David J. Peterson - Dothraki and "The Art of Language Invention"

January 6, 2016 - David J. Peterson 01/06/2016 Views: 15,945

David J. Peterson discusses his book "The Art of Language Invention" and explains how he was able to develop Dothraki for the television series "Game of Thrones." (6:03)

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My guest tonightis a language creator

who has invented languagesfor several TV shows,

including Game of Thrones.

His new book is called The Art of Language Invention.

Please welcomeDavid J. Peterson.

(cheering and applause)

Thank you for being here, sir.

Or should I say, uh...




That's all I learned.

-(laughs)-Thank you so much for...

How am I supposed to learn...

-Let's-let's startat the beginning. -Sure.

You speak how many languages?

I don't know. It dependson what you're talking about.

-But I've studied over 20.-Studied over 20 languages.

-Yeah. -So, I mean,the list that I have here.

German, Arabic, French, Russian,Middle Egyptian.

-Mm, that's right.-Esperanto.

American Sign Language.

I didn't knowthere was a difference. Uh...


Acadian, Attic Greek,Modern Greek.

Is Attic Greek just a...? Okay.


Hindi, Japanese, Finnish.

-Yeah.-This is just you?

-Yeah.-And then, you were like,

"You know what?This is not enough.

-I have to make up languages."-Yeah, well, you know,

I started creating languages

when I was a freshmanin college.

And it kind of justhit me one day.

It hit me while I was studyinglinguistics at UC Berkeley.

And I just thought to myself,uh, as we were looking

at a whole bunchof different languages

and looking at their morphology,I thought, "Well, what if

I did somethinglike this in a language?"

And then, basically, I juststarted in my notebook

right then,started creating a language,

and, um,I have yet to stop.

How do you... how do you startcreating a language?

That's somethingI don't... I don't even know.

Do you takean existing language?

Is it like with...like if I take English,

and then I'm, like,Englisher... makinger?


You can do that.

You can do that, but I mean,you can't do anything.

It depends on what your goal iswith a language.

So, like, when I started,

I didn't really havea goal in mind.

So I was just c... I was justwriting down a bunch of sounds.

I-I made up a scriptthat was vaguely like Arabic

'cause I was studying Arabicat the time.

-NOAH: Yeah.-I really loved it.

Um, and it wasn't until laterthat I saw

I was basicallyrecoding the vocabulary

of Englishwith kind of a fancy grammar.

So now what I do mainly is

I'm creatingnaturalistic languages.

So what that means is thatyou try to create a language

that if a linguist found itsomewhere here on earth,

they wouldn't look at itand say, "Wait a minute.

You know, that-that looksreally, really fake."

So what we tryto do is, you know,

create a historyfor the language.

You create an older stateof the language.

You evolve the grammar,you evolve the sounds,

you evolve the meanings,and produce something

that looks kind of likea well-worn shoe, you know?


That's a strange descriptionfor it.

"Your language is likea well-worn shoe, my friend."

And so, you have tenses.

You have to figure outthe language making sense.

Some of the languagesdon't even...

Like, how do you come up withDothraki in Game of Thrones?

'Cause I just thought the peoplewere making sounds.

(Noah speaks gibberish)

I was like...

That's-that's verbatim,by the way. That's...

Of course, of course.No, no, no.

So, with that one, it wasa little different project

because, of course,George R.R. Martin had created

some Dothraki wordsand some Dothraki phrases...

-NOAH: Yeah.-...in the first three books.

So there was first a little bitof, uh, discovery.

So I had to go through,take down everything,

see what the translations were,make sense of them,

see if there wasa grammatical system

that was inherent in them,and there was.

And then I basicallyhad to replicate that

and then build on itbased on what was there.

What language do you dream in?

Oh, you know, I've dreamtin a lot of languages.

I-I rememberthe first time I dreamt

in American Sign Language.That was different.

I've dreamt in Spanish a lot.

That's my...that's my family's language.

So the dream was silentthe whole way, like...

Yeah, no, but I've even...I've even had

fake languages in my dream.

And when I say "fake language,"it was, like,

it was supposedto be a real language

in the dream,and it turned out it wasn't.

Like, I had an entire, uh...

Like, no, it's true. I hadthis dream where there was

-Sicilian... -NOAH: This is themost fascinating thing ever.

-This is just like...-Yeah.

It was the Sicilian language,and I was like...

I was a graduate student doinga little assignment on it,

and I was creating itfor undergraduates,

and then,when I woke up, I realized,

"Wait a minute. That's not evenclose to Sicilian."

So I started writing downas much as I could remember

before it was just gone, but,yeah, it was out there.

-Out there.-Then you just made...

Huh. I've done the same thing.

I wake up, and I madea new language. I, uh...

-(laughter) -That happens to meall the time. That's a...

So wait.So what is this book about?

Do you teach ushow to make languages,

or do we just talkabout the etymology

-and the history of languages?-Uh, no, no, no.

So, I mean, first, I do go

into the historyof created languages,

'cause a lot of peopledon't know this,

but the first created language,or the first one we count

was done in the 12th century,and people

have been creating languagesthat entire time.

And now there are thousandsof people doing it

all over the world just for fun.

Um, and so I introduced youto that.

But then after that,I kind of go into my process.

How I create a language,you know, how you might do it,

some of the thingsthat I've done

on some of the showsthat I've worked on.

-Let me ask you an honestquestion, 'cause you... -Mm-hmm.

I feel likeyou're an expert in this.

What is the sexiestlanguage in the world?

Like if were you to design it,

what wouldthe sexiest language be?

Is it really French?People say it's...

I done think it's French.French is like, "Blah."


You know, the most fun thingabout this is

that you can take any languageand make it sound sexy.

You can take any language andmake it sound totally unsexy.

You know, like, you know,something in Dothraki.

You know, like, you know...(speaking Dothraki)

That's how you say I love you,but you could also...

You could say the same thing.

(speaking Dothrakiwith goofy accent)

-And, you know...-(laughter)

Don't sound so sexy no more.

I just pictured all the Dothraki

not taking over anythingin Game of Thrones.

That would bethe worst thing ever.

It is really exciting,and it was really fascinating.

The Art of Language Invention is in bookstores now, everybody.

Go out and get it.David J. Peterson.

Get it...(speaking gibberish)

(applause and cheering)