How do you say “my weird TV job” in High Valyrian? Meet David J. Peterson, who has invented tongues for HBO’s Game of Thrones and Syfy’s Defiance.
Getting the job
”I’ve been creating languages since 2000,” says Peterson, a former English professor with a master’s in linguistics. ”But it was just for fun, and for the intellectual rigor of it — the same reason that people do art.” Then HBO, in need of a Dothraki language for the GoT pilot, put out the call for word nerds. After spending a couple of months coming up with 1,700 words and ”90 percent of the grammar,” he beat more than 30 others to earn the gig as GoT’s chief polyglot. Peterson has since produced about 3,700 entries in the Dothraki dictionary.
Though vast in length, George R.R. Martin’s books were light on clues when it came to Dothraki: ”There were just a couple of words, a handful of names, and a few phrases,” says Peterson. But that was a stroll down Kingsroad compared with High Valyrian, which took him seven months to develop. The language ”was a bit of a puzzle,” he says. ”There was much less to go on, like two phrases.” Given that he has to create so much on his own, Peterson admits with a chuckle, ”there’s always the fear that George might get annoyed with me.”
Keeping the language alive
Much like Klingon, Dothraki has earned its own place in pop culture. Last fall on The Office, Dwight Schrute spoke the tongue, and even introduced a new form. ”They created ‘throat rip’ by putting ‘throat’ in front so that it was actually in the accusative,” Peterson explains. ”So I went with it — you can now incorporate objects by putting them in the accusative and placing them in front of a verb. It’s called the Schrutean compound.”
One of the perks of Peterson’s job is sneaking Easter eggs into his languages. In Dothraki, ”the word for good and kind is erin, which is my wife’s name,” he says. ”When I needed a word for eagle, I thought, ‘What would be more appropriate than Stephen Colbert?’ So the Dothraki word for eagle is kolver.”
Taking on Defiance
While Peterson enjoys working on GoT, the real fun comes when he gets to build a language from scratch, as he did for the two alien tongues on Syfy’s Defiance. ”They wanted their languages to be audibly distinct,” he explains. ”So I worked to make them complete opposites: One is spoken quite slowly, and one is spoken quite quickly. And of all the languages, [”Defiance’s”] Irathient is probably my favorite. It’s really fun to build a language with a complex sound-class system and crazy auxiliaries.” We’ll take his word for it.