David Peterson: “Living Language Dothraki” | Talks at Google


DAVID PETERSON: Thank
you guys for coming. My voice usually
doesn’t sound like this. I am really, really sick. So don’t touch me at all. [LAUGHTER] I will infect all of you
with something just awful. But it is nice. I should take advantage of it. It’s very rarely that
I can sing Johnny Cash. “Because you’re mine,
I walk the line.” Yeah, won’t be able to
do that in two weeks. Anyway, so what
are we doing here. All right, that’s me as
a freshman in college at UC Berkeley. I’m very grateful–
oh thank you. So there are some Bears
here at this place that was founded by
people from Stanford. That’s nice to know. But that was me. That was me probably
before classes even started when I was a freshman
in college where my search engine of choice was,
of course, Alta Vista. I remember when people
first told me about Google, and I said why would I ever
use a different search engine? Alta Vista is perfect. It looks like you
guys won that battle. It’s funny. You should go to
altavista.com now. It’s not the same thing. Anyway, but I started
creating languages when I was a
freshman in college. I came to college with
the express intention of being an English
major in order to teach English at
the high school level. And I eventually did
finish out that major, but in addition when I got
there I became fascinated with language, and I was
really just blown away by how many languages you
could take at Berkeley. So I took Arabic
my first semester because I didn’t want to
just really go nuts yet. It was my first semester. I wanted to get my feet. But then my second
semester I took the second semester of Arabic. I took the first
semester of Russian. I took the first
semester of Esperanto, which was a student run
class that was pretty cool. In addition to, I guess
an English major class would have been 19th
century literature. And my first
linguistics class, which was just a very basic
introduction to linguistics, which I took us a
favor to my mother. She said I would really,
really like linguistics. I didn’t think I would because
I was always interested in learning languages not
in studying them abstractly. And so my first reaction was why
would you ever do linguistics? You don’t even
learn the languages. It seems pointless. But first of all, it
came along really easily, and it was a lot of fun. It’s so much different from
reading novels and writing long essays about them. So it was all of that stuff
that kind of contributed to me creating my very
first language in college, which was terrible. It was so terrible
I’m not even going to show you an example of
it, but just to give you an idea of it’s terrible-ness,
the name the language was Megdavi. My name is David. My girlfriend at the
time was named Megan. You can fill in the
rest of the blanks. Anyway, eventually I found
other language creators online because, like most
language creators, I thought I was the very
first person to do it, or, in my case, I thought
I was the first person to do it for fun. I’d heard of Esperanto
and its competitors. I’d never heard of somebody
creating a language for fun, despite having heard of Tolkien. Had no idea he
created languages. And being a fan of Star
Trek The Next Generation, had no idea Klingon
was a language. That’s just the
way it went for us. But anyway I went
about with it, and I started creating languages, and
I eventually got better at it. This was, I think, my biggest
and best known language before I started creating
languages for television shows. It’s a language called
Kamikawi, and you can see this sentence here,
“Oku ke–” what is that? Oh boy, my eyes are terrible.
“Oku ke mata ie leya oala okuka,” which means I never
saw the talking rocking again. So if you ever
wanted to know how to say that that’s
how you do it. Anyway, I kept on with
linguistics of course, and so I really started to learn
more and more about languages. These were three of the
most influential people in my linguistics career. One on the left
there is somebody you might be able to recognize. That’s John McWhorter,
and he’s kind of famous. He’s been on the
“Colbert Report,” so that means he’s famous. He taught a class on
Pidgin and Creole languages which just totally blew my mind. And then when I went to
graduate school at UC San Diego, the middle fellow is
Farrell Ackermann, and he just completely
blew my mind again once I realized
that you don’t have to analyze a language in terms
of morphemes for those of you who are linguists in here. You don’t. It’s a theoretical construct,
and it’s a bad one. I’m just going to
say that on YouTube. Don’t do morphemes. It’s just a mistake. It’ll lead you down
the wrong path, and it leads to bad
created languages. But anyway, so Farrell. The next person I
have never match. That’s Joan Bybee,
but I read her book “The Evolution of
Grammar,” which was my third big huge revelation
for language that completely blew my mind, and that kind of
took me to where I am today. I wanted to meet her. I was in Albuquerque once–
she’s at New Mexico– and I sent her an email saying,
hey, I’m a language creator. I worked on “Game of Thrones.” I’m a really, really,
really big fan. I was wondering if
I could meet you, and she said,
well, I’m not going to be on campus
while you’re here, but it’s nice to know you. And that was it. But that’s all right, because
she is an absolute genius, so she can do
whatever she wants. Anyway, so they
really kind of shaped my linguistic understanding,
my formal understanding of language. And then some of these
folks– these are just some of the people who
really influenced me as a language creator. Oh by the way, I was
a freshman in 2000, so I guess I’ve been doing
this for like 14 years now, almost 15. But these are some of
the language creators I knew who, when
I finally got out of my phase of thinking I was
the only person who did this and was therefor
the best at it– once I started seeing
some of the work that some of these people
had done, I was like, wow, I am really terrible and
I’ve got a lot to learn, and I learned a
whole lot from them. You might know a
few of those names. Like John Quijada’s
language was profiled in a story in “The New Yorker,”
because his language was taken up by what turned out to
be Russian terrorists. It’s absolutely true. It’s a fascinating story. Sally Caves wrote an episode
of “Star Trek The Next Generation.” She wrote the episode
“Hollow Pursuits” that introduces the
character Barclay, and she’s had a
language she’s been working on her entire life. Anyway, these are really
outstanding people that took me over
the hump and helped me realize that I
had a lot to learn. And I’ve done a fair bit. Anyway so the reason
people probably know me is because of my
work on “Game of Thrones.” That’s my kitty. She has such a lovely face. She’s a nice kitty. Very nice kitty. She meows very loudly. Anyway, so I started
working on “Game of Thrones” as a show based on these books
written by George RR Martin. The first language I
created for it was Dothraki. I wanted to create High
Valerian and a variant of I call Low Valerian. And there’s a new
language coming that I can’t say anything about. But anyway, what I
thought I would do today is teach you
something about what it’s like to create a language. I was insanely proud of this. Look at that chalkboard. [LAUGHTER] That’s hilarious. And of course I used Comic Sans. [LAUGHTER] Why wouldn’t you? Anyway, I thought what I
would do is, since the book that I did, “Living
Language Dothraki” just came out, I
thought I would go over some steps about creating
a language using Dothraki as a model, which is different
from when you’re sitting down and creating a brand new
language just totally on your own, and you’ll see
why, but it’s kind of a way in. So if you’re creating your first
language, what might you do? Well, the very first thing that
a language needs is a purpose. And this is insanely
important, and I think that it does not get
enough credit, because you can sit down to create a
language for any reason. But you need to know
what that reason is, and if you don’t,
you’re undoubtedly going to have a
language that tries to fulfill a bunch
of different goals. For example, maybe you do
some things in the language just because you like it. Then you do other
things in the language because you think
that’s the way languages work even if you don’t like it. And then maybe you
do other things because, well, I want
it to be easy to learn. Then you do other things just
because you think they’re neat. And so it ends up
being a language that serves a whole bunch
of different masters and ends up being a disaster,
kind of like my first language. Don’t Google it. Well, Google it. I wrote an essay about how
my first language was so bad and why. So if you Google Megdavi,
you should find it. But anyway, with
Dothraki I guess I always ask this question when
I’m working for any show, which is basically are the speakers
of this language approximately humanoid? So with the Dothraki,
of course they’re supposed to just be humans. But like with other shows I work
on, for example, “Defiance.” They’re a bunch of aliens, but
they’re really, really kind of human-y aliens. Same with some of the
other shows I worked, like “Star-Crossed.” They’re human in the
most important ways. For example, they have
to get together in order to produce children,
and they have some sort of vested
interest in rearing them. They have the same
kind of speech organs. Things like that. It’s like if those
are all true, it’s like, yeah, they’re
basically human. So anyway, if the speakers
are basically humanoid, then they deserve a language
that is basically human. And the things the kind of make
our languages human are not, for example, you
sit down and say I’m going to throw in a language
and it’s going to have nothing but clicks in it. Or it’s going to have
20 different pronouns. No, that’s not the way
our languages work. Our languages are basically
evolved steadily over time, and they’re kind of like the
least common denominator. I mean you can do really
interesting things in English if you want, but if nobody
else understands you, then it’s not– that
little facet you’ve created isn’t going to pass on. Kind of like how I pronounced
both with an L. I always have. I don’t think that’s
something that’s really going to– anybody else do that? AUDIENCE: Yeah. DAVID PETERSON: Yay. Right on. There’s two of us. Pretty soon you’ll be doing it. Or even if you won’t,
your children will be. We’ll get to them, and then
we’ll spell it B, O, L, T, H– the way it
should be spelled. So yeah, when you sit
down to create a language, if they’re human, the
language should be human. But of course, I discovered
working for television series, there are other factors
that come into play. So for example, when I did my
Dothraki proposal– and the way it worked it was a
competitive process, so there were like 30
other language creators that were competing
for that job. And so what I ended up doing–
because the application was interesting in
that it didn’t put a cap on the amount of
material you could present, which meant that
it was a Cold War. I decided I’m going
to do two things. One, I’m going to overwhelm the
producers with more material and than they could possibly
sift through, and I did. By the time I gave them
my final proposal– I had like a month and
a half to do this– I had over 300
pages of material. I though I’m going
to make it look as complex and
linguistic-y as possible, so they’ll just look
at it and go whoa. That’s huge and enormous. I can’t even comprehend that. Then what I’ll do
is I’ll give them one page of material that’s
called Dothraki fun facts, and it’ll just have some of
these things about the language that are totally– the things
that people don’t really know a lot about language
want to hear about language. So this is one of
those factoids that I put on this one page thing. So did you know
the Dothraki have four different words for carry,
three different words for push, three different words
for pull, and at least eight different words for horse,
but no word which means please. It’s like whatever. It’s true. [LAUGHTER] It’s not necessarily
that interesting, but I thought it
would be something that they would
really latch onto. So at this time I had
seen an early version of the pilot, which
was very different. And then what happened later
on when I was doing translation and I saw there was a
new version of pilot, suddenly there was this new
scene that was added where Emelia Clark turns to Iain Glen
and says what’s the Dothraki word for thank you? And then Jorah turns to
her and says in Dothraki there is no work for thank you. As it happened, there was. [LAUGHTER] This is just a
little screen shot of an early version
of the dictionary– the English to Dothraki side
of the dictionary that I had– and I’ve highlighted there the
Dothraki word for thank you. And then of course
the next thing I did was just hit the Delete button,
because of course when you’re working for a television show,
you have masters above you. You’re not exactly
the one who calls all the shots in the language. So now Dothraki absolutely
has no word for thank you. That word sannacho
doesn’t exist. It does not exist in a language. It’s gone. All right, next. So once you’ve got
your purpose down and you know exactly why
you’re creating this language, the next thing you do is
create the sound system, basically how you say stuff. So the boring version is this. This the phonology of Dothraki,
and the linguists in the room will see that and know
kind of what it is. Phonologies kind of arrange
themselves in this way, but that was the endpoint. So what I had to start to do
was– usually it’s up to you to decide how you want
it to be pronounced, but what I had to do was there
were a whole bunch of words in the books that
were already existing. And one of the goals not
only for the producers but also for myself– because I
know how big George RR Martin’s fan base is, even before
“Game of Thrones.” I know it’s enormous,
but before it was big. I wanted to basically
take everything that was in the
books and make sure that it was still
grammatical and worked when I’d finished the language. I thought it would have been a
really unfortunate thing if I saw it was in the books
and say, yeah, yeah. I get what you’re
trying to do here. Now here’s the real Dothraki. No, no, no. That’s just silly. So I started off
kind of like this. Here’s some words
that are in the books. And depending on how
you analyze this, whether you analyze these
things as consonant clusters, or single consonants,
or digraphs– I analyze them as digraphs. These actually all have
the same structure. They’re all consonant
vowel consonant. So K, H is khuh. S, H is shuh. And then what’s
spelled J I ended up doing as an affricate juh. Seemed to make sense. So they all have that structure. What that means is that if there
are words that have that shape, they’re going to be more
words that have that shape. So then that was kind
of like the place where I first started,
so it’s like OK. We’ve got this shape, so
let’s create some more words that of that same shape
using the same phonology. So those are words
that I created that weren’t in the books that
still have the same CVC shape. And then of course
there are more words in the books that have a whole
bunch of different structures, and so I did the same
process to figure out what the phonotactics would have
to be to accommodate everything that was in the books, and then
what further I could with that. I ended up with the structure
the kind of looks like this. It doesn’t quite work,
but I was having problems because if you do
parentheses C parentheses, it really wants to turn it
into the copyright symbol. [LAUGHTER] But the idea is that
you have your consonant and then you have
a very small number of consonants that can
follow it, a vowel, and the vowel is the only
things that’s required. You can actually have
several vowels in a row. And then a syllable can end
with a single consonant, or a word can end with two,
but a word internal syllable can’t end with two constants. It’s pretty simple. It makes sense. Kind of– no, it’s not
like Turkish at all. Never mind. No it’s not. And then it was up to
me to kind of figure out the intonational
patterns, which was fun. Next though is you get to the
larger part of the grammar. Obviously this can be an
entire book or series of talks, but I’m just going to
try to do it quickly. Especially for those non
linguists in the room. Grammar exists
basically whenever you have two words that
come next to one another and there’s a meaning. Then there is grammar. So for example,
this, that’s a kitty. That’s the word for cat. And this is what a
phone looks like. We all recognize
that that’s a phone. That’s a modern phone. So the question is this,
what is a cat phone? Feel free to shout out. What would a cat phone be? AUDIENCE: Phone
shaped like a cat. DAVID PETERSON: There you go. Phone shaped like
a cat, basically. Or like a phone
that was made out of a cat in a really
scary taxidermy way. [LAUGHTER] It’s like, how do we know that? We know that as
English speakers. That’s intuitive to us. We have this idea that the
first part modifies the second even though they’re both nouns. But notice that I didn’t present
you that term in a neutral way. I actually said
this, “CAT phone.” I didn’t say “cat phone?” So there’s a difference
between, for example, listing those two words next to
each other saying I have a cat, I have a phone, and I have
a board game, where you just have this kind of
neutral intonation and saying a “cat phone.” That too is grammar. So in other words, everything
that comes into that pairing is something that you
have to determine. That’s also why, by the
way, in English a cat phone is different from the phone cat. What do you think a
phone cat would be? AUDIENCE: Cat that
operates the phone. DAVID PETERSON:
Yeah, I think so. Like if you’re
working at a company and you had a cat that
answered your phones for you. That would be the phone cat. [LAUGHTER] Yeah, as opposed
to the kitchen cat which makes your meals for you. This sounds like a
wonderful place to work. That’d be awesome. And then of course, there
would be the boss cat, wears the little tie. I need those memos. Also my wet food. [LAUGHTER] Anyway, with Dothraki
if you’re a typologist, this is how Dothraki
types basically. So the word order is
subject verb object. And then you’ll notice if
you– and then also determiners proceed nouns. So if you subscribe to
the determiner theory that determiners are
heads and phrases, then you’ll notice that heads
all line up on the left, so this is a head
initial language, a strongly head
initial language, and you’ll see comes
before the object. So strongly head initial. But again, this
wasn’t something that was completely up
to me to decide. And by the way, this concept
that basically whenever two words come together,
come next to each other, it means something. That’s a really hard concept
for a lot of non language people to grasp, because when
I’m working with writers on various shows,
they’ll often say, well, I’ll just create some made
a term for whatever this is. I’m like no, don’t do that. Look, it’s a made up language. I don’t care. And I’m like, no. You just broke the entire
grammar of the language. Don’t you realize that? And they go, no. I really don’t care. Anyway, I mean other
shows. “Game of Thrones” is actually outstanding. And they let me
really kind of control it, which is just wonderful. I love them for it. But anyway, so
when I was creating the grammar of Dothraki, I
actually had constraints. The big overall
constraint that I was going to use
George RR Martin’s text as the primary document. And there are places where
words come next to one another and mean something. So this is how I
basically determined it. This a direct quote
from the book. You have the crones
chanting “‘Rakh Rakh! Rakh haj!’ they proclaimed. A boy, a boy, strong
boy,” where that’s supposed to be the translation. Obviously you see there are
three words that are repeated and one word that is new. So then this pretty
much– I mean you could try to do some
sort of other funky analysis, but this is the simplest one. This is the most
obvious analysis. And so if you have that,
then it’s like all right. If that’s supposed
to be a strong boy, you see the adjective
coming after the noun. So this was, I think,
the first example I ever looked at in the books. And i thought, well,
that’s pretty cool. George RR Martin always says,
oh, I’m not a language guy. I don’t do anything. But this is interesting. This is interesting. It’s not English. You expect the reverse order. And furthermore,
also notice what I didn’t highlight–
the words “a” there. Usually if somebody really
doesn’t know anything about language, they
just do all right, let’s do English and one word
for every single word here. But no, you see that
there’s no articles here. That’s interesting. That’s really,
really interesting. So anyway, then the next
question becomes, all right, if this is the order
that we see for this, how well does it cohere? It actually coheres
very, very well. So this is an epithet
that the Dothraki use for Viserys,
“The Cart King.” And we know that khal is
basically the work for king. It’s the word for chief. We know that. That was given to us. So then the other
word has to be cart, and so we see an interesting
noun noun juxtaposition where obviously one is a
modifier, one is the head, and the modifier
comes afterwards. So that is incredible. We also have this one, which
is another epithet for Viserys, “The Sorefoot King.” And so we see khal there
again coming first, and so we determine
that this is probably the order of these two things. If we’re following,
so rhae is probably foot and mhar is probably sore. And I did end up determining,
by the way, those H’s, I thought, well, it’s pronounced. I wanted to make
sure that everything that was in the books–
it was like, all right, let’s treat that like
the letter of the law. So that’s how Dothraki ended
up with H’s coming M’s and N’s. I really sorry for
the actors about that. [LAUGHTER] Especially, the
worst word is this. So one of the words he
created was R, H, A, E, S, H, rhaesh, which means land. And so then I decided, well, how
would we do the word for world if we needed. I said well how about
a collective suffix on the word for land which
means a collection of land, so the word for world
is rhaesheser, but if you put that into
the accusative, which is to make it the
object of a verb, it adds an S suffix on the end. And if you think
about the phrase “the stallion who
mounts the world,” the world is of course
in the accusative there, so it’s vezh fin saja. And then the word for the
world in the accusative becomes rahaesheseres, which
is just an awful, awful word. I felt so sorry
for the actors that had to pronounce that
awful, awful word. If I could take that one
back, I’d say no, no, no. I’ll just create a
different word for world. I thought the etymology
was kind of cool, but that is just a
mess to pronounce. All right, moving on. So this was the– I guess
there were two full sentences, but this was the longest one–
“Khalakka dothrae mr’anha.” The was the longest one
in the book– “a prince rides inside me.” so if
you have khal means king, it’s pretty obvious that
that’s going to be prince. So you see some evidence
there of derivation. And we have Dothraki. Of course, they’re
the riders, so it’s like this is probably
rides, and that would mean that this
would be “inside me.” And usually the part
that gets kind of shunted off is the adposition,
so I figured this was adposition
followed by pronoun, and that’s how we did that. There’s another sentence,
“the prince is riding.” They say the prince is
riding, “Khalakka dothrae!” So that made this
pretty abundantly clear. Again, you could probably
analyze it in a different way, but this seemed like the easiest
and most obvious way to do it, and so I thought I should
stick with it for the fans. Anyway, so then
of course you see all these words
occur in the books. So it’s evidence of
a couple of things. First, Dothraki
is going suffix-y. And second there’s going to be
things like verb conjugation. And so I thought it was pretty
uncontroversial to then have conjugated verbs. I had them agree with the
nouns in person and number and also had these
suffixes for derivation. The names turned out
to be pretty simple. There are only two female
names in the entire book. They’re on the right. The others are male names,
and you can see the pattern. It’s pretty obvious
what’s going on there. So that was kind of got for me. But then beyond that, once
I’d figured everything out, everything else
was up to me to do. So like with the
pronouns, for example, that’s the one that we got. Everything else I
was just creating. Again, that pronoun
comes from there. Though if I had to
do it over, I would have made that pronoun
non-nominative. I was going to,
but then I forgot. I did that a lot. But I think probably the most
controversial thing– well, I don’t know if
it’s controversial. The most controversial
I did with Dothraki was add noun case to the nouns,
because I love noun case. And it wasn’t going
to have articles, which I am a big fan of, because
I hate articles in any context. I hate creating them. I hate learning languages
that have articles. Articles never work the
same in one language as they do in the
other no matter how closely they are related. I hate them. Anyway, so these are the
old noun cases of Dothraki where there’s just five of them. I thought they were
there were pretty easy. And for those, again,
non-language people, this is how noun case works. All right, this is English. We say, “I saw him.” You don’t say, “Me saw he.” That’s what noun case is. That’s all noun case is. You change the form
of the noun or pronoun depending on what role
it plays in the sentence. And you don’t do it for
any other reason then that’s the way it’s
just supposed to work. No English speaker
would ever say that, unless they were trying to
imitate caveman language maybe. So in Dothraki, for example,
the exact translation of that is “Anha tih mae,” and then the
other one is to “Me tih anna.” So you can see there’s the
same kind of change going on with the pronouns. But with a greater
variety of cases than just basically
nominative and non-nominative, you can do other things
with it that kind of economize the language. So in English, we have
to use a lot of articles and prepositions to do things. So here’s the usual nominative,
“Kemis rikha,” “The dried fig is foul.” And that second word is
the entire verb “is foul.” So that’s what our
word looks like when it’s just a subject
of the sentence. Now here’s it doing something
else, “Anha dothrak kemisaan,” “I ride to the dried fig.” I use the same
word over and over again so that you’ll be
able to recognize it. And “Anha dothrak kemisoon,” “I
ride away from the dried fig.” That’s the canonical
usage for those two cases. So you just add the
suffix on there, and that’s what
that means, and you have to have a bunch
of other words. It makes it a little
more economical. But you can also do other
things with these cases, and that’s what makes
them really fun. So for example, “lenta kemisoon”
is “the stem of the dried fig,” and use that specific case,
the away from case, in order to talk about things that
are inalienably possessed. So my hand, “qora m’anhoon.” It’s the hand from me. And then use the other
case to talk about things that you don’t
possess intuitively. Like this is the
dried fig’s steed, “sajo kemisi,” because he owns
a horse that he gets around on. All right? And then you can do
other fun things with it. So this is kemis is just
a regular object. “Anha risse kemis,” “I sliced
the dried fig in half.” I sliced it in two. But you also do,
“Anha risse kemisaan,” “I cut into the dried fig.” So maybe you didn’t go
all the way through. You just gave it a little
slice, gave it a sniff, and realized, oh, it’s a fig. I’m going toss this aside. I’m not eating that. Then we have a
separate sentence. “Anha nivak” means I frowned. You can use cases along with
verbs to create new verbs. So “Anha nivak kemisaan” is “I
disapprove of the dried fig. It’s like I frowned
towards the dried fig, and now that’s the
word for disapprove. And that’s just how it works. Let’s see another one. “Anha lekhi kemis,” “I
tasted the dried fig.” And now, “Anha lekhi kemisoon,”
“I tried a little bit of it.” So you tried from the dried fig. You didn’t eat the whole thing. You tried a little bit of
it, and again turned it aside because that’s what you’re
supposed to do with fig. Really not appropriate
for eating. [LAUGHTER] “Anha nithak,” this is a word
that just means “I’m in pain.” So I guess as a verb
it would be “I hurt.” I guess would be the
best way to do it in English. “Anha
nithak,” “I hurt,” because that’s a verb there. But you could also say
something like this, “Anha nithak kemisoon,”
and it’s really hard to translate this into English. But if you imagine
that, for example, you had a dried fig attached
to you right here, and it was just a
part of your body. It was just growing out of
you, and it had sensation. And you could say just
the way you could say, oh, my foot hurts
or my hand hurts, you could also say
my dried fig hurts. That’s what this sentence
means, “My dried fig hurts.” The dried fig that is
literally growing out of me hurts, and it’s such
a bummer that I’m a person that has a dried
fig growing out of me. [LAUGHTER] And then this is– I don’t know. I thought you’d just
might want to be able to know how to say this,
“Yer zheanae ven kemis,” “you’re as beautiful
as a dried fig.” [LAUGHTER] I just thought this would
be something useful for you, because look at those. Just– [LAUGHTER] Yeah, there they are. I Alta Vista’d that on Google. The next bit. So it’s like, yeah, grammar
is bigger than that. You have a whole
talk, but we’re going to stop there and
move onto the lexicon. So the lexicon is
your entire vast array of words that exist
in your language. And so remember how I showed you
the little bit of the Dothraki fun facts. So one of the things I
said on there is Dothraki has eight words for horse. I knew that the non language
people would love this because they love
hearing, oh, Eskimos have got 100 words for snow,
and they just love those things. And so I threw that in there,
and then it became a thing. And now it’s like
everybody’s saying, oh, Dothraki has a
million words for horse. It does, but so does English. Look at that. [LAUGHTER] You can probably think of more. So then the question
is, well, what does this say about the
culture of we English speakers. We’re obviously a very horse-ish
people, all just horse focused, because you could
just keep going. It’s like no, no, no. It’s just means that
there are some people who speak English that do things
like race horses and breed horses. It’s a little different
with Dothraki. The horses are definitely
more important to their style of life than it is for
modern day English speakers. But really where
the lexicon plays a part is in illustrating
where– I’m sorry. Just small examples. This is the word for
horse in Dothraki, hrazef. But it would be no
different if this were the word for horse,
which is actually big dog. It wouldn’t change
anything about the Dothraki if suddenly that was
their word for horse, was a gigantic
dog, which I think would be a good
word for a horse. I call dogs little horses
because of the Simpsons, and so obviously then
horses would be big dogs. Anyway, what the lexicon
does with your culture, what it tells you about is really
where the people live, what level of technology
they’re at, and kind of like what their daily
interactions are. So for example, these are
all words of Dothraki. There’s the word for kale
if you ever wanted that, which you shouldn’t. Carrot, turnip, cabbage. Awful. I’m not down with cabbage. The word for radish is knew. My little cousin created it. When I was in Colorado
just this last week I said, oh, you know what? There’s no word for radish,
but obviously there’s going to be radishes
in this area. And she said I want to do it,
and so she came up with gato. That’s the word for radish. It’s also the word for cat in
Spanish, but that’s all right. It’s the word for
radish in Dothraki. Anyway, Dothraki has
no words for these. The obvious reason
for that is because, well, they just
don’t live in an area where these types of fruits
or– avocado is a fruit– exist. Avocado is a fruit. Avocado is a berry. I know this because I
looked it up on Wikipedia, and so it must be true. Apparently avocado is a berry. Fascinating. So yeah, Dothraki doesn’t have
a bunch of words for that, but it’s because it’s
not really interesting that they don’t have
a word for pineapple. It just means that they don’t
have pineapples in the place where they live. If they encounter other people
that did have pineapples, they’d probably borrow
the word or maybe come up with some sort of a
calque for it on their own if they decided. Maybe they could call
it a dangerous fruit. It’s very spiky. Can you imagine
somebody actually trying to just bite into a pineapple? I hope nobody would
do that, that they would know you have to cut
it up, but you never know. You never know. Anyway, the place where
actually the lexicon can reflect the
culture is usually in places like idioms,
or expressions, or things where you’re just
talking about daily life. So for example, we
know from the book that they worship
a great horse god, and so I gave him this
name, “Vezhof,” which is like “the Great
Stallion.” “Vez” is stallion, and “of” is kind
of an augmentative suffix, so “Vezhof” is the word for
that great stallion in the sky. And then we also saw
that they evidently don’t respect a lot
of modern technology enough to give them– to
borrow the words, I noticed. Or at least this is
my interpretation. So for armor, they
have this word, “shor tawakof,” which
means “steel dress.” That’s basically the
word for Westerosi style armor, which they don’t respect. And then when I came
up with expressions, we have this expression,
“Shieraki gori ha yeraan,” “the stars are
charging for you.” It means basically good luck,
or go you, or break a leg. It comes from the idea
that basically a lot of Dothraki superstition
and religion is tied up with cosmology. They believe that when
they die, first of all, that their bodies
should be burned, and then the idea is that
the soul goes up to the sky and they become the stars,
and that they kind of ride in the Great Stallion’s
khalasar in the sky. And so that’s why the bleeding
comet is so important to them. And along with this, I came
up with this expression, “torga essheyi,”
which means in secret. And it actually
means “under a roof.” So the idea is if you
want to do something, and you want to be
above board about it, you do it under the open sky. They say that everything
important that’s done is done under the open sky. So if you’re something
under a roof, you’re kind of
doing it on the sly. That’s kind of like where
the culture can really influence the lexicon in a place
where a language creator can have fun. All right, last is the
writing system for a language, and sadly Dothraki doesn’t
have a writing system. [LAUGHTER] This is mentioned in the
books that the Dothraki don’t have a written form
of their language, so of course, to
fit with the cannon you have to stick with that. But that was really
a bummer to me because I love creating script. It’s like my number
one favorite thing to do in the entire world. Instead we just had to come
up with a simple Romanization so that the actors could see
it and be able to figure out how things are pronounced. But I have gotten to
do scripts for some of the other shows I worked on. So I just want to show
you a couple of them. So for the show
“Defiance” on Syfy, I got to do three
scripts for three of the different
languages I created. This was the Castithan,
which is supposed to be basically the Roman
script of the alien universe. Everybody has to use and learn
to know how to read this. It’s an abugida. So the top word– I
think these are names. The top word says “key ree
den.” “Keyreeden.” “Kreeden.” Oh no, “Freeden” “Freeden.” That’s what that says. That must be somebody’s name. Or “Fieriden?” No, “Fereeden.” “Freeden?” I have no idea what
that’s supposed to be, but it’s definitely
somebody’s name, because that doesn’t look
like a Castithan word. It looks like
somebody’s English name. On the lower right hand,
though, I can see “taliswo.” That’s what that one says. The one with the big– I
love that letter by the way. It’s just “zwo” on the end. It looks like an
M, but then goes on a really cool roller coaster. [LAUGHTER] And then there’s a
fountain in the middle. That just says “zwo.” And it’s funny. I evolved it so there’s a
reason it looks like that, but it looks cool now. Anyway, so this
is another script I created for the Irathients. It’s kind of more
curvilinear I guess, and their language doesn’t
have as much status in the world as theirs. And then this one for
the Indojisnen created. Most of the scripts that I
create I evolved naturally over time, and scripts
evolve just the way languages do, except that it’s more
dependent on the medium. With these obviously
no naturalistic script would ever be evolved that
would be written like this, but the idea is that
these Indojinsen have kind of genetically modified
themselves to do things better than other beings. And so one of the
little ideas with that, well, they probably also
modified their hands so they can do precise
movements exactly the same way every time. The big Indojinsen on the show
is a doctor and does surgery, so she’s got implants for that. So I figured they could probably
modify themselves to produce these glyphs exactly the
same way every single time, and so it was a
post hoc creation. Not a naturally evolved system. And this one. Did anybody ever watch the
show “Star-Crossed” on the CW? Oh. [LAUGHTER] Well, maybe someday it will
come out on DVD or Netflix. But it lasted for
one season and I was really grateful I got to
do a writing system for it. And I decided to
do something that was really just funky and
totally hard to read and write. I don’t actually even know
what these things say. The little dipsy
doodles you see that go above and below the
characters, they basically tag those letters as being
a part of a word type. So I know that the second
one is an adjective, and I don’t know what
it’s an adjective for. Or maybe it’s just
a name, I think. But basically it’s like you need
to know what the letters say, how the sound changes
work, and then how the little things
that go above and beyond tag them as different
types of words. It’s gloriously difficult. I love it. It’s so nonsensical. Anyway, for friend’s
novel, this was fun. This friend’s novel, she
created a– basically these guys in the novel create a
language themselves. They are English speakers,
so they’re definitely influenced by English
and the Roman alphabet, and they wanted to create a
way to create a kind a cipher. So this is basically
a cipher, and I have no idea how it works. It’s impossible to read, but I
did that for her novel called “The Zonix Deceit,”
which is fun. It looks pretty cool. So then what you do with it? I found that’s one of the
most interesting things that fans have done
with is get tattoos. And that’s just really,
really cool to me. I would never get a
tattoo in my entire life, but I find it really
intriguing that they do. So these are all in Dothraki. I think that that
one is really neat. It says “shekh ma
shierak-i anni” across here, which is
“my sun and stars.” And across the
back of the neck it says “jalan attihirari anni,”
which means “moon of my life.” I was like, yeah. And the one in the lower left
there, those are two sisters. And both of them
got the same tattoo that says “qoy qoyi,” which
means “blood of my blood,” so it’s like, yeah,
we’re related. That’s cool. [LAUGHTER] I just thought that
was so awesome. And then people
have also gotten– these ones are
even more awesome. They’re tattoos in some
of the scripts I did for “Star-Crossed”
and “Defiance” here. I can’t read it– OK, I
know the one on the left says Evan, which was
that person’s boyfriend. And then the one on the
right, that’s her name. So the one on the right in the
upper right, that says Laura. And what’s so cool
about this tattoo is she got that tattoo of her
name on her arm before the show “Defiance” even aired. They were just giving teasers
of what the language looked like a little bit,
and she says, I really want to see what
my name looks like, because I want to get a tattoo. I’m like, OK, sure. Before the show airs. So I showed it to her, and
sure enough there it is. I was like wow. That is awesome. But probably my most favorite
tattoo that I’ve ever seen is somebody– his
name is Jean Peron. I think he’s French–
got a tattoo from one of the languages I
just created on my own. So this is that first language
I showed you, Kamakawi. And this says [INAUDIBLE],
“silent scream.” I don’t know what
the significance is, but that was a language
I basically just created for myself and the
writing system the same thing, and he got it tattooed on him. I swear if I ever
meet him in real life, pretty much my house and
wallet are open to him. That’s just amazing. Anyway, so that’s kind of like
a basic introduction to how you go from nothing
to a language. And if you’re interested
in anymore detailed, by the way, run through,
I’m coming out with a book next year called “The Art
of Language Invention” with Penguin Random
House, but for now you can always just learn Dothraki. So thank you guys so much
for coming, and staying, and listening. Thank you guys. [APPLAUSE] AUDIENCE: So for the show how
much– for all the shows you’ve worked on, how much do
you work with the actors? And how readily do they
accept instruction? And how much do you
have to sort of have back and forth with them? DAVID PETERSON: It totally
depends on the show. It totally depends on the show. So “Game of Thrones,” I’ve
never worked with the actors. I’ve met a lot of them. I’ve met a lot of them, and
they do really good work, but they have separate dialect
coaches on set for everybody, because they were designing
different English accents for Westeros. So then I just kind of
send– well first of all, they get all their lines
recorded by me on MP3. So that’s really, I think,
their number one resource, but then they can go
to the dialect coaches if they need pointers
on various things. But then for other shows,
like with “Defiance,” I talked with pretty
much all the main cast before the show
started, and then they kind of got the hang
of it and go now with “The 100,” which
I work on on the CW. I’m actually talking
with two actors today. So it really depends on
the show, and the actors, and how comfortable
they are with it. I’ve noticed that,
in general, most of the main cast of
every show I work on, they tend to be really good. They usually come
into the project and are told you’re going
to be having a lot of lines in a created
language, and I think part of the reason
why they’re hired is because they think it’s cool. Most of the actors that I’ve
talked with on every show that I worked on thought
it was really, really neat, which I was so grateful
for, because if they thought it was just a burden, it’s
like this is probably not going to turn out well. So I’ve been fortunate so far. AUDIENCE: I actually
had the same question. I was going to ask
you about the actors and how they learn the
phonology of languages, but you pretty much answered it. DAVID PETERSON: I think if
I could add a little more, I will note this. Actors that are British
tend to be better. They tend to get
to it more easily. There’s always outliers. Like Jason Momoa was incredible. What a gift that was. Dude is a horse. I love that guy. And he really just totally
went all out with the Dothraki, and he sounds wonderful. I wish he didn’t have to die. [LAUGHTER] I mean, he’s still alive. His character– I wish his
character didn’t have to die. Jason Momoa is alive
and well [LAUGHTER]. But what I’ve noticed is I
think a lot of the British born actors and actresses
from all over Britain– I think they’ve had
a lot of experience having to change
their accent, either to do a different British accent
or to do an American accent for lots of the stuff
that they worked on, so they’re really used to it. And so when it comes
to a languages, they just jump
right in, and they tend to be pretty good
right from the get go. AUDIENCE: How do you
come up with swear words, or cursor words, dirty
words, or whatever. DAVID PETERSON:
There was actually a really interesting
book that came out just a couple years ago about
curse words in languages. There are patterns. There are patterns. Like all languages
have a feces word. All languages have
one of those, and it tends to be a curse word. But then also
things will differ. In French, for example, a lot
of swearing is with the devil. We don’t tend to
do that as much, like say oh devil take you. It sounds a little fanciful,
but it doesn’t actually feel like a swear. There are usual domains
that swear words come from. One of them is body functions. Another is reproduction,
and then another is usually religo-metaphorical
superstition type things. So all of my languages,
they all have a feces word because it seems like every
single language on the planet is always going to
have a feces word. But then with the
Dothraki, for example, since they place so
much cultural importance on being able to ride
and being able ride well, I guess if you can’t
ride, they literally just abandon you and leave you to
die, which seems kind of weird. I don’t know. I don’t know. Seems cruel. I wouldn’t do it. Look, if you were khalasar,
I wouldn’t leave you behind. I’d find a cart for you. So we already had them
insulting Viserys calling him the cart king,
the sorefoot king, so it seemed like
calling somebody a walker would be
that type of insult where it kind of means
gringo when you’re talking about somebody
who’s non-Dothraki. If you’re talking to a
Dothraki and you’re joking, maybe you can get away with it. But if you’re serious, you
could really insult somebody, you know? So I kind of went
there for that. And then otherwise
it’s just fun stuff. With the “Defiance”
languages where you have all these
different alien races, and then they’re
coming to Earth, there are actually a lot of
insults that go back and forth and change meanings
coming from English and then also coming
from the alien languages. And there’s also
a lot of– I don’t know if you’d call it species
tension or racial tension, but there are a
lot of those type of terms that end
up getting used. It kind of depends on
the project, I guess. AUDIENCE: You started going this
direction in the last question, but I wanted to
ask, for Dothraki, in what way did
things like irregulars and the sort of sound of words
get influenced by the lifestyle and sort of character
of Dothraki? Like angry invectives
shouted from horse to horse, or communicating from horse
to horse, when you’re writing. Can’t really be a
delicate, difficult to understand language. DAVID PETERSON: I don’t know. They do a lot of sitting too. And also if you notice–
and I did actually like this about how
they portrayed it– they show them in their
nomadic lifestyle. They show them moving
from place to place. And you’ll notice that
when they move as a herd, it’s very, very slowly. So it’s not it’s not a
quick thing that happens. So I figure a lot of
conversation happens. It’s not that bad. It shouldn’t be too loud. I don’t know how much
that influenced– don’t think that type of
thing really influences, say, the sound of the language
or the grammar a whole lot. I don’t think that’s
something that happens in natural
languages at least, and I was going for natural. As far as irregulars, that could
be an entirely different talk, but the process is that
for all the languages that I create I start
with a very old language, and then I evolve
the sound system. I evolve the word
meanings, and I evolve the grammar over a period
of between 1000 and 2000 years depending on what
the time frame is. And so things like irregular
conjugations, irregular declensions, irregular plurals–
if a language has irregular plurals, and all languages do. Those always come from basically
a combination of sound change and analogical change
and things like that. So for example, your
mouse, mice in English– that actually came from a
totally regular pluralization strategy where the
old word for mouse was “moos” with the long
“oo,” and the regular plural was “moosi.” And then what happened is that
the vowels changed, so “moos” eventually became mouse
in the great vowel shift. And then over on the right
hand, “moosi” became “mewsi.” And then we lost that “ew”
vowel and it became “meesi.” We lost the vowel on the end,
and then long E became I, and so then we’re
left with mouse, mice. That’s how irregularities
emerge in language. As a language creator,
it’s challenging, but that’s what you have to
try to emulate, that process. So that’s where all the
irregulars come from. It’s fun. AUDIENCE: One the languages that
you have mentioned in passing, but didn’t say much
about, was the prosody. What do you do come
up with that scheme? That’s important for actors
delivering it for sure. DAVID PETERSON: I
actually realized too late I should’ve done
something on that. So first, if a language
is going to have stress, that’s something that you can
just plan out and figure out– the stress system. I haven’t been courageous
enough to try a tonal system with actors, because
with tonal systems it’s so important to
get the tone right. It could be a change
in word meaning. I just don’t feel
confident that it would come across
the correct way. If I was going to
be in a situation where I could be on
set every single day, and be there for
every single line, and say no that
was wrong, maybe. But I think actors would
really get tired of that. So I’ve only done
stress systems. And so stress systems, they come
up in a very– stress systems work in a number
of ways basically. Some of it is based
on sound changes. So for example, the reason that
French apparently has no stress is because it’s
lopped off everything off the ends of words, and so
the only kind of stress that’s there is kind of a light
stress at the end of a word. But with Dothraki, for
example, the stress system is fairly simple. If it ends in a
consonant, it will always be stressed on
the last syllable. If ends in a vowel, it
will most of the time be stressed on the
first syllable, unless the second to
last syllable is heavy, then the stress is there. A nice example is like to
the Dothraki, dothrakaan, stressed on the last syllable. The proper pronunciation
of Dothraki is Dothraki, stress
on the first syllable. But the word for dragon,
“zhavvorsa,” because there’s that heavy internal syllable,
so it gets penultimate stress. Then there are a couple
of other strange things, like there are certain
derivation patterns that move the stress
around, but you don’t need to worry about those. So that’s the stress pattern. Then when it comes
to the intonation, that really is just
up to me to figure out how I want the intonation
of a sentence to go. And I am not happy with
any method of transcribing intonation that’s ever been
devised in linguistics or out of linguistics. I really don’t think that
there’s a good way to do it. So all I do is just first I
record every sentence exactly the way it should
be spoken and hope that the actors will mimic. And then I kind of
do a thing where I do a phonetic breakdown. I don’t do IPA
because I discovered actors don’t learn that
anymore, which is too bad. I break it down
syllable by syllable, and I put syllables
that are supposed to have more
prominence in all caps. And so for languages
like Irathient on “Defiance” that have a really
funky intonational pattern, there are often words
were the entire word has high intonation, because
one of the neat things that Irathient does is for
its subordinate clauses, which usually come first,
most of the words actually get kind
of a high tone. And then we have the
comma, it goes down to the regular low tone. But again, this
is not something– I don’t think it could be
written down effectively. I don’t think it could
be conveyed effectively. So I really just do that with
the caps and the lowercase. I record all the
lines, and I just say, well, if it works it works. If it doesn’t, if doesn’t. Most of the time it works. I’ve noticed that to the
intonation that I do, they tend to do a more
subtle version, especially with Irathient, but
you can still hear it. And I think that actually
makes it a little better. Probably my thing
is to exaggerated, but at least it gives them the
idea of how it should sound. AUDIENCE: On that note,
join me in thanking him. DAVID PETERSON: Thanks. [APPLAUSE]

53 Replies to “David Peterson: “Living Language Dothraki” | Talks at Google

  1. I am a very big fan of the Game of thrones series language of the Dothraki, while saying that I prefer High Valyrian out of all the famous movie languages! The language of the dothraki just sounds so repetitive but that's just my opinion.

  2. OK! Seventeen minutes in and you haven't taught a thing. I am definitely getting bored. I came to learn and you waste my time. I came to learn, I don't have to be persuaded, the class is not mandatory, and I don't care if you think conlangs are "awesome" or "awful".
    Maybe some day you will get around to a more compact style. I am going elsewhere.

  3. Noun cases in a strongly head-initial language can be controversial? If it was anywhere realistic, it would have at least 16 of them.

  4. This guy is amazing, but i'm not satisfied with his answer to that man's question about prosody.  I don't think he was trying to ask why the language wasn't intonation based like Mandarin but more of the general cadence/rhythm of the language. Also French being stress timed is likely to be the remnant of the celtic language once spoken in Gaul. Nobody ever seems to make that connection

  5. 45:45 What in the devil is he talking about? I'm French, and I can't think of a single swear word or phrase that refers to the devil. If anything, English is the one that has a lot of religious swear words.

  6. the reverse order of adj comes after noun is what we do in France ( ex : a STRONG boy in english becomes un garçon FORT in french )

  7. The first book emphasizes that the Dothraki place importance on doing actions under the open sky. Does the Dothraki language have a verb aspect which divides actions into the categories of actions taking place in the open, and actions taking place inside tents/shelters/buildings?

  8. Dothraki don't say please, they ride in on there eight different horses and kill you if they don't meet their demand

  9. Perhaps "kemis" could be used as a euphemism for the scrotum/testicles? (the resemblance is uncanny, after all) If so, I'd imagine the sentence "Anha nithak kemisoon" would be preeety common after a long day's ride.

  10. I think the Indogene language is naturalistic for the Indogene people but just not for us humans who wouldn't be able to move our hands like that.

  11. I've made a conworld. Very detailed. I am currently creating an ancient empire. There are two competing royal families throughout the imperial period. The language for it is agglutinative, and acts as the Latin for my world

  12. Does this mean that Vaes dothrak is "the city of rider"/"the city of the rider" instead of "the city of riderS"
    I think I have heard or read that they translate vaes dothrak to the city of riders, in plural form.

  13. 25:10 Preach brother, Articles are the absolute demon-spawn of language learning. Cursed be the man who invented them.

  14. At the first glance of Dothraki grammar, you would be impressed by the feeling of looking at a very ancient language of not the historical nomadic people but the predecessors and ancestors of those who would later become nomadic, such as Ruoqiang in pre-Indo-European Uyghurstan, ANE in prehistoric Siberia, or some sort of Paleo-Eskimo language.

    But in the mean time, you would soon discover some sort of sense of artificiality or constructedness. A prehistorical pre-nomadic language should be more spontaneous if it's less analytic than this. This language sounds like what you would get, as a result, if you have displaced an entire tribe or caste of Circassian or Ket speakers and relocated them among the ocean of higher-social-rank Austronesian or Etruscan speakers insularly for several generations.

    I understand they were trying very hard to imitate what Valyrians sound like, maybe that's the reason why its so strongly but not fully right-branching…?

  15. Since he couldn't create a script for Dothraki, did he perhaps (or will he in the future) make a script for Valyrian? I imagine Valyrians have a written form of their language. In the show they just used English/Latin alphabet (like in Meereen or wherever, where some people wrote on the wall "Kill the masters" "Mhysa is a master"). It kind of took me out of the show to see that in English/Latin alphabet, if the people of the city are speaking Valyrian (or Astapori Valyrian, I don't remember which city it was).

  16. 9:48 that reminds me that i criated a 20 pronoun system for esperanto because i didn't(and still don't) like their copy paste of english… it was messy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *