For linguist David Peterson, inventing a new language is “like creation itself.”
Peterson is the inventor of the Dothraki language, spoken in the HBO hit series, “Game of Thrones.” (Disclosure: HBO shares a parent company with CNN). And just as J.R.R. Tolkien’s languages infused “The Hobbit” and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogies with an authenticity rarely seen in fantasy fiction, “Game of Thrones” writers and executive producers Dan Weiss and David Benioff say Peterson’s Dothraki brings a depth to their savage warrior culture beyond that found even in George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire.”
Martin’s epic book series is the very foundation of the Dothraki language. Peterson began with the 30 or so words and phrases Martin created for the books, using them as the basis of how the language should look and sound. He also explored what it meant to be Dothraki. “Who are these people?” he asked. “Where do they live? What kind of environment are they in?” He then imagined what the language might have looked 1,000 years before the action in the books and series. According to Peterson, slowly evolving it over the centuries “helps to make the language more authentic,” filling in “the nooks and crannies, the various irregularities” of natural languages like English.
Currently, the Dothraki vocabulary tops out at about 3,400 words -- about twice that of Klingon, which was created for the “Star Trek” movies, and Navi, featured in James Cameron’s “Avatar.”
Peterson plans to continue expanding it. But this language creator – or con-langer - isn’t stopping there. Weiss and Benioff point out that there are several other languages in the world of “Game of Thrones,” and they hope David will create those for them as well. Meantime, he’s already at work on a new project with the Syfy Network. As Peterson describes it, “Defiance” features “several different alien species, who speak several different alien languages, that have come to earth and are now intermixing with American English speakers.”
Peterson, however, expects to spend the next several years answering questions about Dothraki. “There’s such a large fan base for George R.R. Martin’s works,” he explains. And that suits him just fine. Admitting he’s already living a con-langer’s dream, Peterson’s goals for the future are modest. “Ideally, I’d love to be working on more language projects and still have a wonderfully small life with my cat and my wife.”