Game of Thrones special: how to create a language from only two words

by OFER TIROSH 27/02/2019
Game of Thrones special: how to create a language from only two words

Game of Thrones fans around the world are excitedly awaiting the eighth and final season of the hit television show, the first episode of which airs on 15 April. While we eagerly wait to find out how the final confrontation between the living and the dead goes down, we’ve taken a look at some of the languages that the show encompasses. 

It might surprise Game of Thrones fans to know that the George R R Martin, the author of the Song of Ice and Fire novels on which the show is based, made up incredibly few words as part of his epic series. While he invented the odd descriptive word – Khaleesi being the most obvious example – he shied away from giving his characters any spoken language, other than the High Valyrian phrase “Valar morghulis,” meaning “All men must die.”

How to create a language 

Instead, the creation of Game of Thrones’ languages for the TV series was thrown open to all those with a passion for language, via a contest run through the Language Creation Society. It was the society’s cofounder David J Peterson who ended up with the task of creating both the High Valyrian and Dothraki tongues – a job which viewers will no doubt agree he has tackled extremely successfully! 

Yet Peterson had only two spoken words on which to base his High Valyrian, along with an odd handful of nouns from which to create Dothraki. So where did he start? 

According to Alexander Nikolaev, a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of classical studies and of linguistics, the first step in language creation is to think about universal grammar – those underlying principles that mean there are similarities between all of the Earth’s 7,000 or so languages, no matter how different they sound. Deciding whether or not to adhere to these principles will change the fundamental sound of a language. Star Trek’s Klingon language, for example, veers away from these principles, which is part of the reason that it sounds so alien when spoken. 

Nikolaev advises addressing the language’s grammar next, laying down rules that cover everything from phonology and morphology to syntax and semantics. The final step is the lexicon, or vocabulary, which is where the language creator can finally have some fun, have spent so much time focusing on grammatical rules. 

Game of Thrones versus Lord of the Rings

The languages in the Game of Thrones TV series are highly developed and sound incredibly convincing. The Economist even went so far as to call Valyrian and Dothraki, “the most convincing fictional tongues since Elvish.” The comparison with Tolkien’s languages is understandable – and a compliment to David Peterson’s linguistic abilities. 

Yet the novels themselves differ hugely in their approach to languages. Martin refers frequently to the languages that his characters speak, yet shied away from actually creating those languages – by his own admission he isn’t a ‘languages guy.’ 

Tolkien, on the other hand, relished the language creation process. He began creating his Elvin tongue while still at school and continued to add to it until his death in 1973 – for him, the language transcended the fiction. 

Made-up language learning

There’s something about made up languages that clearly appeals to those with a love of linguistics – and science fantasy/fiction! The Irish Independent newspaper reported back in 2011 that more people now speak Elvish than Irish. Klingon, meanwhile, is so popular that people have gone so far as to hold Klingon wedding ceremonies. The University of Texas at Austin, meanwhile, ran a course entitled Invented Languages: Klingon and Beyond. 

Those looking to learn Valyrian or Dothraki are in luck – online resources include everything from dictionaries to wikis to aid in their studies. And with season eight of Game of Thrones on the horizon, it’s likely they’ll soon have a whole heap of new words to add into the mix! Although it might be a little soon for the Tomedes team to add High Valyrian translation services to our offering – we’ll stick with Russian translation, French translation and other more commonly spoken tongues. For now, at least! 

Final thoughts

Have you ever tried to create a language? Or have you learnt a made-up language? We would love to hear about your experiences – you can share them by leaving a comment below. 

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