March 29th, 2013
02:52 PM ET

David Peterson and the languages of 'Game of Thrones'

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" this Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET.

By David Peterson, Special to CNN

It's now a little over a year from the day when CNN’s "Next List" crew came to Orange County to do an episode on my language-creation work. At the time, I really had no idea what the coming year held in store for me, so I did my best to look busy.

I had recently joined Syfy's "Defiance" as a language creator, but hadn't yet done any serious translation work, and while I'd finished my work on season two of HBO's "Game of Thrones," there'd been no discussions about season three up to that point. I remained hopeful, but that March I didn't really have much going on.

During my first interview on the morning of twelfth, the "Next List" producer asked me if I'd be working on the Valyrian language for the show's upcoming season. Immediately alarm bells went off, as I started to think back and wonder, "Did I accidentally say anything?"

Though there had been no discussions, I and many assumed that some form of the Valyrian language would make an appearance in season three, but at that stage, any such discussion would have been premature, and certainly would have been covered by a non-disclosure agreement. Trying not to look too perturbed, I asked why she would ask that, and she told me that when she'd interviewed executive producers Dan Weiss and David Benioff earlier, they'd said I'd be working on Valyrian this season.

And that's how I learned I'd be creating a new language for season three of "Game of Thrones."

For those tuning in to the "Game of Thrones" premiere this Sunday, you'll still have to suffer through a few subtitles, but the audio will sound a bit different from seasons past. Though there are a number of Dothraki speakers yet alive on the show, there's surprisingly little Dothraki this season. In its place is quite a bit of dialogue in two related languages: High and Low Valyrian.

In George R. R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire," High Valyrian was meant to occupy the place Latin occupies in the Western world. Latin was the language of the Roman Empire, spoken commonly for several centuries in and around the Italian peninsula and beyond. It's the mother language for all the Romance languages spoken today (Italian, Spanish, French, Catalan, Romanian, etc.).

High Valyrian, in turn, was the language of Martin's Valyrian Empire, an expansive domain that existed for several millennia before it was destroyed by a mysterious event cryptically referred to as the Doom. In its purest form, High Valyrian still exists as a language of scholarship and refinement, though its impact on the region was far greater.

High Valyrian was taken up and creolized by the old Ghiscari Empire, where it's still spoken at the time of action in the books and the show. And it served as the mother language for the various Low Valyrian languages spoke in the Free Cities of Volantis, Braavos, Myr, Pentos, Lys, etc.

This season, I worked on two of the Valyrian languages: High Valyrian (the oldest form of the language) and the Low Valyrian spoken in and around Slaver's Bay. To translate sentences into the latter variety of Valyrian, I would first translate them into High Valyrian, and then apply a series of phonological, semantic and grammatical changes to the text. The resulting language is approximately as different from High Valyrian as Old Spanish is from Classical Latin.

If you watch the "Game of Thrones" premiere, you'll hear some of the Slaver's Bay variety of Valyrian. Both Nathalie Emmanuel and Dan Hildebrand do an outstanding job with their lines. I was extraordinarily pleased with their performances, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

And even if languages aren't your thing, I hope the Valyrian won't distract you from what I think is a truly superlative premiere for season three.

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Filed under: Innovation • Language • The Next List • Thinkers • TV • Video
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  9. Todd

    I haven't seen Game of Thrones, but this makes me want to. Not many Americans are aware of the subtle effects languages and dialects can have in shaping various cultures and how much the contrasts of linguistic diversity can help us in even understanding our own language better. It's the seemingly small details like this that can make the difference between a really great show or movie and a mediocre one.

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    Valyrian,high and low is so cool. My best part was were Danerys Stomborn ordered the unsolid to slay their masters

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    Before the 21st century (and maybe the 1990) in most movies and shows, they used foreign languages to develop the characters and to convey the concept of being somewhere far away. A good example of this was in Star Wars (the original 3)

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    From what language(s) did you derive High Valyrian? The only word in the book (that I can remember) is 'Valar Morghulis'. Off the top of my head I recognize Mor' from the french 'mort'. I had to think a bit about 'Valar'. I thought first of "valence' then of 'valor'. and I thought a direct translation to English could be something like, "intrepid death."

    To me, with Kraznys' pronunciation (or was it his appearance), it seemed more inspired by a middle-eastern language like Hebrew than latin.

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