Wed
Apr 24 2013 11:10am

Game of Thrones Linguist Interview Reveals High Valyrian Dragons, Wrong Khaleesis, and More

Game of Thrones dothraki language

This week, Vulture has a great article on David J. Peterson, the man tasked with taking the various cultures within Game of Thrones and creating usable languages for them. There are a lot of great tidbits in the piece, including the revelation of a language he created but which the show hasn’t yet used, how Peterson’s work is changing The Wind of Winter, and how we’re all pronouncing “khaleesi” incorrectly!

Spoilers ahead for the books and current episodes of the show.

Languages in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire would never stand up to the kind of scrutiny that one could examine Tolkien’s work with and the author has always been okay with that. In a Q&A session in 2001, Martin outlined his process in regards to creating new languages:

Tolkien was a philologist, and an Oxford don, and could spend decades laboriously inventing Elvish in all its detail. I, alas, am only a hardworking SF and fantasy novel, and I don’t have his gift for languages. That is to say, I have not actually created a Valyrian language. The best I could do was try to sketch in each of the chief tongues of my imaginary world in broad strokes, and give them each their characteristic sounds and spellings.

That wouldn’t quite fly when it came time for actors on Game of Thrones to conduct long speeches in different languages, especially in regards to Daenerys’ Astapor plotline in the current season. According to Vulture:

Peterson, who has a masters in linguistics from the University of California–San Diego and founded the Language Creation Society, spent twelve to fourteen hours a day, every day, for two months working on the proposal that landed him the Thrones job. When he was finished, he had more than 300 pages of vocabulary and notes detailing how the Dothraki language would sound and function.

At this point, Peterson has created almost 4000 words in the Dothraki language, not including “khaleesi.” Which, by the way, we and Ser Jorah Mormont have been mispronouncing this entire time. The technically correct way to pronounce it is “KHAH-lay-see,” not “ka-LEE-see.” Although one could chalk up the error to the Westerosi tongue introducing differences into the Dothraki language.

Peterson is also responsible for the extensive use of High Valyrian in season 3 of Game of Thrones and has been watching along to see how his work is translated. Though the Vulture article implies that Peterson is sometimes unhappy with how his work is handled by the show, a recent post on his blog regarding “And Now His Watch Is Ended” tells a different story:

I was delighted by Emilia Clarke’s performance. She really does speak High Valyrian like a natural. She missed a word or two here or there, but such will happen. Overall, I’m extraordinarily pleased.

Peterson also goes on to explain the fascinating intricacies behind Daenerys’ climactic scene in that episode. She’s actually mixing two different languages together in her retorts to Kraznys to demonstrate her domination:

  • Zaldrīzes buzdari iksos daor.
  • “A dragon is not a slave.”

Of note here: the word for dragon, zaldrīzes. Also, buzdari is stressed on the second syllable even though the a is not long because this isn’t actually a High Valyrian word: It’s an Astapori word that Dany is using on purpose. The High Valyrian word for slave is dohaeriros (whose root you may recognize), but the word they use in Astapor is buzdar, which has its roots in Ghiscari.

Peterson has also created a language for the white walkers in the TV show, although so far the show’s producers haven’t had call to use it. (A conversation between the white walkers would be an amazing departure for the show, though. What could that language possibly sound like?)

The linguist’s work has also been recognized by the series author himself, who emails Peterson “once in a blue moon” to translate passages in the forthcoming volume The Winds of Winter into their native languages, although Peterson isn’t at liberty to say which languages we’ll see in the next book.

You can read a lot more about his process at the Vulture piece and on his own blog. Or just get started on learning Dothraki right now!


Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and is really jet-lagged in a foreign country and just wants the Dothraki word for “coffee,” please. Just. Please.

5 comments
JS Bangs
1. jaspax
So glad you guys brought attention to this. I've been acquaintances with David Peterson for quite a while through the CONLANG mailing list (a hangout for people who like to create languages), and it's been really awesome to see how well he's done with GoT and the new SyFy series Defiance.
Ajan
2. Ajan
Thank you! I have been searching for the Valyrian wording of "A Dragon is not a slave" since 3 days. Glad to see that you posted about it.
Sean Dowell
3. qbe_64
So you would say that Emilia Clarke is a cunning linguist?
Ajan
4. King Joff12
Does anyone know where I can find a list of the High Valyrian words currently known?
Ajan
5. King Joff12
Does anyone know where I can find a list of the High Valyrian words currently known? Thx

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