What follows is a partial transcript of our interview with David J. Peterson, creator of the Dothraki and Valyrian languages for “Game of Thrones.” Included is all the relevant GoT and con-langing discussion, but if you’d like to hear more about David’s personal life, his experiences with TED Talks, or his opinions on “Dark Shadows” and “Kimmy Schmidt,” please feel free to listen to the full interview here.
AA: Hello everyone and welcome to GoT Thrones, Silicon Valley Comic Con edition! I am your host Alexandra August and with me is my cohost Johnny Kolasinski!
JK: Hello everyone!
AA: We have a very special guest for you today, we are speaking with David J. Peterson, language creator for the show
AA: And if you are one of our listeners and you like the show as much as we do, we’re cautiously assuming you recognize that as Dothraki.
AA: Johnny actually just sat in on David’s panel…
JK: Yeah there was a fascinating panel, david’s releasing a film – “Conlanging: The Art of Crafting Tongues.” You wanna tell us a little bit about that?
DJP: Yeah, so basically I, as a language creator, I came to it late, a lot of people started creating languages when they were very young, but I came to it, in, when I was a college student. I hadn’t really heard of it beforehand, I’d heard of Esperanto, but I hadn’t heard of anything else. Also, I’d never heard of people just creating languages for fun, I thought that I was the first one, eventually I found a larger language creation community. I was just floored there are just hundreds of thousands of people all over the world that are creating languages for fun and are never, and their work is never really recognized. So what this documentary is, is basically telling the story of conlanging throughout the years but also language creators, the people who actually do it, the people who are, who are passionate about it – who’s work nobody ever sees unless, you know, you’re online and keyed into the community.
AA: It’s a pretty high-level of nerd and geekdom, it’s not everybody who goes out and learns Klingon, it’s not everybody who goes out and learns Elvish, you are a high, high-level fan if you are actually going out and learning those languages, so I can imagine the creation of those languages is a niche community.
JK: And the term con-langing comes from “constructed language.”
AA: Do you just see the way social media and things like Twitter have affected language and the way people speak as a natural evolution in language or does it bother you occasionally?
DJP: I mean it doesn’t really have an appreciable effect, I think, on speech. It’s its own medium, and of course especially something like Twitter where you can say something in 140 characters that’s gonna bring its own constraints just like, just as poetry brings it’s own constraints. If you ever wonder why poetic language is weird look at the form of a sonnet. You can’t speak normally and have it come out as a sonnet. It’s weird, it’s a bizarre, it’s a bizarre series of constraints on language that produces what you end up [with]. So, same thing with Twitter, same thing with any other medium. Certain things evolve just because of the way you interact with them. Like, you know, from gaming and stuff. You know how, “pwn” emerged, like “pwn” right? It’s just because when you’re typing, especially if you’re typing quickly – typing’s a mechanical skill, so you make far more errors typing than you do when speaking. Uh, and if you’re typing quickly especially if you’re playing, like, you know, an RTS game its super, super easy with your worst finger to accidentally hit the “p” in stead of the “o” which are right next to each other. And so that means a lot of people are accidentally writing you know “pwn” for saying that you “own” somebody. And they know and it’s funny it’s made its way into the spoken language. People didn’t know how to pronounce it at first, it didn’t have a pronunciation at first, which was excellently documented by Strongbad in an episode of “Teen Girl Squad.”
AA: Oh yeah?
DJP: Yeah, he’s like, he puts it up there and Strongbad’s like, “PWN OR PWN OR PWAN or whatever you call it.” It was funny this actually, um your text earlier has lead to a new word in Dorthraki that I’m going to coin as soon as I get home.
AA/JK: (audible gasp)
DJP: Because you said in your text, uh, for regarding where to record this, you said to come to the press room because what you meant to say was that it was a ghost town. What you wrote –
AA: Did I say it was it was a ghost town?
DJP: What you wrote, it’s a GOAT town. It’s amazing, it autocorrected to that.
AA: That’s sounds like I didn’t read it that carefully.
JK: I think Mirr maz duur is from a goat down.
AA: Mirri maz duur is clearly from a goat town.
DJP: She’s from a SHEEP town. Let’s make that distinction here.
AA: And she would make that point, Mirri Maz Duur would be like, “A Sheep town.. a SHEEP town.”
DJP: So what I thought was like, aw that would be a really good Dorthraki expression for like people that they don’t like that are uncivilized – they’re basically from a goat town, so that’s getting added to the language, I’m doing it.
AA: Oh my gosh, if we stop this podcast tomorrow I will be happy.
JK: Claim to fame.
BSo, you got involved with game of thrones in pre-production. So this was your first professional con-lang work. And since then you’ve worked on “Defiance,” and “Star Citizen” –
DJP: No, I’ve worked on “Defiance,” “Dominion,” “Starcrossed,” “The 100 , “Thor: The Dark World,” “Shanara Chronicles,” “Emerald City” coming up and two more movies coming up.
JK: So, uh, is there an added challenge when you’ve got the language that has already existed to an extent as George R. R. Martin had wrote it and then you’ve got to adapt that to above and beyond?
DJP: Right, so the challenge is consistency, um, or the theoretical challenge would be consistency, but George R. R. Martin’s stuff is actually very consistent, it’s consistent across the board. That actually turned out to be very easy.
AA: I remember reading in your AMA you mentioned that it was, that he said he made up words as he went along.
DJP: He couldn’t have –
AA: Yeah, it’s just like the consistencies in, you know the male names all ending with “o,” the female names all ending with “i,” the “kh” pairing complex consonant.
DJP: Yeah and the word order as a thing is really – because it’s not mirroring English word order completely, it’s also consistent across the board including things that are just basically adjectives and then different types of modifiers like possessors – they are all coming in the exact same place which is where they should be coming. Really bizarre thing, really bizarre thing. So, I was, you know, grateful for that, but it also means that I couldn’t do as many kind of like interesting and out there things. Uh, cause like, you know, like for Dothraki it was the thing that he was putting together was basically kind of a romance language or European – an indo-european language, you know has your verbs separate from your nouns, and there’s a little bit of morphology on the nouns, a little bit of morphology on the verbs, no way that you could take that and produce stuff like um, Inuktitut where the the verbs are just monster gigantic and because it like, you know I could do that and try to come up with some sort of a funky explanation for why, oh the stuff in the book is only that way, but it’s just like percentage chance, you expect to see the same type of stuff and you just have random dialogues so it would look weird if the stuff I was creating was too different.
AA: The subconscious ear, at least mine is, very, very, very picky. The Dothraki stuff in the novels was so consistent and had such a distinct style, book readers were going to be listening for something regardless of whether or not they knew it, and I think you captured the spirit of that imaginary sound very well.
DJP: Ah I hope so, so and yeah that was the thing, when we were applying for the job there were lots, you know there are lots of different conlangers, that are putting together proposals and a lot of them were extremely clever about how they were taking the source material and basically allowing them to do whatever they wanted. But I figured like, they want, they just want, they want the obvious, they want what’s expected based on what’s there so lets just do that and then try to have as much fun with that as I can.
AA: Do you find it easier when creating a language such a strong cultural for the society for which you’re creating the language?
DJP: … It doesn’t play any role in the grammar, the grammar’s just whatever you want to do. The place where it’s most useful is in coining words because you get a better idea of what, what their daily life is like. You know, what a usual day is like what an unusual day is like for them which you absolutely for example DON’T’ get with the Valyrians, so that’s really tough. Cause I just don’t – there’s just a lot of really blank spots in the Valyrian lexicon because I don’t know what it was like. It’s not like even I can go ask George R. R. Martin because he just won’t tell me!
AA: Have you read The World of Ice and Fire, gotten the big giant tome?
DJP: Yeah, I’ve gotten it.
AA: The stuff with the Valyrian history is kind of compact, you have a picture of what happened to them and what they did, but not of their culture at all.
DJP: And you really do get a sense of that with the Dothraki, so, it’s like the only way to really get it is to have scenes like that that, scenes in the past so you can see what it was like, and so that’s why like there are just kind of these intentional little blank spots in the language that are probably gonna remain blank for some time just cause I don’t wanna do too much both because it’s George R. R. Martin’s territory and second, you know, if I did something and he created something that was totally different, it’s like well, what have I done here?
JK: Have you given any thought to what the Westerosi language would sound like if we were having a untranslated since we hear it with English standard accent generally.
DJP: No, I think it would be an English-like language, that’s my sense. Uh, so, you know another one of those indo-european-y languages where some stuff happened with the verbs and a little bit of stuff happening with the nouns, you know, have a nice little iambic pentameter cadence, though the words would be unfamiliar. That’s what I always thought, tending more towards old English Germanic than towards something like Irish.
JK: We have some questions from our fans and folks, one of which is, how much of the plot do you get to know in advance?
DJP: Um, everything that’s relevant to me they just send me the pages, the complete pages, the only time they didn’t was for this season for one scene where they told me I was translating something but they wouldn’t say who the character was or what was happening in the scene.
AA: Upcoming season or Season 5?
DJP: Upcoming season. It’s getting more and more like that I think especially since we’ve outdistanced the books, um, they’re um, much more secure about spoilers now. I mean, this is why you read they’re not giving out any episodes.
AA: That’s so exciting…
JK: I’m curious about you just as a fan of the show, is this something that you would’ve watched outside of your experience?
DJP: I will say that it is definitely a show that I would’ve enjoyed and would’ve liked watching – it is probably not a show I would’ve watched. Yeah, Just cause, I don’t know. You know, I was never a fan of fantasy, uh, beforehand, and it’s like, you know, and of course it wasn’t like I was somebody who was rich enough to have HBO all the time. And so um, you know, I don’t’ think I ever would have actually sat down and watched it. But of course, it’s interesting to think about oneself in the situation now where it’s obviously such a phenomenon I would’ve been hearing about and hearing lots about but, probably would’ve bucked against it and resisted watching. But I’m glad I did because it’s such a good show.
And also I just love the acting performances. “Game of Thrones” gets a lot of attention for the big events that happen, you know the things that happen, but you know just it’s so enjoyable just to sit watch two characters sit there and just talk to each other.
JK: And there’s in “Conlanging,” we saw a clip of Jason Momoa working on the language and how much he enjoyed the fact, well, at first was terrified and then enjoyed the fact that he got to play in this created, kind of for him, environment.
DJP: Yeah, man he’s really good. He can still do it. You know cause it’s like, we filmed that interview last year. He can still do it and he has like, he has like this bag of tricks that amazed me. I’m just like, “Jeez man, I’m so lucky that it was you.”
JK: I thought that that was like him rehearsing somewhere years ago for the show, not him doing it a year ago!
DJP: Oh, I know, yeah, it’s incredible, he can still call it up. That was awesome.
JK: So you coached him, so you worked with him personally quite a bit?
DJP: NO! I didn’t meet him until he was dead, that’s the way it is for most of the characters in “Game of Thrones,” I meet’em when they’re dead I met Amrita Acharia, who played Irri after she was dead. I met Dan Hildebrand after he was dead, I did meet Nathalie Emannuel who’s still on the show alive and kicking, thank God for that.
JK: Oh, so this is a question where someone will probably fly over from Europe and stab me if I don’t ask it, is there a reason why “hand of gold” and “lord of light” sound extremely similar in Valyrian?
DJP: Uh, I will tell you this, no, it was accidental, but I kinda like it now, so you know, I can work with that, if that’s a thing, I can work with that.
AA: So if we’re just gonna totally geek out, what are some of your favorite fan moments of the show or something you’d really like to see happen in season 6?
DJP: Well, just in general in the series, I wanna see some of these other places, you know like the Summer Isles. That sounds cool to me, I wanna see what Asshai is like. And it seems like with the general train of the series, I mean nobody knows how it’s gonna go, but it seems like we’re not gonna get there, it seems like we pushed as far east as we’re gonna push and now we’re moving west.
JK: And if folks want to find out more about “Conlanging”?
DJP: Conlangingfilm.com will tell you more about our documentary, the conlanging documentary, “Conlanging: The Art of Crafting Tongues,” excuse me. In general if you want to know more about language creation, you know, how to do it, who does it, go to conlang.org.
AA: Great, thank you so much, this has been a blast!
DJP: Yeah, thanks for having me.
JK: Anything else to add?
AA: Just the Dothraki word for “thank you” which I’m told doesn’t exist.
DJP: No, but in High Valyrian? Kirim vose.
This is a partial transcript of our interview with David J. Peterson, encompassing relevant discussions about con-langing and “Game of Thrones.” If you’d like to hear more about David’s childhood, his experiences with TED Talks, his feelings about “Dark Shadows” and what it was like hearing Dothraki appear on “The Office,” you can find the full interview here.