A Game of Tones: creating fictional languages

May 21, 2019

WARNING: Spoilers ahead!

It’s over. After eight seasons, Game of Thrones has come to an end. We saw two queens fall from grace, while another rose to power in the North; the last living Targaryen go into exile beyond the wall; and Tyrion convince everyone that Bran lay the most claim to the (obliterated) Iron Throne. Personally, I’m not very happy about the execution, but overall it felt like a fitting ending to the story.

Whether you were rooting for the Starks, the Lannisters, or the Targaryen(s), the discussion around the Game of Thrones ending isn’t likely to die out anytime soon. But the show leaves behind a legacy far greater than an avid fanbase and a large number of threads on Reddit. We have the television adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s sprawling series to thank for two new, albeit fictional, languages: High Valyrian and Dothraki.

Khaleesi, dracarys, and more

In the novels, Martin penned just a few specific isolated expressions in High Valyrian such as valar morghulis (all men must die) and dracarys (dragon fire) and scattered words in Dothraki. But Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss decided they wanted a fully formed language they could write dialogue in. So, in 2009, they held a Dothraki creation contest for members of the Language Creation Society.

As for the rules of the competition, they were simple: the fictional language had to match the terms coined by George R. R. Martin in the books and be easy enough for the actors to learn.

Enter David J. Peterson, First of His Name, Creator of Languages and Winner of Competitions.

He built the Dothraki language around the scarce material he got from the novels, but drew inspiration from real languages as well. Peterson was influenced by Swahilian noun formation, Estonian negative verb forms and used many more languages such as Russian, Turkish, and Inuktitut as references. But Dothraki doesn’t sound anything like these real languages. Peterson describes its sounds as a mix between Arabic, without the pharyngeal consonants, which are articulated primarily in the back of our throats, and Spanish, due to the dental consonants, the ones we pronounce by placing our tongue against our upper teeth.

There are 23 consonants and three vowels in Dothraki, three verb tenses and two imperatives that comply with the people’s command-issuing nature. Its grammar partly resembles that of English, particularly due to its subject-verb-object sentence structure, making it relatively easy to comprehend. As for the vocabulary, Peterson initially put together 1,700 words in Dothraki, which he further developed into 10,000.

But it wasn’t just the extensive vocabulary and grammar rules he put together that landed him the job. According to Weiss, he took a “truly anthropological approach to the language — taking into account the history, geography, and culture of the people who spoke this language, and making sure the language adequately reflected their reality.”

And the reality of the Dothraki is one of a nomadic horse-riding people, similar to the Mongols. They are split into several clans who travel together under a leader, but there is not one individual who rules over all the clans. Which is why there isn’t a direct translation for “throne” in Dothraki, for example. Peterson also didn’t include a word for “book” in his Dothraki vocabulary, as it is an unfamiliar concept to the fictional people, who have no writing system.

In addition to Dothraki, Peterson also developed the High Valyrian language for Season 3 of the show. But here, he took a different approach. High Valyrian is to the Game of Thrones universe what Latin is to our world; a dead language used exclusively by scholars and taught only to noblemen. Those who originally spoke it, the people of Valyria, ceased to exist long before the story in Game of Thrones takes place, so there was no living culture for Peterson to base the language on. Instead, he came up with only the relevant words to make up dialogue as needed on the show.

Much like Latin, High Valyrian evolved into ten distinct dialects and languages, known as a whole as Low Valyrian. They’re not as developed as the other two fictional languages created for the show. Instead, Peterson wrote down the necessary dialogue in High Valyrian, then applied a series of phonological, semantic, and grammatical changes to bring out the differences between the distinctive dialects.

Apart from taking into account the culture of the fictional people whose language he is developing, Peterson also likes to include bits of his personal life in the process. The High Valyrian word for “cat” is “kēli”, the name of his cat (Keli). And Erin, his wife’s name, makes an appearance in every language he creates. It’s Dothraki for “kind.”

A language that lives long and prospers

When it comes to inventing a language, there isn’t a textbook method to follow. Mark Okrand, more commonly known as the man who invented Klingon, agrees that what David J. Peterson did for Game of Thrones is a stellar example, because it thinks of the language as a whole, dependent of the people who speak it, their history and their culture. However, he didn’t follow the same process when working on his language for the Star Trek universe.

Klingon made its first appearance on screen, when Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out in 1979. It was James Doohan, who played Scotty in the movie, who came up with a few words in Klingon for Mark Lenard’s character. It was originally just gibberish intended to mark the difference between the Klingons and the other characters.

But for 1984’s Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Leonard Nimoy and writer-producer Harve Bennett wanted the humanoid warrior species to speak a proper language instead of random sounds. So they commissioned a full, structured language from linguist Marc Okrand, who had developed the four lines of Vulcan dialogue for the previous Star Trek movie.

For consistency’s sake, Okrand based the Klingon language on the phrases Doohan had come up with. From there, he set out to develop the language with the intent of making it sound as otherworldly and as unfamiliar to the human ear as possible. Okrand himself explains:

Human languages tend to be patterned. Certain sounds go together and certain others don’t. I violated these rules and put sounds in Klingon that shouldn’t be in the same language. There’s no sound in Klingon that you can’t find in some real language, but the collection of sounds is unique.

It is this collection of mostly guttural and harsh tones that characterizes Klingon. As an example, let’s take the letter combination “qx.” According to the Klingon Language Institute, to properly pronounce it, you have to “close off your mouth as far back as you can, like with ‘q,’ iand force air up, like you’re trying to dislodge food stuck in your throat.” The Klingon “q,” in case you’re wondering, is supposed to sound a little like you’re choking.

Equally unusual and typically Klingon is the sentence structure. As opposed to the most common subject-verb-object word order, Klingon prefers an object-verb-subject word order, a very rare option used only by a small number of tribes in the Americas.

Okrand didn’t really base his language on anything else other than wanting it to sound the most alien-like as it could be. He decided early on not to build any words or grammar rules on Klingon’s geography or culture, simply because he’s not a writer. He would let the movie creators and writers come up with the Klingons’ back story and focus solely on their language.

The lord of the words

J. R. R. Tolkien, on the other hand, did both. In fact, he created his fictional languages first and only then did he go on to write The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion for them to have a place to actually speak their language. In a letter to his son Christopher, from 1958, he explains:

Nobody believes me when I say that my long book [The Lord of the Rings] is an attempt to create a world in which a form of language agreeable to my personal aesthetic might seem real. But it is true.

Both in Game of Thrones and Star Trek, the fictional languages serve the purpose of granting authenticity to the worlds they’re set in, whereas in The Lord of the Rings, it is the fictional Middle Earth that gives meaning to the languages. If we think of the real languages humans speak, they evolve according to the history and culture of the people who speak them. Tolkien created his languages to behave the same way, so he needed the context to back them up.

Tolkien thought up languages for all the different peoples that appear in his novels, but devoted his work mostly to the Elvish languages, especially Qeenya and Sindarin. In the history of Middle Earth, both languages originate as part of the Elves moved to and settled in a different region while the others stayed behind.

Similarly to Game of Thrones High Valyrian, Quenya is considered the High Elvish language or the Elvish Latin, used exclusively as a formal language and in writing. It is greatly influenced by Finnish, one of Tolkien’s favorite languages. The most striking resemblance between both, and also the main feature of Quenya, is their agglutinative nature, meaning that multiple affixes can be added to words to change their significance. Hence, one word in Quenya might mean the same as a whole sentence in English.

The common tongue spoken by the Elves is Sindarin. It is highly shaped by one of Tolkien’s other favorite languages, Welsh. It was designed to have a Welsh-like phonology, or sound system, in which almost all sounds are the same across both languages. A part of Sindarin grammar is also based on Welsh grammar.

As a philologist and academic first and foremost, with a great passion for all sorts of languages, it is no surprise that Tolkien drew inspiration from his favorite languages to create new ones that match his taste and personal aesthetic. It is also no wonder that he even invented a writing system that better suited his fictional languages. The Tengwar, or the Fëanorian Characters, is a script system invented in Tolkien’s mythical world by the elf Fëanor, that can be used to write most languages, including Quenya and Sindarin. In reality, it was developed by Tolkien between the 1920s and the 1930s. Its most prominent trait is that “the shapes of the letters correspond to the features of the sounds they represent.”

The need for fictional languages

Even though Tolkien is often credited as the pioneer of language invention, history shows that the practice goes way back to the 12th century when St. Hildegard of Bingen recorded the Lingua Ignota, believed to be the first entirely constructed language. Sometimes artificial languages even catch on — think of Esperanto, an artificial language created by L.L. Zamenhof, who sought a single language to accelerate global peace and unification.

More recently, fictional or constructed languages rose to fame thanks to popular culture. Game of Thrones, Star Trek and The Lord of the Rings might be the first that come to mind, but many other Hollywood productions have commissioned linguists to create fictional languages for them.

James Cameron’s Avatar has Na’vi, an alien language developed by Paul Frommer; in Marvel’s Thor: The Dark world, we hear the Dark Elves speaking Shiväisith, and in Doctor Strange there is a special incantation-casting language called Nelvayu, both invented by David J. Peterson. He also developed Verbis Diablo for the witches and demons in Penny Dreadful, came up with Trigadesleng, the language spoken by the Grounders in the science fiction TV show The 100 and the five different fictional languages we hear in Defiance.

The number of fictional languages created for movies and TV shows is likely to keep increasing. And not only because it makes the stories being told feel more authentic. For decades, viewers were content in seeing mythical or alien species speak in a language they would understand, but they are becoming ever so demanding that watching the inhabitants of a different galaxy deliver lines in English won’t cut it anymore. People are also getting increasingly more involved with the cultural products they watch. Hamlet has been translated into Klingon, for example, and more people are learning High Valyrian on Duolingo than those who understand and speak Scottish Gaelic or Welsh.

Learning to speak the languages of our favorite fictional characters is much of an advantage when it comes to knowing a second language. It certainly won’t help to know Dothraki, in most cases, during a job interview. But it’s a way of becoming closer to the culture and the fictional world those languages exist in, and helping their legacy live on.

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