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Klaatu Barada Nicto…

April 12, 2010

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… or something like that.

Truth is, I suck at foreign languages. Always have. Always will.

That can be a real drawback for a fantasist working in the tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien, who set the bar very high where imaginary languages are concerned. JRRT was a linguist of rare talent who invented not one but two Elvish tongues, not to mention dwarvish, Numenorean, the Black Tongue of Mordor, etc. etc. An astonishing feat of linguistic worldbuilding, and one that is never likely to be duplicated.

Certainly not by me. A few years ago, I got a very nice email from a reader who wanted to know more about the vocabulary and syntax of High Valyrian. I blush to admit that I had to reply, “Uh… well… all I know about High Valyrian is the seven words I’ve made up to date. When I need an eighth, I’ll make that up too… but I don’t have a whole imaginary language in my desk here, the way Tolkien did.”

The same was true of Dothraki. Lots of characters speak the language of the horselords in my novels, and I did pepper the text with a few Dothraki words like khal and arakh… but for the most part I was content just to say, “They were speaking Dothraki,” and give the sense of what was said, playing with the syntax and sentence rhythms a bit to convey a flavor.

That would obviously not work for television, however, where you actally have to HEAR what the characters are saying, even if you don’t necessarily understand the words. So when the pilot was filmed, HBO brought in a world-class expert to create a Dothraki tongue that went well beyond my “khaleesi” and “khalasar.”

His name is David J. Peterson, and here’s some more about him and the language he’s devising, straight from the good folks at Home Box Office:

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David J. Peterson, an expert language creator from the Language Creation Society (LCS), has been chosen to create the Dothraki language for HBO’s upcoming fantasy series GAME OF THRONES, based on the book series !œA Song of Ice and Fire,! by George R.R. Martin.

When GAME OF THRONES executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss needed a language for the Dothraki, Martin’s race of nomadic warriors, they turned to the Language Creation Society. The LCS solicited and vetted a number of proposals for the Dothraki language from its pool of experts, with Peterson’s proposal ultimately being selected by the GAME OF THRONES production team.

Peterson drew inspiration from George R.R. Martin’s description of the language, as well as from such languages as Russian, Turkish, Estonian, Inuktitut and Swahili. However, the Dothraki language is no mere hodgepodge, babble or pidgin. It has its own unique sound, extensive vocabulary of more than 1,800 words and complex grammatical structure.

!œIn designing Dothraki, I wanted to remain as faithful as possible to the extant material in George R.R. Martin’s series,! says Peterson. !œThough there isn’t a lot of data, there is evidence of a dominant word order [subject-verb-object], of adjectives appearing after nouns, and of the lack of a copula [!˜to be’]. I’ve remained faithful to these elements, creating a sound aesthetic that will be familiar to readers, while giving the language depth and authenticity. My fondest desire is for fans of the series to look at a word from the Dothraki language and be unable to tell if it came from the books or from me !” and for viewers not even to realize it’s a constructed language.!

!œWe’re tremendously excited to be working with David and the LCS,! says producer D.B. Weiss. !œThe language he’s devised is phenomenal. It captures the essence of the Dothraki, and brings another level of richness to their world. We look forward to his first collection of Dothraki love sonnets.!

Did you know? (Hash yer ray nesi?)

The name for the Dothraki people !” and their language !” derives from the verb !œdothralat! (!œto ride!).

The Dothraki have four different words for !œcarry,! three for !œpush,! three for !œpull! and at least eight for !œhorse,! but no word that means !œplease! or !œfollow.!

The longest word in Dothraki is !œathastokhdeveshizaroon,! which means !œfrom nonsense.!

The words for !œrelated,! !œweighted net,! !œeclipse,! !œdispute,! !œredhead,! !œoath,! !œfuneral pyre,! !œevidence,! !œomen,! !œfang! and !œharvest moon! all have one element in common: !œqoy,! the Dothraki word for !œblood.!

Dothraki for !œto dream! !“ !œthirat atthiraride! !“ literally means !œto live a wooden life!; in Dothraki, !œwooden! (!œido!) is synonymous with !œfake.!

The word for !œpride! !“ !œathjahakar! !“ is derived from !œjahak,! the traditional long braid worn by Dothraki warriors (!œlajaki!).

More information about the Dothraki language (and their love poems) will be released over the course of the series.

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I look forward to the day when someone translates Shakespeare into Dothraki. They’ve already done a Klingon translation, and probably an Elvish one as well, so what the hell.

Meanwhile, I need to find out the proper Dothraki for “it is known.”

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