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Creator of Game of Thrones' Valyrian and Dothraki Explains the Science of Constructed Languages

Creator of Game of Thrones' Valyrian and Dothraki Explains the Science of Constructed Languages

David J. Peterson, whose creation of Dothraki and Valyrian have been ranked among the most convincing constructed languages of all time, gives us a peek inside this fascinating field.

Bantis zōbrie issa se ossyngnoti lēdys.

The night is dark, and full of terrors. After 70 television episodes and a long, long night, Game of Thrones stands at the cusp of the final judgement of the Iron Throne’s true king. Set in eras long gone by, a part of Game of Thrones’ fictional docu-history format lies with the languages that its characters natively speak. The most notable of the two fictional or constructed languages, Dothraki and Valyrian, are mesmerising, for they hardly seem languages that did not exist before. From eccentric nuances of pronunciation, to grammatical complications, the languages bear the weight of the periods that they are based in.

Incidentally, while Dothraki and Valyrian might be two of the most popular and realistic constructed languages of all time, their creator is hardly new to the art. David J. Peterson, who has risen to stardom through two of Game of Thrones’ most impactful tongues, has practiced the science of constructed, artificial languages for years now. From the medieval Verbis Diabolo in Penny Dreadful, Nelvayu in Doctor Strange, Bodzvokhan in Netflix’s Bright, and Shivaisith in Thor: The Dark World, Peterson has specialised in creating languages for quite some time now.

A chance obsession

In 2000, Peterson had gotten obsessed with Esperanto, a constructed language that actually has the biggest active following in the world. In his old website that looks visibly late-’90s and wonderfully nostalgia-stricken, Peterson explains his very first obsession with constructed languages, or conlang, “One day, during a phonetics lecture in Prof. Mchombo's class, I was writing in Arabic (a hobby), when I thought to create an Arabic-style IPA. As I was doing that, though, I took a further bodhi tree leap and thought, "What if I create my own language that was like Arabic and Esperanto mixed together?" At that point, the lecture was over, and I started working on the script that would later become the Megdevi script.”

Peterson was, in fact, admittedly more interested in the orthography, as some of his earliest works state. Today, he is a veteran that gave us our Khaleesi — a name that, according to the United States Social Security Administration became more popular than Brittany in 2017 itself. Conversing with us in the middle of a presumably busy week, Peterson says, “I began creating languages in 2000, but I didn't get pretty good till around 2006. If you look at those languages, I think it's a fair representation of the work I did from 2000-2003. My first ever language (was) Megdevi, (and) naturally, the first languages I created were not very good. I began to get better when I studied the work of other language creators in the language creation community.

Building a language

It is at this point that Peterson started working on vowel harmonies and elaborate phonology, some of his earliest experiments coming in with his earliest works. Today, Peterson follows a very open way of working on the languages that he creates. “I don't use natural languages as models, it's not necessary. There's no right or wrong way to begin — if I'm creating a spoken language, I begin by creating the sound system. I feel better knowing that that's in place before moving on to the grammar,” he says

The Megdevi script, Peterson's first constructed language.

What point, then, does he determine as the starting point for the aural effect of a language? The roots, it seems, is in the natural evolution process. Peterson explains, “For all the languages I create, I start at a very old state, and evolve the language forwards by altering the sounds, altering the meanings of words, and altering the grammar. This is how natural languages evolve, so the best way to get a language that behaves just like one of our languages is to simulate that evolution. It takes time, more than anything else.

This very old state is essentially determined by finalising the diction and pronunciation — a factor that has more logistical obstacles than scientific or creative. He explains, “The part the producers will care about the most is the sound of the language, and so I settle on that well before I begin creating the grammar. It would be quite a lot of work for me if I finished the language and then sent them a sample and they hated the sound of it! Much easier to do that first.

Still from Penny Dreadful's Verbis Diabolo

Beyond the real-life constraints of producer approvals, building a language depends on numerous factors. As Peterson states, Determining the sound is partially dependent on creating the full sound system; partially dependent on creating the morphology (i.e. the parts of the words you'll hear over and over again, like grammatical endings); and partially dependent on delivery (what kind of energy you put into reading the lines). All three work together to produce the unique sound of the language.

Characters and cultural significance

A language, most notably, is not just about the linguistic intricacies, or the precision of phonetics and grammar. It is influenced by socio-political factors, erstwhile sociological practices, and above all, the prevalent class that grew the most. Take, for instance, Valyrian — the great, old language was, over time, derived from the High Valyrian origins into Astapori and Meereenese variations. This would be similar to regional dialects and sub-dialects, which vary wildly depending on territories, their history of residents and invaders, and other factors.

Replicating this in a constructed language, hence, is to the effect of synthesising historical roots through a thousand years. Peterson, however, explains that this is a factor that actually does not reproduce itself in how a language sounds. He says, “This is something that only manifests itself in the lexicon; it doesn't play any role in the formation of the grammar or the sound system. Unless a culture is spread across the globe, its vocabulary will reflect its surroundings, and its unique cultural practices. (If I’m) creating the vocabulary for a language, then, I consider the culture to determine whether or not a word or phrase I'm coining is appropriate.

However, such factors do manifest themselves as matters of characteristic and cultural significances, when crafting different languages. This, again, depends on the era for which a language is created. Take, for instance, Verbis Diabolo — the language of the demons was spoken in far recent times in the British horror drama, Penny Dreadful. In easier terms, it came after the advent of English. Meanwhile, Valyrian and Dothraki from Game of Thrones was in use centuries and millennia before the existence of the new world, even in the fictional timeline. This divides the science of the constructed language into two parts — posteriori and priori.

Peterson elucidates, “Verbis Diabolo was an a posteriori language, meaning it was intentionally based on existing material. Dothraki and Valyrian were a priori languages, meaning that it was not based on existing material. Verbis Diabolo was supposed to be a corruption of the languages of man, and so I had to start with the languages of man, otherwise I wouldn't be creating it the right way. Dothraki and Valyrian exist in a universe entirely separate from our own, so using any bit of material from languages that exist on Earth would be entirely inappropriate. The raison d'être of a language will determine whether it should be a priori or a posteriori.

It is this that becomes evident, if one was to closely observe the way phrases are spoken in the ancient languages, including the movement of muscles and the tonality.

Science and art, pen and keyboard

Breaking out of the depth that dictates the science of this fascinating field, one would wonder if constructed languages falls under science or art, giving the myriad nuances that one needs to be well versed in, to create a natural language that is also relevant in a period. Peterson, however, disagrees to an extent. “Language creation is an art that can be benefited by understanding some linguistic principles. It's like a video game. A video game is a work of art, but there's a lot of real science that goes into understanding how code works, etc. The same is true of language creation. Certainly a thorough grounding in linguistics will help you, but it isn't sufficient. It's easy to create a functional language; very difficult to create a good one,” he says.

Interestingly (and rather miraculously), Peterson states that there is barely a lot of technology and tools involved in this process of developing and building a language. “I prefer to use pen and paper and a standard word processor (since I use a Mac, I use Pages). There's certainly software that exists to help, for example, generate roots, if you provide the program with a list of sounds and syllable shapes, but I prefer to do all of this by hand. It's part of the fun!

While Peterson definitely refers constructed languages as a field of art, something that everyone would refer to as art is in the act of speaking, writing and fluently conversing in a constructed language. Which, then, is the easiest to pick up as a new language? Disappointingly (but not unexpectedly), neither Dothraki and nor Valyrian make it to Peterson’s list. “Certainly the one that would be most easily taken up as a spoken language is Trigedasleng, the language I created for The 100. It's an a posteriori language derived from modern English. It's probably the easiest language an English speaker can learn that is technically not English. It has quite a big following online.

My favorite to work on, though, was the Irathient language I created for Defiance. I loved speaking it, loved creating words for it, and really loved the grammar. I'd love to be fluent in that language,” Peterson tells us as we continue trying to fully understand the rather rare talent that it takes to craft languages that have today become common parlance.

The man behind the created tongues is no newcomer to giving rather interesting keynotes and speeches, which often uncover trivia such as the fact that today, the Dothraki languages has over 500 words and phrases, and if you would like to go through Peterson’s Living Language Dothraki collection, you may as well be able to speak the ancient language that you have grown so accustomed to hearing on screen.

After all, valar dohaeris.