How a TV series created a New Language and changed the way television is perceived.
This last season was the grand finale for a series that has rocked the world of entertainment and culture, with 23 million viewers per episode. It has won more Emmys than any other prime time series. However, it might be just an ending to a completely new beginning. The show, which HBO launched in 2011, was in no way predetermined to have such success. For 8 years, GOT was able to reach a meaningful swath of the population that watched it week after week, year after year; what makes this epic fantasy about dragons so interesting? Based on the popular books by George R. R. Martin, the show was adapted by two novice showrunners, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. After the pilot came out, it was flawed and failed to convey the visual scope of its imaginary world; however, faith and pressure were on the shoulders of both Benioff and Weiss. With an impeccable cast that really compelled on screen, by the end of the first season, ratings had climbed from 2.2 million to over 3 million, slowly but steadily. The moment producers really felt it was working was when Ned Stark was executed during season one, and it rather blew up the internet. Another culture-defining moment came in the third season with the infamous Red Wedding scene, when the Stark heir and the matriarch are shockingly murdered along with most of their kin. The show constantly reinforced the challenge of taking creative risks, which made the audience want to watch what happened next. But, there is more to it than merely a fantasy world filled with power struggle and deep characters’ inter-relationships, and it is something that we’ve been extremely impressed by. If learning a language presents many hurdles, what does it take to construct a new language? Have you ever imagined what it took to invent a language that is unlike any known language? If you are creating a fantasy or sci-fi world in film or TV, there will always be a constructed language, which conveys authenticity to the audience. You will need to hire someone to create not just one, but several languages for your project, thoughtfully consider which scenes will or will not use those languages, and make sure the actors you hire can be convincing enough when they deliver lines in those languages. David J. Peterson created Dothraki and Valyrian for Game of Thrones and has written two books on conlangs. “A language never gets more real than when we speak it,” Peterson said in a 2013 TED talk. “If it’s used in a television show or a film, anybody can sit there, write down what’s said, and analyze it to see if it’s systematic, or if it’s just gibberish. There is no ‘stage’ version of a language. To create an authentic-sounding language, one needs to employ an authentic methodology.” According to Peterson, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss originally had Dothraki characters speaking gibberish during the casting process; George R. R. Martin’s book series contained a few snippets of Dothraki, but Benioff and Weiss quickly realized there was not enough to fill out entire scenes onscreen, and they couldn’t just make things up as they went along. They needed someone who could build off the books to create a real language. To create the Dothraki language, Peterson started by looking at the Dothraki culture as it is presented in the Game of Thrones books, then began to “shape a lexicon that would represent it.” The few phrases included in the books were comprised mainly of proper nouns such as customs of the Dothraki people, rulers and town names. For example, the Dothraki called Westeros the land of the Andals. The City of Bones in Dothraki was “Vaes Tolorro.” The extensive skills of Peterson in various languages helped him develop the language that has become associated with the very mobile horse-riding tribesmen. He then thought of developing a vocabulary consisting of words that are basic and native, that is words that sound unique. Because the Dothraki language is oral, with no writing system, there is no native word for “book.” These elements mimic the quirks of natural languages; Russian uses the same word for both “please” and “you’re welcome.” Peterson used words from obscure and exotic languages; he followed how nouns are formed in Swahili and studied the negative forms of verbs in Estonian languages. Soon enough he created a 10,000-word vocabulary. Not only did he have to develop a good grammatical foundation, but he also had to keep the language easy to pronounce. Finally, he created a language consisting of 3 vowels and 23 consonants, and was able to conjugate verbs in three tenses, just like English.
Once the language has been created, translation of a project’s script can begin. Typically, writers will write entirely in English and send the scenes requiring translation to Peterson. At this point another challenge appears: the length of sentences is different, which can disrupt the rhythm and timing of a scene.
A language is meant to be a living thing, a shared method of communication. Much of the beauty of language lies in how individual speakers bend its rules and make their own contributions, and all of these conlangs have shown they have lives outside their onscreen worlds. High Valyrian is now available on Duolingo, which is the language spoken in Essos, the continent in the east where previous Valyrian Freehold was situated. This language has two derivatives: Astapori Valyrian and Meereenese Valyrian. These people were like conquerors who occupied much of the land and forced other inhabitants to speak Valyrian. They ruled for thousands of years, but then they were overcome by other more powerful dominant races, and their language became obscured by a new language. High Valyrian became relegated as a language used by scholars in Westeros and Essos for chronicling their stories. There is also Low Valyrian, which is spoken by descendants of the people who used to be colonies of the Valyrian Empire. Peterson developed the language in the TV show as a unique linguistic unit. More than 700 words have been created for High Valyrian and the language is evolving. The language has grammatical numbers, such as singular, plural, collective and paucal. Here are some phrases that you can learn in High Valyrian:
Geros ilas (Goodbye)
Kirimvose (Thank you)
Valar morghulis (All men must die)
zaldrīzes buzdari iksos daor (a dragon is not a slave)
Skorī dēmalȳti tymptir tymis, ērinis iā morghūlis (When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die)