Languages fall in and out fashion (Latin, anyone?), but one in particular has been growing faster than the Khaleesi’s dragons: Dothraki. The native tongue of the late Khal Drogo and his horse-loving warrior people has spawned a thriving subculture of devotees who use the Game of Thrones language for everything from poetry to tattoos to YouTube videos. And, somehow, the language continues to climb in popularity despite the fact that it’s barely even used in the series anymore. It could even be the next Klingon—existing for years to come outside its TV birthplace.
Just ask David J. Peterson, the linguist whose job it is to create the fake languages for the HBO series. He also runs dothraki.com, fields translation requests from fans, and even published a learning guide called Living Language: Dothraki in October. “Probably only four people were even semifluent a year and a half ago, and I knew them all,” Peterson says. “Now I couldn’t even tell you a number. So since there’s a teach-yourself guide now, I think we’re starting to see the fruits of that. People are now writing me in Dothraki all the time, and it’s very well done—the grammar is quite good now.”
Why are people so drawn to Dothraki rather than, say, High Valyrian? “It has the advantage of having been the first [language] on the show,” Peterson notes. “The other thing is just how incredible Jason Momoa’s performance [as Khal Drogo] was. It’s one thing to have a really popular character, but when the character makes a big impact and then is gone after a season? It tends to stick in the mind. I mean, people are still talking about Sean Bean! But the impact that Bean and Momoa made still sticks with fans, which naturally means people stay interested in Dothraki.”
GoT fans make up a large chunk of the Dothraki enthusiasts, of course, but now hordes of outsiders are joining the party, too. “There are people who want to learn the language who’ve never watched or read Game of Thrones,” says Peterson. “They’re just really into language and think it’s cool. I always tell them, ‘Hey, you know, the show is actually pretty good too. You should give it a watch.'”
He adds that the rise of Dothraki has coincided with the slow demise of a certain other fake language: “In the early days, it was the Nav’i language from Avatar that everybody was talking about. Now the Avatar movie is out of the public mind, but Game of Thrones keeps coming back every year. So several people I know personally came from Nav’i. And at least one that I know came from Klingon.”
But lest he start a Thronesian war, Peterson is careful to note that the languages can coexist happily. “And when the Avatar sequel comes out in two years, Nav’i will be the most popular language again,” he speculates. “And I doubt that Klingon will ever really give up the top spot. That’s the thing: Your brain actually has a lot of room for this stuff.”