Many assume that Dothraki, the language of the horselords of the Great Grass Sea, was created in its entirety by A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin. But really, it was largely rafted by linguist David J. Peterson. Peterson (who also developed Valyrian for Game of Thrones, the chants and spells in Doctor Strange, and Munja’kin for Emerald City, among others) took the few written Dothraki words Martin included in his novels and extrapolated an entire spoken language.
Dothraki was featured prominently in the first and second seasons of Thrones, spoken by characters like Irri, Dany’s Dothraki handmaiden. The Independent talked to actress Amrita Acharia about managing a made-up language.
I love the fact that it sounded a bit like Arabic and it sounded a bit like Spanish to me, because I’ve heard a lot of languages throughout my life.
Acharia also admits to being “really pedantic about learning Dothraki properly,” but she still only learned her own lines. Some fans go beyond that, and attempt to engage her in full Dothraki conversations from time to time. Awkward.
In Season 2’s “The Old Gods and the New,” Daenerys walked into Xaro Xhoan Daxos’ manse to find Irri dead, along with many other members of her tiny khalasar. Acharia actually filmed Irri’s death scene—she’s strangled by Doreah, another of Dany’s handmaidens. That disappointed her, as she and actress Roxanne McKee put a lot of effort into it.
I think it’s hard to be strangled on screen because to make it look real, you really have to be a bit strangled…I said to Roxanne, ‘Just go for it’.
Despite its quick ending (Irri is still alive in the books), Acharia was satisfied with her time on the show, calling it “great lesson in acting.”
Speaking to Inverse, Peterson himself reveals he was given an astonishingly short window to create the Dothraki language.
In the case of Game of Thrones, I didn’t have time to read all the books, because it was a competition. We had a month and a half to do it. I couldn’t read all of them, though I did read the Daenerys chapters.
A month and a half. Most of us would likely struggle to learn an existing language in six weeks, let alone create a completely new one from the ground up. But as a professional conlanger, Peterson has a fairly good process for creating each unique language.
What I do at that point is I talk to the producer or the writer and I ask them to tell me as much as they possibly can about this character. This paints a picture in my mind, and usually pushes me in one direction or the other. I sit down, for myself, to sketch up a little grammar idea, but then for them to give it a sound of it, so they can hear what I’m imagining.
Peterson would later go on to write an entire book on how to speak Dothraki, so he may be to blame for the awkward conversations Acharia continues to have with fans long after Irri’s off-screen death.