are always some I forget. The work that I do for these shows involves translating English-language material that is given to me in scripts, and everything else that I do is just done on my own time. They pay me to create a language, but all they care about is that the material gets translated; they don’t necessarily care about the work that goes into it. They appreciate that it’s done, but however long it takes me and whatever I do, that’s just me. So, when I get these English-language scripts, I’m translating those words. I create the languages and I end up creating all of these words, some of which I’m really proud of and are very unique to these fictional cultures, but when you’re translating from something else, none of those words ever come into play. It’s kind of a weird thing, because these speakers are not supposed to be speaking a translated version of English, they’re supposed to be coming up with the words on their own, and that’s really difficult to do, because none of those native concepts that I’m coming up with really occur to you when you’re translating the English.
I’ll go through my dictionaries sometimes, just periodically looking for a word, and then I see another word nearby and I’m like, “Wow! That was the best word but I don’t have a cause to use it right now.” And it’s hard to come up with a cause to use it. So, using Dothraki as an example, of the 4,000 words I’ve created, if you look at all of the translated material in Dothraki in Game of Thrones, I probably use like a quarter of the existing words, if that. There’s a whole host of words I never use and which probably aren’t going to come up when translating things. Some are in the Dothraki Living Language pack. That was a nice place to show off some of the words that I liked.
I’ve said elsewhere that I always want to try to come up with something novel, but it’s really hard to do. So, like, lanlekhi is the sensation when you eat something and you take one bite of it, but you can’t really just take one bite, you’ve got to take several to get your fill of that flavor. Lanlekhi directly translates to “tongue run.” I also like the word for “dream” I came up with, atthirarido, which directly translates to “to live a wooden life.” The way that that works is that the word for “wooden” (ido) doubles as the word for “fake,” and that came from weaponry, where a real weapon is made out of metal and a fake one is made out of wood, so “wood” came to also mean “fake.” Then with dreams, I figured that when you’re in a dream you don’t have any memory of your other life, it feels like that’s it, and so to dream is essentially to live a fake (ido) life (atthirar). So there is this whole second layer of meaning that’s available to fans if they’re interested.
LM: Do you still make your own languages for fun?
DJP: At this stage, no, I don’t have any time for my own languages; they’re all the languages I’ve created for shows and things, which is kind of sad, but all of my old languages are still there for me. I’ll get back to them. Especially my language Kamakawi, which I love. I’m definitely going to get back to that. Of the languages that I created beforehand, Kamakawi is definitely my favorite. It was clearly inspired by Hawaiian, but that’s fine, you can’t get enough of Hawaiian. I think that the writing system that I did for Kamakawi is still one of my proudest achievements as a language creator. I really like the Kamakawi writing system because of what it is and its complexity, but it’s probably not my favorite to write—it’s pretty difficult, actually. Probably the one that’s easiest for me to write is Castithan, which is a language I created for Defiance. Of the languages I’ve created for shows, I’d say that Irathient is my overall favorite. It’s another one of the languages I created for Defiance, and it’s just a lot of fun to speak.
LM: What role do you think that constructed languages have in the modern world?
DJP: Constructed languages play the same role in the modern world that any other piece of art does. In the grand scheme of things, is it important? I suppose it’s as important as painting. Is painting important? It’s not curing cancer—paintings themselves are just objects that sit there, really—but at the same time, the content of the painting can evoke within one certain emotions that probably would not have been there if you hadn’t seen it. One’s own emotions, one’s own state of mind can lead you to effect real change in the world. I suppose that is really the point of art, and therein lies the point of language creation. With a language, any language, you learn to see the world from a different perspective. A language creator then has the opportunity to craft a new perspective or a new worldview and to do so deliberately for whatever purpose they intend. So that’s really the point, in my mind, it’s not to have a bunch of people speak the language instead of speaking something else.
Judy Heflin interviewed David J. Peterson in Los Angeles in August 2015.