When Dothraki warriors on HBO’s hit series “Game of Thrones” issue battle cries in their native tongue, or when Dark Elves threaten Norse gods in the Shiväisith language in Marvel’s “Thor: The Dark World,” audiences may be surprised to know they are not speaking gibberish.
They are speaking one of more than a dozen fully functioning “conlangs” – or constructed languages – created by master language inventor David J. Peterson. From movies like “Warcraft” and “Dr. Strange” to hit TV series like “Defiance,” “Penny Dreadful,” and “The 100,” Peterson’s conlangs have given life and realism to some today’s most iconic characters.
On April 6, Peterson hosted a free program for Brookdale students and local residents in the Student Life Center, drawing back the curtain and provide a behind-the-scenes look at the growing industry of invented language.
For “Game of Thrones,” for example, Peterson began by creating complete alphabets, grammatical rules and pronunciation guidelines for the High Valyrian and Dothraki languages that would be used in the show. He is then issued a script for an episode and tasked with translating a character’s lines into his own, unique language. He also creates a voice recording for the actors to mimic.
“They have no idea what they are saying most of the time,” said Peterson, adding that even he does not know his invented languages by heart. “For me, it’s not like I’m fluent in the languages. What happens is, I get to know the grammar pretty well, so that when I have a dictionary at hand I can translate pretty well. As I keep using it I kind of gain a certain low-level fluency in it, but never to the point where I could just use it like that.”
After showing the audience an actual script page from a Game of Thrones episode – which called for a heated conversation in Valyrian between central character Daenerys Targaryen and the slave master Kraznys mo Nakloz – Peterson explained how he translated each word, accusation and rebuttal for maximum effect.
He then played the completed scene, allowing audience members to pick out specific Valyrian words and partially translate the lines in real time.
Peterson also walked the audience through his process for building a conlang, which begins with a rudimentary script and phonetics system that is often influenced by an existing language.
Then Peterson, an ardent student of linguistics and world languages, artificially “ages” the language by including slang, dropping or modifying suffixes (“the way we turned the word ‘pantaloons’ into ‘pants,’ for example”), and implementing other changes to mimic the natural progression of a language over centuries. The result, he said, is a much more vivid and believable conlang that will remain constant throughout the life of a production.
“The important thing is that you need to be able to unlearn the things that you think are completely true about language, because of the language that you speak,” he said. “By studying as many different languages as you can, it helps to ameliorate that… If you study a couple of Niger-Congo languages, or languages from Australia and South America and Japan and Turkey, you can say, ‘Oh wow. Things are really different.’ It helps to study all that stuff, just so that every choice you make in your language is a conscious choice you’re making, and not simply a reflex.”
Peterson also took a wide range of questions from the audience, discussing everything from his experiences on popular productions and his favorite actors and actresses (Game of Thrones’ Jacob Anderson, he said, is one of the best at mastering conlangs), to his advice for aspiring wordsmiths.
For the fans in attendance, the program was as informative as it was inspiring.
“It was highly informative. You got a chance to see the inner workings of how languages – and how writing, really – comes to be,” said Austin DeMeglio, president of Brookdale’s Creative Writing Club. “I’ve considered creating a language for my own writing, and it seemed super difficult. The time he spends on each one is astounding, but after hearing him talk about his process it seems less daunting. It seems possible.
“Learning and understanding languages is clearly important,” DeMeglio added. “It helps you to respect and appreciate your own language even more.”
Check out more photos from Peterson’s Brookdale presentation here.