Constructed languages, also known as artificial, invented, or planned languages, are consciously devised for a purpose rather than being naturally developed through historical periods of regular usage. The conlangers, or linguists who devise these constructed languages, do so for a variety of reasons, such as conducting experiments in cognitive science and facilitating human communication through auxiliary languages. However, the earliest languages that were constructed rather than naturally developed served supernatural, mystical purposes. For example, St. Hildegard of Bingen recorded the Lingua Ignota (Latin for “unknown language”), an occult language attributed to divine inspiration, in the twelfth century (Bingensis 934). Similarly, two spiritual mediums named John Dee and Edward Kelly recorded Enochian, supposedly the celestial language of angels, in sixteenth-century England. Through the creation of Enochian, Dee and Kelly intended to recover the language of Adam before the collapse of the Tower of Babel, thus reuniting humankind and enabling direct communication with angels in Heaven (Laycock 43).
The religious nature of these bygone constructed languages is appropriate, as the Genesis creation narrative of Judaism and Christianity is an example of creation by speech (or “logos” in Ancient Greek), in which the monotheistic God of the Judeo-Christian tradition literally speaks matter into existence (Gen. 1-2). The “logos” model of this creation narrative in Genesis is a helpful analogy for the proliferation of constructed languages since the theological pursuit of language invention in pre-Renaissance Europe. In the nineteenth century, language invention witnessed renewed interest in the form of International Auxiliary Languages (IALs) like Volapuk, Interlingua, and Esperanto, unnatural languages whose sustained existence in contemporary society require their speakers to keep them alive deliberately. This element of choice is unique to constructed languages, as naturally developed languages are attached to a specific culture that produces and is reproduced by the language itself. Hence, constructed languages like Esperanto would cease to exist without the cultural presence of a people to sustain them; by contrast they only continue to exist insofar as voluntary speakers choose to use them.
Today conlangers are more likely to construct languages to foster a sense of realism in the genres of science fiction and fantasy rather than cultivating a universal language such as Esperanto. English became a dominant mode of international communication after World War II, and political efforts to consolidate IALs faded away in light of this prevailing imperial tongue. Thus, instead of attempting to unify disparate nations in reality, conlangers transitioned to spreading entirely new worlds through fiction. These sorts of constructed languages are a specific type of artistic language or artlang known as fictional languages, a subset of languages created as a part of a fictional setting (Csicsery-Ronsy 546). The most widely recognized fictional language is the Elvish the appears in The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, a professional philologist and author who originated his fantastic stories out of his own constructed languages. Tolkien explains this process in a letter:
What I think is a primary ‘fact’ about my work, that it is all of a piece, and fundamentally linguistic in inspiration. […] It is not a ‘hobby’, in the sense of something quite different from one’s work, taken up as a relief-outlet. The invention of languages is the foundation. The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows. I should have preferred to write in ‘Elvish’. (219–20)
As Ursula K. Le Guin surmises in The Language of the Night, “Tolkien […] in one sense wrote The Lord of the Rings to give his invented languages somebody to speak them. That is lovely, that is the Creator Spirit working absolutely unhindered—making the word flesh” (47-8). Indeed, Tolkien seems to have understood that natural languages are inseparable from the cultures that produce them, and as a consequence, his languages needed a place to breathe in order to maintain vitality (Peterson 10).
While authors such as Tolkien and Le Guin are revered for generating fictional languages with complete grammars and lexicons themselves, conlangers today often assist in language creation for other projects, breathing a soul into the flesh of these separate imaginary realms, to borrow Le Guin’s phrase. Indeed, the fictional languages of these modern-day conlangers function the same way as Elvish does in the context of the Lord of the Rings books. They are valuable tools that facilitate the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief and acceptance of strange and foreign environments. A few recent examples of professional conlangers include Victoria Fromkin (Paku in Land of the Lost), Marc Okrand (Klingon in Star Trek), Paul Frommer (Na’vi in Avatar), and David Peterson (Dothraki and High Valyrian in Game of Thrones).
In fact, critics have referred to Peterson’s Dothraki and High Valyrian as “the most convincing fictional tongues since Elvish” by the virtue of their vivid linguistic detail (The Economist). A linguist by trade, Peterson cofounded the Language Creation Society in 2007 with nine other language creators. The Home Box Office (HBO) television network turned to the LCS in 2009 to produce the Dothraki language for the Game of Thrones series based on the books by George R. R. Martin after the screenwriters’ attempts at creating gibberish lines for the actors playing the Dothraki people proved unsatisfactory. Ultimately the Game of Thrones production team selected Peterson’s proposal for the Dothraki language from a pool of submissions solicited and vetted by the LCS (Peterson 261). The producers allowed Peterson a significant amount of creative liberty in designing the Dothraki language, as George R. R. Martin himself was not interested in the linguistic aspect of his works (Time). After the initial success of Dothraki on screen, the production team asked Peterson to design a second language called High Valyrian for the third season of Game of Thrones in 2012 (Peterson 199).
These two languages play an important role in the Game of Thrones series and have permeated mainstream contemporary culture as a result of the show’s massive following. Indeed, “Khaleesi” was listed among the thousand most popular baby names for girls in 2014. That number has steadily grown over the years, with 560 newborns named the Dothraki word for “queen” in 2018 (Kiersz). The Dothraki are a race of nomadic warriors that lead a brutal way of life, and the rise of a beautiful young woman in their hierarchy of leadership is an inspiring metaphor for real-life parents wishing triumph for their female children in the unforgiving world of capitalist America. In this way, the audience of predominantly middle-class Americans who subscribe to HBO relate to the hyperbolic warrior tribe despite their ostensible differences (Statista). Clearly, the fictional culture resonated with audiences, but such an outlandish representation of humanity would not feel as realistic without the linguistic immersion enabled by a professionally devised grammar and lexicon. The Dothraki and High Valyrian languages thus transport the audience into the fictional realm of the Game of Thrones series and connect the audience to the series through linguistic participation.
As previously suggested, the fictional languages of Dothraki and High Valyrian permit the audience entry into the imaginary universe of the television series. There are multiple layers of access to the languages inside and outside of the series, and these layers of accessibility allow the audience to experience the languages as emblems of and encounters with the fictional peoples they serve to characterize. Furthermore, Dothraki and High Valyrian are different from other popular artlangs because they are incredibly complete in their grammars and lexicons, and comprehensive explanations for these linguistic elements are readily available to the audience online. For example, in addition to Peterson’s website that explicates the linguistic facets of Dothraki and High Valyrian, Duolingo courses complete with audio lessons and exercises exist for devoted fans who are interested in learning the native tongues of Khal Drogo and Daenerys Targaryen. Because all these learning materials are free, there is a communal sense of ownership over the languages that is shared by everyone who is passionate about the fantasy world of Game of Thrones. This passion for the imaginary people and places breathed into life through Peterson’s fictional languages makes the languages themselves into flesh, to borrow Le Guin’s phrase once more.
In a sense, the elevated demands of audiences today resulted in the meticulous design of the languages in Game of Thrones. Peterson explains the enormous pressure that he felt as a professional conlanger in The Art of Language Invention, a guide to language creation based on his work in the entertainment industry. In the book, Peterson supposes that “probably one in a thousand people” would find inconsistencies in a less systematic fictional language. He speculates that, before the rise of the internet, a handful of discerning viewers would be negligible. However, in the new millennium, this percentage constitutes a robust community on social media services like Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and Reddit. Peterson writes:
One of the most significant things about our new interconnected world is that the internet can amplify a minority voice exponentially. Yes, few people, comparatively speaking, will care if an actor makes a mistake with their conlang lines. But thanks to the internet, those few people will find each other, and when they do, they’ll be capable of making a big noise. Every single aspect of every single production on the big and small screen is analyzed and reanalyzed the world over—and in real time. Every level of every production is being held to a higher standard, and audiences are growing savvier by the day. Language—created or otherwise—is no exception. In order to meet the heightened expectations of audiences everywhere, we have to raise the bar for languages created for any purpose. After all, if we don’t, we’ll hear about it. (6-7)
Peterson notes that, as the number of conlang lines increase in a film or television show, the likelihood of mistakes also rises. Additionally, the cinematic medium is unlike a theatrical performance, where a mistake occurring in one moment is never seen again. Quite the reverse, once a network releases a televised program, the conlang lines are subject to critique from thousands of eagle-eyed viewers in the present and future alike. Hence, the permanent status of the medium exacerbates the severity of a linguistic error on screen. As Peterson adds, “And, of course, if mistakes crop up, they won’t belong to the show, the producers, or the actors: they’ll belong to me” (2).
The Invention of Dothraki
As previously stated, the Dothraki are a race of nomadic horse-mounted warriors in Essos, the continent east of Westeros across the Narrow Sea in the Game of Thrones world (see fig. 1). They inhabit the vast central plains of Essos, the Dothraki Sea, and sweep across the land in search of plunder. George R. R. Martin has noted that, while he avoids one-for-one representations, the Dothraki resemble a historical amalgam of various horse-riding peoples who have resided in open steppe regions, such as the Mongols, Huns, and Native American plains tribes (Westeros.org). As such, the Dothraki possess an intense bond with their horses. Even their name for themselves in their own language—that is, Dothraki—literally means “riders” in the common tongue of the Game of Thrones world; they are said to be born, fight, and die in the saddle (Dothraki.org). While the Dothraki tribes appear abrasive and discordant to the point of hyperbole, they exist within an unvarnished realm that has significantly departed from the supernatural Age of Heroes, which began approximately ten thousand years before the events of the series. David Peterson maintains that if a language is developed for a fictional race of people in an otherwise realistic setting, the language itself should likewise be realistic; as a result, the realistic construction of the Dothraki language is fitting within the context of this largely post-magical epoch (16).
Fig. 1. The viewers guide of the HBO adaptation of Game of Thrones (Hbo.com). 2019. Illustration. Web. 3 December 2019.
Peterson explained he faced two central constraints while drafting his proposal for the Dothraki language. The first constraint was developing the language around the fifty-six Dothraki words included in George R. R. Martin’s books. Peterson refers to this task as a linguistic puzzle: “It was as if I had been given a very small part of a puzzle that had been put together, and it was up to me not only to determine what the picture was, but also to create the rest of the pieces and then put them all together” (89). Peterson adds that he lacked a definite basis for determining the pronunciation of these words, as George R. R. Martin never published a phonetic guide for his Dothraki neologisms. Therefore, Peterson had to extrapolate how the show’s audience would most likely pronounce the words. Supposing the majority of viewers would be English speakers—as the executive producers were American—Peterson opted to devise a phonology, or set of sounds, that was comprehensible for speakers of Standard American English. Additionally, Peterson dealt with a second constraint, as the producers specified that Dothraki should be a “harsh”-sounding language (90). Deciding to treat the spelling of the existing words as canon, Peterson embarked on the mission to organize the sound system for the Dothraki language (46).
The unequivocally “harsh” phonology of the Dothraki language reflects the principle of brand identity. As Peterson describes, this principle holds that certain phonemes that have a rarer distribution than others within a sound system. For instance, if there is a class of pharyngealized sounds, palatalized sounds, or glottalized sounds, speakers and listeners constantly interact with that particular phenomenon. A language takes advantage of its unique sounds and makes them a hallmark of the language, its brand identity (49-50). One sound that contributes to Dothraki’s brand identity is the phonetic transcription [x], which is often spelt as kh. This sound is “throaty” like the ch sound in the German word Bach, and that phenomenon strikes English speakers as exceptionally harsh for the reason that it does not appear in the English language. Because George R. R. Martin uses spellings that are distinctly non-English in the books, Peterson felt the use of non-English sounds and sound clusters was warranted (26). Indeed, the distinctly non-English texture of Dothraki is palatable as a result of the hallmark kh sound: “Jason Momoa has described Dothraki as sounding like German. Many have described it as sounding like Arabic; a few like Russian. Most English speakers I’ve run into agree, though, that is sounds harsh” (Peterson 25). Appropriately, the kh sound appears in Arabic, Russian, and German but not in English, producing a phonology that feels both harsh and foreign to English speakers.
In “A Golden Crown” (Season 1, Episode 6), Khal Drogo utters a string of conlang lines that serve as the episode’s title in translation. Khal Drogo is the chieftain of a khalasar, the Dothraki term for a clan or tribe. A legendary warrior never defeated in battle, Drogo desires the most beautiful and exotic woman in the world as his khaleesi, the Dothraki word for queen. The exiled prince Viserys Targaryen arranges the marriage of his sister Daenerys to Drogo in return for Dothraki troops to reconquer the Iron Throne of Westeros. After months have passed, Viserys petulantly insists that Drogo took Daenerys without fulfilling his promise to provide Viserys an army. Viserys draws his sword and threatens to take back his sister and cut out her unborn child. Furious, but careful to control his emotions for the sake of Daenerys, Drogo tells Viserys, “Anha vazhak maan rek me zala. Anha vazhak maan firikhnharen hoshora ma mahrazhi aqovi affin mori atihi mae.” Not understanding the language, Viserys turns to his sister whom has become fluent in Dothraki:
Viserys: What’s he saying?
Daenerys: He says yes. You shall have a golden crown that men shall tremble to behold.
Viserys: That was all I wanted. What—what was promised. (S1.E6.51:00-51:10)
Assuming Drogo is agreeing to give him an army, Viserys lowers his guard, which allows two bloodriders to disarm and restrain him. Drogo then melts a belt of golden medallions in a pot and “crowns” Viserys with the molten gold, killing him.
The irony of the scene lies in Viserys’ fatal misunderstanding of Daenerys’ translation of Drogo’s speech. Unlike Viserys, the audience grasps that something is amiss in Drogo’s agreement to present Viserys with a golden crown. The Dothraki culture is markedly violent and relentless, and the audience has learned not to expect submission when a Dothraki leader speaks in the Dothraki language. In this way, the form of the Dothraki language reflects its content. Below is a translation and linguistic gloss of Drogo’s lines in Dothraki (see table 1). The grammar and lexicon built into the Dothraki language matches the expectations of the Dothraki culture’s harsh worldview. Indeed, Peterson observes that part of a fictional language’s character emerges from a lexicon that obviously fits together (93). In this sample of Drogo’s speech, the striking harshness of the Dothraki language arises from the high frequency of doubled vowels, the voiceless velar fricative [x], geminate consonants, the trilled [r], the uvular [q], and the forceful [h] (Peterson 95).
|Dothraki:||Anha vazhak maan rek me zala|
|English||I give to him what he wants|
|Dothraki:||Anha vazhak maan firikhnharen hoshora|
|English||I give to him a golden crown|
|Dothraki:||ma mahrazhi aqovi affin mori atihi mae|
|Roughly:||and||men||will tremble||when||they||will see||it|
|English||and men will tremble when they will see it|
Table 1. Gloss of Khal Drogo’s lines in “A Golden Crown” by Abby Mangel.
There is a strict adherence to these linguistic principles throughout the series in the Dothraki language, as the underlying grammatical and lexical organizations specifically were selected for their ability to characterize the Dothraki people. As seen in Drogo’s thinly veiled threat to Viserys, fictional languages are polyvalent, which allows the viewer to experience the conlang lines on several different levels. First, an utterance in a fictional language communicates the difference of the beings speaking it, setting the audience’s expectations for how the fictional culture differs from their contemporary culture in real life. The relationship between a concept and a word is motivated in a fictional language to reveal the exoticness of the beings who speak it. Second, there is the actual meaning or denotation of the words within a fictional language, normally found in the subtitles of Game of Thrones. Third, utterances in a fictional language possess a form of connotation that is akin to the process of reading poetry; an emotional impression forms from the appearance and sound of the words. For example, the consonant clusters in Dothraki look formidable and have a harsh staccato effect in contrast to the smooth sibilance of High Valyrian. Fourth, fictional languages entail a kind of linguistic puzzle, forcing the audience to take inventory of the many different ways that meaning is explicitly and implicitly embedded into the foreign utterances (Cheyne 392-3).
This complicated feat of juggling denotation and connotation in a fictional language requires the audience to understand the character of the beings who speak the fictional language. Indeed, the contrast between the harshness of Dothraki and the fluidity of High Valyrian plays out in the Game of Thrones series once Daenerys takes charge of the khalasar. As Cheyne explains, “A created language is not just spoken by the beings to who belong to a particular […] culture. The language also speaks them” (396). Certainly, the use of a fictional language is a means of characterization. However, in addition to serving as a means of characterization, a fictional language often becomes an emblem for the fictional culture. This observation holds especially true in the case of Dothraki, as the people and the language share a single name; the language and the people are inextricably connected.
The Invention of High and Bastard Valyrian
The High Valyrian language is meant to be the language of the old Valyrian Freehold and its vast empire on Essos in the ancient days. The Valyrians conquered many lands thousands of years before the action of the Game of Thrones series, and their influence stretched all the way to the Isle of Dragonstone across the Narrow Sea (see fig. 1). At some point in time a cataclysmic event destroyed the Valyrian Freehold, and the empire was wiped out (Peterson 201). The Targaryens are the only family of dragonlords, the dragon-riding nobles of the Valyrian Freehold, who survived the Doom of Valyria. They resided at Dragonstone on the island of the same name in the crownlands until Aegon the Conqueror seized control of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. House Targaryen of Dragonstone ruled the kingdom for nearly three hundred years before being overthrown and replaced by House Baratheon, marking the end of the imperial Targaryen Dynasty and the decline of High Valyrian as a prestige language in Westeros (Westeros.org).
Peterson notes that a key feature of language creation is representing the way that languages change over time as a result of contact with varied communities (15). Appropriately, many languages descended from the old High Valyrian language, and these languages came to be known as the Bastard Valyrian tongues. The history of Valyria was modeled somewhat after the history of the Roman Empire, and High Valyrian was intended to have the status of Latin. Bearing this mythos in mind, Peterson adopted a number of Latinate features without literally using Latin as a one-for-one model for High Valyrian (201). Similarly, Peterson intended the Valyrian bastard languages to have the status of the Romance languages descended from Latin. They roughly resemble each other despite having outward differences. For example, the High Valyrian sentence “Nyke Daenerys hen Targārio Lentrot” (“I am Daenerys of the House Targaryen”) becomes the Astapori Valyrian sentence, “Nyk skan Daenerys Targarien” (“I am Daenerys Targaryen”) (Dothraki.com).
The loose association between High Valyrian and the Bastard Valyrian dialects becomes a central concern in the third season of Game of Thrones when Daenerys arrives to Slaver’s Bay, the area on the southern coast of Essos, to liberate the slaves from the rule of the master class (see fig. 1). Although Daenerys speaks the prestige version of Valyrian, she depends on her trusted friend and translator Missandei to navigate the politics of Slaver’s Bay in a diverse number of Valyrian derivatives. The rift between High Valyrian and the Bastard Valyrian dialects underscores Daenerys’ essential “otherness” in Essos, explaining the reluctance of the master class and its supporters to accept Daenerys as a new ruler. Indeed, without a translator, Daenerys is only partially understood by the population of Slaver’s Bay.
In this way, High Valyrian functions as an emblem for the destiny of the Targaryen House, which is embodied by Daenerys’ struggles throughout the series. The usage of High Valyrian has receded much like the power of the Targaryens in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. As Daenerys engages in the politics of Slaver’s Bay with only a fragmentary understanding of the dominant languages, the audience is prompted to reconsider the monumental difficulty of the tasks before her; that is, avoiding Armageddon and saving mankind. Furthermore, as Daenerys travels across continents to build a more livable society and later to fight the White Walkers who threaten to destroy humanity, the challenge of reinvigorating the prestige language that symbolizes her family arises by extension.
This renewal of High Valyrian through Daenerys’ character reintroduces the people of Westeros to the mystical abilities of the Valyrian dragonlords that faded away after the extinction of the dragons and the destruction of House Targaryen. Indeed, only Daenerys has the power to make the dragons to breathe fire with the command, “Dracarys” (“Dragonfire” in High Valyrian). Peterson states that the [y] sound is the source of all magic. As the pronunciation of the [y] sound weakens, so too does magic in the world. Daenerys can still produce this [y] sound, and this reason is why she has control over the dragons. In fact, her control over the dragons actually strengthens as her command of the [y] sound improves (Dothraki.com).
The Future of Dothraki and Valyrian
The futures of the Dothraki and Valyrian languages in an official capacity are dubious in light of the conclusion of the Game of Thrones series. The issue of copyright laws could prevent other writers from using the names trademarked in the Game of Thrones series in subsequent fictions, but Peterson himself has expressed a desire to allow anyone to experiment with the fictional languages in imaginative creations of their own—not totally unlike Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof’s decision to eschew the copyright of Esperanto as a gift to the world (Peterson 9). Therefore, a fan of the Game of Thrones series hypothetically could employ the Dothraki and Valyrian languages in a fictional work that does not violate HBO’s terms.
Moreover, Peterson enthusiastically supports fledgling conlangers interested in devising their own fictional languages. In the postscript of his book, he imagines a few possibilities for other conlangers to explore: “What if there were a language that required all of its verbs to have a second person subject so that its speakers were forced to always consider what their listener was doing or thinking? What if a language forced its user to specify on the verb whether or not the action in question resulted in or was accomplished as a result of some living thing’s death? […] What if, as a form of social commentary, there were a language that forced its users to rate the attractiveness of all human beings referred to by means of a mandatory set of scalar suffixes?” (264). Indeed, a language is nothing more than a system to encode meaning, and there is much uncharted territory in the world of conlanging. If the languages of Dothraki and Valyrian have been exhausted, there are plenty of other possible worlds to breathe life into through the vehicle of imaginative fiction.
Bingensis, Hildegardis, and Joseph L. Baird. The Letters. Oxford Univ. Press, 1998.
Cheyne, Ria. “Created Languages in Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 35, no. 3, 2008, pp. 386–403. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25475175.
“The Complex Linguistic Universe of ‘Game of Thrones.’” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2017/08/05/the-complex-linguistic-universe-of-game-of-thrones.
Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan Jr. “The Science Fictionalization of Linguistic Invention.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 40, no. 3, 2013, pp. 546–549. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5621/sciefictstud.40.3.0546.
“Game of Thrones Viewer’s Guide.” Game of Thrones Viewer’s Guide, viewers-guide.hbo.com/game-of-thrones/season-8/episode-6/map/location/8/castle-black.
García, Elio M., and Linda Antonsson. Westeros.org, http://www.westeros.org/.
Kiersz, Andy. “Two of the Most Popular Names for Baby Girls in America Come from ‘Game of Thrones’.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 12 May 2019, http://www.businessinsider.com/game-of-thrones-arya-khaleesi-popular-names-for-baby-girls-2019-5.
Laycock, Donald D. The Complete Enochian Dictionary: a Dictionary of the Angelic Language as Revealed to Dr. John Dee and Edward Kelley. Askin, 1978.
“Learn Dothraki and Valyrian.” Learn Dothraki and Valyrian, dothraki.org/.
Le Guin, Ursula K., and Susan Wood. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. HarperCollins Publishers, 1992.
“Number of HBO Now Subscribers 2019.” Statista, www.statista.com/statistics/539290/hbo-now-subscribers/.
Peterson, David J. Art of Language Invention. Penguin Publishing Group, 2015.
Peterson, David. “The State of Valyrian.” Dothraki.com, www.dothraki.com/2014/05/the-state-of-valyrian/#comments.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien: a Selection. Harper Collins Publishers, 2006.