Game of Thrones: Exploring the Many Languages of Westeros

We speak with David J. Peterson, the man behind Game of Thrones' many languages, about Season 8 and a new online Valyrian course.

Game of Thrones High Valyrian

Don’t believe the mainstream Westerosi media’s lies: there is a word for “thank you” in Dothraki. According to David J. Peterson, the man who created Dothraki, High Valyrian, and a whole host of other languages for HBO’s Game of Thrones, saying “san athchomari” is how one might thank someone in the tongue of the Horse Lords for their generous gift of three dragon eggs. 

“[It was written] before the line about the language not having a word for ‘thank you’ was added to the pilot,” David J. Peterson says. Peterson is a conlanger (creator of languages) and the founder of the Language Creation Society. Back when HBO needed to create a fictional language for their unknown little swords and dragons show, they reached out to Peterson, and he has been Game of Thrones‘ go-to linguist ever since. Peterson has developed Dothraki, High Valyrian, and a whole host of other tongues for the show, even as some have gone unused, like Ashai’i, the mysterious language of red priest and priestesses of the Far East.

further reading: Game of Thrones: 9 Changes That Improved Upon the Books

“Every word also had a light and shadow form,” Peterson says. “It was kind of fun, but I doubt I’d use it as a model if I were to ever build a full Asshai’i language.”

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Now in advance of Game of Thrones Season 8, Peterson is fine-tuning the High Valyrian course for language learning app Duolingo.

We spoke with Peterson about the course (which boasts more than 800,000 active users), his hopes for who takes the Iron Throne, and what is was like to watch Daenerys Targaryen utter “dracarys.” The following interview was conducted via email and is lightly edited for clarity and style.

DEN OF GEEK: Where did you begin in creating High Valyrian and its derivatives? How important were phrases like “Valar Morghulis” and “Valar Dohaeris” as jumping off points?

DAVID J. PETERSON: Those two phrases are actually all there in terms of source material for Valyrian, aside from a stray word or two. I used them to determine the grammatical structure of the verbs and the number system for the nouns, and then I created the entire language around them. So they were absolutely critical to my work. That’s where it all started!

I started creating High Valyrian and its descendant Astapori Valyrian between seasons 2 and 3 of Game of Thrones. I had several months to work on both of them before I was required to translate any dialogue for the scripts, but even so, I continued to work on the languages and build on them thereafter. I’m still working on them to this day, and will continue to do so until I can’t anymore.

How many words are in High Valyrian now approximately?

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Just over 2,000.

Famously, there is no word for “thank you” in Dothraki. What phrase comes the closest?

Probably the old phrase that meant “thank you!” Dothraki originally had a phrase for “thank you”—san athchomari—before the line about the language not having a word for “thank you” was added to the pilot. Originally I thought it was a little unrealistic for Dothraki not to have a word for thank you, but a recent study showed that there are actually many languages that don’t have a word or phrase that corresponds to English “thank you.” Indeed, there are many different ways that human cultures express gratitude that go beyond saying something after someone does something nice.

How involved have you been in language and translation services for each season? Are you sent excerpts of scripts to translate? I read previously that you would translate text and send audio files over to Emilia Clarke. How has her High Valyrian progressed as seasons pass? Who is the best High Valyrian speaker on the cast?

The best Valyrian speaker (and best foreign language actor I have ever seen in general) is Jacob Anderson, the actor who plays Grey Worm. His accent and pronunciation are simply amazing–better than my own. He speaks Astapori Valyrian exclusively, though. For High Valyrian, Emilia Clarke is the best on the show, and she hit the ground running. For Dothraki, she took it a bit easy, because it was known (indeed, we planned it this way) that she was a non-native Dothraki speaker, and was never going to be quite perfect with it. That took the pressure off a bit. She didn’t need to stress on pronunciation; she just needed to give it her best shot (well, except for the first few episodes, where she was supposed to sound like she was struggling). For High Valyrian, she knew she was supposed to be a native speaker, and that it was going to be a big deal when it was revealed, so she worked hard to get her High Valyrian accent just right. I’ve always been pleased with the results.

further reading: The Real History of Daenerys Targaryen

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To the first part of the question, I worked on every season of Game of Thrones, and I received scripts to work on every season except this last one. No one got scripts for the last season. Given the leaks that occurred during season 7, I think it was a very reasonable precaution.

What is your favorite High Valyrian scene in the show? Can you talk a little about what it was like to see it introduced in the show in such a pivotal dramatic scene in Slaver’s Bay?

That. That’s my favorite High Valyrian scene in the show. In fact, it’s my favorite scene in the show, period. First, story-wise, it’s a great moment, because as a book reader (the first way I experienced that scene), I kept thinking to myself, “Am I missing something? How is this guy going to trade his entire army for a dragon? Who does he think is going to protect him after the exchange?” It was so gratifying to see that Daenerys had been planning this the whole time. Also, in terms of the show, many of the most memorable moments are quite negative and shocking (Ned getting killed, the Red Wedding, the Purple Wedding, the Mountain and the Viper, etc.). It was cool to have a memorable moment that was positive—triumphant! One that the entire audience is cheering for.

For me personally, the scene is very special because all of this hinges quite specifically on language. Kraznys, the slave master, speaks a form of Valyrian (Astapori Valyrian). Seeing Daenerys, he assumes automatically she only speaks the Common Tongue, and so converses with her through an interpreter. In so doing, he says some of the vilest things I’ve ever had to translate for a show, understanding that the interpreter will clean it up, which she does. Daenerys understands everything, but the audience doesn’t know she does. In this scene, after the exchange has occurred, and she has “given” her dragon to Kraznys in exchange for his full Unsullied army, she reveals to him and to the audience at the same time that she speaks Valyrian by speaking Valyrian right to him. It’s an extraordinary moment, and one I feel so privileged to have been a part of.

You’ve developed other languages for the show that have gone unused–like Skroth, Asshai’i, and Gerna Moussha. Can you tell us a little bit about those? I’m particularly interested in what Asshai’i would have sounded like. When was that commissioned and for what purpose? Red Priest and Priestesses in the East?

Most of this was for season 1. The Children of the Forest was season 6, but Skroth, Ashai’i, the Lhazareen accent, that was all for season 1. Skroth, as I built it, was supposed to the base in terms of sound. I planned for the audio team to modify it in some way so it sounded more like it’s described in the book (like cracking ice). I certainly built the sound of it out to help support that, but I felt it would be more appropriate to have some sonic modification to layer on top of it. I think ultimately they decided the White Walkers would be more threatening if they didn’t speak. (Physiologically, I’ll note, it’s also more realistic.)

Asshai’i was going to be used in two places: (1) Mirri Maz Duur doing the ritual in the tent with the horse; and (2) a spellsinger at the Western Market. The latter scene got cut, and the former, I mean, if she used what I sent, I didn’t recognize it, so it’s really not anything one would say is canon. Asshai’i as I created it then had ATR harmony (an areal feature in West Africa), long and short vowels (as in High Valyrian), and an inverse system (uncommon feature where the word order always stays the same but you throw in an inverse marker if the usual object is the subject). Every word also had a light and shadow form. It was kind of fun, but I doubt I’d use it as a model if I were to ever build a full Asshai’i language.

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Have you ever been able to communicate with a fan in High Valyrian?

Online, all the time! Even if it’s just a little bit, it’s fun. 

As a fan, what are your hopes for the final season of Game of Thrones?

I have absolutely no idea what’s happening in the last season. I hope that the Iron Throne is destroyed, personally. The best person to sit on the Iron Throne is no one. Democracy for all! Justice for the small folk!

further reading: Game of Thrones Season 8 Theories and Predictions

How involved are you in the creation of the Duolingo course. Have you tried it? What are some new features being rolled out prior to Season 8?

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I led the creation of the Duolingo course, which launched in 2017 just ahead of the Game of Thrones Season 7 premiere. Leading up to Season 8, I’ve been adding new skills and content to the course, so it’s now more challenging. When the course launched, it did not have audio, so I’ve also personally been recording audio pronunciation that is being integrated throughout the course. I also test it myself on the user end to make sure it works, and that it’s actually learnable (i.e. I didn’t use a sentence with negation before introducing negation, etc.). I’ve got a 39-day streak going at the moment!

Game of Thrones High Valyrian Duolingo

Who is more intimidating: the combined forces of Drogon, Viserion, Rhaegal–or the Duolingo owl?

Listen, Duo the Owl is there as your friend and guide. He only means well! He means you no harm; he just wants to make sure you’re not neglecting your Navajo lessons. That’s all! I further would like to note I make this statement of my own free will, and no person or bird is watching me type this at this very moment.

Alec Bojalad is TV Editor at Den of Geek and TCA member. Read more of his stuff here. Follow him at his creatively-named Twitter handle @alecbojalad