Game of Thrones: Inventing the High Valyrian Language for TV

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How does one go about inventing a language? Many people have done this for TV and movies before whether it’s Klingon for Star Trek, Elvish for Lord of the Rings or Wookie for Star Wars. The hit TV series Game of Thrones has brought a new language to our screens – Dothraki and High Valyrian.

One of the masterminds behind the Dothraki language in the immensely popular TV series Game of Thrones is David J. Peterson. Although he greatly enjoyed creating a new language for the show, he is a little upset about the way it is pronounced in the series. According to an article on Vulture, the producers decided against the pronunciation Peterson proposed. This is why the Daenerys’s honorific, ‘Khaleesi,’ is pronounced as ‘ka-LEE-see‘ instead of ‘KHAH-lay-see,’ which is the way it would have been pronounced if Peterson had got his way. He thinks the producers chose the pronunciation they thought would be used by the show’s viewers. Although they were right, Peterson admits he cringes a little every time he hears the language: ‘Ugh. God. That’s not how it’s supposed to sound. The vowel change bugs me.’

The word ‘Khaleesi’ was not coined by Peterson himself; it was created by George R.R. Martin, the writer of the Song of Fire and Ice book series on which Game of Thrones is based. However, the novels only feature a small amount of Dothraki words. As the producers of the TV series wanted a richer vocabulary for the characters in their show, they decided to call in linguists to develop an entire language. This was not just a question of ringing the first linguists they found in the Yellow Pages. In fact, Peterson worked on his proposal for the language for two months, in which he worked  twelve to fourteen hours a day. Peterson: ‘The application process favored those of us who were unemployed at the time, which I was.’

The greatest utterances in Dothraki in the TV show are made by actress Emilia Clarke. In order for her to pronounce the language properly, Peterson provided audio files of himself speaking the language; with great results, Peterson adds – he believes Clarke ‘really does speak Dothraki like a natural. She missed a word or two here or there, but such will happen.’ Dothraki is not the only fictitious language spoken in the tv show: the other one is High Valyrian, which can be regarded as the Latin of the world created by Martin. In fact, Peterson believes the language is almost too pretty!

According to an article on Venturebeat, Peterson was able to incorporate references in the language as well. Some of these are rather far-fetched, such as the reference visible in the world ‘belmon.’ Peterson:  ‘The word for chain is belmon. That’s clearly a shout-out to [Castlevania II:] Simon’s Quest.’ The hero of the classic is called Simon Belmont. In the game, Belmont is chasing after Dracula, killing demonic creatures along the way. The protagonist starts his journey with a standard, leather whips, which is upgraded to a chain whip later in the game. ‘Belmon’ can thus be seen as a reference to this upgraded whip.

Even though the language clearly is his baby, Peterson thinks his creation is in safe hands. He especially gives credit to Dan Hildebrand, the actor who plays Kraznys. ‘He tends to devoice a lot of the fricatives, but I take that purely as an idiolectal variant. He’s very convincing,’ Peterson told Vulture. He is less content with the editing of the series, which sometimes cuts out words or even parts of phrases: ‘It’s like, no, you can’t drop that! That word is kind of important.’ Even though no-one would notice it if Peterson would omit a word here and there, he doesn’t believe in shortcuts. ‘Too many people are learning the language. Seriously. I’m always thinking of them, like someday down the line, someone’s gonna spot this.’ Peterson is even asked to translate certain passages of the sixth book in the series Martin is working on into the languages he has developed. ‘He’ll e-mail me once in a blue moon, and then I’ll reply and I won’t hear back,” laughs Peterson. ‘He’s a busy dude. I’ll have to wait to see if he used anything when it’s published.’

If you are looking for a translation services from Dothraki or High Valyrian to English, bear with us as we are still training up our translators!

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