April 6th, 2012
01:35 AM ET

'Game of Thrones' linguist: How to create a language from scratch

Editor's NoteDavid Peterson is the creator of the Dothraki language used in the HBO show 'Game of Thrones.' Peterson also is a member of the Language Creation Society.  A 30-minute profile of Peterson will air on CNN's "The Next List on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET.

By David Peterson, Special to CNN

The work of a language creator is often regarded with skepticism. "What's the big deal?" many ask. "All you have to do is make up words." And, indeed, one could proceed as follows:

a = blork
abandon = glurg
abate = plurfle
abattoir = gluff

And so on until there was a unique form for every word in an English language dictionary (in fact, with a computer program, one could produce dozens of "languages" like this in a matter of minutes). And while the resultant language would look different from English, functionally and semantically, it would be identical-a mere notational variant.

The reason, of course, is that language doesn't exist in a vacuum. While one can mix up the sounds of an existing language, by copying its vocabulary, one unconsciously duplicates the culture of that language's speakers along with it.

In building up the Dothraki language, I paid special attention to the cultural information a reader is able to glean from George R. R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire." At the most basic level, we see a nomadic race of warriors tied inextricably to their horses: they ride horses, they give horses as gifts, they eat horse meat, they worship a horse god-even their alcohol comes in the form of fermented mare's milk. The word dothraki itself translates to "riders". As horse riding is so central to Dothraki existence, it seems natural that the concept would crop up in their language in a variety of ways.

For example, the basic way to inquire after someone's state is, Hash yer dothrae chek? That translates literally to, "Do you ride well?" or, "Are you riding well?" In English, though, an appropriate translation would be simply, "How are you doing?"

In another area of the grammar, Dothraki expresses immediate pasts and futures using the same verb: dothralat, "to ride". Here are some illustrative examples:

Anha adakhak. "I'm eating." (Present)
Anha vadakhak. "I'm going to eat." (Standard Future)
Anha adakh. "I ate." (Standard Past)
Anha dothrak adakhataan. "I'm about to eat." (Lit. "I ride to eating.")
Anha dothrak adakhatoon. "I just ate." (Lit. "I ride from eating.")

In discussing long distances, the Dothraki express themselves in terms of horserides. Dothraki has words for different types of horse gaits which line up with English terminology thus:

karlinat, "to gallop"
chetirat, "to canter"
irvosat, "to trot"
onqothat, "to walk"

Unlike English, terms for distance in Dothraki are derived directly from horse gait terminology. Using karlinat as a base, the Dothraki have an approximation for how far a horse in good health can gallop before having to stop to rest. That distance (let's call it a mile to make conversion easy) is referred to as a karlina. Using the other gait types, the same derivation model is applied and stands for how far a horse would move at that speed in the time it would take the horse to gallop a karlina. This gives Dothraki the following terms (all of which are approximations):

karlina = one mile
chetira = half mile
irvosa = quarter mile
onqotha = eighth mile

These terms, however, do not stand for exact measures. For example, a smaller horse with a rider who doesn't weigh much will be able to gallop further without tiring than a larger horse weighted down with supplies and a heavy rider. Thus, karlina may mean one mile for one horse and rider, and may mean two and a half or three miles for another-and the same goes for each of the four units-similar to how I can say, at two in the morning, that LA is 40 minutes away, while at eight in the morning, it may be two hours away.

One important fact to remember is that language users use their own experience to encode life as they see it. And just as "What's up?" doesn't mean "What's in the sky right now?", Hash yer dothrae chek? doesn't necessarily have anything to do with horse riding. Dothraki horse culture is simply a tool Dothraki speakers use to help them describe the reality around them. Part of the fun of creating a language is using an imagined culture as a palette to paint our own reality in different colors-and Dothraki culture has proved to be a fun palette.

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  11. BadatLanguage

    Great stuff – I actually blogged about the Dothraki language recently but only found this article today.. could have done with it back then! I only discovered Game of Thrones recently also (seems I'm always late to the party) and loving it so far.

    May 5, 2012 at 8:24 am | Reply
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  13. Edineia

    By on July 27, 2010Filed Under: , So far, reports from the set have been non-existent. Looks like HBO is rlealy serious about sealing up the leaks this time around. However, it seems they are filming only at the Paint Hall at the moment. Once they go on location we should start seeing some set reports and photos pop up. Until then, let’s take a look at a few noteworthy items from around the web:First up, is from The Guardian that popped up over the weekend asking if Game of Thrones is the most anticipated TV show ever. They talk about the books and the buzz and even manage to work a link to us in there (thanks Guardian!).Next, is this from The Well Educated Pony that talks fashion in Game of Thrones. The blog author tries toa0match up characters to the kind of present day, high-end fashion they might wear. This is the second in a series of posts covering this topic, the first one can be found . I think educated pony does a great job of capturing the essence of the characters in her fashion choices and reading this makes me even more anxious to see more official costume pics. for the Dothraki language, created for the show bya0linguista0David J. Peterson has just launched. It was created by the same folks behind the very popular and hopes to be the number one site to go to for those who wish to learn Dothraki. So far they’ve got a wiki and the “first and only” Dothraki dictionary. Look for the site to continue to expand as more info on the language is released.Lastly, got some time on your hands? Then come . The much-beloved Margaret John is Old Nan; we can see now exactly why they cast her! One might speculate whether or not she’s ever made lemoncakes… (Special thanks to for pointing this out on Twitter!)Tags: , , , , , |

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  15. Angryblackman

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  16. jj

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    April 10, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Reply
  17. Alex

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    April 9, 2012 at 7:50 pm | Reply
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      May 2, 2012 at 11:59 pm | Reply
      • Kreme

        New Dothraki Language InterviewWired’s Geekdad blog has posted an with David J. Peterson rergading his development of the Dothraki language for HBO’s Game of Thrones. Quite a lot of excellent details, including Peterson comparing the sound of Dothraki to ” Arabic plus Spanish divided by two … squared,” giving the latest count of the dictionary (2,356 words, conservatively), and a new phrase to practice. It’s another fascinating look into the development process.

        June 12, 2012 at 1:06 am |
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    April 8, 2012 at 10:27 pm | Reply
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  21. Dorothy Potter Snyder

    I'm a language nerd, but to the author of this piece, there is no such thing as "Standard Future:. The future you've noted here in Dothraki is the compound future (going to verb), and the future you've noted is simply indicative future tense (will verb). Normally about to verb would involve a preposition in almost any language I know, but I'll accept the "riding to" idea, though "galloping to" would perhaps be more to point for "about to verb". http://www.DorothyPotterSpanish.com

    April 8, 2012 at 9:53 pm | Reply
    • tselacg

      Dorothy, "Standard Future" is just the way David named the future tense in Dothraki, a conjugated form that corresponds both to the "going to" and "will" futures of English.

      Oh, by the way, in the expression "about to", "about" isn't a preposition. It's an adverb (as in the expression "out and about"). Also, you mustn't know many languages to know only languages using a "preposition" for this construction. Of all the languages I know, none does. The Dothraki construction is nothing weird and I've seen many languages with comparable constructions for "about to". My native language French being one.

      April 16, 2012 at 5:23 am | Reply
  22. Tel

    There us no other way to be hung for a Dothraki.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:45 pm | Reply
    • Tel

      Oops, was supposed to be an answer to James K's question....

      April 8, 2012 at 8:49 pm | Reply
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        August 20, 2012 at 6:59 am |
  23. Jack

    Iv'e read part of this series years ago. It is like a storyline on methamphetamine, it goes all over the place. The worst part about reading the books is that It was never finished. I remember getting through with the first couple novels and then that was it, the sequels that conclude it never came out. I waited for quite a few years to read the end before gave up and Figured a person with two middles initials just like JRR Tolkien was trying way to hard. Now they're making language just like JRR Tolkien Did. They're going to sell the dictionaries to all the nerds who can't deal with real life.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Reply
    • Chuck

      Jack, you know he's still writing the books right? Maybe the worst part was not understanding the concept of a large story still being written and not completed decades ago.

      April 8, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Reply
    • Heffi

      @Jack: I'm with you, Jack. I was smitten with the series when if first came out, and delightedly read the first three novels. When the fouth FFC came out, it was a terrible let-down in that not much really happened when compared to the first three. I was, "After waiting all these years, this is all you had for us?" Finding a similar let-down in the 'Sword of Truth' series by Terry Goodkind after 5 of his novels, I'm was just too cynical to have bothered purchasing Martin's 5th book.
      @Chuck. The worst part was waiting for more, visiting his website for more info, and realising he's been doing other projects instead of this. I felt taken for granted.

      April 8, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Reply
      • TecEdge

        He isn't neglecting this project in the slightest. He hit a functional road block in his mind around Feast of Crows even though he had a direction. He just put out A Dance With Dragons and from the look, part 2 of the same novel will launch this year? I feel like 2,000 pages is a huge commitment.

        April 10, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • Wastrel

      Yes, this is another endless series and to be avoided if you are fan of stories that end.

      April 11, 2012 at 10:34 am | Reply
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  25. RavenB

    I'm Maori (indigenous New Zealander) and I noticed that the very first line Drogo speaks is "I te waka" which is the refrain from a very well-known Maori haka. Since then I've picked up the odd word that has meaning in Maori but nothing in a full sentence. As far as a race and language to base the warrior Dothraki on goes, Maori makes a lot of sense, but I'd love to know for certain if it was.

    April 7, 2012 at 11:04 pm | Reply
    • Nara

      Well, I know that Jason Momoa performed a haka in his audition tape for the part. Maybe they decided to keep the line in as a tribute (or maybe he improvised it). I haven't seen for sure anywhere that the linguist borrowed from Maori, but conlangers often borrow a word or two from lanugages they're inspired by so it wouldn't be a surprise.

      April 7, 2012 at 11:36 pm | Reply
      • RavenB

        Holy ish, I didn't know he auditioned with a haka! I just watched it on youtube, it's awesome. I mean, yes, he completely mangled it – there are no 'ooga's in a haka nor is there any clapping or death metal bull-horn fingers, but it's pretty effective all the same and his pronunciation is quite good. I like that he used the throat-slitting gesture at the end, the All Blacks got banned from using that : )

        April 8, 2012 at 12:11 am |
  26. jmmelican

    If distance if based on "an approximation for how far a horse in good health can gallop before having to stop to rest." then why does:

    karlina = one mile
    chetira = half mile
    irvosa = quarter mile
    onqotha = eighth mile

    Shouldn't it be the other way around? A horse in good health could walk a lot farther than it could gallop. Certainly not 1/8th the distance. Even the use of Imperial style fractional comparatives represents a US cultural bias instead of a metric system such as in Europe.

    Perhaps it should be:
    karlina = one mile
    chetira = eight miles
    irvosa = twenty miles
    onqotha = thirty miles

    April 7, 2012 at 9:04 pm | Reply
    • Blob

      No, if you read the paragraph carefully, you'll see that one onqotha is how far the horse can walk in the _time_ it takes it to gallop one karlina. Likewise for the rest.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:26 am | Reply
      • jmmelican

        ah... reading. I really should try that.
        thanks for the correction :)

        April 8, 2012 at 9:55 am |
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  27. Some parts are easy

    At least he didn't have to come up with a translation of "Thank you"

    April 7, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Reply
    • Rawrth

      You are amazing XD I completely get the reference

      April 8, 2012 at 12:13 am | Reply
  28. NorCalMojo

    That's some hard core geeking right there.

    April 7, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Reply
  29. L0wTax

    Creating a new language...so easy, a caveman can do it.

    April 6, 2012 at 10:41 pm | Reply
  30. Ragnar

    "anha" was generated by a computer? "Ana" is Arabic for "I" or "I am"

    April 6, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Reply
    • James Prather

      "Ana" is "I am" in Arabic, but it's the same in Hebrew, Syriac, and many other Semitic languages. Linguists love to rip off other languages as they make up their "new" one. Tolkien did it to Old Norse, Celtic, and Middle English.

      April 7, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Reply
      • Pandora

        Because of all this fuss about the world "ana" I should just say this.. my name is Ana, spelt exacly like this, simple. Ana. so yeah it's been around for a while,, that being said, it does not and it should not affect the ability to value the work of creating a language from scratch for the purpose of a book or series.

        April 7, 2012 at 10:56 pm |
      • Phie

        You're also bound to find coincidental similarities between a made up language and other languages because there are really only so many sounds we can make.

        April 9, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
  31. schremeg

    See J.R.R. Tolkien

    April 6, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Reply
    • Sferrell

      Agreed see Tolkien

      April 6, 2012 at 9:06 pm | Reply
  32. James K.

    How does one say, "Hung like a horse," in Dothraki?

    April 6, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Reply
    • Khal

      Megadong

      April 6, 2012 at 10:48 pm | Reply
      • KhalKhal

        Not in English, in Dothraki.

        April 7, 2012 at 3:10 am |
      • Snoopingas

        That ain't dothraki,

        Think more along the lines of "karlina adakhak" amirite ?

        April 7, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
    • Tel

      There is no other way to be hung, for a Dothraki.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:46 pm | Reply
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        July 19, 2012 at 2:56 am |

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