The Allusionist interviews David Peterson

The latest episode of The Allusionist interviews David Peterson, who’s probably best known as the creator of the Dothraki language in the TV series Game of Thrones. And what an interview it is!

I must admit, it’s always kinda puzzled me why anyone would invest the time and resources to create their own language. Especially since creating something believable is so unbelievably difficult to do. But the interview addressed a lot of my reservations, and the earnestness with which Peterson approaches his work left me genuinely impressed. This is someone who clearly loves language and is meticulous in the way he applies what he knows to his work.

As regards the creation of Dothraki, Peterson had a lot of freedom. A mind-boggling amount of freedom in fact. However, there were snippets of the language from the books as a starting point - around 50 words in total, half of which were proper names.

He also knew that the language was created by an English speaker (George R. R. Martin) who wanted to create something exotic-sounding.

With this in mind, he got busy.

But creating a language is more than just a matter of thinking up a few thousand words and some sort of grammar for them to live in. Languages are unstable; they come from somewhere; people use them in different ways in different contexts.

Take historical language change, for example. Peterson says he likes to consider a period of about 1000 years to give context to the language he’s creating. This gives plenty of scope to create a rich, believable language, but doesn’t go so far back that you to need to create another completely unrecognizable language as a starting point.1

In spite of the gruelling commitment to creating a realistic-sounding language, Peterson admits making a number of concessions.

Dothraki has a general word for ‘horse,'2 in addition to other words for specific kinds of horses, e.g. ‘one’s own horse,’ ‘a young male horse,’ ‘a chestnut horse.’ The reason for this was that the dialogue in Dothraki needed to work no matter what kind of horse they had on set that day. Had he the choice, this general term wouldn’t exist.

Peterson also admits to regularizing things to make the language easier to learn. As he puts it:

There are a couple of things I pulled back a little bit, made more regular, that I might not have otherwise. I thought that Dothraki was gonna be huge like Klingon; that never really happened. So I shouldn’t have been super concerned with that.

The last thing that really made an impression on me was how he handled (or, in his opinion, mishandled) the word Khaleesi.

For those who aren’t familiar with the books or the show, the leader of the Dothraki is called the Khal, and his wife the Khaleesi. In the latter case, people who see this word generally pronounce the suffix -eesi as [iːsi]. I’d imagine that’s the pronunciation George R. R. Martin had in mind too. But there’s a spelling inconsistency here. You would expect the double “e” to be pronounced [eː] or [e.e]. Otherwise “e” signifies [e] on it’s own and [iː] when it’s repeated. And while English has strange exceptions like these, they’re really just historical accidents - they shouldn’t leak into descriptions of other languages.

So, to make sense of the spelling in the books, Peterson decided to go with the the [e.e] pronunciation and avoid the inconsistency. Hence Khaleesi is pronounced [ˈxa.l̪].

But in Martin’s fantasy world, the language isn’t written down, it’s only spoken. It was the author who came up with the orthography. As Peterson puts it:

…the issue is that if the native Dothraki pronunciation is [ˈxa.l̪], then an English speaker who hears that is going to pronounce it either [ˈhɑ] or [ˈhɑ.lə.si] or [hə.ˈ], not [ha.ˈ] ….

And so I should have just respelled it on my own and just said that the word is pronounced [ˈxa.l̪].

Man was I geeking out listening to this! This level of thoroughness and commitment to realism is frankly inspiring.

Finishing the podcast, I couldn’t help but do a bit of research into Peterson and his work. What a rabbit hole I found. Here’s a sample:

  • His blog about Dothraki. Hasn’t been updated for a quite a while, but there’s heaps of great stuff here: discussions of grammar, Dothraki haiku competitions, etymologies… the list goes on.
  • A Dothraki dictionary.
  • A course on High Valyrian (another GoT language) on Duolingo.

On top of that is his book, The Art of Language Invention, which definitely getting added to my next reading list.

Whether you’re a fan of the show or not, do listen to the interview if you get the chance. It’s half an hour well spent.

  1. So, by analogy, if you wanted to create the English from scratch, you would want to consider what Old/Middle/Early Modern English(es) looked like to inform your decisions. Creating Proto-Indo European, however, would be going too far. ↩︎

  2. It’s hrazef [hɾazef], if you’re interested. ↩︎