I put words in their mouths

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By David J. Peter­son n the David J. Peter­son is a pro­fes­sional con langer who’s worked on pro­duc­tions such as HBO’s“Game of Thrones,” Syfy’s “De­fi­ance” and “Do­min­ion,” and the CW’s “The 100.” His book. “The Art of Lan­guage In­ven­tion.” comes out in Septe

Ifirst sea­son of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” Il­lyrio Mopatis in­tro­duces Drogo, the ruler of the Dothraki, to Daen­erys Tar­garyen, the de­scen­dant of a de­posed royal fam­ily. It’s not a par­tic­u­larly note­wor­thy scene, ex­cept in that it was the first to in­clude an in­vented or con­structed lan­guage. When Drogo ap­pears on screen, Il­lyrio greets him in Dothraki. “Ath­chomar chomakaan, khal vezhven!” he says, mean­ing: “Re­spect to one that is re­spect­ful, great king.”

“Game of Thrones” would go on to fea­ture more “con lang” ma­te­rial than any other tele­vi­sion showin his­tory by a wide mar­gin, with sus­tained dia­logue in Dothraki as well as High Va­lyr­ian and Low Va­lyr­ian. I’m the lucky one who got to cre­ate those lan­guages.

When I sat down to com­pose what would be­come Dothraki, I knew where I had to start: the words that Ge­orge R.R. Martin had in­vented. Martin is, of course, the man who wrote the wildly imag­i­na­tive, sprawl­ing fan­tasy nov­els that D.B. Weiss and David Be­nioff adapted for HBO. Any Dothraki word or name that he’d put to pa­per was con­sid­ered sacro­sanct, not to be ig­nored or al­tered.

The­first step, then, was to fig­ure out what words I had towork with and how I could use them as a guide to flesh­ing out the rest of the lan­guage.

In the first three books of the “Song of Ice and Fire” se­ries, there are 56 words from the Dothraki lan­guage. Of those, 24 are proper names. The other 32 are nouns, verbs and ad­jec­tives with var­i­ous mean­ings. Ig­nor­ing the mean­ings at first, I set to work an­a­lyz­ing the syl­la­bles.

All lan­guages op­er­ate ac­cord­ing to rules re­gard­ing syl­la­ble and word for­ma­tion. By look­ing at just about any word in a given lan­guage, you can de­duce some of th­ese.

If, for in­stance, a lin­guist stum­bled across the word “star,” she’d guess — even with­out know­ing English — that there were other words with the same struc­ture: two con­so­nants fol­lowed by a vowel fol­lowed by an­other con­so­nant. And in fact there are many English words with the same struc­ture: spar, stat, trim, clip, prom, etc.

Look­ing at Martin’s words, I no­ticed pat­terns such as the fol­low­ing (“kh” and “sh” are treated as sin­gle con­so­nants):

Con­so­nant-vowel-con­so­nant: khal, dosh, haj, rakh, qoy, khas

Con­so­nant-con­so­nant-vow­elmhar, rhan

Con­so­nant-vowel-con­so­nan­tqiya, rakhi

Hav­ing iden­ti­fied th­ese pat­terns, I cre­ated more roots, giv­ing HBO’s Dothrakia vo­cab­u­lary that would look sim­i­lar to Martin’s:

Con­so­nant-vowel-con­so­nant: lekh, ren, haf, san, mil

Con­so­nant-con­so­nant-vow­eln­hazh, rhal, qwil,

krol, gref

Con­so­nant-vowel-con­so­nan­tqora, gosi, thima, zemo, lofi

Be­yond repli­cat­ing pat­terns, I wanted to meet the pro­duc­ers’ ex­pec­ta­tions that Dothrakiseem “harsh,” since the Dothraki are a rough, war­like peo­ple. Tha tac­tu­ally wasn’t much of a chal­lenge.

There is no such thing as a harsh-sound­ing lan­guage per se — there are only lan­guages that sound harsh to the ears of those who speak a dif­fer­ent-sound­ing lan­guage.

Know­ing that English speak­ers were our pri­mary au­di­ence, the in­clu­sion of the throaty frica­tive “kh” was enough to sat­isfy the pro­ducer’s re­quest. It didn’t hurt that the ac­tor who played Drogo, Ja­son Mo­moa, has a rumbly bass voice.

Once I’d worked out a log­i­cally con­sis­tent sound for Dothraki, I could turn to the gram­mar.

Although Martin claimed he made up phrases on the spot, I was de­lighted to find that his lan­guage ex­am­ples were gram­mat­i­cally con­sis­tent.

The most eas­ily an­a­lyzed multi-word sam­ple of Dothraki in the text is “Rakh! Rakh! Rakh haj!,” which is trans­lated as “A boy! A boy! A strong boy!” Based on the trans­la­tion, rakh must be “boy,” which means that haj must be “strong” — sug­gest­ing that, in Dothraki, ad­jec­tives and other mod­i­fiers fol­low nouns.

Other ex­am­ples sup­ported my the­ory. Daen­erys’ hated brother Vis­erys is re­ferred to by the Dothraki as Khal Rhag­gat, “Cart King,” and Khal Rhae Mhar, “Sore Foot King.” We­know that khal is trans­lated as “king,” which means that the words fol­low­ing it in each of th­ese ep­i­thets are the mod­i­fiers, pre­serv­ing the or­der seen in “strong boy.”

Look­ing at the rest of the ut­ter­ances, I no­ticed other ev­i­dent or­der­ings (ob­jects fol­low­ing verbs, prepo­si­tions pre­ced­ing nouns), and soon I had a fair ty­po­log­i­cal de­scrip­tion of the lan­guage. Af­ter that, itwas up tome to de­cide how I wanted the rest of the gram­mar to work — verb tense and as­pect, nom­i­nal num­ber and case in­flec­tion, ad­jec­ti­val agree­ment, etc.

For Dothraki, I re­ally wanted to em­ploy nom­i­nal cases — mean­ing the form of a noun changes depend­ing on its gram­mat­i­cal role in the sen­tence. If chomak means “re­spect­ful one,” it must change to chomakes if it’s used as the ob­ject of a verb, or chomaki if it pos­sesses an­other noun (e.g. vezh chomaki, “the re­spect­ful one’s stal­lion”). This is some­thing I hadn’t seen other Hol­ly­wood lan­guages do, so I wanted to seize the op­por­tu­nity to try some­thing novel.

Ul­ti­mately, the lan­guage had to match fan ex­pec­ta­tions and work on screen. Re­turn­ing to the first sen­tence of Dothraki: Ath­chomar chomakaan, khal vezhven! he word khal is from Martin; the rest are my cre­ations. The high­est com­pli­ment I re­ceive is when fans of the lit­er­ary se­ries tell me they can’t tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween the words I cre­ated and the ones Martin did.

The Dothraki lan­guage sounds harsh and op­er­ates ac­cord­ing to strict gram­mat­i­cal rules.

He­len Sloan HBO

JA­SON MO­MOA and Emilia Clarke speak the­made-up lan­guage Dothraki in the HBO se­ries “Game of Thrones.”

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