The sixth season of Game of Thrones is premiering April 24th on HBO — an event eagerly awaited by a worldwide fandom. One reason for the show’s success might be that its creators are not afraid to invest in details: from the beautiful, hand-embroidered costumes to elaborately braided hair styles, to richly decorated pies — the show goes to great lengths to create an authentic world with living, breathing people who exist in the context of their cultures.
A large part of culture is, of course, language.
The book series on which the show is based, George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, frequently mentions that people speak different languages, and large parts of dialogue are described as being held in those languages. However, except for a few words (mostly honor titles and names), the dialogue is actually written in English. So the writers tasked with adapting the novels for TV faced the problem of writing dialogue in languages that didn’t exist. This problem already became apparent in the very first episode where Daenarys is married off into a Dothraki clan. Keeping a focus on authenticity, the producers of the show, David Benioff and Daniel Brett Weiss, decided not to have the Dothraki speak heavily accented English. They also quickly abandoned the idea of just using random strings of sounds that mirror Dothraki terms from the books which would just sound like made-up gibberish. So HBO and the Language Creation Society, which specializes in the creation of constructed languages, decided to hold a contest to determine which of its members would develop the Dothraki language.
Enter David J. Peterson. The linguist and co-founder of the Language Creation Society threw himself into the task and created a blueprint of the Dothraki language complete with functional grammar and nearly 2,000 words. (By the way: Peterson’s initial drafts of the Dothraki language were written in a Winnie the Pooh brand children’s notebook — remember that when you re-watch the show and hear Khal Drogo holding his speech.)
Peterson approached the creation process anthropologically, taking into account the history, geography, and culture of the people who spoke it — for example, there are no words for “thank you” and “throne” in Dothraki, and if you want to insult someone, you would tell them that they “walk like a little boy,” with the walking being the far more offensive part of the insult in a culture of horse riders. This anthropological approach and thoroughness (constructing a sentence can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 ½ hours) ultimately landed Peterson the job as the show’s language consultant. The prime examples of his work, Dothraki and Valyrian, can be heard in numerous scenes throughout the show.
But what about the other languages in the Game of Thrones universe? Let’s take a look at the languages of Westeros, Essos and Sothoryos, the three continents in the Known World of A Song of Ice and Fire.
Languages on Westeros
Westeros is the continent where most of the action in Game of Thrones takes place. As its name suggests, the continent is located in the far west of the Known World. Despite being roughly the same size as South America, Westeros is ruled by the single political entity known as the Seven Kingdoms.
The Common Tongue of the Andals
The Common Tongue is the language spoken in most of Westeros. It is represented by English in the books and series and the development of the two languages is also alike:
The Common Tongue was introduced by the Andals when they invaded Westeros six thousand years ago — an event reminiscent of the invasion of the British Isles by the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians from the mid 5th to early 7th centuries. The invasion of the Andals, and with it the Common Tongue, was initially held off in the north of the continent, so that the Old Tongue prevailed at first north of the Wall — Hadrian’s Wall, anyone?
Over the centuries, the Common Tongue seems to have developed into a lingua franca, so that many people outside of Westeros know it as well — a development that parallels the use of English as a lingua franca in our world.
The Common Tongue remained relatively uniform throughout the Seven Kingdoms, even though most actors decided to adopt accents ranging from Northern to Southern English, and sometimes continental accents, depending on whether their characters come from the North or South of Westeros.
The Old Tongue of the First Men
Most prominent speakers: The Wildings (when not conversing in the Common Tongue)
Example: Lokh doysen bar thol kifos rukh? — “What the f**k you looking at?” (We never actually get to hear the Old Tongue in the series, so this sentence is reconstructed from an example of the Great Tongue.)
Before it was replaced by the Common Tongue, the Old Tongue of the First Men was spoken all over Westeros. In present day, it is still used north of the Wall by most of the Wildlings, even though about half of them know the Common Tongue as well (whether as a first or second language is not specified).
The Old Tongue is the only language said to exist beyond the Wall in the books. In the TV series, however, Mance Rayder states that the diverse wildling clans in his army speak seven different languages. This is why it can be assumed that what is called “the Old Tongue” by outsiders is actually a family of dialects which has diverged so much that each could be regarded as different languages.
The Old Tongue has a rune-based writing system that looks a lot like the runes used by Germanic tribes, but it was never used for anything more advanced than marking graves.
Mag Nuk, The Great Tongue
Most prominent speakers: The Giants, such as the giant leader Mag Mar Tun Doh Weg (“Mag the Mighty”)
Example: Lokh kif rukh? — “What you looking at?”
A pidgin of the Old Tongue known as Mag Nuk, “the Great Tongue,” is spoken by the giants living north of the Wall. Mag Nuk seems to be an extremely simplified version of the Old Tongue that lacks noun declension, pluralization, verb tense and even words that consist of more than one syllable (compare the two example sentences given in the Old and Great Tongue). So if you’re thinking about learning one of the languages from the Game of Thrones universe, Mag Nuk seems like an easy choice, grammatically speaking. Might be hard to find a giant who’s willing to teach you though…
Most prominent speakers: The White Walkers, also known as the Others
Obviously, if you run into some White Walkers, you have more urgent concerns than studying their language. Some very zealous and fearless linguists in the old days seem to have done so nevertheless, which is why we now have scraps of legends that tell us a little about how the White Walkers speak: their language is known as Skroth. It is said to sound like the crackling of ice, although there’s a fair amount of scary screeching and snarling going on in the series as well.
Even though Peterson did develop a language for the White Walkers, it was not ultimately used on-screen. Instead, actual ice-cracking sound effects from Sound Designer Peter Brown were used for White Walker speech.
Most prominent speaker: Hodor
Example: Hodor — can mean just about everything, depending on the context
Okay, so we couldn’t stop ourselves from including this one. Strictly speaking, Hodor is a word, not a language. The only speaker of Hodor is Hodor, the simple-minded servant of House Stark who carries Bran around on his back. Hodor’s real name is actually Walder, but everyone calls him by his catchphrase.
The languages on Essos
Essos is an immense landmass located to the east of Westeros, extending into the far east of the Known World — so far, in fact, that it’s not been fully mapped. The Free Cities, the Dothraki Sea and the cities of Slaver’s Bay are located on Essos. Even further east on Essos, Asshai and the fabled Shadow Lands can be found. In contrast to Westeros, a diverse array of languages are spoken in Essos.
Most prominent speaker: Daenerys of House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, Queen of Meereen, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, also known as Khaleesi
Examples: dracarys — “dragonfire,”
daor — “no, not,”
kessa — “yes,”
Valar morghulis — “All men must die.” (When used as a greeting, it is answered with the phrase Valar dohaeris — “All men must serve.”)
zaldrizes — dragons
High Valyrian was once the dominant language on Essos, but ceased to be spoken after the destruction of the Valyrian realm 400 years ago. Only one of the mighty families of dragonlords survives in present-day Essos: House Targaryen. It can be assumed that the Targaryens continued to raise their children in High Valyrian, which would explain why Daenarys tells the slave-trader Kraznys mo Nakloz that High Valyrian is her mother tongue before she gives us a very dramatic display of the Valyrian language by telling her dragon to roast the slave-trader.
Daenarys is possibly the only native speaker of High Valyrian around since the language went out of everyday use after the Doom of Valyria. Instead, it is used as a lore-language by scholars throughout Essos and Westeros: Tyrion Lannister learned High Valyrian from his tutors growing up, and also Samwell Tarly and Arya Stark were educated in the language. Melisandre and other Red Priests use the language as a lingua franca.
It is easy to see the parallels between Latin and High Valyrian: they are both dead languages of a fallen empire and are used by scholars, educated noblemen and for clerical purposes throughout a medieval world. Therefore, it hardly comes as a surprise that author George R. R. Martin stated that the old Valyrian Freehold is his fantasy world’s equivalent of the Roman Republic.
In the books, Valyrian is described as sounding “liquid,” whereas it’s creator Peterson calls it shamelessly pretty. In an Interview for Making Game of Thrones published on May 8, 2014, Peterson stated that the language has over 5000 words, a pretty solid basis for a full-fledged fan conversation. If you want to learn High Valyrian, however, be prepared to read a few grammar books: the language has four grammatical genders (more on genders here) where nouns are categorized either as lunar, solar, terrestrial, or aquatic. Nouns for humans are typically lunar, occupations and body parts are generally solar, food and plants are most commonly terrestrial, and liquids are aquatic.
Most prominent speaker: Commander of the Unsullied, Grey Worm
(Peterson stated that Jacob Anderson, the actor who plays Grey Worm, speaks the language better than its creator ever could and that he now tries to emulate Anderson whenever he writes lines for the show.)
Example of Astapori Low Valyrian: Dovoghedhy — “Unsullied”
Without the central influence of the Valyrian empire, the speech of their descendants and former colonies changed into a language group known as Low Valyrian, or Bastard Valyrian. Like with the Old Tongue, what is referred to as Low Valyrian seems not to be one language, but rather a family of dialects. The dialects are partly mutually unintelligible, for which reason they could be regarded as separate languages — each of the nine Free Cities has its own variant of Low Valyrian: there is the northern branch with Braavosi being spoken in Braavos, Lorathi in Lorath, Pentoshi in Pentos, Norvoshi in Norvos, Qohorik in Qohor; the southern branch with Volantene in Volantis, Lysene in Lys, Myrish in Myr, and Tyroshi in Tyrosh. Slaver’s Bay also has its own variant of Low Valyrian, Ghiscari, under which the Astapori, Yunkish, and Meereenese dialect are grouped.
The development of the Valyrian languages could be compared to Latin forming into different Romance languages today.
Most prominent speakers: Khal Drogo (Peterson says the actors with the best pronunciation are Elyes Gabel, who plays bloodrider Rakharo, and Amrita Acharia, who plays Irri, Daenerys handmaiden)
Examples: Peterson’s wife’s name is Erin, so he decided to make it the basis for “kind” in Dothraki. Both the verb erinat (“to be good”) and the noun erinak (“lady, kind one”) derive from it.
Hash yer dothrae chek? — Literally “Do you ride well?”, meaning “How are you?”
As mentioned before, Dothraki, the language spoken by the nomadic mounted tribes of the central plains of Essos, was the first language that was invented for Game of Thrones.
Peterson says that Dothraki is not too dissimilar from Russian and that he took cues from Arabic and it’s “nice, breathy sounds.” The Dothraki vocabulary is closely tied to Genghis Khan-era Mongolians, matching their lifestyles and experiences.
The Dothraki are an illiterate society, but since they came in contact with books over time, they do have a word for “book”: timvir — borrowed from High Valyrian * tembyr*.
Most prominent speaker: The chanted incantations of the maegi Mirri Maz Duur are in Asshai’i. The Red Priestess Melisandre is from Asshai, but we have not seen her speak it yet.
The half-legendary lands of the distant east, Asshai and the Shadow Lands, possess their own language, which is used in magical spells.
Peterson created a rough sketch of the Asshai’i language in season one, but the only time we get to hear it is when Mirri Maz Duur, the maegi, uses blood magic to “save” Khal Drogo’s life, ultimately leaving him in a vegetative state and taking Daenerys’ unborn child as the blood price. However, Peterson said that the lines are so indistinct that even he is not sure if they were the ones he provided. He further stated that if he were ever to renew work on an Asshai’i language in later seasons, he will probably start over again from scratch.
Most prominent speakers: The maegi Mirri Maz Duur
The Lhazareen are shepherds from the continent of Essos. Though it is mentioned that they have their own language, there are no examples of it in the books beyond person and place names.
Lhazar is described as having a sing-song quality.
Most prominent speaker: Xaro Xhoan Daxos, the merchant prince of Qarth who tries to steal Daenarys’ dragons.
Separated geographically from Dothraki territories by a vast desert and never a part of the old Valyrian Freehold, the City of Qarth possesses its own unique language.
The only thing we know about the Qartheen language is that it is generally held to be very difficult for foreigners to pronounce, which is why the Qartheen usually speak the Common Tongue to merchants and visitors from Westeros.
And What About the Languages of Sothoryos?
Sothoryos is the third continent in the Known World of A Song of Ice and Fire. It is loosely analogous to Africa, as Essos is to Eurasia. Since Sothoryos is mostly unexplored by people living in the Seven Kingdoms and the Free Cities, we don’t know much about it and less about it’s languages. But who knows? Maybe the story will take us there and we will get to hear yet another language from the mind of David J. Peterson.