Q&A with Game of Thrones language creator

Elisabeth Moore

Language is a basic necessity that is used in everyday life, and David J. Peterson creates it in his free time. Peterson, language creator for the hit television show Game of Thrones, has helped create artificial languages for both television and movies. A few of the languages Peterson has created so far includes Dothraki and Valyrian for Game of Thrones, the Irathient and Omec languages for the television show Defiance and the language used by the Dark Elves in the movie Thor: The Dark World.

As a part of the Paul G. and Ernestine G. Hatcher Lecture that is being presented by the Western Kentucky University Department of Modern Languages, Peterson will be visiting WKU and presenting Living Language: Conlang and the Power of Language. Co-sponsored by the Potter College of Arts and Letters, Pop Culture Studies and the School of Journalism and Broadcasting, Peterson will be presenting today in the Downing Student Union Auditorium at 5:30 p.m.

Peterson graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a B.A. in English and in linguistics and he received an M.A. in linguistics from the University of California, San Diego. Over the phone, Peterson answered a few questions about his past and what he will be talking about during his presentation.

What led you to work with Game of Thrones?

I have been creating languages for about 10 years just for fun and then in 2009, there was an announcement on various content forums about the LCS getting a job; the LCS is the Language Creation Society. The LCS was getting a job to create a language for a television show. And so, I and many other language creators applied. It was a competitive process and after two rounds of judging, I was the one that was chosen by the producers to continue working on the show.

Did you create a whole new language for Game of Thrones or do you just focus on creating the dialects of their world? 

I create the whole language. I create it for whatever is needed for the setting. So, in the case of Game of Thrones, for example, there really is only one group of Dothraki that we ever see for the most part. We don’t ever see a huge range of Dothraki society and as a result, there isn’t a need for separate dialects or anything like that. Kind of where you do see that is actually over in Slaver’s Bay where Astapor Valyrian and Meereenese Valyrian are two different dialects of the same language. So, there it was needed, so I created it.

Do you have a favorite part of working on Game of Thrones?

Oh, definitely the beginning. I love the creation part where I am creating a language and coming up with a new thing. You know, to contrast with the translation, which is probably the most tedious part and also the largest part.

What do you hope to come of this job? Do you want it to be learned and studied like Klingon from Star Trek or do you want it to add to Game of Thrones as a whole?

I don’t know, really. I mean, I was hired so that it would add on to Game of Thrones as a whole, but regarding my own desires for it, the same is for all the languages I create. I would like them to be appreciated, kind of independently, as works of art. That’s the goal, anyway. To the best of my abilities given the fact this is a television show. I mean, I have deadlines to work with. To me, it actually doesn’t make a difference either way if people learn it to use it. I mean, if they want to, it’s a language. It’s there and they can do that. If not, it’s no big deal. 

Would you call yourself a linguist because of all of your work with words?

No. I mean, I think a linguist is somebody that is actually deployed as a linguist. I am a language creator.

Do you have a certain process that you go through to create a new language? 

I guess it is kind of different for each one. Basically, I start with the sound system of the language and flesh that out. From there, I move on to grammar, starting with nouns since nouns are simpler and more stable. Moving on from there to verbs and each time you move on to a different section, it triggers a round of revision usually in a previous section to make sure that everything works. And then after the nominal and verbal morphology is taken care of, then I can move on to other bits. So, if there are adjectives or adverbs and how that morphology works and then moving on from there to sentence structure and derivation and finally the lexicon, where you pretty much spend the rest of your life creating words in the hopes of having a large lexicon one day. But, it takes a lot of time to do that.

Why did you decide to take the talk at Western Kentucky University?

I thought it was really interesting because most of the time when I go around and speak, it’s just about language creation. I definitely am going to talk about that, but I was interested in this series because there is also a focus just on language itself that is language qua language. And entirely apart from creating languages, even though it is related, one of the things I absolutely love doing is studying languages. That was one of my great joys in college, studying languages. So, it was really neat that for this series that was done at WKU, I have a chance to talk about that as well.

Reporter Elisabeth Moore can be reached at 270-745-6288 and [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @emoore938.