A few weeks ago I held a talk through Litterær salong (‘Literary Lounge’), hosted by the student organization Gengangere in Trondheim. The topic was Dothraki as a constructed language (or conlang) created specifically for the Game of Thrones series. This post will summarize some of the main points I made. The purpose of the presentation was to highlight some aspects of the Dothraki language that I thought were interesting and reflect more on how the language has been tailored to fit into the ASOIAF universe. This post will be a slightly expanded version of my talk, but it will still be spoiler-free.
Khal Drogo and Daenerys.
How was Dothraki made?
If you’re still reading, you probably know that the Dothraki language is a language spoken by the Dothraki people in the ASOIAF universe. We know the Dothraki people through Daenerys’s storyline, where they’re presented as a people whose focus lies on riding horses and fighting. It can easily be characterized as a hypermasculine community (remember when Dany had to eat a raw horse heart?). So how can the language reflect this culture?
The Dothraki language was created by linguist David Peterson, who won a conlang competition hosted by HBO in 2009 with the purpose of creating the Dothraki language. After winning the competition, Peterson went on to construct other languages for Game of Thrones, such as High Valyrian (and its descendants), Mag Nuk (giants’ language, only used for one scene) and Skroth (White Walkers’ language, never used). The language that arguably gained the most interest is High Valyrian, which now has approximately 850,000 learners on Duolingo (more than Norwegian!).
David Peterson (at the top).
The main reason for Peterson’s success is due to his ability to create Dothraki based on the information already available in the ASOIAF books. Peterson was able to make Dothraki fit into the universe as it already existed in the books and made the language fully-fledged and functional for the series.
Features of Dothraki
The pronunciation and vocabulary of Dothraki have to be as based on the books as possible, and the new inventions in the language need to make sense in the context of the ASOIAF universe. The interest part of this is how accurately Peterson has resolved issues relating to this task, and what the end result was in the final version of the language.
The pronunciation is based on words and names mentioned in the books, such as the name Drogo, Khaleesi (the Khal’s wife), Dothraki (riders), etc. The words and few sentences already appearing in the books make up the basis for the sound system of the language. Dothraki ended up with the following speech sounds (taken from the Wiki page on Dothraki phonology):
Most sounds in the Dothraki phonology are the same as in English. The affricate [t͡ʃ] is used in words like change, [d͡ʒ] is used in just, [θ] is the th-sound in think, etc. The sounds that are foreign to native speakers of English are [x], the guttural sound also found in languages like Arabic, German and Spanish, and [r]/[ɾ], the trill/tap r sound used in languages like Spanish. The vowel system is incredibly simple: it’s worth noting that the vowels included in Dothraki are some of the sounds most commonly found in language in general.
It’s cool to think about the fact that the pronunciation of Dothraki is so normal! It’s exactly like a real language in terms of how it works, showing how good Peterson is at looking at language purely as a system.
A lot of the same thinking has gone into his development of the vocabulary of Dothraki. The vocabulary and idioms of the language heavily reflect the culture in which the language has developed.
Again Peterson has to largely base the vocabulary on words that already exist in the books. An example of this is the scene in the books where Khal Drogo speaks the Common Tongue to Daenerys and uses the word chair instead of throne, implying that there is no separate word for throne in Dothraki. Because of this scene, Peterson does not include a separate word for throne in the Dothraki vocabulary. Of course, it makes sense that Dothraki wouldn’t have a separate word for throne due to the fact that there is no concept for a chair that a person of power, often inherited, would sit on.
Another detail put into the language is that the word for book in Dothraki, namely timvir, is a loanword from the High Valyrian word tembyr. When a concept is introduced to a language community through another culture, it’s common to use the word already used in the other language community. In this sense it’s a perfect solution for the issue of what the word for book would be in a culture that doesn’t really use books.
Another interesting part of the vocabulary and idioms in Dothraki is the fact that horses are a recurring theme. In an interview in the podcast Two Girls One Podcast, Peterson says that he was initially planning on having the Dothraki always distinguish between different kinds of horse: mare, stallion, breed, color of fur, etc. This didn’t work out, as the Dothraki lines written for the show would not always align with the types of horses that eventually ended up in the scenes.
There are plenty of idioms in Dothraki relating to horses and riding. One is aha dothrak adakhataan, used to mean ‘I am about to eat’ but literally translating to ‘I ride toward eating’. Another one is anha dothrak chek asshekh, which literally means ‘I ride well today’ but taken to mean ‘I am well today’. Using riding as an image of how one is doing is not far-fetched at all, seeing as a lot of languages use going/walking for the same purpose. How’s it going initially meant How’s it walking (which is still used in Norwegian Korleis går det).
Dothraki as an ASOIAF language
The Dothraki language is a believable language for a universe that’s meant to be a realistic fantasy series. The choices made by Peterson show a clear understanding of how languages work as systems and how language communities interact in real life. It will be interesting to see what happens now that the show is almost over: will it continue to develop? Only time will tell.
I’m considering writing more about the grammar of Dothraki, but that will have to wait until another time. Until then, dothras chek (ride well)! If you speak Norwegian and would like to read more thoughts on conlangs like the LOTR Elven language Sindarin and the Star Trek language Klingon, you should have a look at my article in the student journal Riss, 02/18.