With a hugely successful television show like Game of Thrones coming to a close, it is worthwhile looking back at some aspects that have played an important part whilst being in the background. Both the books by George R. R. Martin that the show is based on and the television series itself feature fictional languages: High Valyrian and Dothraki.
Whereas they only play a minor role in the books, which contain only a few words or sentences, they had to be expanded for TV. In the television adaptation, they are portrayed as complete languages which can be spoken. In fact, there are scenes within the show that pivot on the ability to speak them. How then is it possible to turn a few words into actual languages that follow specific rules and can even be learned on Duolingo?
The makers of the show hired the linguist David J. Peterson who then created High Valyrian and Dothraki from scratch. The languages were created around the words that had already been used within the books. Peterson worked around existing phrases like Valar Morghulis and Valar Dohaeris and tried to provide a framework that utilises the existing vocabulary as well as maintaining the structure that was already contained within the phrases. In fact, he “developed the entire conjugation system based on those two verbs”, he told TIME in a phone interview in 2013. Both the phrase Valar Morghulis (All men must die) and Valar Dohaeris (All men must serve) end with -is. Due to the fact that these languages are entirely fictional, Peterson could make up the language without having to rely on existing languages. The vocabulary is distinct from real languages. Nevertheless, what makes fictional languages like this so interesting is that structurally, they work in the same manner as natural languages. That is, in order to be understood as human languages, they employ a number of the same grammatical concepts and even constructions. Still, as fictional constructed languages, neither Dothraki nor High Valyrian have any native speakers.
In contrast, Esperanto, one of the most well-known non-fictional constructed languages, was intended to use the pre-existing vocabulary of learners in order to create an international language. Esperanto has about 1000 native speakers, which while not a high number still is impressive considering the language did not evolve naturally.
One main difference between fictional constructed languages and non-fictional ones is how and why they are created. While they are both artificially designed in order to fulfil specific needs, the motivation behind Esperanto was to create a language that could be used as a common second language in order to facilitate easier communication. Dothraki and High Valyrian were created in order to portray the fictional world of Westeros and Essos inside of the television show Game of Thrones as more believable – ultimately in order to be successful and to make money. That does not diminish the feat of creating a language from scratch of course.
In order to fully appreciate this process, it can be helpful to review some basic concepts of English phonetics and pronunciation.
If you’ve read enough but are interested in these fictional languages, you might want to check out some videos:
Linguist David J. Peterson talks about Dothraki and High Valyrian:
Linguist David J. Peterson talks about language creation: