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Meet David Peterson, who developed Dothraki for Game of Thrones

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There are seven different words in Dothraki for striking another person with a sword. Among them: “hlizifikh,” a wild but powerful strike; “hrakkarikh,”a quick and accurate strike; and “gezrikh,” a fake-out or decoy strike. But you won’t find these words in George R. R. Martin’s epic series A Song of Ice and Fire, which is where Dothraki originated as the language of the eponymous horse-riding warriors; rather these and more than 3,000 other words were developed by David Peterson, the world’s authority on Dothraki.

At TED2013, Peterson gave this fascinating TED University talk on the process of creating Dothraki for the TV series Game of Thrones. Based on Martin’s books, the HBO series premieres its third season on Sunday.

Peterson, who has a masters in linguistics from UC San Diego, was teaching English composition at Fullerton College when he heard that HBO was hiring someone to develop Dothraki for Game of Thrones. For the next four years Peterson developed the Dothraki grammar and wrote a dictionary of around 3,400 words.

Peterson is also the alien language and culture consultant at SyFy’s Defiance and the president of the Language Creation Society (LCS), which is made up of conlangers – creators of conlangs, or constructed languages.

Language enthusiasts have been creating languages from scratch since at least the twelfth century: for fun, for secret communication with loved ones, in pursuit of the perfect language. Conlangs have surged in popularity in recent years thanks to films and TV series like Avatar (whose characters speak Na’Vi), Lord of the Rings (Elvish) and Game of Thrones; the grandaddy of pop-culture conlangs is Star Trek‘s Klingon, a widely studied language almost as popular as Esperanto. (Both Klingon and Esperanto are available as subtitles on TED.com).

In the conlang community, Peterson is a hero. The same goes for John Quijada, the creator of Ithkuil, who was recently profiled by Joshua Foer in the New Yorker. Ithkuil seeks to encode as much information as possible in as small a space as possible, with as little ambiguity as possible. Is Ithkuil the perfect conlang? Perhaps. But Peterson says that he has never put much stock in the idea of perfection.

“Language,” he says, “is a system. We humans aren’t. We’re quite imperfect. When it comes to using even a perfect system, we will break it in some way.”

As Peterson says in his talk, a big part of the process of naturalizing conlangs is attempting to imitate the quirks and idiosyncrasies of a natural language as it evolves over time. In developing Dothraki, Peterson started by imagining how the Dothraki people would have spoken 1,000 years in the past. Creating a protolanguage allowed Peterson to evolve Dothraki “organically,” changing its sounds, grammar and semantics. But how do you create linguistic regression?

The first challenge in imagining a lost culture is to unlearn what you know about modern technology in order to grasp a linguistic view of the world before, say, books and medicine. Says Peterson, “You become part historian, part archaeologist, part detective. You say, ‘Here were my resources, how did I know all this stuff?’”

In the case of the Dothraki, there’s the added fact that the speakers exist in a fictional world, so their history is technically unknown, yet still must be realistic to the legions of fans scrutinizing the books and show.

(Why not just call up George R.R. Martin and ask? Not an option. According to Peterson, Martin is pleased with the existence of Dothraki but not especially invested in it, given how busy he is. In fact, he’s the one who occasionally calls up Peterson for a translation. Peterson happily gives it to him.)

But some aspects of Dothraki history are available to Peterson. Martin very clearly based the Dothraki on the Mongolians of the Silk Road era, with aspects of some Native American cultures mixed in. So Peterson draws on these sources for naming flora and fauna. Recently Peterson found out that in Mongolian there are two different words for animal poop, depending on whether it’s fresh or dry. (Dry animal poop is used for fires in winter, since it burns longer.) Now, he says, the Dothraki language makes this distinction, too.

Where existing context is not available, a conlanger can bring his or her own experiences to the language, as in the case of the Dothraki word for “to dream.” Peterson wanted to capture the essence of dreaming, which for him means feeling, while sleeping, that there’s no other life or world. Peterson started with the word for wood and changed it to its adjective form, wooden, or “ido.” Since in Dothraki wood is used to describe fake swords, “wooden” comes to be synonymous with “fake.” A dream then becomes a wooden life, a fake life. In Dothraki, to dream, or “thirat atthiraride,” literally means “to live a wooden life.”

While many conlangs are created for fictional characters, the majority are not. But a language is nothing without its speaker — so how do conlangers deal with the fact that their speakers have no history or culture? Is it possible to create a naturalized conlang without also creating an entire world around it? Indeed, it’s a challenge that Peterson discovered late. At first he wasn’t interested in creating cultures, but realized that if you don’t have a very specific idea of who is speaking the language, your language automatically carries a whole host of cultural assumptions — probably yours.

An example Peterson often gives is creating a native word for “book.” It seems like a simple task, but this actually assumes quite a lot about the speakers: that they have a written form of their language; that they have something to write down; that they have some value for literature or scholarship; that literature or scholarship exists; that they’ve invented paper; that they’ve invented styluses, ink and book binding. One word, a world of assumptions.

As president of the LCS, Peterson communicates with and celebrates conlangers all over the world, handing out the annual Smiley Award to the year’s best created language. So what makes a good conlanger? “It’s a combination of somebody who is very technically minded, who is very good with puzzles or coding,” says Peterson. “And somebody who has a literary bone inside them, who is a big reader and loves stories.”

This marriage of the technical and aesthetic explains why Peterson’s favorite conlang is Sylvia Sotomayor’s Kēlen, which defies a universal element of language: It has no verbs. It’s common for created languages to have alien or unnatural constraints, says Peterson, but Sotomayor beautifully naturalized hers, bringing artistry to an engineered system.


Photo: HBO