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David J. Peterson began creating languages in 2000, received his MA in Linguistics from the University of California, San Diego, in 2005, and cofounded the Language Creation Society in 2007. He has created languages for HBO’s Game of Thrones, Syfy’s Defiance and Dominion, the CW’s Star-Crossed, and Thor: The Dark World. He has also created languages for many other television shows, such as the CW’s The 100, Netflix’s The Witcher, and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, as well as films such as Marvel’s Doctor Strange, Netflix’s Bright, and Legendary’s Dune.
David J. Peterson is the inventor of the Dothraki and Valyrian languages as heard on HBO’s hit fantasy series “Game of Thrones.” He’s also worked as a language consultant for two SyFy series, “Defiance” and “Dominion”, and a major motion picture, “Thor: The Dark World.”
In his first book, Living Language Dothraki, Peterson taught us all we needed to know to traverse the Sea of Grass with our heads attached to our bodies. Now, in his new book, The Art of Language Invention, Peterson introduces readers to the fascinating techniques behind languages like Dothraki, Elvish, and more.
Peterson and I recently spoke about how he got his start in “Game of Thrones” and what happens when a constructed language is let loose upon the world.
PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE: How on Earth does one get into making up languages?
David J. Peterson: The funny thing is that when I started there was a different story for everybody, and in fact, many of us thought that we were the only people to do it. I was certainly one of them. The way that I got into it was a little bit odd. I was taking a number of language courses at the time. I was taking Arabic, I was taking Russian, I was taking Esperanto, which is a created language, and I was also taking linguistics—an introductory linguistics course. I knew that people had created languages in the distant past for international communication and I thought that it would be fun to create my own language, just for my own purposes—just for fun—and so I set about doing it.
So, yeah, I really believed that I was the first person to ever create a language for fun. I had never heard of it before and I thought that I had invented the idea, but then when I got online and found other language creators I realized that there are thousands of people who are doing it and have done it for years, and most of them probably thought the same thing I did. That was back before anybody knew what language creation was. Now it’s a little more mainstream.
PRH: What’s the difference between a code and an artificial language?
DJP: A code, for example, always depends on another linguistic system. For example, Pig Latin is a very simple one, and most people don’t take Latin. Pig Latin doesn’t work unless you know English. Basically there’s two things to it: The first is that you take the first sound and put it at the end and add an “a” to it: atin-lay. So there’s that part of it: You have to know the trick. The second is that you have to speak English to in order to figure out what the heck Pig Latin is. If you did Pig Latin in something other than English, nobody would know what the heck you’re talking about. So that’s the idea behind a code: There has to be some kind of trick. If you know the trick, then you can use the code, and you can use it as a way to communicate with certain people who know the code without others understanding.
With a created language, there’s basically no trick. You’re just creating every single part of the entire language from the ground-up: everything from the grammatical system to the vocabulary to the sound system. Unlike a code, it doesn’t depend on any other language to work. It works all on its own accord.
PRH: When you create a language that works on its own accord, how quickly does it escape the boundaries you’ve set for it? Can other people take your language and create things for it once they have the rules, or do they have to create words whole-sale to add to the language? Say, for example, if there’s no word for Internet.
DJP: That’s actually a really interesting question, and I’ll tell you why: First, if you’ve created a language—like I did with Dothraki—then I’ve created every single word of it except for what George R.R. Martin has created, obviously. I’ve also created the grammar with some input from the little bits in the book. In order to be using the language correctly, you have to be using the words and the grammar I created. At the same time, if you wanted to talk about something like the Internet in Dothraki, for which there is no word and there will never be a word, you can do one of two things: You can borrow the word straight into Dothraki and kind of pronounce it with a Dothraki accent, or you can use the words that are there and create your own compound and produce a new word for it. In effect, a compound is like creating a new sentence. An entire sentence is just a compound of words that probably didn’t exist before someone produced a new idea. A compound noun is just slightly smaller than that, so let’s say that someone has done that: they’ve taken the Dothraki language and created their own compound for “Internet”. I might not like the compound they’ve come up with, but even so, they’ve created it, so it exists as a possibility within the language. Even if it’s not going to be canon, it’s essentially a part of the language, even if it’s a slightly…I don’t know if you’d call it a different dialect or a different use group…but it’s there. It exists. It’s been created. In that way, the user of the language has, in effect, become a creator of the language.
We do the same thing with our own languages when we come up with slang. Probably everyone has tried their had coming up as a slang word as a teenager to try to get their friends to use. Most of the time it’s unsuccessful, but sometimes it catches on and then people start using it, and suddenly that becomes a tiny little corner of the English language. You can’t say it’s incorrect if two people are using it and using it consistently. That’s where, for a created language, there’s a bizarre boundary where you have language users that are also innovators and thereby creators, but what they’re creating is not necessarily what I create and they don’t necessarily all belong to the same canon. It’s a really kind of tangled, wonderfully fun exercise, no matter which way you look at it: from the point of view of the user or the creator.
PRH: Has there been an instance of a constructed language becoming a common language? What was Esperanto created for? Was it a diplomatic tool? Have any languages jumped the divide from fiction to lingua franca for a population?
DJP: No constructed language has ever become the lingua franca for a given group of people, but pretty much any language, whether it’s created or otherwise, can be used as a means of communication between a group, whether that group is as small as two people or as large as a million. In the case of Esperanto, it is unique in the case that there are actually native speakers. There are children who were raised with Esperanto as the language that they spoke; a number of them in fact. I’ve met three of them in my lifetime. That usually happens when you have two parents who only share Esperanto as a language. In fact, that’s not super-uncommon within the Esperanto community. There are conventions of Esperanto-speakers from all over the globe, and when they get together there might be one person from South Korea and another from Russia who both speak Esperanto and take a fancy to one another. They might eventually have a child.
PRH: Do they screen “Incubus” at these conventions?
DJP: Apparently, “Incubus” within the Esperanto community has the status of [Tommy Wiseau’s cult film] “The Room”. They get together and laugh at it. It’s terrible!
PRH: How did Hollywood find you? Did they just open up the yellow pages and look for “ConLang Expert”? Where do people find ConLangers?
DJP: In the case of the first job, “Game of Thrones,” David Benioff and Dan Weiss contacted the Language Creation society and asked them to find someone, so the Society put together a competition. Most people within the language creation community know about the society, so they saw it, and that’s how they got someone who was a ConLanger to create the language. After that, “Game of Thrones” got so big that other production companies found me through that.
The next step is going to be to put together something like a ConLang yellow pages that people would actually use, because it would be really nice for someone who just wanted a language created to be able to go through and look at all of the various ConLangers who exist online and find someone they wanted to work with. The Language Creation Society does have a jobs board where people can post jobs and ConLangers can see them. It works okay, but they’re only successful as the employers who use them. I’m trying to make it know that there are many, many language creators out there, and many of them would be delighted, even ecstatic, to work on a television show like I have done.
PRH: What if we encountered an alien intelligence? Would a ConLang be a useful way to communicate with them?
DJP: I’ll say that if we ever do encounter aliens, it would pay not only to have some linguists, but also some ConLangers there to help to figure out their communication system. ConLangers bring a different set of skills to the table; a different kind of creativity. I think that would probably be required for a truly alien communications system that doesn’t obey any of the rules that human languages do.
PRH: One of the things that I most enjoyed about our book is that you can learn a lot about languages in general. Was that intentional? What else were you hoping that readers would take away from the book?
DJP: I love languages, and I love talking about them. It’s too much fun. There’s two major points: One for language creators, especially for new language creators—the ones who aren’t tied into the community—I want them to know that there is a larger community and history there, because a lot of the brand-new ConLangers don’t know about the history of language creation, and it has something to say to them. In addition, I want to give them a foundation for how to create a naturalistic language.
The other goal is that I really want the non ConLanging world to know that we’re here and doing stuff, and that creating languages is an artform. It is something that requires rigor and creativity and skill, and some of the stuff that ConLangers have been doing for decades now is really phenomenal; extraordinary. I really wanted people to know about that. Everyone will have heard about “Game of Thrones”, it gets a lot of attention, but there’s a lot more work out there. There’s a lot more creativity and inventedness that really deserves attention, and I wanted people to know that we’re here.
PRH: I have one more question: I listened to an interview with Frank Oz the other day, who is, of course, the voice of many, many of the muppets and a few other things. Apparently he’s asked all of the time to do his voices and he usually says no. I wonder if you’re bothered by people asking you to say things in Dothraki?
DJP: I am, but only for one reason: That’s because I’m just not fluent. I’m not fluent in any of my languages! I know the grammar forwards and backwards, but I’ve never taken a course in any of these things. There’s no conversation practice that I can do. If I want to say something, I’ll sit down, pull out my dictionary, write it down and make sure that it’s grammatically correct, and then I can say it. On the spot? I don’t know about that.
PRH: Anything else you’d like to mention?
DJP: Yes. I want to mention that I am working on a documentary project with the language creator from “Avatar”, Paul Frommer, Marc Okrand, who created the Klingon language, and also David Salo, who created the Orcish language for the Hobbit movies. We’re all putting together a documentary on ConLangers, what they do and who they are, so be on the lookout for that.
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