Game of Thrones is one of the most successful shows of the 21st century. So successful that we’re all but assured to have spinoffs and sequels for the foreseeable future. In 2022, we already have House of the Dragon, set hundreds of years before the events of Game of Thrones, and there are many other shows already in the works. What makes the world of the show so appealing? Sure there’s the political intrigue, the shocking violence and the nudity, but Game of Thrones is maybe most compelling for its attention to detail. The creators of both Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon have gone to great lengths to create a world with dynamic people who exist in the context of their cultures — and an essential part of culture is language.
Why Create Languages For Game Of Thrones?
In George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and the following books, he regularly mentions that people speak different languages — but, save a few words for effect, the dialogue is actually written in English. So Game of Thrones TV writers faced the problem of writing dialogue in languages that didn’t exist yet. Luckily, executive producers David Benioff and Daniel Brett Weiss decided not to have the actors speak heavily accented English, nor have the actors speak gibberish made to sound foreign.
Instead, 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. He threw himself into the task and created a blueprint of the Dothraki language complete with functional grammar and nearly 2,000 words.
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. This detail-oriented approach ultimately landed Peterson the job as the show’s language consultant. Let’s take a look at some of his best work, from the popular Dothraki and Valyrian to some of the lesser-known languages of Westeros, Essos and Sothoryos.
Game Of Thrones Languages In Westeros
If you’re reading this, you already know that Westeros is the continent where most of the action in Game of Thrones takes place. Despite being roughly the same size as South America, Westeros is ruled by the single political entity known as the Seven Kingdoms. Here are some of the most prominent languages for this region:
The Common Tongue of the Andals
Most prominent speakers: Basically everybody
The Common Tongue is the language spoken by most of Westeros. It’s represented by English in the books and TV series, and the development of these two languages is quite similar:
The Common Tongue was introduced by the Andals when they invaded Westeros 6,000 years ago — an event reminiscent of the invasion of the British Isles by the Angles, Saxons and Frisians in the early Middle Ages. The invasion of the Andals, and with it the Common Tongue, was initially held off in the north of the continent so the Old Tongue prevailed north of the Wall (much like Hadrian’s Wall and Scots).
Over the centuries, the Common Tongue developed into a lingua franca, so many people outside of Westeros know it as well — much like the use of English as a lingua franca in our world.
The Old Tongue of the First Men
Most prominent speakers: The Wildlings (when not conversing in the Common Tongue)
Before the Common Tongue replaced it, the Old Tongue was spoken all over Westeros. In the 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.
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 we can assume that what is called “the Old Tongue” is actually a family of dialects that has diverged so much that they could be considered 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.
Most prominent speakers: The White Walkers (A.K.A. the Others in the books)
If you run into some White Walkers, you have more urgent concerns than studying their language. Still, their language is known as Skroth. It’s said to sound like the crackling of ice, though there’s also a fair amount of scary screeching and snarling featured in the series.
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.
Game Of Thrones Languages In Essos
Essos is an immense landmass located to the east of Westeros and, unlike the Seven Kingdoms, it offers a diverse array of languages. From the show, you’re probably the most familiar with the Free Cities, the Dothraki Sea and the cities of Slaver’s Bay. Here are some of the languages that these regions have to offer:
Most prominent speaker: Daenerys of House Targaryen
Example: dracarys — “dragonfire”
High Valyrian was once the dominant language on Essos, but has since been on the decline after the fall of the Valyrian realm 400 years ago. Only one of the dragonlord families survives in present-day Essos: House Targaryen. We can assume that the Targaryens continued to raise their children in High Valyrian since Daenarys tells the slave-trader Kraznys mo Nakloz that High Valyrian is her mother tongue (before telling her dragon to roast said trader).
Even though it’s not popular as a spoken language, it’s still used as a lore-language by scholars throughout Essos and Westeros. Tyrion Lannister learned High Valyrian from his tutors growing up, as well as Samwell Tarly and Arya Stark. Melisandre and other Red Priests also use the language as a lingua franca.
Here it’s easy to see the parallels between High Valyrian and real-world Latin: They’re both dead languages of a fallen empire and are used by scholars, educated noblemen and for clerical purposes throughout a medieval world. It should hardly come as a surprise that George R. R. Martin stated that the old Valyrian Freehold is his fantasy world’s equivalent of the Roman Empire.
Peterson’s version of High Valyrian has over 5,000 words, plus four grammatical genders 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: Grey Worm, commander of the Unsullied
Example: Dovoghedhy — “Unsullied”
Without the central influence of the Valyrian empire, the speech of their former colonies changed into a language group known as Low Valyrian. Like with the Old Tongue, what is referred to as Low Valyrian is not one language, but rather a family of dialects. The dialects are partly mutually unintelligible, so they could be regarded as separate languages.
Each of the nine Free Cities has its own variant of Low Valyrian: There’s the Braavosi spoken in Braavos, Lorathi in Lorath, Pentoshi in Pentos, Norvoshi in Norvos, Qohorik in Qohor, Volantene in Volantis, Lysene in Lys, Myrish in Myr, and Tyroshi in Tyrosh. Slaver’s Bay also has its variant of Low Valyrian, Ghiscari, with the sub-dialects Astapori, Yunkish and Meereenese. The development of the Low Valyrian languages could be compared to Latin forming into different Romance languages today.
Most prominent speaker: Khal Drogo
Example: Hash yer dothrae chek? — Literally “Do you ride well?”, meaning “How are you?”
As mentioned above, 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 isn’t too dissimilar from Russian and that he took cues from Arabic with its “nice, breathy sounds.” The Dothraki vocabulary is closely tied to Genghis Khan-era Mongolians, matching their lifestyles and experiences.
Most prominent speakers: 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 1, 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.
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. Unfortunately, the only thing we know about the Qartheen language is that it’s generally very difficult for foreigners to pronounce. This 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’s 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 its languages.
This article was originally published on March 16, 2017. It has been updated.
Header Image: © HBO