Posted on July 27, 2016 · Posted in Linguistics

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past five years, it’s likely that you’ve heard of Game of Thrones. Ever since the award-laden television series launched back in 2011, it’s enjoyed a rabid fan following, inspiring countless think pieces, spoof tributes, popular memes and knock-off fantasy series trying to cash in on the frenzy.

Whether or not you’re a fan of the series, there’s no denying that its production values are unbelievably impressive. Just recently, the ninth episode of season six (titled “Battle of the Bastards”) featured an extended battle sequence that rivalled the finesse of most big-budget Hollywood blockbusters.

But while the series is excellent at the big set pieces, the most impressive thing about Game of Thrones is its close attention to detail – particularly when it comes to its invented languages.

The Languages of Westeros and Essos

George R.R. Martin’s books are known for their scale and scope. Not only do they follow the viewpoints of multiple characters – from ingénue queen turned ruthless Mother of Dragons Daenerys Targaryen, to young prophet Bran Stark – they also span two huge continents, and numerous cities, islands and castles.

In Westeros, where the majority of the action takes place, English is spoken under the label of “the Common Tongue”. It is in neighboring continent Essos where Martin’s invented languages come into play. Most frequently referenced in the books are Dothraki – spoken by the nomadic warrior horsemen who go by the same name – High Valyrian, and Low Valyrian; however, other languages include Ghiscari, Asshai and Summer Tongue.

Adapting the Languages for TV

Unlike master linguist J.R.R. Tolkien, Martin did not invent full languages for his books. It’s unsurprising, then, that when it came to adapting the books for television, producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were unsure how to proceed.

Initially, Benioff and Weiss played with the idea of having characters speak in heavily-accented English. They later tried inventing strings of dialogue that mirrored words used in the books, but soon realized that the only way forward was to hire an expert. Thus, linguistic genius and professional “language inventor” David J. Peterson was brought on board.

The Creation of Dothraki

Though Valyrian is spoken more widely in the world of Game of Thrones, Dothraki was at first the more important language to nail down, due to the series one storyline that sees young Daenerys married into a Dothraki tribe. Peterson went about creating Dothraki by mapping out a detailed history of the language, establishing grammar rules and inventing thousands of words – far more than were needed for the show. One key aspect of Peterson’s language is that it reflects the unique Dothraki culture, which prizes horsemanship, aggression and bravery. Fittingly, the phrase “how are you?” translates in Dothraki to “do you ride well?”.

In practice, the invention of Dothraki and other languages has brought its own unique challenges to the production of the show. Peterson routinely speaks to the actors on the phone, coaching them on their pronunciation for hours, and picking them up on the slightest wrong inflection or misspoken word. It’s a level of detail that would frustrate the most patient among us, and it’s also the reason this show is a cut above the rest.

You can find out more about Peterson’s language – and make a go of learning it – at dothraki.org. Just try not to go full Khal Drogo.

And if you need translations into any other existing languages, you know where to find us.

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To part 2 about the languages in Star Trek

(Illustration: Fernando Cortes/Shutterstock)