There’s so much excitement about the 'Game of Thrones' finale that we had to talk about on it this week’s show. Not just because we love dragons and swords—we do!—but because a core part of the series has been the languages the characters speak.
This week marks the first episode in the final season of “Game of Thrones." There’s so much excitement about the finale that we just had to include a segment about on it this week’s show. Not just because we love dragons and swords—we do! — but because a core part of the series has been the languages the characters speak.
If you don’t watch “Game of Thrones,” don’t worry. This segment is also for people who might be curious about how a language gets created from absolute scratch. That’s what happened for this series.
George R. R. Martin Created the Bones of the Languages
There are at least 11 languages spoken in the “Game of Thrones” world. The bare bones of all of these languages were created by George R. R. Martin, the author of “A Song of Ice and Fire,” on which the TV series is based. But Martin’s skeleton was pretty skimpy. In the books, he created only a handful of words for most of the languages.
So when it came time for an actual language to be created for the show—a usable one that could be spoken extensively by actors—somebody had to flesh out those bones.
Here Are All the Languages That Had To Be Tackled
And there were a lot of them! The show includes several languages spoken by humans, a rudimentary one spoken by giants, and a creepy one spoken by White Walkers—zombie-like creatures who have magical powers of ice and cold.
Here’s a rundown.
- The most common language we hear in “Game of Thrones” is—well — the Common Tongue! It’s spoken throughout Westeros, one of the two large continents in the “Game of Thrones” world. It’s also spoken by the wildlings who live north of the Wall, a great barrier in the north of Westeros that protects humans from the White Walkers. The Common Tongue is represented in the book series and the TV series by English.
- The Old Tongue is spoken by wildlings who live far north of the Wall—those who have little exposure to the Common Tongue. It’s an ancient, rune-based language that was spoken by the First Men, the original human inhabitants of Westeros. A rough version of it — one that lacks verb tenses, plurals, and words of more than one syllable—is spoken by the giants north of the Wall. Their version is called “Mag Nuk,” the Great Tongue.
- The True Tongue is the melodic language of the children of the forest, elf-like creatures who were said to be the original inhabitants of Westeros. Humans can’t speak the language, but ravens can—including the mysterious three-eyed raven that appears in the show. The children of the forest say that they use the tongue to “sing the songs of the earth”; thus, its musical tone.
- High Valyrian is the language that was spoken in the old Valyrian Freehold, an ancient civilization that stretched across Essos, the second large continent in this world. Over time, High Valyrian faded out of common use and became the language of a select, educated elite—much like Latin in our world. It was once a living language, but by the Middle Ages, was spoken only by scholars, clergy, and other smarty-pants.
- While High Valyrian was falling out of use, several dialects of it developed, known collectively as “Low Valyrian.” These dialects were spoken by the common people of Essos, from the Free Cities in the west to slave cities in the east.
- Then there’s Dothraki. Dothraki is spoken by the nomadic horse warriors who live in the central plains of Essos. It’s a spoken language only; in other words, it has no writing system. Certain words in Dothraki that wouldn’t exist in a non-literate language have been borrowed from Valyrian—the word “book,” for example.
- There’s also a dead language called Old Ghiscari. Ghiscari was spoken in Essos before the time of the Valyrians, and most of it has been lost. A few Ghiscari words have been borrowed into Low Valyrian; the word “mhysa,” for example, which means “mother.” That’s the word that many in Essos use for Daenerys Targaryen, who they consider a bringer of salvation.
- There’s also Lhazar, Qarth, and Asshai’i. These are living languages that are still spoken in Essos, but we hear very little of them in the show.
- Finally, there’s Skroth. Skroth is the language of the White Walkers, but it doesn’t sound much like words. In the books, the Walkers’ voices are described as sounding like “the cracking of ice on a winter lake.” In the TV series, the screechy, icy sounds they make aren’t spoken by humans at all; they’re artificially created by the show’s sound designer. I won’t even try to imitate what they sound like here.
How the Languages Were Made TV-ready
Do you remember I said that George R. R. Martin included only a smattering of words from these languages in his books? That left the producers of “Game of Thrones” with a decision to make: dispense with these languages altogether, give the actors gibberish words to speak, or go all-in and create some fully functioning fake languages—like Klingon—for the actors to use.
They decided to go all in.
Acting on a tip from linguist Arika Okrent, they reached out to the Language Creation Society, a group that specializes in the creation of constructed languages—“conlangs,” for short. The Society and the producers held a contest to help them choose a creator for Dothraki, the first language the show needed to have created.
David Peterson, a linguist and the founder of the Society, decided to apply. He said he had a feeling that this could be a big deal. So he went all out, creating a full-fledged sound system and grammar for the language, along with some 2,000 words. He won the contest, further developed the language, and then translated all the lines for the first season that needed to be spoken in Dothraki. He went on to develop Valyrian and several other languages for the show, and then went on to do the same for other TV series and movies.
He now describes himself as “the only person in the world ever to make a career out of language creation.”
Peterson Approached the Language Anthropologically
We could go into a really deep dive here about how Peterson went about crafting Dothraki, but for the sake of brevity, we’ll share just a few facts.
First, Peterson didn’t get much information from the show’s producers on what they wanted the language to sound like. They asked him to use the few words Martin had already created in the books, and they asked him to make the language sound harsh.
The goal of creating a “harsh”-sounding language guided Peterson’s development of the sound system, or “phonology,” of Dothraki. He started with a phoneme that does register as harsh to English speakers: the “kh” sound we hear in the word “Bach”—and he built out from there.
We hear that sound in the word “khal,” meaning “ruler” or “warlord,” and “khaleesi,” which roughly equates to “queen.”
He also came at the task from a cultural and anthropological perspective, thinking about how words and expressions would develop in a nomadic, warrior society.
For example, the word he created for “pride” is “athjahakar,” which is derived from “jahak,” the long braid worn by Dothraki warriors. Dothraki men are allowed to braid their hair only after they’ve won a battle—and they’re forced to cut it after a defeat. Thus, a long braid—a long “jahak”—would be a sign of pride—“athjahakar.”
In the same vein, the word for “goodbye” is “fonas chek,” which translates literally as “hunt well.” That’s a pretty logical way to say goodbye for a tribe of hunter–gatherers.
We could go on and on and share many more cool words in Dothraki, Valyrian, and Mag Nuk. But we’ll stop there for today. If you like this segment, head over to quickanddirtytips.com, where I’ve included a list of other resources related to the languages of “Game of Thrones.”
Until next time—fonas chek!
Want to learn more about the languages of “Game of Thrones”? Here are a few places to start:
- HBO’s Making of Game of Thrones blog
- David Peterson’s book: The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words Behind World-Building
- David Peterson’s blog about Dothraki, A Language of Fire and Blood (it includes, among other things, haiku written in Dothraki)
- Three podcast interviews with David Peterson: one on The Allusionist, one on Major Jobs, and one on NPR’s Science Friday.
- Oxford Dictionaries’ articles about the words and languages used in Game of Thrones
- If you want to learn Dothraki, check out the book and audio CD included in Living Language Dothraki: A Conversational Language Course Based on the Hit Original HBO Series Game of Thrones
- And of course, the books that started it all: George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series
A Wiki of Ice and Fire. True Tongue (accessed March 22, 2019).
Brennan, William. The Man Who Invented Dothraki. The Atlantic, April 2016 (accessed March 22, 2019).
Lucas, Kate. Dothraki 101: Learn and Pronounce Common Expressions. HBO: Making Game of Thrones (accessed March 22, 2019).
Lucas, Kate. High Valyrian 101: Learn and Pronounce Common Expressions. HBO: Making Game of Thrones (accessed March 22, 2019).
Lucas, Kate. High Valyrian 101: Learn and Pronounce Common Phrases. HBO: Making Game of Thrones (accessed March 22, 2019).
Lucas, Kate. Interview with Linguist David Peterson. HBO: Making Game of Thrones (accessed March 22, 2019).
Peterson, David J. The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words Behind World-Building. Penguin Books, 2015 (accessed March 22, 2019).
Sperling, Katrin. Game Of Tongues — The Invented Languages In Game Of Thrones. Babbel Magazine, April 13, 2016 (accessed March 22, 2019).
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.