‘Game of Thrones’: How the Show Invented 9 New Languages
Most of the discussion surrounding Game of Thrones pertains to its vast array of stories. Every season, fans debate about everything from character deaths to White Walkers. George R.R. Martin’s source material only adds fuel to the fire, making it so there’s never any shortage of things to talk about when it comes to A Song of Ice and Fire. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the show though isn’t found in the story. Rather, it’s in the whopping nine separate languages the series invented itself.
With the help of renowned linguist David J. Peterson, HBO created a vast world of dialects and languages that reflect the diversity of Westeros and Essos. Everything from Dothraki to High Valyrian was conceived and created by Peterson, a task not to be overlooked on a show stacked with talented writers and actors. And thanks to an in-depth research piece from Katrin Sperling, language expert at Babbel, we now know exactly how he did it.
1. Creating new languages out of thin air
Despite numerous references in George R.R. Martin’s novels, the various languages of Westeros and Essos never actually existed until the TV series. It wasn’t a task the creators could kick down the road either, with parts of the pilot prominently featuring the Dothraki, a people not known for their expertise in the Common Tongue (aka English). Originally, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss played around with a few alternatives. They considered having the Dothraki speak heavily accented English, or even “using random strings of sounds that mirror Dothraki terms from the books.” Ultimately, neither idea was tenable, bringing David Peterson on board to remedy the problem.
2. The Dothraki language
Peterson has been responsible for a handful of languages throughout Game of Thrones six-year run, but Dothraki has the honor of being his very first. The language is rooted in both Russian and Arabic, with fully functional grammar, and featuring upwards of 2000 words. Babbel tells us that the actual vocabulary has close ties to that of Mongolians circa the Ghengis Khan era. In terms of the way its spoken, a phrase that means “how are you?” directly translates to “do you ride well?”, referencing the Dothraki’s mounted, horse-centric culture.
3. Peterson developed a White Walker language that ended up never being used
While we have yet to actually hear the White Walkers speak in complete sentences on Game of Thrones, if that ever became necessary, the show has a language ready and waiting to be utilized. Known as “Skroth,” its tone is akin to “the crackling of ice,” something the sound designers likely took to heart when they opted to use actual ice cracking sound effects for their various exclamations. As the White Walkers continue to be heavily featured in latter seasons of the show, perhaps Peterson’s language will come into play soon as well.
4. High Valyrian has just one native speaker
Much in the same way Latin was the dominant world language during the height of the Roman Empire, High Valyrian held the same honor before the Doom decimated Valyria. Just one family of native speakers was left following the doom, and you guess it, it was the Targaryens. In the time period we see on Game of Thrones, it’s used largely as a “lore-language,” spoken mainly by scholars and nobles with the means to employ expensive tutors for their children. The language itself has around 5000 words, utilizing four grammatical genders: Lunar, solar, terrestrial, and aquatic (rather than the more classic male and female denominations). According to Babbel, “Nouns for humans are typically lunar, occupations and body parts are generally solar, food and plants are most commonly terrestrial, and liquids are aquatic.”
5. There are nine separate dialects of Low Valyrian
When the Roman Empire crumbled, Latin evolved into a series of offshoots that would later become the various languages of modern Europe. The Free Cities of Essos did the same following the fall of Valyria, with each city featuring their own unique dialect of Low Valyrian. According to Peterson, “Jacob Anderson, the actor who plays Grey Worm, speaks the language better than its creator ever could,” and often uses Anderson for inspiration when writing new dialogue for Game of Thrones.
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