David Peterson on early language creation struggles, building Dothraki


David Peterson, seen above sitting in front of a rather epic board game collection, famously created the fictional languages on Game of Thrones—Dothraki and Valyrian—for HBO. The Dothraki language was such a hit with viewers that Peterson was even able to publish an instructional book on the subject, which means he’s probably done more for the visibility of fictional language creators (conlangers) than anyone since J.R.R. Tolkien, who invented the detailed Elven languages featured in his Lord of the Rings series.

The folks at Great Big Story have caught up with Peterson and sat the conlanger down for a discussion about his craft, his influences, and his early attempts at creating a language. Apparently, he scribbled his first language (called Davey, after his girlfriend) in his college notebooks, but it ended up being just a “really fancy, bizarre way to speak English.” Still, if the template is still around, I’m sure it’d be fun to take a look at it, and then maybe have a few actors act out a Shakespeare scene in Davey.

Peterson also provides a robust definition for “conlanging,” which can be a slippery term: “Conlanging is the intentional creation of a full language, creating its full grammar, its full phonology, its writing system if it has one, and it entire lexicon.”

So if anybody is interested in becoming a conlanger, this video has a handy five-step guide:

  1. Think about the people who speak it—who are they, what do they do, where do they live, etc?
  2. Develop a phonology, e.g. what kinds of sounds does this language involve.
  3. Create a vocabulary.
  4. Construct the grammar.
  5. Create a history for the language—how have the words and grammar changed over time?

I’m guessing those foundational steps are the ones aspiring conlangers might be tempted to skip, but they probably make the difference between an artificial-sounding language and a naturalistic one.

With Daenerys back in the hands of the Dothraki, we’ll probably be hearing a lot more of their language come Game of Thrones Season 6, which means more work for Peterson. By the time the year is over, this book may need a sequel.

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