Yet another art-ificial language: the Dothraki language

Apr 5, 2011 by

I usually write about natural human languages in this blog. But now and again, the subject of artificial languages is brought up by my students, and recently my attention was drawn to yet another language that was created for a TV series: the Dothraki language, created for HBO’s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy tale, A Game of Thrones.

Like in the case of Klingon and Na’vi, the creators of the HBO series turned to a linguist to help create a language that is at the same time human-like enough to be manageable for the human actors and yet also alien enough to fit the genre. This time it was up to a professional language creator David J. Peterson to essentially generate a language from scratch for the nomadic horse warrior tribe, the Dothrakis. This is at least his fourteenth linguistic creation.

But was it really from scratch that Peterson created the Dothraki language? In fact, he had a few things to base himself on. First and foremost, there were a few snippets of the language present in the books. For example, in the books, there is a word dothraki for the people [plural], Vaes Dothrak for the Dothraki city, and dothrae meaning ‘rides’. This suggests elements /-k/, /-i/ and /-e/ as parts of the paradigm for the stem dothra-.

And one cannot discount the influences of other languages known to the creator on his creative process. Peterson’s home languages are English and Spanish; he also claims to be

“fairly conversational in French and ASL. I’ve had instruction in Arabic, Russian, German, Middle Egyptian and Esperanto. I’ve at times tried to learn Turkish and Hawaiian, and I spent a fair deal of time in graduate school working with an African language called Moro. If properly threatened, I can probably produce a few words in Swahili, Hausa, Finnish and Hindi, and I’m becoming increasingly comfortable with anime Japanese”

Have any of these languages had an influence on creating the Dothraki language? Probably. Peterson himself admits delving into his Hawaiian language materials “for guidance on how a pre-industrial culture views the world”. The sound system of Dothraki “owes a lot to Arabic and Spanish”, whatever that means exactly. Perhaps he used guttural sounds characteristic of Arabic? But what could be the Spanish contribution, I am not sure.

Interestingly, unlike Klingon and Na’vi, which were both created with the aim to be as exotic as possible within the framework of a possible human language (or even at times to be outside that framework), the Dothraki language combines both exotic and widespread patterns. For example, on a more exotic side the Dothraki language has a four vowel system. Most of the world’s languages have larger vowel systems, with 5 or more vowels. Thus, World Atlas of Linguistic Structures Online lists 288 languages as having 5 or 6 vowels and 183 languages as having 7 or more vowels (English is one of them). Only 93 languages have as few as 2 to 4 vowels, many of them featuring a three-vowel system with /i/, /u/ and /a/. The Dothraki language is lacking the /u/ sound, which is rather uncommon as this is one of the vowels that mark the fartherest corners of the vowel triangle space.

Among the rather commonplace features of the Dothraki language is the noun-adjective order. Again, according to the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures Online, this order is found in the majority of the languages in their sample: 768 languages exhibit the noun-adjective order vs. only 341 languages with the opposite adjective-noun order (with another 104 language indeterminate in this respect). Thus, English is on the more exotic side in terms of adjective-noun order. Languages with the more common noun-adjective order include such familiar languages as Spanish, French and Italian, as well as the more exotic languages like Malagasy, Hixkaryana and Rapanui.

One last thing I’d like to comment on in connection with the Dothraki language is its case system “directly inspired by Russian”. To many American students of Russian, its case system seems exotic and complicated. And there is some truth to that. In terms of the sheer number of cases, Russian is rather unremarkable, as it has a modest six cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental and prepositional/locative). For comparison, some other languages may have as many as 20-25 cases, and Tabasaran (a Northeast Caucasian language of Dagestan) has a record of 46 cases! But there are two other respects in which Russian case system presents a difficulty for a foreign learner. First, Russian is a fusional language, meaning that its morphemes express more than one notion each. Thus, the morphemes expressing case also carry the information about number and declension class. Which brings us to the fact that there are at least four different patterns of declension for Russian nouns. For example, the genitive singular of the noun kniga ‘book’ is knig-i, and of the noun stol ‘table’ — stol-a. As you can see, different morphemes express the genitive singular of these nouns — -i vs. -a — because these nouns belong to different declension patterns.

Another complication of the Russian case system is in where each of the cases is used. For example, the genitive case form knigi can be used for possessors (oblozhka knigi ‘cover of a book’), for objects of negated verbs (Ja ne chital knigi ‘I didn’t read a book’) and for objects of certain non-negated verbs (Ja izbegaju knigi ‘I avoid a book’), as well as for complements of (certain) numerals (tri knigi ‘three books’). Similarly, the instrumental case is used not only for instruments (Ja udaril ego knigoj ‘I hit him with a book’), but also for natural forces (Vetrom razbilo okno literally ‘By the wind was broken a window’), for nominal predicates (On byl pilotom ‘He was a pilot’), for objects of certain verbs (On upravljal fabrikoj ‘He managed a factory’) and of certain nouns (torgovlja narkotikami ‘trade in drugs’), for objects of some prepositions (za knigoj ‘behind a book’), as well as for subjects of passive sentences (Kniga napisana pisatelem ‘The book is written by a writer’). Thus, it is next to impossible to come up with a common denominator for a Russian case. Naturally, this makes it extremely difficult for a foreign learner to master the Russian language. And I wonder how many of these complications have been carried over into the Dothraki language.

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  • IS or Letters From Nowhere

    Our brain trigger for "foreignness" of the language is set so low that the way Japanese did in the "Wings of Honeamise" (where they also had to create artificial "foreign" language) made even simpler: wrote dialogs in Latin letters phonetically and gave them to read on-screen to Hokkaido residents, — as a result very few in Japan figured out that it was the plane Japanese…

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @IS or Letters From Nowhere: Thank you for sharing the story!