Words of Honor

David J. Peterson is good at what he does.

That’s why the former UCSD graduate student beat out 40 other professionals to snag a highly coveted role in the production of HBO’s hit fantasy series, “The Game of Thrones.” His job: to create a functional, legitimate language for a tribe of nomadic horse-lords called the Dothraki. It would be a tough job for any language creationist, but it’s made even more difficult by the fact that the original book series canon was so small — author George R.R. Martin originally only came up with a few Dothraki words. 

            But Peterson’s experience speaks for itself. As an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, Peterson first found his foothold in linguistics while taking several language courses including Russian and Arabic. It was there he discovered the small but exciting field of language creation and created the first language and writing system of his own, based roughly on Arabic. 

“And I went from there, and I’ve been at it ever since,” Peterson said.

            After undergrad, Peterson applied to graduate schools in linguistics — UC Santa Barbara and UC San Diego in particular. But before he even received a response from either, Peterson was contacted by Eric Bakovic, a professor of linguistics at UCSD, who presented him with a very attractive offer.

            “[He] contacted me and said that he was trying to get a class funded that would be introductory linguistics through the medium of language creation,” Peterson said. “And I was like, holy smokes.” 

He didn’t need to think twice — and chose UCSD.

What drew Peterson to UCSD in particular is the warm response that the linguistics department gave to the field of language creation, a field often scoffed at by linguist colleagues.

            “There are linguists who look down on people who create languages as being frivolous, as being crazy,” Peterson said. “One of the things that was so nice about the UCSD linguistics department was that everyone there was completely supportive. This was an extremely lovely environment.”

            Peterson credits what he calls a “transformative” graduate morphology class with professor Farrell Ackerman for his language creation skills. In fact, he felt that the class was so important that he took it twice — passing both times.

“It’s going to sound sort of cliche, but there is one professor [at UCSD] that completely changed the way I looked at language thereafter and fundamentally changed the way I went about creating languages,” he said. 

But Peterson’s interest and dedication in language creation wasn’t bound to the classroom. During his time at UCSD, he also helped found an online language community in the form of an email listserv. The “con-lang” list — named as a shortened version of the phrase “constructed languages” — consisted of a vibrant and active community that grew formidably.

            Peterson also helped create the Language Creation Society in 2006, which later branched off into a Language Creation Conference, held in Berkeley in 2007. 

            “It was a place where we got a bunch of people together who liked creating languages in a conference-style setting, where we could present feature length presentations about things in the field of language creation, help out the community, things like that,” he said.

It was his pursuits outside of the classroom that landed Peterson yet another, even more attractive offer. Game of Thrones producers Dan Weiss and David Benioff contacted the Language Creation Society, looking for someone to create a language to help add another level of authenticity to the show. Happy to oblige, and not about to pass up the chance of a lifetime, the Language Creation Society quickly got organized and set up a definitive application process. They spread the word to several listservs and bulletin boards, including an Auxlang mailing list, an Elfling mailing list and a Zompist Bulletin Board and, in the end, the pool of applicants swelled to 40. 

            According to Peterson, the application process was rather simple. Each applicant was expected to submit a proposal as to how they would go about creating a Dothraki language. A panel of respected language creators who chose not to apply served as the judges, and the entire process was double blinded. After the first round, the pool was narrowed down to five applications — Peterson’s included. Following a second round of revisions and input from the producer of the show, Peterson’s application was chosen. 

            Surprisingly, Peterson actually hadn’t been a fan of the series before landing this job.

            “I had heard of it, but I hadn’t actually read the books before,” he said. “Now I’ve read up to Book Five. I’m a big fan.”

Though the series had a limited view of the Dothraki language (the books only provided about 30 or so existing Dothraki words), Peterson still relied heavily on the books in order to understand the Dothraki world, which would in turn help him develop a cohesive language. From the books, Peterson gleaned inferences to the Dothraki experience, from their way of travel (marching distance by horseback) and the types of flora and fauna they encountered, to their surroundings (the Dothraki sea is literally waves upon waves of grain). 

“George R. R. Martin puts a lot of detail into his work,” he said. “I had to figure out what it was supposed to be like, to live like a Dothraki person, and to flesh out the vocabulary that way.” 

Part of understanding the Dothraki lifestyle includes understanding exactly what they do or don’t experience. For instance, the Dothraki would not understand a word like “armor,” because the concept of protective covering is entirely foreign to them — the Dothraki do not intend to get hit. 

The Dothraki’s lack of literature is also an example of this.  Though they have a rather extensive spoken language system, the Dothraki have no sort of written form of the language, yet Peterson did eventually come up with a word for “write,” a modification of the preexisting word “to tattoo.”

“It was all kind of a learning process, where you really kind of forget what you have in your own culture and think about what it would be like if this was what you had, if this was what your life was, if all of these concepts were foreign,” he said.

As for real world language influences, Peterson mainly drew from Russian and Swahili. Russian influences shaped the way the Dothraki language worked — Peterson especially liked the lack of articles and the fact that the basic feminine noun form is actually a plural. And while the sound and shape of the words were formed by the preexisting words in Martin’s books, the grammar was actually influenced by Swahili and Zhyler, a language Peterson had created earlier. 

Currently, the Dothraki language’s word count totals nearly 3,262, with more to surely arrive as Season 2 progresses. When asked if a possible Dothraki-English dictionary was in the works, Peterson was more than open to the idea.

“If there is a publisher interested, we’re available, I’ll just say that.”

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