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Peterson's "Old Tongue (Mag Nuk)" essay (June 2015) archived copy

The Dragon Demands

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Peterson's old "Dothraki.com" website shut down, so I'm reposting this essay from it here for archival purposes:

Old Tongue (Mag Nuk)

We’re eight episodes into season 5 of Game of Thrones, and if you watched last night’s episode, you saw, among other things, a giant named Wun Wun—who spoke! For those wondering, yes, his utterances were linguistic (or were close, anyway), and, yes, I did create a language for the giants, though that’s all you’ll hear of it this season. In this post, I’ll give you a little background on it, but not much (I will explain why, though).

For readers of the book series, one question probably comes to mind first: Is this the Old Tongue? The answer: Kind of. I think George R. R. Martin explains it best himself (and these are words we should keep in mind throughout this post):


The giants are not literate, and, truth be told, are not all that bright either. They do speak the Old Tongue, after a fashion, but not well.

Given these marching orders, I crafted a language for the giants that fit the bill—not the Old Tongue, but Mag Nuk: The Great Tongue.

We know very little about the Old Tongue, and I was not tasked with creating it, in its purest form, so I devised a kind of rubric for deriving Mag Nuk from the Old Tongue, if it existed. The result is a pidgin, in one sense of the word. In this case, though, it’s not a pidgin because it hasn’t been spoken for very long, or because it’s a mixture of other languages: It’s a pidgin because it’s not a full language, and is not entirely consistent at any point. It’s a system of communication used by a race of creatures that simply don’t have the mental capacity of an ordinary human being, so they really took a bat to the Old Tongue.

Because I haven’t actually created the Old Tongue and we don’t know if we’ll see it in future books (or to what extent), I want to release very little about the language. I want to have as much latitude in reshaping Mag Nuk, should it be necessary, and that’s easiest to do if I keep things in house. Frankly, I think it’d be great to actually create the Old Tongue and hear it on screen, but given where we are in the story, I simply have no idea if it would even make sense. Dave and Dan might, but they haven’t told me anything about it. We’ll have to wait for more books or more seasons of the show to come out to know.

Some of the things I did with the language, though, I’ll tell you here. For example, whatever systems the Old Tongue had (noun declension, pluralization, verb tense, etc.), all of them are gone in Mag Nuk. Furthermore, all polysyllabic words have been cut down to a single syllable. In addition, the phonology of the language has been simplified. To give you one example that we can be fairly sure of, we know that skagos is “rock” in the Old Tongue. The Mag Nuk version is skag.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the line from last night’s episode as written, and then afterwards we’ll talk about what was actually said (coarse language incoming):

Lokh doys bar thol kif rukh?

Who/what fuck/shit you sit look it/him?

  • Derived from "Lokh doysen bar thol kifos rukh?"

You can probably figure out what I was doing grammatically there. Doys was supposed to be a general curse word (could mean anything), and lokh a general question word. The order is SVO, given the lack of inflection, but that’s not necessarily the order of the Old Tongue. The precise meanings of each of the Old Tongue words I’ll leave for later, but I did intend for the pronouns at least to hold up. We’ll see, though!

Anyway, if you go back and watch the episode, though, it’s pretty obvious that what Wun Wun says is three syllables long. What I believe (or would like to say I believe) I heard is the following:

Lokh kif rukh?

Who/what look it/him?

Derived from: "Lokh kifos rukh?"

If that’s the case, I have to say, I’m pretty pleased. I think it’s actually more simple—more giant-like—than what I originally had, which is in keeping with the spirit of how George R. R. Martin described the giants’ use of the Old Tongue. It’s even less language-y than my sentence, but there’s still some meaning you can recover from it. The important bits are there. Plus, the whole point of the thing is that it’s not consistent. This is inconsistent with what I’d written, but in a good way (i.e. the three most important bits are there). So, right on!

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I made a longer writeup about the Old Tongue on the TV wiki at the time, cross-referenced from some other sources:


The short version is this: Peterson wanted to take a crack at Old Tongue but knew he wouldn't be able to fully develop it for the TV show, so he used the giants as a loophole: the giants speak a simplified, pidgin version of Old Tongue due to their child-level intelligence (a sort of "you no take candle" level of broken-Old Tongue). Thus he could "introduce" a very simplified version of Old Tongue, lacking so many of the formal "grammar rules" of the full language that he feels free to reinvent the rules for a later prequel should the need arise. Which I think is an ingenious explanation.

This touches upon a question I myself asked Peterson back in 2013 via his blog, also archived at this link:


I was confused why in Season 3 Mance Rayder said that the wildlings speak "seven languages" (apparently including Common Tongue), when it should just be Common Tongue and Old Tongue.


 Do you know what it takes to unite ninety clans, half of whom want to massacre the other half for one insult or another? They speak seven different languages in my army. The Thenns hate the Hornfoots. The Hornfoots hate the ice-river clans. Everyone hates the cave people. So, you know how I got moon-worshippers and cannibals and giants to march together in the same army?

Peterson gave such a detailed response I think this is something he already put considerable thought into behind the scenes:


[How do we reconcile Mance's statement about 'seven languages'?] Very easily. Recall that GRRM’s narration is third person limited, and that the narrator is frequently wrong (e.g. when it’s with a character who believes that another character is dead when in fact they’re alive, the narrator will say things like, “With x dead, y now didn’t know what to do”, or the like, and it’s up to the reader to remember that x is not dead).

I never have a hard time believing that there’s more linguistic diversity where there’s said to be less.

For example, in Spain, it’s often said (by Castillian speakers) that everyone speaks Spanish, but that there are different “dialects”: Catalán, Galiciano, Basque (yes: there are some that will claim that Basque is nothing more than a dialect of Spanish). Given a name as fanciful as “the Old Tongue”, I’d have no trouble believing that “the Old Tongue” actually stood for four, five, six, ten, twelve languages.

So given their geographic isolation even from each other, Peterson feels that even among the wildlings - that is, the human wildlings not the giants - there's probably some drastically divergent dialects of Old Tongue, almost separate languages.

Costumer Michele Clapton later explained that she worked out SIX distinct sub-groups for the wildling army (including the giants), which matches up with the idea that there are six sub-groups who speak six sub-variants of the Old Tongue:

  • 1 - Wildlings from the Haunted Forest, y far the majority of wildlings, who wear heavy furs.
  • 2 - Wildlings from the coasts, who decorate their clothing with seashells, such as Karsi (the "Frozen Shore" tribes, though we saw no sled dogs).
  • 3 - Wildlings from up in the mountains, who decorate their clothing with bones, such as Rattleshirt and his followers.
  • 4 - The Cave People, who live inside the cave systems of the Frostfang Mountains, notable for wearing facepaint.
  • 5 - The Thenns, who practice scarification and can forge their own bronze, so they have their own metal armor, made of simple bronze disks strung together.
  • 6 - The non-human Giants, who just haphazardly wrap themselves in whatever bits of cloth, fur, or bone they can find.

That matches up but who knows if it's official. Again, the whole point was that Peterson just sketched out "Old Tongue" with the HEAVILY simplified sub-dialect that he came up with for the Giants, "Mag Nuk" ("the Great Tongue").

Whether there are six or seven or twelve other sub-variants among the human wildlings in book-canon is unknown. But even the books do say that the giants speak a more crude, simple version of Old Tongue, so "Mag Nuk" is basically "the giants' simplified version of Old Tongue").  

I don't know if we'd ever have a chance to see the wildlings again...MAYBE outside chance of a cameo in Season 7 or something of House of the Dragon, after the war when Cregan Stark has to deal with a new wildlings invasion during the Winter Fever.

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8 hours ago, The Dragon Demands said:
  • 2 - Wildlings from the coasts, who decorate their clothing with seashells, such as Karsi (the "Frozen Shore" tribes, though we saw no sled dogs).

I'm not an expert on sled dogs, but do the barking dogs at the Battle of Hardhome count? 

8 hours ago, The Dragon Demands said:
  • 5 - The Thenns, who practice scarification and can forge their own bronze, so they have their own metal armor, made of simple bronze disks strung together.

Scale armor? 

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