Made For TV: GOT, Conlangs & Dothraki

Posted by Jamie Balkin

According to Nielsen’s “live plus same- day numbers,” this past Sunday’s Game of Thrones Season 5 finale attracted an outstanding 8.1 million viewers. This number is record-breaking for an HBO series, despite the fact that the show has maintained an enormous following since its inception.  For those of you not on the “GOT” wagon yet, it is an American fantasy book series that has evolved into a popular HBO drama. This fictional world involves two complex languages known as Dothraki and Valyrian. Dothraki is a constructed fictional language spoken by the Dothraki people, indigenous inhabitants of the Dothraki Sea in Game of Thrones.

                   Khaleesi and her dragons.

                   Khaleesi and her dragons.

The creator of the Dothraki language, David J. Peterson, was first exposed to “conlang,” or constructed language, while earning his masters in linguistics at Berkeley and has been fascinated with it ever since. Peterson was working as an English Composition professor at Fullerton ColleHge when he heard about the opportunity to develop a new language for the series. Using a handful of words George R. R. Martin, the author of the novel series, created for the novel as a starting point, Peterson spent four years creating the grammar and dictionary for Dothraki—which would ultimately become his most famous conlang–consisting of approximately 3,400 words. The first three books of the “Song of Ice and Fire” series contain 56 words from the Dothraki language. Of those, 24 are proper names and the other 32 are nouns, verbs and adjectives. One of those proper nouns, the now ever-popular Khaleesi, was given to 146 babies born in the U.S. in 2012. Game of Thrones exhibits significantly more conlang material than any other television series in history, with sustained dialogue in Dothraki as well as High Valyrian and Low Valyrian.

Peterson explains his process for creating the language; first he establishes what he already knows about the fictional society, then determines how that knowledge will affect the vocabulary, and finally looks to the Webster-English dictionary for additional assistance:

“Languages evolve over hundreds of years, and the artistry of naturalistic language creation comes from simulating this, emulating that evolution, often by analyzing how old linguistic forms evolved. To create Dothraki’s grammar, I was sensitive to the realities of Dothraki life: the fact that they’re less technologically advanced than the societies that surround them; the fact that they keep mostly to the steppes and eschew ‘civilised’ life; the fact that they apparently have weddings, and all that was entailed in that wedding scene as described by George R R Martin,” he says. “All these factors determined the lexical make-up of the Dothraki language, because a language’s vocabulary will contain exactly those words it ought, and will lack those it ought not have.”

   Photo of David Peterson & Actor Jason                                   Momoa (Khal Drogo)

   Photo of David Peterson & Actor Jason                                   Momoa (Khal Drogo)

Those proficient in conlang are growing in demand now that TV shows and movies are analyzed by millions of fans worldwide and will not accept gibberish as a language. Peterson explains how every little detail is

scrutinized by amateurs and experts alike, and then immediately debated on the internet. Unlike props and costumes, language cannot be faked. He continues to stress, “To create an authentic-sounding language, one needs to employ an authentic methodology.” Dothraki speakers are growing by the numbers and Peterson imagines it growing big enough to have the language on Google Translate.

While we here at Lionbridge onDemand do not offer Dothraki translation services (yet), we do offer translation services for more than 250 different types of languages. Check us out over at the portal. As they say in parting in Dothraki: “Hajas,” be strong!