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6 Questions With Dothraki Creator David J. Peterson: Transcript

As part of our “6 Questions With” series, we chatted about creating, deconstructing and learning languages with David Peterson, the conlanger who invented the fictional languages you hear being spoken on ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Emerald City.’ Here’s the full interview.
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6 Questions With Dothraki Creator David J. Peterson: Transcript

This is the full transcript of our interview with David Peterson. To read the condensed version, “6 Questions With Dothraki Creator David Peterson,” click here.

BABBEL: Very basic first question: how did you get into language creation?

PETERSON: I created my first language in my first linguistics class. Prior, I had taken a number of languages at Berkeley as a freshman, including Esperanto, where I learned that people could create languages. I had only ever heard of languages created for international communication. When I started taking my first linguistics course, I was exposed to all of these different ideas about ways that language could work. I came up with the idea of creating my own language, but reading Esperanto was fine for international communication. I decided to create it for fun, just for my own personal use. Then I kept at it until it ceased being fun, and that hasn’t happened yet. It’s been about 17 years.

BABBEL: That’s amazing. When you started doing this for fun, I’m assuming that you probably weren’t the first person to ever do that. Were there already conlang communities in place when you were getting into it?

PETERSON: There were, but I didn’t happen upon any other language creators until probably about half a year, I would say at least. Maybe it was less. I’ll have to go back and look sometime at the email records, so I know exactly when. When I found them, the first one I ever came in contact with was a conlanger from Argentina named Pablo David Flores, who had on his website an essay that he had written about how to create a language. It was through his website that I found the constructed languages list, which is the first online, well, the first conlanger community, period. I joined the list then, and I’ve been a part of the community ever since.

Yeah, it was a bit of a rude awakening to learn that there were hundreds, if not thousands of others who also created languages for fun. I don’t know if I was the first person to ever do so, thinking that the only other ones that had ever been created were for international communication.

It was another shock to learn that not only was I one of many, but I was also not very good compared to those that I was meeting who, of course, had been at it for much longer. Some, of course, also had a much larger background in linguistics than I did at the time. Nevertheless, once I learned that, I was able to internalize it, and then start learning other people’s created languages, continuing to study linguistics, continuing to study languages on my own, and continuing to create my own languages. Bit by bit, I got better and better, I guess until I was where I am today. I think that I’m still improving.

BABBEL: I’m curious about conlang communities. Why do you think people enjoy creating languages?

PETERSON: I think there’s lots of different reasons. Honestly, at the base of it, I think it’s just that people enjoy the activity. It’s really neat because it’s like putting together a puzzle, and also building the puzzle pieces that make the puzzle. It’s very difficult. It’s very taxing. It’s the type of thing where, as you can imagine, if you were trying to create all the puzzle pieces by hand, you might find that they don’t fit the way you thought they were going to.

Maybe the image is right, but one of the little tabs is too big for where it’s supposed to insert to. That’s the type of thing that happens with language creation. You have a plan. You sit down. You start doing it. Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t. There may be some bit that does work very well, ends up obscuring another bit or making it not work as well. It’s a call for endless tinkering to make sure that the system you have works right.

Then, of course, even if you’ve got the system running pretty well, creating an entire vocabulary is something that can literally last your entire lifetime. No project is ever finished. Unlike with a lot of other art forms, there’s never anything you produce that can’t stand to be improved further. It’s endless, and that’s part of the draw, I think.

BABBEL: Going hand in hand with that, what do you think is behind the growing impetus for movie and television creators to invest in legitimate alternate languages? Why not just make up some convincing-sounding gibberish?

PETERSON: Part of it was the push for extreme realism, that I think we’re on the tail end of, if I’m being honest. It’s the type of thing that happens every so often in Hollywood, simply due to advancement in technology, and especially visual effects. It’s like, you saw a lot of this in the late ’70s and ’80s. Once they got really good at creating monsters and doing things with robotics, it’s like, compared to the old monster movies of the ’50s and ’60s where you just had guys in costumes, it looks like garbage compared to Jaws, which is terrifying. It blew everybody away.

Once people started realizing what they could do with this type of stuff, you started to see monster movies again. They started to come out and be exciting. Then, it’s like, Jurassic Park comes out and suddenly, there are dinosaurs that don’t even look like robots. I mean, they looked real. That blew everybody away.

By the time you got to 2000, visual effects had gotten so good that you could actually return to doing fantasy movies like “Lord of the Rings,” and not have them look campy. They’re very stylistic. All the fantasy movies you saw of the ’80s — they’re cool, but you wouldn’t look at them and say they’re realistic. Whereas you look at the Lord of the Rings, it looks very realistic. It looks like Middle Earth. I think once people saw that, they got very excited. Of course, one of the things with Lord of the Rings is that they employed Tolkien’s languages as best they could at the time. They were very important to Tolkien, they wanted to make sure they were in the movies.

When you have a real huge benchmark like that, something that has a big impact, everybody wants to emulate every single bit of it, so that came to the special effects. It also came to the languages. By the time it started to hit TV, with Game of Thrones, they just thought, “Well, we’ve got to have a language for this thing.” Once Game of Thrones got big, everybody wanted to copy Game of Thrones. Again, every single part of it, from the realism of the settings and the props to the effect of the dragons, and the undead and things like that. They wanted to have languages, too, where they were appropriate.

We’re certainly not there yet, but we’re getting to a point where every project that could benefit from a created language is thinking to have something in there.

BABBEL: Yeah, and then it’s kind of like, I was reading some interviews you did and it was like you did this, eventually just dreaming that it could be something that would pay you a living. Now there’s this industry being created around it.

PETERSON: Yeah, it’s weird to call it an industry, because it’s not as if any of us are connected or anybody’s really making a living out of it except for me. It’s more visible than ever, but we’re not getting the benefits of, for example, TV writers or even stunt people, where they have a union. There are expectations for who you hire for a job. There are expectations for the type of pay that you get and what you’re going to be asked to do during a job. It’s just a Wild West with language creators, which means that there are probably language creators working on productions that are getting taken advantage of. It means there’s also very low-quality work that happens for certain productions. We’re not there yet, but I think we’re getting there.

BABBEL: It’s like only one or two people are able to reap the rewards in a financial security sense.

PETERSON: There are definitely people getting paid, but not really a lot that are able to string together projects, so that they’re getting enough money for the entire year. That’s not happening for anybody else, yet. Then on the other hand, there are people that are being paid to create languages that frankly shouldn’t be. It’s the type of thing where I put in 10 years of hard work just to be where I was at for Dothraki.

I think I’m better now than I was then. Often, there’s a random person who is hired to create a language. It’s not a skill, really. Then, of course, with somebody like that, they’re probably just tickled to death that they could be working on something in TV or film. They’re probably not being paid very much either for the low-quality work they’re doing, which I guess is right for that aspect of it, but not great for an industry.

BABBEL: You mentioned in your TED talk that conlangs are often created with naturalism in mind, meaning they aim to mimic the tendencies of real language as much as possible. Have you ever seen the reverse starting to happen, like real languages beginning to mimic conlangs?

PETERSON: I don’t really know what that would look like. I mean, there are certainly … The largest language is Esperanto, but Esperanto doesn’t have a country, so it’s not like it’s going to play a big role in the development of any specific language. It’s spoken by people all over, not by a concentration of people in one spot. In any place there is concentration, they’re just not big enough to form a critical mass. I’m not sure that would work —

BABBEL: Like maybe there were certain words that would get adopted into —

PETERSON: Certainly there are elements, like there were some created languages that have made their way into natural languages, sure, here and there.

BABBEL: That’s what I mean, yeah.

PETERSON: Esperanto, for example, is now a word in English. I’m not really sure if anything else from Esperanto has really crossed the threshold. Well, not with English. I think that there are some languages, at least I have seen an internet comic about this. I don’t know how well-sourced it is. You know how in English, you say “It’s all Greek to me” when something is incomprehensible? In different languages, you actually use different languages for that expression.

In a different language, I don’t know which language says which, you might say, “It’s all Chinese to me.”

BABBEL: In Spanish, they say that.

PETERSON: Or “It’s all Russian to me.” It depends, each language uses its own. I’ve seen at least one language use Esperanto for that. You’d say something like, “It’s all Esperanto to me.” That means “nonsense” or “gibberish” or “incomprehensible.” It’s worth a look, and to see if it’s well-sourced and it’s actually used by people; the speakers actually know it. If it does, though, that would be pretty interesting, Esperanto crossing over into a fixed expression like that.

BABBEL: How do you decide which aspects of a language to borrow from and mimic when you set out to create a new language? In my opinion, Dothraki sounds distinctly Eastern European. Do you borrow the syntax of Greek but throw in Hungarian verb tenses and Japanese suffixes, or is it not quite like that?

PETERSON: No, we don’t borrow anything from a language unless it’s an a posteriori language. For example, there’s a language that I created for The 100. It’s supposed to be a future incarnation of the English language. Consequently, all the words come from English. This is done because it’s appropriate. That’s exactly what the language is supposed to be. It’s not an accident, or it’s not like I just borrowed a different language and am pretending it’s something else.

That would really be inappropriate and honestly, it wouldn’t be creating a language. You know, conlangers often start out like that, but it’s a phase, and not a great one. If you’re creating a new language, and it’s no connection to any language in our world, then you don’t just borrow stuff from existing languages, that would be silly. You can certainly be inspired by them, but every single language, if you’re creating a naturalistic language, has its own evolution.

Even if you have a similar system, it’s not going to evolve in the same way. Consequently, it’s not going to work exactly the same way it does in any natural language. This is why you’ve got hundreds of languages on the planet that all have a word for “the.” But in no two languages do they work exactly the same. Even similar or very closely related languages like English and German — we both have words for “the.” They work very, very differently, and not just to … you know, talking about German, [it] has three words for “the.”

Just in like small little things where like, I don’t know if it’s still a type of expression that you can use or if it’s popular with younger people, but at least at one point in time in German, you could say something like, if you had a friend like Gabby, “Wo ist der Gabby?” Where you’d say, it would literally translate to “Where is the Gabby?” You could say it with people’s names like that, just as like a colloquialism to be friendly, I guess.

Whereas you can’t really do that in English, not in any context could you say, talking about where your friend Jason is, like, “Where is the Jason?” You’d have to be making a really stilted, really specific joke in order for anybody to make sense of that at all. It would have to be like an in-joke with your community. It’s not something you do with English.

That’s the type of thing I’m talking about. If you just ripped out a structure from one language and put it in your own, the result would be inauthentic. You wouldn’t have earned that result, I guess. You wouldn’t have evolved it. You’d end up with kind of some Frankenstein language. It’s something that can fulfill a lot of the purposes of a language, but if you look at it, it looks totally fake, like a monstrosity.

BABBEL: How many languages would someone have to learn in order to begin inventing new ones? Or is that not really a barometer?

PETERSON: It’s not, it’s certainly not necessary. You can start creating a language whenever you want, no matter how many languages you’ve studied or spoken, no matter how many linguistics classes you’ve had. The only thing is that you run into cases where you will do things because you cannot imagine a language working any other way. The more languages you study, the more you know about how languages can vary, the less likely you are to unconsciously assume that a language must always work in some specific way.

The more you study, the better. The more linguistics you study, the better. Even just surveying languages, the better you’ll be, and the less likely you will be to replicate some of the just unconsciously natural features of your own language. It’s certainly fine to have a structure in your language that’s the same as the language you speak, but ideally, you’d like it to be that way because you decided to make it that way. It was an artistic decision, ideally.

There are things that you never think about. In English, you can say things like, “I want him to do that.” You can’t say, “I hate him to do that.” The thing is that’s just a really weird, little quirk of English. It’s an unconscious fact that all English speakers have in their head. You just know that if you say that, you have to insert “for,” for some reason. If you don’t really ever even think about that, it’s the type of thing you see with beginning languages.

They’re likely to create words, like a verb for “want” and a verb for “hate.” And they’re likely to end up with constructions very similar. Words like, you could just say “want” and then have the sentence go. But you couldn’t do it with “hate.” There’s no other reason, no specific reason for this other than that’s what happens in English. That’s what you want to try to avoid, and it’s harder to do that if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

BABBEL: So what have conlangs taught you about the way humans learn languages? Do you feel like you have any takeaways or advice that you could offer to people who are studying a second or third tongue?

PETERSON: I think it has helped me to magnify the disconnect between understanding and performance. You hear this a lot with people studying second languages. Where they say they can read or write much better than they hear or speak. What I see with actors, too, they end up being able to speak these languages convincingly without ever understanding what they’re saying. But I mean, they really look like they do. I think that’s an important factor, if you’re studying a language and really want to be able to use it, you’ve got to have practice just saying stuff.

It’s the type of thing, it seems silly, and maybe even a little bit frustrating at the beginning of a language class, where it’s like, the teacher goes around to everybody. It’s like, “Hola. Me llamo Profesor Profiero. ¿Cómo te llamas?” And then you have to respond, “Me llamo David.” It seems so silly by the time you get to the fifth person, and everybody knows exactly what the professor’s saying and exactly how to respond. But just doing it is helpful, because it’s there for you when you’re ready to respond, even these little bits of things.

Because often when you’re speaking a language, part of what you’re saying are things that you’ve said many, many times before. And then part of what you’re saying is brand new, given the context. It will be like the nouns and particular verbs you need to bring up are new, because of what you’re talking about. But little fixed expressions, like even just sentence structures where you set up, “This is what I’m saying, then I say the word ‘but’ and I present something different.” You’re just used to doing that, so you don’t have to focus on that part. You can focus on the parts that are new.

If you don’t get that practice in, everything is going to be new to you and everything is going to be difficult. You’re going to be thinking about “what the intonation should be?” “How should my intonation be if I’m setting up this phrase?” “How should I say it exactly if I’m going to follow it with a ‘but’ phrase, and say something else?” If you just have practice with that, you don’t need to do that.

Oh, shoot. No, no, no cat, no, no. Oh, dammit. Oh, come here. Sorry, Roman.

BABBEL: What did it do?

PETERSON: Okay, of course, no, no, no. You stay there until you’re done throwing up.

BABBEL: Oh, no.

PETERSON: Yeah. Yeah, see, that’s why I didn’t let you go. You throw up on the tile. Good kitty. That’s too bad, of course, they were both snuggled up with me, as well.

BABBEL: Aw, that’s charming.

…Do you think that learning the rules of conlang creation first, or at least learning how to do it before ever attempting a second language, would help people pick up new languages?

PETERSON: You mean, to attempt creating a language, would it help learn a second language?

BABBEL: Right, because I guess you do get the sort of unique understanding of how language functions. I don’t know if that’s sort of a stretch.

PETERSON: I never thought much about the impact of creating a language on second language learning. I think it’s definitely a benefit to those studying linguistics, because you get a better sense of why things are the way they are in certain languages. It might help with second language study. Honestly, it’s just something I’ve never thought of and never considered.

BABBEL: Okay, well, alright, that’s fine, we can move on to another question. What were some of the learning hacks and habits that you formed during your own language studies?

PETERSON: For language study?

BABBEL: Yeah, not language creation, but I know that you’ve studied many languages. Did you have any tricks or habits that you developed over time?

PETERSON: It helped me … and I actually do the same thing when I’m creating languages. It helps me to speak to myself a lot. Even quietly, just sounding things out. Even rehearsing things, whenever I’m doing any kind of an exercise. You know you do a lot of written exercises usually. It just helps to say them out loud, just to get that feel of it in your head. For me, it helps with speaking.

Otherwise, for just regular study, just being sure that you’re at it, you do something with it every single day is more important. There’s no real trick to it. Keep at it, but it’s better to study one hour a day for five days a week than five hours a day for one day a week, so that you’re constantly hearing it, you’re constantly interacting with it. You’re constantly thinking about it, trying to get that language into your head. That helps me more than anything else.

BABBEL: What do you think accounts for the cult-like appreciation of Dothraki? There’s something there beyond Game of Thrones fans. I think it’s kind of obvious to suggest that it’s a very well thought-out and authentic-sounding language as you mentioned. Do you think there’s something beyond that that makes it really resonate with fans?

PETERSON: Yeah, it’s the characters. That’s the honest truth for every created language. They’re interested in it because of the characters, and because of the franchise. The Dothraki, themselves, I think certainly capture the imagination of a lot of people, partly because of the actors that do it. Jason Momoa is a very attractive man. He’s huge. He delivers things in a really good way, both believable, but that actually make him sound cool, which might not be something that’s ever happened, I think, with a created language before.

To a certain extent, the Klingons, they’re very, very cool. Then there was the Na’vi, of course, kind of goofy, in a way that aliens in an alien show are always going to be a little bit goofy. Whereas with the Dothraki, they’re basically realistic human beings. There just very, very buff, so I think that’s part of it. Certainly when it comes to created languages, I think Esperanto is an outlier. Outside of that, how popular a language is, is basically directly proportional to how popular its associated media is. It has very little to do with the language itself.

Frankly, if there was somebody else that had created Dothraki that didn’t know the first thing about created languages, it probably would have been just as successful. We’re just not there in terms of the general public’s knowledge of both language creation and language, in general. It’s getting better, but at least in the United States, it’s not like you can expect the average American to know even the basic facts about how language works, especially when it comes to a language other than their own.

BABBEL: That’s true. What was the hardest part of learning Dothraki for most of the actors on the show?

PETERSON: I mean, they didn’t really learn it. They just learned how to pronounce it. For them, I think, it was just a matter of getting the pronunciation down, and being able to do that right. I don’t know, some of them, to be honest, were just good at it. Others were just not too good at it. For some of them, the hardest part was the entirety of it. They just never really got it.

For others, I think, it was just kind of trying to, at least from my conservations with them, trying to attach meaning to the words so that they could emote properly. They didn’t have to think about that ever for their English lines, whereas for these they did. I always be sure to provide them with the exact word-for-word gloss for everything I translate, so that they know how things I give them mean what they mean.

BABBEL: Last question: have you ever dreamed in Dothraki or one of your other conlangs?

PETERSON: No, none of mine. I’ve had, not created languages, but fake languages in my dreams before. That was always weird, but never had any of my created languages in my dreams that way that I know of.

BABBEL: That’s pretty much all I had, unless there was anything else that you felt inspired to add?

PETERSON: Well, I don’t know who exactly your audience is, but if there was ever anybody that wanted to hire somebody to create a language, they wanted to hire somebody who actually knew what they were doing, we have a place for that: Language Creation Society. It’s called the LCS jobs board. In fact, there’s a job up right now to create a language for a fantasy series. Anyway, the people that respond to those jobs are pretty much only seasoned language creators. There have been a number of really, really good things that have come out of that. Yeah, if they’re ever looking for somebody, that’s the place to go.

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