Language of Ice and Fire: The Languages of Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire

Unlike J.R.R. Tolkien with his languages within The Lord of the Rings, George R. R. Martin did not create more than a few simple phrases for the languages within A Song of Ice and Fire. Even though there were just a few phrases within A Song of Ice and Fire, it was enough for David Peterson to come up with both Dothraki and both variations of Valyrian (High Valyrian and the bastardized Low Valyrian) for the television adaptation, Game of Thrones. Peterson regards himself as a conlanger, a constructed language maker.1 The concept of creating languages dates as far back as Saint Hildegard of Bingen, an abbess from the twelfth century, who created an artificial language for mystical purposes.2 Peterson created both languages to resemble the cultures that they were from.3 It can also be seen that the languages Peterson created, specifically High Valyrian, to resemble the Latin of our world as the language that all other languages of that region stemmed from. High Valyrian can be seen as the proto-language for the languages that are spoken within the Valyrian Empire at its peak.4

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This can also be seen as a historical method for creating the languages; this was the method that Tolkien used within his creation of the Elven languages, a “simulated linguistic evolution.”5 The languages that Peterson created are not simply products of his imagination, but out of the study of the cultures of both the Valyrians as well as the Dothraki.

While many authors have a part in the creation of everything in their novels universe, Martin left the idea of languages out of his writing. Within the book there was no real need to create languages the same way that Tolkien did within The Lord of The Rings. He simply needed to create a few key phrases within the series to show the different languages, and even then Martin only created these key phrases for Dothraki and the Valyrian dialects. Martin has said about creating the languages within the novels:

Tolkien was a philologist, and an Oxford don, and could spend decades laboriously inventing Elvish in all its detail. I, alas, am only a hardworking SF and fantasy novel, and I don’t have his gift for languages. That is to say, I have not actually created a Valyrian language. The best I could do was try to sketch in each of the chief tongues of my imaginary world in broad strokes, and give them each their characteristic sounds and spellings.6

Even though he is not a philologist, Martin still created the languages for each region, which is vastly different depending on the continent throughout the world of A Song of Ice and Fire. There are forty two collective uses of Dothraki within A Song of Ice and Fire, all of them being words here and there, such as khaleesi and kahl, which mean queen and king respectively.7 Within the series, High Valyrian is used twenty seven times, but only begins appearing in A Clash of Kings, the second book in the series; these uses are restricted just as the Dothraki uses are, to mere phrases and names, including dracarys, which translates to dragonfire.8

There are two languages native to Westeros, Old Tongue, the language of the First Men, and the Common Tongue, the language of the Andals. There are eight recorded languages for the continent across the Narrow Sea, with many dialects not recorded through the books.9 The eight recorded languages are referred to as “bastard Valyrian” because of the variations that they went through over time in the different regions of the Free Cities.10 Along with these languages, there are also the unspoken languages from creatures, such as the children of the forest who are said to sing in the True Tongue, as well as the Others, which is said to sound like the cracking of ice, or as is called in the show “Skroth”.11 These are just the languages that are cited on the A World of Ice and Fire wiki page. There are other Wikipedia pages that are dedicated to the languages within the books, which list even more, such as Qartheen, which is not listed on the A World of Ice and Fire wiki.12 While none of these languages have actual written languages, with the exception of High Valyrian and Dothraki, they are still mentioned to show the cultural differences between the different regions.

Jon Snow, the bastard of the Stark family.

Martin also used language to distinguish birthright and literacy. The surname of a person was used to show status, especially with bastards who did not deserve a family name.13 These people who do not have a proper surname will be replaced with an icon of the region, with those being born in Winterfell having the last name Snow, as in Jon Snow, or one being born in the Reach would be named Flowers.14 While Martin was not a philologist, he knew how to use the English language to convey meanings. Martin also knew his late medieval English, incorporating words that have not been used since the fourteenth century.15

The Dothraki people moving to a new location with their new Khaleesi, Daenerys Targaryen.

Though there were only snippets of each language, the phrases and Martin’s explanations of their cultures allowed Peterson to create the languages for HBO’s Game of Thrones. Just as the creator of Klingon did through Star Trek, Peterson gave the fans at home a real piece of the show that could not be contested. In his TED Talk, Peterson explains this through an analogy with the Iron Throne, saying that from far away or on television, it looked real, but upon closer inspection one could see that the Iron Throne was actually a fake; but through the language of the Dothraki and High Valyrian, he was able to give the fans of the television show and the series an authentic piece of the culture.16 Also in his TEDtalk, Peterson explains that while creating the languages, he had to simulate the change of the language over time and the development that it had gone through over the many years and billions of people who had spoken it.17 With this creation, he also had to change the sounds of the languages to show a direct contrast between the Dothraki and High Valyrian; Peterson created the Dothraki language to be more guttural, mirroring the nomadic way of life they lived, as well as it being a more literal language, using an example of describing a tree to show what he meant by this.18 Peterson himself explains the differences between the two languages as similar to Russian and Sanskrit, but then supports this statement by saying the languages from Game of Thrones have no relation to either Russian or Sanskrit.19

To create the High Valyrian tongue, Peterson used two of the most popular phrases of the books, valar morghulis and valar dohaeris, to conjugate the entire language because of their endings; the suffix “-is” relates to the verb “must”.20 One of the most notable scenes with High Valyrian from the television show, which is from season three, has Daenerys Targaryen trading her dragons to Kraznys mo Nakloz, a slaver from Astapor that has primarily Unsullied.21 Within the scene, Daenerys reveals that she has been lying about her knowing High Valyrian to achieve her goal of freeing the army of Unsullied as well as her dragons. 

 With the creation of the languages, Peterson had a blank slate, meaning that there were endless possibilities for creation. The Dothraki language has no phrase of word for “thank you” but has seven different words to say “striking someone with a sword.”22 The sound of the Dothraki language is much more guttural, which can be heard in the show mostly through the first season, where Daenerys is speaking to her husband, Khal Drogo, the leader of the Dothraki.

 In this scene, Khal Drogo more accurately portrays the guttural noises; even though Daenerys is speaking Dothraki as well, it does not sound as harsh as Peterson meant it to be seeing as how she has a much softer voice. In the slave exchange scene in Astapor, Daenerys speaks High Valyrian, which, in contrast even to the way she spoke Dothraki, sounds soft as fluid; Peterson explains that to him High Valyrian sounds as though “the language has a bow on it.”23

While there is a language created for High and Low Valyrian, which is obviously showcased through Game of Thrones, there is not an active dictionary for it as there is for Dothraki. Peterson has created such a vast language for the Dothraki people that fans have created an unofficial dictionary where other fans can learn how to speak Dothraki.24 There are even wikis dedicated to the language that link those interested to their community, as well as compiling the research that has been done on both Dothraki and High Valyrian.25 There are over three thousand words that have been added to the dictionary, and continues to grow; it has become a fully-functioning language, just as Klingon is from Star Trek, to the point where HBO has released an official guide to learning Dothraki.26 Even though High Valyrian did not get the same attention that Dothraki had gotten by Peterson, there is still work being done on creating the same base that there is for Dothraki, with a dictionary in the works through the same individuals that composed the Dothraki dictionary.27 There are also a few audio clips that Peterson has done at the request of HBO for curious fans wanting to learn how to pronounce some of the most famous lines in High Valyrian, as well as certain requests from fans.28

There are also many fans that are dedicated to teaching others how to properly speak both Dothraki and High Valyrian, with many webpages and videos available that depict accurate, or close variations, of how to accurately pronounce the words. One Wikipedia page deals mainly with the grammar and phonology of High Valyrian, which Peterson has not fully finished developing.29 The Dothraki wiki has also brought together everything that is known about High Valyrian to one location on the Internet, which goes more in-depth than the general Wikipedia page does, including tutorials on how to conjugate each of the words.30 There are many videos online that deal with teaching Dothraki and High Valyrian, specifically with the pronunciation of the words, seeing as how it is incredibly different from the English language.

The video gives very specific instructions on how to pronounce the consonants of Dothraki by one of the creators of the site dothraki.org who goes by the alias of Lajaki. Those who are members of the site Dothraki.org manage the YouTube channel, LearnDothraki, which posts videos on learning the language along with pronunciation.

The historical method that Peterson took for creating High Valyrian has direct parallels to the Indo-European language evolution, with High Valyrian being the Latin of Essos. Peterson explains this is different interviews, and some fans have gone through the trouble of tracing all of the languages within Essos, as well as the Dothraki people and mapping out the evolution of each language.

Valyrian_Conjectural

High Valyrian Language Chart

Indo-European Language Chart

Looking at the language charts, the similarity between the two is extremely evident. While the Indo-European chart is much larger in comparison, the similarities within the structure of the chart represent the same regional change that occurred with High Valyrian. While there is no direct parallel between Latin and High Valyrian other than the visual aspects of the language charts, the evolution within regions is similar. There is also the complexity of the language, with the different conjugations of verbs and the casing of nouns.31 This was an interesting choice done by Peterson, seeing as how by making this parallel he made the language seem that much more real since it relates to the conception of the English language, which could be what Martin was going for while he was creating the many languages of Essos.

The languages within A Song of Ice and Fire are numerous, but Martin only created a handful of words and phrases to communicate them through the novels. For the television series, these languages would have needed to come to life in order to accurately portray the cultures of the novels, and Peterson did just that with both the Dothraki and High Valyrian. The depth that Peterson went into to create the languages, making it fully functioning rather than just the passages had to be translated for the show, he was able to give the fans of both the novels and the television show an authentic piece of A Song of Ice and Fire as well as Game of Thrones. Looking at the languages that Peterson created, it is evident that there is a parallel between High Valyrian and the Indo European language progression, showing that High Valyrian mirrors the growth of a natural language, as well as the fact that it can be regarded the same way that Latin is regarded in Rome, as the original language that gave birth to all others.


Footnotes

[1] David J. Peterson, “How I Created the Languages of Dothraki and Valyrian for Game of Thrones,” OxfordWords Blog, July 16, 2014, http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2014/07/created-languages-dothraki-valyrian-game-thrones/.

[2] Anna Hart, “Speaking in Game of Thrones: How One Man Created the Dothraki Language from Scratch,” The Independent, February 11, 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/speaking-in-game-of-thrones-how-one-man-created-the-dothraki-language-from-scratch-10039904.html.

[3] Peterson, OxfordWords Blog.

[4] Denise Martin, “Learn to Speak Dothraki and Valyrian From the Man Who Invented Them for Game of Thrones,” Vulture, April 23, 2013, http://www.vulture.com/2013/04/game-of-thrones-dothraki-language-inventor.html.

[5] Peterson, OxfordWords Blog.

[6] George R. R. Martin, “Yet More Questions,” The Citadel: So Spake Martin, July 22, 2001, http://www.westeros.org/Citadel/SSM/Entry/1250/.

[7] “Original Corpus,” Dothraki Wiki, last modified February 27, 2015, http://wiki.dothraki.org/Original_Corpus.

[8] “High Valyrian Corpus,” Dothraki Wiki, last modified February 24, 2015, http://wiki.dothraki.org/High_Valyrian_Corpus.

[9] “Languages,” A Wiki of Ice and Fire, last modified October 19, 2013, http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Languages#cite_note-0.

[10] “High Valyrian,” A Wiki of Ice and Fire, last modified February 9, 2015, http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/High_Valyrian.

[11] “Languages,” A Wiki of Ice and Fire.

[12] “Languages of A Song of Ice and Fire,Wikipedia, last modified August 22, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_A_Song_of_Ice_and_Fire.

[13] Adam Pulford, “Words are wind, the language of Game of Thrones,” OxfordWords Blog, April 3, 2012, http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2012/04/the-language-of-game-of-thrones/.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “David Peterson on developing Dothraki,” March 28, 2013, video clip, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rl3Wc5yhIuI.

[17] Ibid.

[18] For mirroring their culture, see, Martin, “Learn to Speak Dothraki.” For Peterson’s description, see ,“Peterson on developing Dothraki.”

[19] Ishaan Thraroor, “Tongues of Ice and Fire: Creating the Languages in ‘Game of Thrones’,” TIME Magazine, May 3, 2013, http://entertainment.time.com/2013/05/03/tongues-of-ice-and-fire-creating-the-languages-of-game-of-thrones/.

[20] Ibid.

[21] “Kraznys mo Nakloz,” A Wiki of Ice and Fire, last modified January 24, 2015, http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Kraznys_mo_Nakloz.

[22] Hart, “Speaking in Game of Thrones.”

[23] Martin, “Learn to Speak Dothraki.”

[24] Sebastian Wolff et al., “Tongues of Ice and Fire: Learn Dothraki and Valyrian,” Dothraki.org, last modified January 27, 2011, dorthraki.org.

[25] “Main Page,” Dothraki Wiki, last modified February 27, 2015, http://wiki.dothraki.org/Main_Page.

[26] “About Dothraki,” Dothraki: a Language of Fire and Blood, http://www.dothraki.com/about-dothraki/.

[27] “Tongues of Ice and Fire: Learn Dothraki.”

[28] Katie M. Lucas, “High Valyrian 101: Learn and Pronounce Common Phrases,” Making Game of Thrones, May 23, 2014, http://www.makinggameofthrones.com/production-diary/2014/5/8/high-valyrian-101-learn-and-pronounce-common-phrases.

[29] “Valyrian Languages,” Wikipedia, last modified March 6, 2015, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valyrian_languages.

[30] “High Valyrian Tutorial,” Dothraki Wiki, last modified February 24, 2015, http://wiki.dothraki.org/High_Valyrian_Tutorial.

[31] “Learning Dothraki,” Dothraki Wiki, last modified February 24, 2015, http://wiki.dothraki.org/Learning_Dothraki.


 Bibliography 

Hart, Anna. “Speaking in Game of Thrones: How One Man Created the Dothraki Language from Scratch.” The Independent. February 11, 2015. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/speaking-in-game-of-thrones-how-one-man-created-the-dothraki-language-from-scratch-10039904.html.

Lucas, Katie M. “High Valyrian 101: Learn and Pronounce Common Phrases.” Making Game of    Thrones. May 23, 2014. http://www.makinggameofthrones.com/production-diary/2014/5/8/high-valyrian-101-learn-and-pronounce-common-phrases.

Martin, Denise. “Learn to Speak Dothraki and Valyrian From the Man Who Invented Them for Game of Thrones.” Vulture. April 23, 2013. http://www.vulture.com/2013/04/game-of-thrones-dothraki-language-inventor.html.

Martin, George R. R. “Yet More Questions.” The Citadel: So Spake Martin. July 22, 2001.       http://www.westeros.org/Citadel/SSM/Entry/1250/.

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Pulford, Adam. “Words are wind, the language of Game of Thrones.” OxfordWords Blog. April 3, 2012. http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2012/04/the-language-of-game-of-thrones/.

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