The master behind the languages in Penny Dreadful, Defiance, the Game of Thrones and many more is linguist David J. Peterson. I had the honor to chat with him about both natural languages and constructed languages, “conlangs”. In addition to all the juicy language geekery he had an exciting announcement to make so be sure to check out the whole thing. I promise you (especially all you Finnish speakers), it’s really good!
How it all began
David Peterson has always been surrounded by languages. As a child he was exposed to a number of languages both via relatives and his multi-cultural surroundings in Southern California.
“My relatives are from Mexico so I grew up hearing Spanish. I understand it and I can speak it but I don’t speak it perfectly. In Southern California you grow up hearing things like Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese, but also my first stepfather’s family was from Armenia so I got to hear Armenian as a young child. That was interesting,” David says about his relationship to languages at a young age.
Even if he was exposed to different languages from an early age they didn’t really interest him until his third year in High School.
“I kind of woke up all of a sudden and had the desperate, burning desire first to learn French and then to learn every language on the planet. I don’t know where it came from or why, but it happened. It still hasn’t let go of me. If anything I only regret that I can’t spend more time learning languages.”
David ended up studying linguistics but that wasn’t his initial field of study. He studied English and aspired to be a High School English teacher.
“Second semester was when I took a linguistics course as a favor to my mother because she thought I would like it. I wasn’t so sure about it because I was skeptical of linguistics and how you study languages abstractly. You study the systems to figure out how they work but you don’t actually bother to learn the languages. That seemed a bit backward to me.”
But mothers always know best and David ended up enjoying linguistics, just as his mother predicted.
“I took the introductory linguistics course anyway and ended up falling totally in love with it. It was really, really different from [studying] English. In English you read books, you write papers and you discuss books and that’s pretty much it, whereas in linguistics you had problem sets and homework that you would take home and do, just like you would for math except that rather than dealing with numbers you were dealing with language. It made a lot of sense to me and I just had a lot of fun with. So yeah, I kept up with it and eventually finished with that major as well and got a masters [degree] in linguistics.”
Even if there is no necessary connection between studying linguistics and getting into creating languages, for David the leap from studying to creating wasn’t all that long.
“In the same semester that I started studying linguistics I was also taking courses in Arabic and Russian and Esperanto. It also happened to be the same semester that I created my first language. For me the connection was seeing a variety of structures from all different languages that you study in linguistics. When you study a foreign language to learn it as I did with Arabic, you pretty much just get one new perspective and one new idea about how language works,” he says.
“With linguistics you’re taking a snapshot of say 7, 8, 9 languages in a single one hour course and just getting a whole bunch of information rapid fire. Instead of trying to learn it [you are] just looking at the structures themselves. And that’s when I started to see just how different language can be.”
The realization ended up blowing his mind.
“I started to think about what if I could take some of these things I was learning in linguistics and put them into practical use by creating my own languages, to start to take some of the things I was learning and really enjoying and trying to put them into a language to see how they would work.”
But the first language David created was in the end nothing but a “standard freshman effort”.
“The first language was a very, very poor quality language called Megdevi. The name was derived of my name and my girlfriends’ name, mashed together,” he recalls.
“At the time I thought it was really great, but when I found other language creators online and discovered I wasn’t the first person to do this on my own it really changed my perspective. I was able to see that “wow, these people are putting in a lot more thought into the construction, they’re drawing from a wider knowledge base and they know a lot more about languages than I do”. That was when I abandoned the language, started over, started to really learn, continued with my linguistics study and started to create projects that slowly became better and better.”
Most of us can probably relate to trying to learn a new language and how taxing it can be. Imagining the process of creating a completely new language seems baffling and for a non-professional it is hard to grasp where to even start. After his first attempt at creating a language David has become a true master at his art. His effortless explanation of his process bears testimony to his mastery.
“Usually the very first place you start is you get some idea about what you want to do with the language, it has some sort of reason for existing. For me it was usually wanting to try out either some specific phonology (that is the sound system) or a specific grammatical idea. That was the way it started at first. For example in one language I really wanted to play with noun classes – like you see in the Bantu-languages – and play with vowel harmony that you see in languages like Turkish and of course Finnish,” he says.
After that the construction process usually follows the same pattern starting with the sound system and moving on from there.
“I start with the sound system; all the sounds that are in the language and how they can be combined into syllables and words and what restrictions there are on the placement and use of sounds. After that I move on to the morphology of nouns and verbs; the entire nominal system, whether there is going to be case or not, how many cases, which cases, how they’re going to work, whether there is going to be plurality, whether there is going to be gender, noun classes and that type of thing. After that I move on to the verbs; determine what tenses, what aspects what moods the verbs will display and then how they will do it, whether it will be by inflecting the verb in some way or with satellite particles or just with auxiliaries.”
“And that’s kind of the meat of the language. After that you can move on to sentence structure, to handle things like basic clauses but also coordination, formation of questions, formation of relative clauses, formation of subordinate clauses and all that stuff. Then you move on to derivation and how you take one word like a verb and turn it into a noun and after all that is done you can move on to actually creating words. And that part of language creation pretty much takes the rest of your life.”
Dothraki – “a cart king” or “a king cart”?
One of Peterson’s most well-known achievements is creating languages for the Game of Thrones. Dothraki and High Valyrian are the most well-known of the languages and developing them was a little bit different, as they already had some existing vocabulary created by George R.R. Martin. Even if Peterson followed his usual process, he had to take some extra steps along the way and it included some detailed analysis.
“The first thing I had to do was to take down every single word and name that appeared in the books that counted as Dothraki. I had to simply record them all and before even looking at how they were used I just looked at their forms.”
He also had to figure out how the written words should be pronounced.
“I looked at how they were spelled with the understanding that George R.R. Martin is an American-English speaker, so he would have certain understandings about how letterforms and diagraphs should be pronounced.”
On the other hand he knew that the language was supposed to be foreign sounding and so he shouldn’t be restricted by English phonology.
“I had to figure out how the words should be pronounced, and I think that’s the best way of putting it. Not just the way that say George R.R. Martin thought that they were pronounced or the fans thought they were pronounced, but the way they should plausibly be pronounced given that context. In the context that Dothraki was supposed to be very foreign sounding,” he explains.
“So once I’d done that I was able to go through all the words and assign phonetic values to individual letters and then diagraphs. Then I was able to fill out kind of a chart of all of the sounds of the languages and take a look at it and see if there were any gaps. If I found gaps I decided if I wanted to fill them or not. “
After figuring out the sounds of the language David had to go back and see the context of the words to find out how the grammar would work.
“Any time that two words come next to one another and mean something as opposed to just being a list, there is grammar there. So that means any two word phrase such as the “khal rhaggat”, which is the cart king, there is grammar there. Even though it’s just two words and it translates as a two word phrase, “the cart king”, it’s clear that “khal” means king which leaves “rhaggat” to mean cart. And there was a choice there, that is: to put “king” first and “cart” second. That makes it linguistic – that is grammatical,” he points out.
“I had to figure out what he had done and first see if it cohered. Here I was very, very fortunate because it did cohere. Typically in a language modifiers will always occur in the same spot with respect to their head noun, the head of the phrase which is the most important part. So with “khal rhaggat”, a cart king is a type of king not a type of cart. So in English the word “cart” comes beforehand, so we can say the modifier comes first and the most important part comes second. In Dothraki it is exactly the opposite. We know that “khal” must mean king, I mean anybody who reads the books knows that that must be the case, so “rhaggat” must mean “cart” and we see that the order is that the most important part comes first and the modifier comes second. That order bares out with all of the other phrases that appear in the first three books of A Song of Ice and Fire. There are places where it like says “Rakh! Rakh! Rakh haj!” which is translated as “A boy! A boy! A strong boy!”. The part that gets repeated is “rakh”, the part that occurs only once is “haj”, which is strong, and the order is maintained.”
Hearing your own conlang being spoken on a major TV-show by talented actors can be really exciting. The language can bring an extra spice to a performance and add a much needed feeling of reality to the fictional world. But the most exciting part for Peterson is seeing the actors getting really into speaking the language.
”A certain percentage of the time you can see that the actors are really loving it and I think that’s my absolute favorite time. Because it’s like the language adds something that would be lost if it were just English. When the actor feels that and the energy is flowing it’s really exciting,” he says.
“I’ll always remember Jason Momoas’ big speech from season 1 where it’s just incredible to see him and see that energy and see him get so worked up using the language. And it’s kind of interesting because a lot of times with his character before that point, his character is actually pretty mellow. You know? Like, Khal Drogo is menacing, but menacing in a quiet, stand-offish way. So to see him go nuts like that and using the Dothraki language to its fullest extent that was just awesome.”
What makes a conlang good?
A good conlang is obviously far from gibberish: it has structure, meaning and phonology. But there are still differences between good and bad conlangs, as David explained while talking about his first attempt at creating a language. What is it that makes fictional languages feel so real even to an untrained ear? Peterson claims that a good conlang simply has to fit the context.
“The language has to fit the context, which is a very simple answer but I think has very wide range in consequences. So if the language that you are creating is supposed to be spoken by real people and their culture is supposed to be a real human culture, then that language has to be real to the furthest, the utmost extent of your abilities. And that requires a lot of work,” he says.
“One of the big parts for me is starting with an earlier form of the language and then evolving the phonological structure, the grammatical structure and the meaning of the word over a period time. Basically you are aging it like you would a wine or a cheese.”
Peterson compares this to giving a film set its patina and making it look old instead of brand new.
“When you evolve the language in this way you end up producing some of the principle irregularities that you see in natural languages the world over. You get the repeated patterns that are hard to just manufacture if you’re just creating them whole cloth. These patterns end up emerging over thousands of years, we settle into them whether it’s the phonological patterns, the grammatical patterns or the intonational patterns. These things gradually emerge and then become what we think of as real. So when creating a language I do my best to emulate that process so that the end result is something that feels aged and real.”
Questions from our readers (and the big announcement!)
As preparation for this interview I asked some of our readers and collaborators if they had something they wanted to ask David about. Here are a few of the questions and answers.
Do you know Klingon?
“Nope. I do know Mark Okrand who created Klingon. He’s a really nice guy.”
What do you think makes a language beautiful?
“That’s a good question. I mean I guess it depends whether you’re just listening to it or whether you are examining it. I find Hawaiian to be the most beautiful language in the world to listen to, grammatically though I think Arabic is the most beautiful language in the world. And really it’s just two very different sensations and experiences. With Hawaiian it’s purely auditory, I don’t even understand what’s being said. I just hear it and find it beautiful. With Arabic it’s really studying it and learning about the structure of the language, the way their system of nouns and verbs work, the surprising way that you can exploit some of the grammar to create some really beautiful poetry – I had never encountered anything like that before in a language and I find it stunning.”
“So I guess it really depends on what aspect of language you’re focusing on. Then of course for writing systems – that’s another entirely different thing. I think that the Sinhalese writing system is the most beautiful that I’ve ever seen.”
What language would you like to learn that you haven’t yet learned?
“I’d love to be able to speak Hawaiian fluently. That would be great. I would love to be able to read Japanese and Chinese. That would be great. I’m studying Japanese right now and gosh, it’s so difficult. It’s so frustrating because you learn any other language and it’s difficult at the beginning if there is a new writing system, you have to learn how everything is pronounced but once you get it you get it. With Japanese… Goodness gracious. have been studying it for months now and it’s like: you read a sentence and if you don’t know the kanji, even if you know what the word is and how it’s pronounced, if you don’t know the kanji you’re stuck! You’re just reading it and you’re just like “I know I know this, I just can’t recognize that glyph right now” and you have to go back to a dictionary. I think you have to do flash-cards with Japanese. And Chinese… I can’t even imagine because there’s not even a phonetic component to that writing system. So yeah. I would love to learn that.”
“I would love of course to be able to speak Finnish fluently. And in fact if you’re game for this I do have somewhat of an announcement to make that might be interesting to your readers. I’ve been a big supporter of the bid for Helsinki to get the World Science Fiction convention in 2017. So what I wanted to announce is that if Helsinki gets the bid, at that point in time I am going to start studying and learning the Finnish language and if you’re game I would like to do an interview entirely in Finnish at Worldcon in Helsinki 2017.”
If you are unfamiliar with Worldcon and the bidding system, you can read about it in our blog (in Finnish) or in English at www.helsinkiin2017.org. And as you can probably guess I was thrilled about this (more on the inside than on the outside, as I am a Finn after all) and will be interviewing David in Finnish if Helsinki gets the bid and gets to host Worldcon in 2017. The vote happens in a few months, be sure to support it!
David knows what he has signed up for and I’m excited to see how far he will get in his studies in two years.
“I think that it will be quite a challenge. Right now I know “kiitos” and the “Sampo” and “Ilmarinen” and “Väinämöinen”. I know those guys, I’ve read the Kalevala in English but I know virtually nothing else. I know it’s got a great big case system and I look forward to learning it. Other than that, no I really don’t know any Finnish so it’ll be starting from square one if we get the bid. But I will give it my all for two years and I see what I can do.”
For those of you who want to create languages
Most of the people I’ve talked to about creating languages have been really intrigued by it and some have even said it would be their dream job. But as with most odd professions or hobbies, people might not know where to start. Luckily David has some good advice. He encourages everyone to go to conlang.org, the Language Creation Society’s website, where you can find communities and links to languages that other people have created. It is a good place to start.
“It doesn’t hurt to study linguistics and of all things Wikipedia is not a bad place to go, not for linguistics. It’s actually pretty good to get you up to speed with the basics. And then after that I say just like if you want to know how to be a good writer, everybody gives you the advice to read good books. The same is true for creating languages. Take look at really good constructed languages and study them. Take a look at natural languages as well, especially languages that are different from your own. If you are an English speaker it’s very informative to study Spanish and French and German, that’s fine, but you move beyond Indo-European. Staying within Europe the Finno-Ugric languages are great; Finnish, Mari, Estonian – those are outstanding to look at. And look at the Semitic languages; Hebrew, Arabic. Look at languages from the East; Japanese, Mongolian, Korean, the various Chinese languages. And if you really want to look at something wild the place to go is either Australia or the Amazon, because that’s where the most unique languages are spoken. But it helps to expand your mind, to understand just how different languages can be. Not just the sound of them but the structure. Things can get really wild and so kind of getting a better understanding of how language works is the first step.
So yeah. Just pop into the library and grab a reference grammar of some language you’ve never heard of and start there. I guarantee you, you will not regret it because it’s the most fun in the entire world.”
David J. Peterson has a book coming out in September. The book “The Art of Language Invention” will go into detail about some of the things he described during this interview, but also looks more closely at some of the aspects of some of the languages he has created including Dothraki, High Valyrian (Game of Thrones, HBO), Casthitan and Irathient (Defiance, Syfy). This 300 page package of linguistic fun will also be available as an audiobook, which David will be narrating.
And hopefully we will be speaking with David again in 2017 when Helsinki hosts Worldcon. I can’t wait.