Entertainment

Meet the man who tells Game of Thrones how to speak Dothraki

David Peterson had been creating a new language every few years, for fun, when he was offered a chance by HBO to write the on-screen version of Dothraki, one of the tongues spoken on Game of Thrones.

'Constructed' language is so popular, says originator, fans are now correcting him

David Peterson had been creating a new language every few years, for fun, when he was offered a chance by HBO to write the on-screen version of Dothraki, one of the tongues spoken on the hit fantasy series Game of Thrones. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

The illustrated novella is colourful, the drawings simple, like a children's book. The pictures are familiar — knights, a damsel in distress — but the squiggles inside are illegible to anyone but David J. Peterson.

It's written in a language called Megdevi. 

Peterson picks up the book and begins to read. He stumbles over words and shakes his head. The language is, of course, unrecognizable; Peterson made it up 16 years ago as a young linguistics student. It's also terrible, he admits. Which he suddenly realized after spending almost two years creating it.

"I was like 'Wow, this is just garbage,'" Peterson says. "'This is total garbage.' And so I stopped right then and started creating a new language that was slightly better."

Every couple of years, he'd finish a new language. Then trash it, then invent a new one. It's called "conlanging" — a verb made up of "constructed" and "language." He kept at it quietly, for fun, until 2009.

That's when HBO contacted the Language Creation Society, of which he was co-founder, with an intriguing offer. They wanted to run a contest to find someone who could create a whole new language for one of the network's shows.

"An opportunity like that is completely unheard of," Peterson says. "Before 2009, there were probably five or six of these jobs. Ever."

Eventually the name of the show was revealed: it was called Game of Thrones, based on the popular fantasy series by George R.R. Martin, which Peterson hadn't read. And the language was called Dothraki.

Peterson's first constructed language, Megdevi, was 'total garbage' he now says. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Arabic plus Spanish

"After about two rounds of judging, I was the one that emerged as the victor," Peterson says. "The producers chose my version of Dothraki, and then I started working on the show. And when it got picked up as a series I continued to work on it. And I've been working on it ever since."

Unlike Peterson's previous created languages, Dothraki didn't spring entirely from his imagination. Peterson says there were about 50 Dothraki words or phrases in the Game of Thrones books. The language is named for the fearsome nomadic warriors — similar in some ways to the Mongols — who roam the eastern half of the fantasy show's fictional world. 

"Any time you have two words next to each other that have some sort of meaning, that tells you something about the grammar of the language," Peterson says.

Studying the few Dothraki phrases in the book, he noticed that the important word came first, then the modifier.

In English "it's 'black cat.' German is schwarze katze. In Spanish it's gato negro, where 'black' comes second. That's more what it was like," he says. 

"So I said, all right, I had to do that, but after that I get to do what I want. As long as it was keeping in character with what was in the books."

I ask Peterson to describe the sound of his Dothraki.

"The way I would describe the sound is kind of like Arabic plus Spanish divided by two," Peterson says and laughs. "That's the way I think of it. When you have H that can come at the end of a syllable, H that can come at the end of a word, you have a voiceless uvular stop 'kha' which is a little further back than a K.

"Then from Spanish you have the consecutive vowels. So 'to the mountain' you get krazaajaan, you get these consecutive A sounds without anything in between.

"And that to me is very reminiscent of Spanish. To me it always sounds like a very nice language, a very 'homy' language. Because it has the familiarity of Spanish which I grew up with, and the beauty of Arabic, which I love."

He was later tapped to create another language, High Valyrian; a dead tongue sometimes spoken by the show's elites and scholars. 

Dothraki is named for the fearsome nomadic warriors — similar to the Mongols — who roam the eastern half of the fantasy world of Game of Thrones. (HBO)

Syllable by syllable

The process of creating the Dothraki and High Valyrian on Game of Thrones, he says, is unique. He says the writers send him all the scripts at the same time, around the end of June or July. 

"And they tag all the lines that are going to be translated, and they tell me which languages they're supposed to be translated in," Peterson says. "It's fantastic. It takes me a few weeks, maybe a month, and then I send it all back."

Peterson says the actors get the scripts and translation months before shooting. And he gives them much more than just the lines in Dothraki or High Valyrian.

Dothraki now comprises more than 3,000 words and was codified in Peterson's 2014 book Living Language Dothraki. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"I get the line, I write it down, I write the translation, I do a syllable by syllable breakdown so the actors can see what syllables get the main stress," Peterson says. "And then I do a word-for-word gloss so the actors can see which word means what. And then I record every single line on MP3 and I send it off."

Dothraki has now grown to a language comprising more than 3,000 words. It's been codified in a book Peterson published in 2014 entitled Living Language Dothraki. The language is now so popular, whenever an actor messes up a word, Peterson immediately hears about it.

"It's usually the next day that fans come with a list of errors in the show," Peterson says. "Every single error is always spotted the very next day. There's never been an episode of any show where there haven't been mistakes in the created languages.

"But the only way to prevent that is to have me there on set for every single take, and to stop it every single time there's a mistake. And I think if I ever did that, I think I'd probably be strung up by the actors." 

Peterson was also tapped to create the on-screen version of High Valyrian, a dead language sometimes spoken by rulers and scholars on Game of Thrones. (Keith Bernstein, Canadian Press, AP, HBO)

Modest expecations

Fans are so passionate, their knowledge of Dothraki at times rivals Peterson's own.

"Some people are even better at it than I am," he admits. "Sometimes they spot an error and it's my error. But I just say 'Oh, the actors screwed that up.'" He laughs.

When Peterson began working on the show in 2009, his expectations were modest. He hoped the series could eventually become as popular as True Blood, a dark fantasy which ran from 2008-14. It was HBO's most watched series since The Sopranos.

"I certainly never thought that it would be bigger than The Sopranos, that it would be a world-wide phenomenon. That's really strange. Especially considering how it all started out. It feels so big that you're just kind of holding onto the reins and just barely keeping with it. But it's fun. It's wild more than anything else."

He says the popularity of Game of Thrones — and of Dothraki — will mean a huge boost to conlang. Peterson points to a sign of its growing influence: last year the word "conlang" was accepted into the Oxford Dictionary.

"So now you can look it up and it's there," Peterson says. "There are people who create languages all over the world, and have been doing this over many many years, and their work is valuable and worth examining. It always had this potential. It just never had a megaphone."

About the Author

Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.

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