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Westeros Blog: Dothraki Language for Game of Thrones

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HBO has sent out a press release concerning the Language Creation Society, which was hired to created the Dothraki language as shown in HBO’s Game of Thrones. That the producers had hired a linguist to develop the Dothraki language for the pilot has been previously reported at the time that the pilot was being filmed in Northern Ireland. The press release, with additional details and commentary, follows:

For Immediate Release April 12, 2010

EXPERT CREATES LANGUAGE FOR NEW HBO SERIES GAME OF THRONES

David J. Peterson, an expert language creator from the Language Creation Society (LCS), has been chosen to create the Dothraki language for HBO’s upcoming fantasy series GAME OF THRONES, based on the book series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” by George R.R. Martin.

When GAME OF THRONES executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss needed a language for the Dothraki, Martin’s race of nomadic warriors, they turned to the Language Creation Society. The LCS solicited and vetted a number of proposals for the Dothraki language from its pool of experts, with Peterson’s proposal ultimately being selected by the GAME OF THRONES production team.

Peterson drew inspiration from George R.R. Martin’s description of the language, as well as from such languages as Russian, Turkish, Estonian, Inuktitut and Swahili. However, the Dothraki language is no mere hodgepodge, babble or pidgin. It has its own unique sound, extensive vocabulary of more than 1,800 words and complex grammatical structure.

“In designing Dothraki, I wanted to remain as faithful as possible to the extant material in George R.R. Martin’s series,” says Peterson. “Though there isn’t a lot of data, there is evidence of a dominant word order [subject-verb-object], of adjectives appearing after nouns, and of the lack of a copula [‘to be’]. I’ve remained faithful to these elements, creating a sound aesthetic that will be familiar to readers, while giving the language depth and authenticity. My fondest desire is for fans of the series to look at a word from the Dothraki language and be unable to tell if it came from the books or from me — and for viewers not even to realize it’s a constructed language.”

“We’re tremendously excited to be working with David and the LCS,” says producer D.B. Weiss. “The language he’s devised is phenomenal. It captures the essence of the Dothraki, and brings another level of richness to their world. We look forward to his first collection of Dothraki love sonnets.”

Did you know? (Hash yer ray nesi?)

The name for the Dothraki people — and their language — derives from the verb “dothralat” (“to ride”).

The Dothraki have four different words for “carry,” three for “push,” three for “pull” and at least eight for “horse,” but no word that means “please” or “follow.”

The longest word in Dothraki is “athastokhdeveshizaroon,” which means “from nonsense.”

The words for “related,” “weighted net,” “eclipse,” “dispute,” “redhead,” “oath,” “funeral pyre,” “evidence,” “omen,” “fang” and “harvest moon” all have one element in common: “qoy,” the Dothraki word for “blood.”

Dothraki for “to dream” – “thirat atthiraride” – literally means “to live a wooden life”; in Dothraki, “wooden” (“ido”) is synonymous with “fake.”

The word for “pride” – “athjahakar” – is derived from “jahak,” the traditional long braid worn by Dothraki warriors (“lajaki”).

More information about the Dothraki language (and their love poems) will be released over the course of the series.

From a fan perspective, this latest news is quite remarkable because it shows the degree to which the producers envision the series as an immersive experience, bringing viewers into the living, breathing world of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. The novels only feature a handful of words and phrases in the Dothraki language, as Martin has noted he’s not a linguist and only creates words when he needs them. The television show is apparently intent on extending this, in a way not dissimilar to how the Klingon language was created around the nucleus of a handful of phrases written by James Doohan for the Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

The number of words reported—1,800, with a detailed grammar—is said to be right in line with “language that is actually meant to be used to communicate.”

We believe we’ve discovered the original call for submissions sent to the conlang community. It was first posted on September 4, 2009. One can see that the details fit the series: graphic violence, a fantasy setting with some prepared vocabulary, a pilot with the possibility of 10-12 episodes a season. According to this page, David Peterson provided the most interesting proposal but other names are mentioned.. One leaps out at us: Bill Welden, a Tolkienian language expert who was involved in The Lord of the Rings films. On his Livejournal, Peterson wrote at the end of 2009 of 2009 that the, “biggest bit of unexpected news was the television job to create a language. Still can’t wait to say more about that. Come March, I should be able to say everything. This project, though, cut into my August, September, October and November.” He had posted some additional information at the start of November:

But, of course, the largest enterprise I undertook over the course of the last month (two months, really) was I applied for a job posted by the LCS. Without going into details, the job was to create a language for an upcoming television show. The application process was exhausting (took most of my free time for the past two months), and there were a ton of excellent conlangers applying. At the beginning of this month, I was informed that I’d moved onto the final round, and this past Friday, I was informed that I’d won.

....

Until someone somewhere leaks the information, or I’m given the okay by the network, I signed a thing saying I wouldn’t say anything about the series, so all I can say for now is that it’s a major TV network, and the show is, at this point in time, guaranteed a pilot (and I’m guaranteed work for the pilot). If the pilot is picked up, the show will get a one season run, and I’m guaranteed work for the first season. Thereafter, I imagine it will depend on the show’s popularity, the quality of my work, and the direction of the show. Still and all, very exciting!

On December 2nd he remarked that the job proved to be less work-intensive than he had expected, suggesting that the amount of Dothraki used in the pilot is not as great as first envisioned; or at least, the amount of work that went into preparing the “artistic language” for the show was greater than what ended up on screen to start with. Examples of Peterson’s constructed languages can be found at his page on the Language Creation Society website.

The Language Creation Society was founded in 2006 and it seems they offer language creation services for television, film, fiction, and other endeavors, with Game of Thrones appearing to be their first major client.

Visit the Site!

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This is kinda cool, in the ubergeek way. James Poniewozik of Time.com wondered how you say "geekgasm" in Dothraki. A salient question. ;)

I've seen someone wondering why so much effort in Dothraki, but besides the general sense of creating ambiance -- Dany is supposed to be surrounded by this language on a daily basis -- I think it shows that Dany will probably see the most new, original scenes of any character, to help keep the story thread going over 10 episodes and to build up the relationship between Drogo and herself further.

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I too had a serious geekgasm when I read this. :bowdown:

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This stuff is awesome.

They're going to have to do this for Valyian, eventually, and the bastardized versions spoken all over the Free Cities. Don't they speak versions of it in the Slaver cities, too? Or was that some version of the Ghiscari language?

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I've seen someone wondering why so much effort in Dothraki, but besides the general sense of creating ambiance -- Dany is supposed to be surrounded by this language on a daily basis

This reminds me of something. How are they going to show the transition of Dany from non-speaker to fluent in Dothraki? I am assuming that, in the beginning, they will have Drogo and others speaking only Dothraki with subtitles. This way we understand there is a language barrier there. But once Dany becomes fluent what will they do? I can't imagine they will have all the Essos characters speaking Dothraki and just subtitle everything. My guess is that they will have everyone speak English, thereby rendering the invented Dothraki language less useful in later seasons.

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Brude,

The Ghiscari speak a dialect of High Valyrian, so yeah. High Valyrian and then various flavors of vulgar Valyrian would be potentially quite useful if they want to keep the same vibe.

The LCS website contains some interesting information on process and costs for this sort of work. I'm most impressed by the 1,800 words, because it sounds like you really would be able to hold basic conversation with this if that quote I pulled is right.

Halfhand,

Good question. Be interesting to learn the answer. Planning to poke around and see what there is to find. :)

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I suspect while Dany is speaking with her hand maidens, and maybe her Bloodriders, too, she could be speaking in English, while they all speak heavily accented English. But probably most other dealings, or everything spoken by those around her would be in Dothraki. Reading the requirements from the initial (likely) call for submissions from LCS, that's what it sounds like to me.

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I suspect while Dany is speaking with her hand maidens, and maybe her Bloodriders, too, she could be speaking in English, while they all speak heavily accented English. But probably most other dealings, or everything spoken by those around her would be in Dothraki. Reading the requirements from the initial (likely) call for submissions from LCS, that's what it sounds like to me.

Yes, the call Westeros linked is legit.

We provide the studio with full translations, half-grammatical translations (e.g. for foreigners w/ bad Dothraki skill), and Dothraki-accented English instructions. As for how they choose to eventually portray it, that's their call; talk to Dan & David.

We just give them the options. ;)

-Sai

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We provide the studio with full translations, half-grammatical translations (e.g. for foreigners w/ bad Dothraki skill), and Dothraki-accented English instructions. As for how they choose to eventually portray it, that's their call; talk to Dan & David.

I guess that gives them the chance to mix and match, however they think it will work best for the scene.

Very neat...'it is known.'

Edit: Oh, and welcome to the Westeros community, LCS. We will try not to be too scary.

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David has been so kind as to create a Live Journal account for news and published information on Dothraki. Check it out here.

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I always liked the way it was handled in The 13th Warrior, 1:40 mark to 3:40 mark (underrated movie, btw); before that scene everything the Vikings said was incomprehensible to the main character and to me (not sure if a Scandinavian would've understood it or if it was true gibberish though), but after that scene everything they said was in English to show that the main character had learned the language. Maybe a similar (longer?) sort of scene could play out during the time after Dany and Drogo marry? If so they could do something like where if Viserys is on screen but Dany isn't the actors could be speaking Dothraki to show that he isn't bothering to learn?

I suspect while Dany is speaking with her hand maidens, and maybe her Bloodriders, too, she could be speaking in English, while they all speak heavily accented English. But probably most other dealings, or everything spoken by those around her would be in Dothraki. Reading the requirements from the initial (likely) call for submissions from LCS, that's what it sounds like to me.

That works too of course, and would let them really get to utilize the language.

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I may as well add here my comments on Wert's blog.

"Hey! That's NOT terrible news!

Sorry, it's just that ever since hearing that the LCS was going to be in charge (and hearing the pitch from HBO), I assumed that the end-product would be ghastly, but Peterson's actually quite respectable as conlangers go (can't say I've ever been struck by any of his languages, and I don't know him well, but he does seem to know what he's talking about). So maybe this won't be embarrassing...

[Admission: half of me really wanted to apply for the job, since it would be a dream come true (not literally - but it would have been a great thrill). But I knew I wouldn't get it - I conlang, a lot, but I have no finished conlang to show, and judging by the HBO pitch, I don't think that showing off my flashy deictic systems would have impressed them much. They seemed more interested in sound aesthetics, and frankly phonology bores me. To be honest, I suspect the job was awarded on the basis of, essentially, roulette (I question whether they can tell good conlangs from bad), and so I'm greatly glad that it has gone to somebody deserving.]

Noooo, I'm not bitter and jealous at all!"

and:

"[i should clarify, by the way, that the 'LCS' is a somewhat controversial thing in the community - it is accused of being a vanity project for the creator, and being more interested in publicity and 'respectability' in academic circles than really with the art itself, and there is considerable hostility to the creator's perceived attempts to hijack and appropriate the conlanging community, becoming its mouthpiece to the external world.

This is an example of that process - the LCS was essentially the advertising agency (with its own cut, which was rather pointless since the community is pretty small and a few minutes research could have let HBO post to the same handful of places as the LCS did anyway), but managed to get both money and prestige out of it. I know several conlangers refused to participate just because the LCS was involved in the process.

Myself, I wouldn't go that far: the LCS can do good things, and it's probably good for us to have a spokesman to the outside world, even if we don't really like the spokesman himself. The 'Language Creation Conferences' or whatever he calls them are also a good idea, in terms of getting together conlangers - informal meets haven't been common for several years now, unfortunately (being a small community, we're greatly at the mercy of group dynamics on our handful of forums and lists, and things aren't as meety-uppy as they were some years ago - and in any case, looking at the last one, it seems they've been able to reach out to bring in people who aren't part of the orthodox community, but who have interests in the area, particularly those who come at it from different perspectives from the rest of us.

Anyway, just wanted to explain that note of tension in my first comment, for outsiders - the LCS is a small, young, self-proclaimed organisation that's quite different in format and ethos from a lot of the more 'traditional' community - although to be fair, I believe they are more popular with some of the crowd on e-mail lists.

OK, enough politics]"

---

I would perhaps have phrased that differently if Sai had been there, but I think it's fair and balanced anyway.

----

Oh, and while we have the attention of the non-conlanging populace, perhaps a little pimping might be allowed? The ZBB is the traditional home of conlanging in a forum structure (although there are now alternatives, such as the CBB), while the Conlang Mailing List is the big alternative. There are also mailing lists for more specific genres (iirc the one for constructed Romance languages is fairly popular), and a whole load of wikis and the like. It's usually said that the ZBB is more approachable, while the List is more on the linguistics side, although this isn't a strict distinction. Also, as a result, the atmosphere on the ZBB can get a little silly, which in return has produced a bit of hostility toward newbs who don't do their research before asking questions, or who act too childishly. But if you're polite and sober, we don't usually bite. The CBB aims to be more friendly and inclusive, although old guard like me would say that this means its less helpful and better for mutual compliments than for assistance.

If you're thinking of making your own language, it's customary to point you to the Language Construction Kit, which is now out in a massively expanded, revised dead-tree version, which you can find on the US version of Amazon. Pablo Flores' guide covers much of the same ground, is a little denser iirc but goes a little further, and is a good backup. Ardalambion is a resource on Tolkien's languages, which can act as inspiration. After that, you're on to more specific resources, such as Rick Morneau's introduction to aspect, and David Peterson's own introduction to ergativity. Then the joys of books and articles! Google is our friend.

OK, pimping over. Hope that wasn't too illegal here.

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Just heard the audio, and wow. Also browsed the forums Wastrel posted. This is the first time I've heard of conlang so thanks, ASOIAF! :thumbsup: I always admire/envy people who can do work like this. :bowdown: Geekgasm indeed.

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Wow. Thanks for the info Wastrel. Even with language creation, there is so much going on under the surface!

And welcome LCS. I hope you have a lot of fun with the project.

Really cool news. :)

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I can't believe I didn't know there was a Language Creation Society before I heard this news. Totally geeking out right now.

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