HBO hires linguist to create Dothraki language

HBO has issued a press release announcing they have hired David J. Peterson, an expert language creator, to create the Dothraki language for Game of Thrones. Below is the full, incredibly detailed press release courtesy of BSC Review.


David J. Peterson, an expert language creator from the Language Creation Society (LCS), has been chosen to create the Dothraki language for HBO’s upcoming fantasy series GAME OF THRONES, based on the book series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” by George R.R. Martin.

When GAME OF THRONES executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss needed a language for the Dothraki, Martin’s race of nomadic warriors, they turned to the Language Creation Society. The LCS solicited and vetted a number of proposals for the Dothraki language from its pool of experts, with Peterson’s proposal ultimately being selected by the GAME OF THRONES production team.

Peterson drew inspiration from George R.R. Martin’s description of the language, as well as from such languages as Russian, Turkish, Estonian, Inuktitut and Swahili. However, the Dothraki language is no mere hodgepodge, babble or pidgin. It has its own unique sound, extensive vocabulary of more than 1,800 words and complex grammatical structure.

“In designing Dothraki, I wanted to remain as faithful as possible to the extant material in George R.R. Martin’s series,” says Peterson. “Though there isn’t a lot of data, there is evidence of a dominant word order [subject-verb-object], of adjectives appearing after nouns, and of the lack of a copula [‘to be’]. I’ve remained faithful to these elements, creating a sound aesthetic that will be familiar to readers, while giving the language depth and authenticity. My fondest desire is for fans of the series to look at a word from the Dothraki language and be unable to tell if it came from the books or from me — and for viewers not even to realize it’s a constructed language.”

“We’re tremendously excited to be working with David and the LCS,” says producer D.B. Weiss. “The language he’s devised is phenomenal. It captures the essence of the Dothraki, and brings another level of richness to their world. We look forward to his first collection of Dothraki love sonnets.”

Did you know? (Hash yer ray nesi?)

The name for the Dothraki people — and their language — derives from the verb “dothralat” (“to ride”).

The Dothraki have four different words for “carry,” three for “push,” three for “pull” and at least eight for “horse,” but no word that means “please” or “follow.”

The longest word in Dothraki is “athastokhdeveshizaroon,” which means “from nonsense.”

The words for “related,” “weighted net,” “eclipse,” “dispute,” “redhead,” “oath,” “funeral pyre,” “evidence,” “omen,” “fang” and “harvest moon” all have one element in common: “qoy,” the Dothraki word for “blood.”

Dothraki for “to dream” – “thirat atthiraride” – literally means “to live a wooden life”; in Dothraki, “wooden” (“ido”) is synonymous with “fake.”

The word for “pride” – “athjahakar” – is derived from “jahak,” the traditional long braid worn by Dothraki warriors (“lajaki”).

More information about the Dothraki language (and their love poems) will be released over the course of the series.

Winter Is Coming: Cool stuff! We had heard back during filming that they had hired a linguistic expert to work up a Dothraki vocabulary, but I never realized it was being done to this extent. Just shows how serious HBO and David & Dan are taking this adaptation.

UPDATE: Westeros has some more info about the Language Creation Society, the process of selecting David Peterson and Peterson’s efforts in creating the language.

UPDATE: GRRM weighs in with his thoughts on the Dothraki language. Also, the LCS has a page dedicated to Dothraki up at their website where they hope to release more info about the language, including possibly some audio of the language being spoken [via Westeros]. They have created an official Facebook page, and a Livejournal on Dothraki as well.

UPDATE: The Language Creation Society page now features sound samples of known Dothraki phrases!


    • I truly hate it when fantasy and sci-fi skimps on the language issue, it really puts me off watching the show.

      Also, considering how many people now speak Klingon, I'd hardly call it irrellevant ;-)

  • The attention to detail is very cool….but this seems like a LOT of work for a language that is not integral to the story at all. Far less than say Elvish is to JRR Tolkien's LotR's.

      • Well, the language really isn't used a lot in the books, and according to George, none of his languages exist beyond the words in the books, which he makes up as needed.

        That said, this is awesome. Also, with TV, they probably will need a bit more than what's in the books. I can't say for sure, but I'm guessing there are times when George sidesteps dothraki language by simply describing tones of conversations heard by Dany. With TV, they don't have that option. There's also the marketing angle to consider. I know I'd snap up a reasonably priced Dothraki-English dictionary pretty fast.

        • I disagree that the language isn't used a lot, it just seems that way. Martin doesn't want to write whole conversations in dothraki since the readers (and the POV characters sometimes) don't even understand it. But there is certainly a lot of dothraki being spoken around Dany, certainly in the first two books at least. It just isn't easy to convey that in writting. The show will make much more use of a fleshed out dothraki language.

          I would agree that it isn't "integral" to the story, but no more than Elvish in JRRT.

  • I guess they can do Old Valyrian too. And didn't Braavos have their own language or just an accent? Can't remember what language Valar Morghulis is (Valyrian?)

      • Right, right, high Valyrian not old Valyrian. It's cool that they are going to these lengths. So I guess we'll be reading some subtitles.

        • I got the sense that High Valyrian is like our Latin, with the Free Cities all speaking a "Romance" language, ie, separate languages derived from High Valyrian, like Italian, Spanish, etc. I would guess that the HBO people won't be so specific as to make up a language for each city – they'll probably just have a generic Valyrian language to use and not make a big deal about the differences between the cities.

  • Read the post, read the call … phew! I'm a linguist, and needless to say, excited. I guess he'll have much more work than just the Dothraki in the future :) a few prominent invented 'foreign' languages at least, and some accented English variants. Cool cool.

  • It will be interesting to see how they handle the transition of Dany from non-speaker to fluent in Dothraki. Obviously, in the beginning, they will have Drogo and others speaking only Dothraki with subtitles. This way we understand there is a language barrier there. But once Dany becomes fluent I have to assume everyone will speak English and the invented Dothraki language will become less and less useful.

    • Yes, maybe you are right, but I really can not remember if the famous "it is known" supposed to be on Dothraki or common Westerosi.
      Somehow I think that only Dany s commands, later in the series, would be in Dothraki.
      The main conversation there is between Dany and Viserys at first, and later between her and Jorah, both would be in english, for sure.

    • You think so? I guess you might be right, as US production seem to usually shy away from subtitles as much as possible.

      I'd rather they stick to reality and keep Dothraki and subtitles for everything that is supposed to be in Dothraki, otherwise you lose the sense of foreignness…

      Plus, it seems very illogic to me if you show Dany struggling to learn the Dothraki language, then make her and every Dothraki use English once she masters it. Wouldn’t it kind of confuse viewers by giving the impression that the Dothraki people eventually learned English? And then if the Dothraki can/want to speak English, why did Dany bother to learn their language in the first place?

      • Amazingly, one of the producers has actually pretty much answered your question.

        In describing his work on "The Kite Runner" David Benioff describes his decision to have the Afghanistani characters speaking in Dari. The studio originally wanted them speaking in English, theorizing that people would understand that they were actually speaking their own tongue. However, Benioff pointed out that there is a certain character who shows up in America later on in the film and struggles with broken English. Benioff stated that it would have been completely jarring to have this happen if the audience had seen the character speaking English fluently earlier in the film (even with suspension of disbelief allowing you to "know" they were actually speaking Dari.)

        Given his stressing of this incident in a talk about adaptation, I have to think that he would apply the same logic here. If he's true to the story, the Drogo and his people will speak Dothraki on screen at all times, except in the rare occasions when they are speaking to Dany in her own language.

        • That's true, The Kite Runner did have a lot of subtitles.

          And now that I think about it, Dany communicates primarily with Jorah and her handmaidens. Later on, you could add Arstan to that list. Those conversations would certainly be English. So I guess the only Dothraki conversations she would be having would be with Drogo and her blood riders. And possibly the different ancillary characters she encounters on her travels.

    • I can't believe I'm admitting this, but one of my guilty pleasures is the movie The Thirteenth Warrior. They did exactly what you described above with a montage of scenes showing Antonio Banderas watching and listening to the Vikings talk in whatever Nordic language they're using and slowly, English words start to creep into their conversation. It marks the transition from the Vikings speaking Nordic, to everyone speaking English.
      And it's pretty cheesy and quite an artificial construct. I would prefer everyone just to speak Dothraki and subtitle it. Drogo does learn some English by the second half of the book. I'll assume they'll just have Drogo catch on quicker and better than portrayed in the books so that their conversations can stay in English.

      • Even though I didn't like a lot of The Thirteenth Warrior, I thought that sequence was one of the most inventive I've seen on film.

      • Ugh. I hate that sequence. Well, it probably doesn't help that they're speaking the modern Oslo-dialect of Norwegian (if they were going for old Norse, why didn't they get some Icelandic speakers at least? The people in the 13th Warrior sound like the Norwegian version of BBC news readers)

      • 13th Warrior is one of the only Michael Crichton movie adaptations that I like. Eaters of the Dead was not a great book but I enjoyed the movie quite a bit.

  • Wow! That’s awesome!

    And that is one way I wouldn’t mind the TV series to influence GRRM’s work on the rest of the series books. I mean, why not use a language created for your own world and characters, once it already exists? You get to add a substantial element of completeness to the world you created without spending God knows how many years studying languages and creating one (or more, as might yet be the case). In other words, you get closer to a Tolkien masterpiece without sweating it :)

  • Is it just me or is $1250 pretty cheap for a full language with 1,800 words and complex grammatical structure? I'm no linguist, but this seems like alllot of work for a grand…

  • This is the nerdiest news I've ever heard about the whole GOT show process. Nerdy = irrelevant and unnecessary.

    It's not like they are going to have focus on actors speaking in dothraki while they cut most of the more important dialog out from the book.

    JRRT created his elfish, dwarfish, and entish languages, which really moved some people… they have called grrm the american grrm, but this is based on popularity, not scholarship.

    Getting outsourced language for filler material on a tv show is very watery, very ersatz… lol… I guess it's cool, but Dothraki doesn't really carry the weight of something nostalgic or even recognizable (as opposed on elfish) to general public or me, even. I thought the Dothraki was an unruly lot of vagrants and I wouldn't want to share a horseburger with one, but … you know… carry on, carry on.

    If you learn Dothraki, I swear, I will challenge thee to a duel.

    • If theres a meaning and structure behind it all that goes with the subtitles, it would just sound better even if you don't actually understand the language. If i just make up some weird words, it's not going to sound good just because i insist it's an actual language.

    • haha I agree.

      But they had to give the actors something to work with. I mean, you can't rely on them making up a series of sounds that kind of have the same overall feeling! might as well have them say "blah blah blah" over and over!
      The other option would have been to use an existing language, but then viewers would associate the culture that comes with it to the Dothraki, which goes against the books!

      Given the amount of cash they put into this, I am now convinced they made the best decision by having a linguist create a minimal workable language, with no major effort behind it (the didn't want/need an elvish-scale language here).
      And they probably didn't expect to get something of the quality they got (because the guy who won the contract ended up spending 2 months working on it… for only $1250!)

    • It's "elvish" and "dwarvish", not elfish or dwarfish.

      Sounds like nitpicking, but this was a HUGE deal to Tolkien.

  • great. now we can have our own Dothraki speaking nerds to compete the Klingon speaking nerds at Cons come 2011. oh, who am i kidding, we could never compete with them.

    it is good to see that even tho it is likely to get little use they are paying this close of attention to detail but this is no JRRT sort of creating language as a route to creating myth and culture and history. it is like a wal-mart version of that. a nice detail for a tv show to be sure but nothing on the par of what Tolkien did.

  • Can't express how thrilled I am to see that Inuktitut is one of the influences. It's a beautiful sounding language, and hopefully some of those sounds find their way into the new Dothraki.

  • Apparently Tolkien only created a few hundred words of Elvish. According to the press release, Peterson created 1,800 words of Dothraki. So it far eclipses what Tolkien did, at least in scope.

    Whether it has the cultural impact of Elvish and other created languages (like Klingon), well that depends on the success of the show.

    • Snowclone.

      The amount of words created doesn't really cover the scope of the language. You can always invent new words once you have the basic grammatical system in place, and many languages are quite productive in putting new words together from old ones, or changing words using various grammatical rules.

  • @ Winter Is Coming:

    No way. The level of linguistic research and authenticity in Tolkien’s languages is mind blowing. It took years to develop his two dialects, and they are intricately constructed. There is an entire tree showing the branches of the different dialects, and how they split and evolved from each other, and how root words are related, etc. It’s truly amazing.

    I’m sure Peterson is doing a great job, but creating more words is not the same thing as creating a fully developed language with a complete etymological history.

  • This is some of the geekiest-while-a-the-same-time-coolest news on the series that has yet been released.

    In keeping with the geeky comment, I think I may have puzzled out a new Dothraki term.

    Qoy Dothrar or Dothrar Qoy depending on the way nouns and adjectives are placed in relation to each other in Dothraki. Of course the term means Blood Rider. Does that sound close? If so I want a credit at the end of the Dothraki wedding episode!!!! ;p

  • Actually thinking about it alittle more, Blood Rider might more likely be Dothral Qoy. Dothralat is "to ride" and using the word Khal, I'm guessing the "al" ending of the word is masuline much as the eesi at the end of Khaleesi is feminine. So yeah, I'm going with Dothral Qoy for blood rider.

    • Off the cuff, my linguistic guess would be dothra- is the root, and -lat is the infinitival (as in, vocabulary entry form) ending on the verb :) Also, Blood Rider in English is a compound, a noun+noun combination making another noun unit, possibly a different construction than Dothraki would use (perhaps sth like 'bloody rider' / 'rider of the blood' instead). So qoy likely has a different form in this use. You're right though, that adjectives follow nouns in Dothraki (based on GRRM's fragments, mentioned also in the press release). Ok, nerd off :P

      • Indulging in a bit of nerdy musing; if Dothraki is agglutinative, as athastokhdeveshizaroon gently suggests, might not Blood Rider just as well be Dothraqoyal? Only time (and Davis J. Peterson) will tell..*s*

  • Beyond awesome! This is exactly the kind of nerdiness we need on WiC, a drip-feed of Dothraki phraseology. Tee hee.

    GRRM did say in his blog that he needs to know the Dothraki for ít is known'- I'm sure he'd be up for incorporating that into his books ;)

    On the LCS site, Dothraki's very own FB page:

  • I was a little disappointed that there were so many "A"s in the language, although it's hard to describe why. It just seemed kind of obvious and lazy, although this is clearly not the case. Perhaps we got a small sample of words in a more heterogeneous language.

    And then I heard it spoken. Based on WiC's post, it wasn't up on the LCS page "dedicated to Dothraki" when he wrote his update, but the are some MP3s of it up now. I was pretty impressed, and completely won over.

  • Wow. The pronounciation sounds a lot like finnish (finland – scandinavia) quite nordic. Also i can hear the russian in there. Probably i'd be able to hear the other influences if i knew the other languages at all. But this sounds very genuine.

    Cool stuff!

    • i absolutely agree with you on the finnish bit. they say that this has something to do with estonian … well, i'm from estonia and i can neither see or hear it (which doesn't mean i cannot be proven wrong, once we know more). at the same time it does sound finnish, which is the closest language to estonian and (at least i think so) is easier for english speakers to pronounce than estonian. i think it has something to do with the softness of the consonants, etc.

      as for the actual sounds used: nope, no russian there. maybe a teensie bit in "hash yer ray nesi?", but even that comes nowhere close. i hear some other languages in there, but i cannot pinpoint them. maybe some bits of japanese in the shorter words and some arabic elsewhere?

    • Just as an aside, we won't necessarily hear the languages mentioned – they could have influenced grammatical structures, inspired the properties and rules Dothraki has. Not everything is in the sound :)

  • well, i should know, speaking one of the craziest languages in the world :)

    but the thing is that i can definitely hear finnish, but no estonian. and as i mentioned, the two languages are pretty similar with finnish being softer and (probably) more developed than estonian (thanks to a longer history of it in written form?), which leads me to a conclusion that somebody has had a bit of a confusion…

  • the guy speaking sounds so bored, he could have put some more effort into it, ive always thought the dothraki would have a very loud and shouty language, kind of like klingon

    • I envision Dothraki loud and shouty too, but the words spoken in those samples are not in context, so I assume the guy tried to sound neutral. He's not an actor, he's a linguist. He's trying to convey pronunciation, not emotion. The rest will come later, in action.

  • @TPFKA Thoros of Myr: You’re pretty close (it’s agglutinating, so ‘blood rider’ is one word), but your morphology’s a bit off. Stay tuned for updates. ;-)

    @Nymeria: Yes, that’s DJP in the audio samples.

    • Welcome to our never-humble little site, LCS!

      Dothraki does sound more North-Eastern Europe / Scandinavian than I had imagined when reading the books (I envisioned a bastardly tongue somewhere between Korean and Turkish), but I like how it sounds. Can't wait to hear some Old Valyrian –once you're tasked with it.

    • Idly riffing: Dothraki derived from dothralat to ride
      Root of "ride" might be do, doth, dothra, thra, ra, .
      Now if -al is the masculine ending, that might get bloodrider as
      For the sound of it, I would like raqoyal,
      So closer to a cigar?

      P.S. we need more casting rumours, got too much time on my hands..

  • This is really irritating. Why can't I post my mongols reference to this thread? Momoa. Ukelele.

    Well, This thread hates me now. Poo.

  • Welcome to our never-humble little site, LCS!

    Dothraki does sound more North-Eastern Europe / Scandinavian than I had imagined when reading the books (I envisioned a bastardly tongue somewhere between Korean and Turkish), but I like how it sounds. Can’t wait to hear some Old Valyrian –once you’re tasked with it.

  • Nymeria,

    Those are the exact same misgivings I have about simply using English once Dany masters Dothraki. It’s even compounded further when you remember that Dothraki isn’t the only language that Dany speaks fluently. So if she’s speaking English for Dothraki and then English for High Valyrian, how do you even tell when she’s speaking what to whom and who can’t understand what?