Behind the savage bloodshed, naked power lust, and epic betrayals that make HBO's Game of Thrones so enthralling to watch are the languages created for the show. The Game of Thrones conlangs—short for "constructed languages"—were developed by David Peterson, the 33-year-old linguist who co-founded the Language Creation Society, an organization based in Orange County, California, not far from Disneyland. Aside from devising Dothraki, the native tongue of the nomadic horselords of Essos, and Valyrian, the family of dialects based on the language of the lost empire of Valyria, Peterson is best known as the linguist and "alien culture consultant" for Syfy's Defiance. So far, however, nothing he's contributed has matched the use of Valyrian in the stunning scene at the finish of "And Now His Watch Is Ended" (season 3, episode 4), when Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen—she who hatched the fire-breathing dragons—takes command of the Unsullied, the 8,000 warrior-eunuchs of Astapor, from their slave master, Kraznys.
Zaldrīzes buzdari iksos daor: “A dragon is not a slave.”
Want to try it yourself? Later this month, Peterson leads a workshop in language creation at the first annual Filmatic Festival, an exploration of the future of movies at UC San Diego, the school where he earned his masters in linguistics. Thanks to an introduction by Rebecca Webb of ArtPower!, the campus arts organization that's sponsoring the festival, I was able to put some questions to him by email. Here's what he had to say about Dothraki, Valyrian, and language in general:
How important is language to world-building?
It depends entirely on the project. In Lilo & Stitch, it’s important to know that Stitch is an alien and that we live in a universe where aliens of all different stripes exist and there’s an intergalactic regulatory commission, but it’s not important what the alien species are, what languages they speak, what their governmental systems are, etc. The main alien-related action of the story is just the relationship between Stitch and his new Earth family. In movies like Fargo or Smoke Signals, where the story takes place is as important as the characters themselves. This isn’t true in, say, There’s Something About Mary, or even Flashdance, where Pittsburgh provides some exterior shots and local color, but it may as well have been Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore—some American city.
So when it comes to a film or television series, the question that must be asked is (a) how important is world-building to the plot, and (b) how realistic is the project aiming to be? If maximal authenticity is desired for a fantasy setting—whether set on a fictional Earth or out in space—created languages are a must. Unless the characters all hail from Earth and they never hear or interact with natives, failing to have a created language is failing to achieve authenticity. There is no wiggle room. A fantasy or science-fiction film cannot claim to be realistic if everyone speaks English.
What do you try to convey with a language? Dothraki, for example, and Valyrian.