I wrote about David Peterson, who invents the languages for Game of Thrones, here, and we had a nice long discussion, but there’s now a wide-ranging interview with him at A.V. Club that goes into a lot of stuff not covered in the previous article, and the guy is very articulate about languages and what’s involved in creating them, so I can’t resist posting this one as well. Here’s a sample:
AVC: One of the things that’s interesting about what you’re doing is that you have to make these languages sound real and plausible in ways that most of us can understand but can’t quite articulate. What is that stuff we’re picking up on?
DP: First of all, there’s a big difference between producing something that looks like language as text and producing a spoken element that sounds like language. There are two different things going on here. The first is that when I’m creating a language, I’m trying to produce something that’s maximally authentic—so that if a linguist were to look at it, and we said this is a new language that appeared in the middle of Australia, they would look at it and say, “Oh, wow.” It’s got to have that. It has to have the grammar behind it, and the history behind it that produces that grammar.
But when it comes to speaking, that’s a different skill set. And there are people that aren’t even language people, per se, but can produce fluent-sounding gibberish. Language creators have the ability to create inflectional prosody. And that’s the thing that ends up selling a language; it’s something that I create on purpose and try to encode.
AVC: How many languages are you working on in the Game Of Thrones universe right now?
DP: So there’s Dothraki, and that’s a very easy one because it’s just a nice isolate. It’s related to another language in the universe, but we haven’t seen that and probably won’t, I’m guessing, in the show. So there’s that. Then in the very first season, they had me come up with little sketches for something that the White Walkers would speak. And something that Mirri Maz Duur would speak when she was doing the chanting from Asshai’i. That language. Two little sketches—they weren’t full languages. I don’t think that they ended up using either of them, honestly, in the show. I did those things, but I’d say they’re probably non-canon at this point.
Then from the Valyrian family, I created High Valyrian—a dead language that’s still spoken by a lot of people as an academic literary language. Among the Targaryens, it was kept alive as a family language. That’s why Daenerys speaks it—and presumably Viserys, her brother, also spoke it. It just never came up. So there’s that.
Descended from High Valyrian is Low Valyrian—what’s spoken in Slaver’s Bay. The first instantiation of this we saw was Astapori Valyrian. The reason that they spoke this is because the old Valyrian Freehold basically sacked the old Ghiscari Empire five times, and then after the fifth time, they completely obliterated and destroyed their capital city, Old Ghis. That empire was destroyed and became a part of the Valyrian Freehold. At that point, Valyrian, as it was, took over as the primary language spoken throughout Slaver’s Bay, supplanting the old Ghiscari language. All this history, this comes directly from the books.
Astapori Valyrian is an evolved form of High Valyrian. It’s about the same relationship as Italian is to Latin. But there are also a bunch of borrowed words from Ghiscari. Ghiscari hasn’t been developed as a full language, because it’s dead and nobody speaks it. But it has a phonological character that we’ve seen from names in the books. Like Hizdahr zo Loraq and Reznak mo Reznak. So we see a little bit of what it would have sounded like. I sprinkled Ghiscari loanwords through Low Valyrian. Yunkai basically speaks the same language. It might be a little different in spots, but we can treat it as the same language.
The next variety, which has a very different sound, is Meereenese Valyrian. It’s the same language as Astapori Valyrian for the most part, except that it has more Ghiscari loanwords and the sound of it is really, really different. And that was done specifically at Dave’s and Dan’s request. Daenerys understands Astapori Valyrian, which is a bit of a stretch, but we’ll take it. But they want her to not be able to understand the people of Meereen. It’s not a different language. But I made it sound so different that somebody who isn’t completely fluent in this Low Valyrian variant wouldn’t understand it. People from Astapor probably understand it and think it’s somebody with a really, really thick accent. But somebody who isn’t super keyed into it is probably going to get lost, and that’s in effect where Daenerys is. She can’t follow it at all. It just sounds too different.
As you can see, he puts in an incredible amount of work on this stuff, and the way he talks about it makes me curious about watching the show (as does, of course, jamessal’s enthusiasm). By the way, anyone who’s curious about the “Ki fin yeni!” in the interview’s title can find the translation here under “Common Phrases.”