Speaking in Tongues: David J. Peterson

Behind every Klingon, Na'vi, and Middle Earth dweller is someone who creates the written and spoken words for the language as well as the rules for idea construction. For David J. Peterson, a professional alien language and culture consultant to shows like Game of Thrones and Defiance, speaking in tongues is just another day at the office.

 

Dothraki, the made-up language indigenous to characters on Game of Thrones, has about 20 words for “horses” and none for “please.” The reason is culture says David J. Peterson, the linguist responsible for expanding Dothraki from 30 words found in the George R.R. Martin novels on which the Game of Thrones series is based to 3,700 words and a complex set of grammatical laws. Understanding what’s important to a fictional culture, Peterson explains, is a crucial step in creating the language they speak.

David J. Peterson began writing languages long before gaining the official title of Alien Language and Culture Consultant. Earning his masters degree in Linguistics from the University of California San Diego, Peterson wrote languages in his spare time and co-founded the Language Creation Society, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting language constructors, along with nine other likeminded linguists. In 2009, HBO hired the LCS to find someone who could bring Dothraki to life.

[The application process] was multi-faceted and multi-round, and double-blind,” Peterson says. “The first round was judged by language creators, prominent language creators in the community. Then the second round was judged by the producers and then after that round I was the one who was selected. That’s how I ended up working on Game of Thrones.”

Peterson has written 21 languages to date, including Dothraki and two versions of the Valyrian language for Game of Thrones as well as the Irathient and Castithan languages for the Syfy series, Defiance.

Get In Media: How do you begin to create a new language?

David J. Peterson: When I sit down to create a language, usually I start with some sort of grammatical idea, some sort of a phonological idea. So I create a sound step and I create a couple of test words and then I start to create some grammatical bits and test words to try things out. Then I adjust as I go along. As I do this, I usually end up revising everything that I’ve done to that point, tweaking the phonology a bit. Even that will cause a tweak in the grammar and then you just kind of keep going in that fashion, building out slowly, and so you get to the point where you are fleshing out a lexicon which, if done properly, can take a lifetime.

GIM: What research do you do to determine the values of this culture and how can I shape language around it?

DJP: Language is a cultural byproduct. The speakers of the language are going to need words for whatever they’re going to need words for. That’s why we have lots of words that cover technology in English, but there aren’t any in Hawaiian they haven’t borrowed.

Dothraki is at a point where the world that they live in has reached a certain level of advancement technologically, which is below our level of advancement. The Dothraki people themselves are slightly behind that even. It’s based on what I saw from the books, what I could glean from what their lives were like, and what the world they lived in was like. That’s the world that they will have words to describe. All languages are equally rich when it comes to describing the human experience, but not necessarily when it comes to having words for aquatic life, which the Dothraki didn’t have any words for. They stayed far away from the ocean. It reflects their culture, but it doesn’t necessarily define them. Humans are still humans. They’ll have words for what they need and if they don’t have any encounters with it, they won’t have words for it. If it becomes important from some other culture they come in contact with, they’ll borrow. Dothraki now has the word for “book” because it’s able to borrow it. They borrowed it from the Valyrian language because they come in contact with books, but they don’t have them themselves. They don’t have a written form of their language and don’t really place important value on books but they know that others do. That’s kind of how it goes.

Dothraki

GIM: With Dothraki, you started with about 30 words that George R.R. Martin included in his books.

DJP: Valyrian had seven.

GIM: Is it easier to build on something that has already been started by somebody else or to create the whole [language] from scratch?

DJP: Easier in one sense. With Dothraki, several of the grammatical decisions have already been made. I had to analyze what was there and whatever my analysis resulted in, I had to stick with that so that everything in the book would still be grammatical and correct. What that means is that it’s limited my possibilities severely. There were a number of places where I didn’t have freedom. Since there were fewer choices, it was easier in one sense, but I generally prefer to have complete and total freedom so that I can really play with things.

GIM: How long does it take you to create a language from beginning to the stopping point?

DJP: The initial stage was two months, but I’d say it’s a good three or four months of effort to really get it nailed down and to be sure that you have all of the grammatical bases covered.

High Valyrian

GIM: How do you know when a language is complete or complete enough for a television series?

DJP: The real test case is whether you can handle a grammatical structure because you have to translate. As long as there’s no possible sentence that can throw you a curveball where you could say, “I have no idea how grammatically I can handle that,” you’re fine. But that said, it’s always going to be a struggle to come up with more words. Dothraki right now is at about 3,700 words. A high school graduate commands a vocabulary of about 50,000 words in whatever language they speak. It would take years to get to that point. I might be able to create a hundred words in an entire day if I devoted that entire day to it. In that respect, it’s never going to be complete.

GIM: In your TED Talk, you spoke about the need not only to create a language but also to age and emulate the evolution of the language. Would you mind speaking to how that applies to your work?

DJPAll the languages of Game of Thrones and Defiance are naturalistic languages. The languages on Defiance are obviously alien languages, but those aliens are still humanoid and also they’re still similar to humans in some of the most fundamental and important ways in that they still have to eat and breathe, they still give birth to offspring and have a vested interest in seeing that their offspring comes to maturity and that the race is perpetuated. The way that language functions is crucially tied to some of these basic elements. That is, there’s a reason that language evolves in the way that it does, that we have cultural bonds, that we have common languages, that they evolved to describe common events, that they evolved to describe the human experience. In that way, though they’re alien cultures, naturalistic languages were really required.

All of our languages are the product of evolution and they look the way they do, not because we designed them that way, but because they happened to evolve that way. For all of these languages, I created an older form of them and then evolved them over a period of years. We learned [with] a number of tools from mainly historical linguistics about how languages evolved. There’s a lot of information about how sounds change, how they can change over time, which has been very valuable to me, and also information about how words change over time and then information about how grammar changes over time and why. All of that information is put to use when you’re taking an older language and then try to imagine how could this language have changed over a period of a thousand years or two thousand years? Then of course how will technology change that evolution?

Castithan

Dothraki

GIM: You also spoke about how it would be easier for language creators to “re-lexify” the English language [meaning substitute a made-up word for one in English], but modern audiences might call you on that. Has that level of scrutiny impacted your job?

DJP: Yes. When you’re working on a TV show and you’re a lowly language creator and you don’t have final cuts, you don’t necessarily control what shows up on the screen. With Game of Thrones, there are parts where they drop out words just to make things shorter or just because they didn’t know that it would be important and the fans always catch it. There are also times where I have made itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny baby typos and the fans have caught them all. That’s tough.

GIM: What are the challenges of creating multiple languages at the same time?

DJP: For me, the main challenge, and this goes in general for working on any television show, is you can’t really be as free with the phonology. By that I mean there are a smaller subset of sounds that I draw from when I’m creating languages for TV shows than the number of sounds used in human languages just because they’re not going to get done properly. If it’s too difficult for an English-speaking actress, which is primarily who you’re working with, it just won’t come out. It’s kind of a challenge to come up with a new sound using a smaller set of sounds than I would ordinarily have access to.

That said, when we’re working on a single show, the challenge is to make things completely audibly distinct. I think I had a good blueprint for what I was doing with Defiance, where I tried to make the two main languages that are spoken, Castithan and Irathient, I tried to make them basically polar opposites so that they sound very, very different on screen and grammatically, they’re basically night and day.

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