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'Game Of Thrones' Puts Spotlight On Conlangs

From Dothraki to Elvish, and Na'vi to Klingon — how constructed languages form and permeate pop culture

Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO

The second episode of Game of Thrones season 7 included a new addition to the fiery battles and steamy sex scenes viewers have come to expect: a language lesson.

As the show’s 16 million fans already know, a major plot point of the episode revolves around a small grammatical error in High Valyrian, one of the series’ constructed languages — or "conlangs."

It all comes down to a prophecy that says a "prince" will rule Westeros. But apparently in High Valyrian, the word for "prince" is gender-neutral, so it actually translates to "prince or princess," opening the door for a female ruler.

But let’s back up a bit.

What Is A Conlang?

It may sound overdramatic, but conlangs are all around us. Think of your favorite science fiction/fantasy book, movie or TV show — do the characters speak a made-up language? Star Trek’s Klingon is a conlang, as is Avatar’s Na’vi and Elvish from Lord of the Rings. Even Parseltongue, the serpentine language from Harry Potter, is a conlang. And of course Game of Thrones has High Valyrian, Dothraki and several others.

The Language Creation Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to "conlanging" — the creation of constructed languages. And one of its officers is something of a legend in the pop culture world. David J. Peterson is best known for inventing Dothraki and High Valyrian, but he also created conlangs for shows like Defiance, Penny Dreadful and The Shannara Chronicles.

In the case of Game of Thrones, based on George R. R. Martin book series entitled A Song of Ice and Fire, non-English languages are referenced but not written out at length. That’s where Peterson’s work begins. And it’s no easy task.

The Creation Of Conlangs

On his Dothraki blog, Peterson writes: "The language (as it is today) is an expansion of the small bits of Dothraki found in the first three books of A Song of Ice and Fire. It’s now a fully-functional, human-usable language with a vocabulary of over 3,000 words (and growing)."

But what’s the process for creating a language? Where do you even start?

Peterson said he paid close attention to the culture surrounding Dothraki in Martin’s books. The importance of horses in the Dothraki culture gave Peterson a starting point for developing the language. He gives an example: the Dothraki equivalent to "How are you?" is Hash yer dothrae chek?, which translates to "Are you riding well?"

From there, Peterson said, it’s equal parts technical and artistic. He said the technical part consists of creating the grammar and making sure it works, which he compares to programming or puzzle-making. But there’s a creative aspect as well, which is creating the lexicon. Peterson says this is the part where you decide how the language says what it wants to say.

Off The Screen

One of the fascinating characteristics of the most popular conlangs is their ability to take on a new life separate from the books, movies and TV shows for which they were created. Fans and hobbyists around the world dedicate their free time to studying, using and developing their favorite conlangs.

Take Klingon, for example. Star Trek enthusiasts have latched onto the language, created by linguist Marc Okrand in the 1980s, and turned it into a cultural phenomenon. They’ve formed a non-profit organization to "facilitate the scholarly exploration of the Klingon language and culture," they’ve added new words that weren’t in the original Lexicon, and they’ve even published Klingon translations of famous works, such as Hamlet. Some fans have even had Klingon weddings!

High Valyrian and Dothraki lovers haven’t reached that level (yet), but some hardcore Game of Thrones fans are taking their obsession to a new level — by enrolling in a Game of Thrones language course at University of California, Berkeley. The professor? The man himself: David J. Peterson.

As for the rest of us, a language lesson sprinkled into an episode now and then will have to suffice.

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