‘Game of Thrones’ language creator speaks on language history

Chris DiMeo

On Thursday night, David Peterson stood onstage in front of a group of nearly 300 students showing them pictures of his genetically mutated thumbs, then proceeded to speak in High Valyrian for fifteen minutes. For Peterson, this was just another weekday night.

Peterson, the world’s first professional “conlang,” or language creator, gave a lecture in Downing Student Union auditorium on April 13.

During the event, he shed light his own history of language learning and the complex endeavor of creating fictional languages.

Peterson currently “conlangs” for HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” but has contributed to an array of different projects during his career, from Marvel superhero movies “Dr. Strange” and “Thor: The Dark World” to fantasy epics like “Warcraft” and “The Shannara Chronicles.”

He also enjoys learning real-world languages on his own and showed pictures of his language learning book library.

However, he explained during the lecture he was not always so enthusiastic about language learning.

Peterson began the lecture by discussing his youth, starting with his experiences having mutated thumbs that were as flexible as fingers, and duplicate big toes.

Afterwards, he explained how one side of his family was made up of Mexican immigrants, so he was exposed to Spanish quite regularly. However, he grew to resent his second language and was actually repulsed from learning languages until high school.

During his junior year of high school, he told the crowd, he woke up one day feeling ashamed there were thousands of people all over the world who he couldn’t communicate with because of language barriers. He then vowed to learn every language in the world—not knowing there are around 7,000 spoken in all—and began working to learn Spanish, French, German, Latin and Esperanto.

In college, his passion for language only skyrocketed, he said. He took introductory classes in every language he could, from Arabic to Egyptian hieroglyphs. He encouraged the students attending to do the same, claiming that beginner language classes help to pad the GPA.

Peterson also noted he began to experiment with creating languages at this time, showing the group his first ever creation, Megdevi, and laughing with embarrassment.

Finally he found other people who also created languages and taught him about “naturalism,” or the mirroring of natural evolution of language. To demonstrate this, he walked through in painstaking detail how the plural of “mouse” came to be “mice” and not “mouses.”

Jeremy McFarland, a junior who helped organize the event, said this was his favorite part of the talk.

“I thought it was really interesting, just how systematic and how serious he was about the study of languages and how they developed,” McFarland said.

For the last twenty minutes of the lecture, Peterson examined the process of creating fictional languages by breaking down a line spoken by Daenerys Targaryen from a scene in Game of Thrones. He demonstrated how immense thought was put into every word to ensure it was not only linguistically correct, but also carried the historical and cultural context of its fictional setting.

After the lecture, Peterson answered questions from students in the audience, several of whom were also aspiring language creators, and signed copies of his most recent book, “The Art of Language Invention.”

The books were on sale from Barnes & Noble, McFarland said, “Who were so kind to offer to donate some proceeds for modern language students’ scholarships.”

McFarland said he and the other organizers were extremely pleased with the turnout of the event and very grateful to Peterson for sharing his experiences with the attendees.

Digital Reporter Chris Dimeo can be reached at 270-745-6288 and [email protected]