by Will Slater
“Valar morghūlis. Valar dohaeris. Se valar ilvra udra pikībīs!” – All men must serve. All men must die. And all men must read our words!
The text above echoes the famed dialogue spoken in High Valyrian by characters such as Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga, as well as the wildly successful HBO series inspired by it, Game of Thrones. It’s also a shameless plug for Hivemind, but who’s keeping track?
High Valyrian is a fictional constructed language (i.e. “conlang”) built from the ground up for the World of Ice and Fire. The language came from the mind of the foremost language constructor (i.e. “conlanger”) in film and television, David J. Peterson. In addition to High Valyrian, Peterson is also responsible for the widely popular Dothraki language spoken by the eponymous people of the GOT universe, as well as languages created for other major projects such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Hivemind had the pleasure to chat with him about his unique profession, approach to language creation, and experiences in the industry.
Will Slater: You’ve been the driving force behind the creation of some of the most well-known languages that we have in modern speculative fiction film and television. If you had to point to a more niche language that you’ve developed that is most interesting to you, what would that be and why?
David J. Peterson: There have been a number of things I’ve done with different languages that were kind of interesting. Whenever I’m tasked with creating alien languages, the aliens usually aren’t very interesting or not interesting enough to warrant a non-human language. But even so, it’s fun to sometimes do things a little out of the ordinary there. For example, one of my favorite languages that I’ve created is called “Irathient,” for the sci-fi series Defiance. There are a lot of naturalistic elements to it, but one of them, came directly from a language that I found very interesting, or at least was inspired directly by it. Well, it turns out that sometime in the 20th century, there was an African language creator who produced this language called “Afrihili” that was supposed to be an auxiliary language specifically for West Africa. It’s just a remarkable language. The creator invented this system that was inspired by West African languages, but nothing as systematic as what he created. He created what he called a vowel triangle. His language had seven vowels and he arranged them in a triangle such that to form any noun, you simply took the vowel at the end of the word and moved it to its opposite quality on the triangle, and then there was one vowel in the middle that was neutral. I don’t think it’s a system that could exist in a natural language, nothing that pristine anyway. But it occurred to him and it was really quite beautiful, and something that also is quite useful and made learning the language very easy. I love that system, so I did something similar to it in Irathient. There weren’t going to be that many vowels, I can never get away with that many distinct vowels with actors. I had a five-vowel system in Irathient where I did something similar. Instead of three pairs, there were two pairs with a neutral vowel in the middle. You have these opposite pairs of vowels where if you switch to the last one, you go from singular to plural. So, they match when they’re plural and then they’re disjointed when they’re singular. Things like that, little details, those are the things that I enjoy the most. I mean, they don’t play a huge role in the interpretation of the language or what people see or hear about it. But it’s something that kind of sticks with me.
Will Slater: When deciding to take on a new project and beginning the process of conlanging, what are some of the biggest factors within a story that might dictate how you approach the linguistic building blocks of your new conlang? How does the world that you’re stepping into influence how you build that language?
David J. Peterson: Well, there are two things there. One is there is no direct connection between, say, a given group of speakers and the sound of the language or the grammar of the language. The connection will be with their words, the words that they have and the idioms that they create. That’s where the most literary creativity comes from, really understanding the speakers and how they might conceive of the world, how they might discuss it in their own words. Because every language uses its vocabulary, it stretches its vocabulary beyond its limits, and talks about the world in a way that is shaped by the world view that they’ve developed. And that’s what you get to do as a language creator. Sometimes it’s your own invention and sometimes it’s just trying to match certain aesthetics, an aesthetic that’s there. For example, with the Dothraki, George R.R. Martin mentioned several times in the books that “anything of importance is done under an open sky.” That comes from one of the early chapters where they have the wedding of Daenerys and Khal Drogo. I think it’s the first time it’s mentioned. So there are all of these things that they do that strike one as a little bizarre if you come from a society like we do. In Martin’s world they really shun buildings and interior spaces, favoring doing things outdoors. And so, I thought, well, this is an opportunity to kind of play with what George R.R. Martin had set up. If you want to say you’re doing something in secret in Dothraki, you say you’re doing it under a roof, literally, and then it just means doing it in secret. The other aspect of it, though, is because there is no connection between the people and the grammar of the language or the people and the sound of the language, I’ll just learn about them as much as I can and see if anything grabs me. Because ultimately it doesn’t matter. If I’m reading about them and I get an idea, then I just kind of run with it and play with it. It could seem like there’s a direct connection, but since there doesn’t need to be or since there isn’t, technically it doesn’t matter if there is.
Will Slater: In addition to being a professional conlanger, you’ve also studied roughly 20 naturally occurring languages and are fluent in Spanish?
David J. Peterson: Yeah.
Will Slater: How does your knowledge of naturally occurring languages inform how you approach the conlanging process?
David J. Peterson: It’s one of the three important legs of learning to be a language creator. One is linguistics. Two is practicing creating languages. The third is language study. I think each of the three are equally important, especially when studying languages that are radically different from one’s own, to get a sense of not only what’s possible, but to recenter yourself in terms of understanding what is and is not normal. There are a lot of things that you’ll get used to if you only speak English or if you’ve only studied Indo-European languages. You will think, “All languages must do this”, and often it’s just not so. There is very little that all languages must do. In fact, even looking at natural languages, it goes even beyond that. There are things that all languages on Earth do, but they don’t have to do, but which they do because they’re convenient. There are plenty of things that language could do that a natural language will never do, but it doesn’t mean that it can’t be done or that humans can’t work with it. For that reason, language study is vital not so much for “I need to do a language like this, so I need to study that language to figure out how to do it.” It’s more trying to get to a point where you break the tie binding you to your natural language or the ones you’ve studied to truly get to a place where you’re not asking, “How does this language do it? How does that language do it?” But you’re just saying, “What do I want to do with this language?” If we want a literary example, if you look at any author’s early work and then their later work, especially if they’ve emulated somebody, it’s really striking. Samuel Beckett has written a lot of really strange, really bizarre stuff, especially stuff that breaks the bounds of what you think language can do in something like “Worstward Ho”. If you look at his early writings, it’s very clear he was emulating James Joyce, which is somebody he actually served. As James Joyce was going blind towards the end of his life and Samuel Beckett served as his writer, Joyce would narrate and Beckett would write. In his early stuff, like his early novel Murphy and some of his early short stories, you can see somebody who thinks, “Well, this is the way you do it.” He tries to write something away and you can see his originality in there, but you’re essentially seeing it through a Joycean filter. Then as he keeps writing, he keeps pushing it further and further until he gets to a point where finally he’s just saying what he wants to say in exactly the way he wants to say it. And you see something that you’ve never seen before. I think that’s what happens with a lot of fan fiction writers, too. They start there and they need to start there, someplace where they’re happy, where they like it, where they can practice, where they can follow kind of a mold for a little bit until they can get to a point where they’re just doing something on their own.
Will Slater: Right, and they can break out of that mold entirely.
David J. Peterson: Yeah, and the same is absolutely true of language creators.
Will Slater: In terms of conlanging as a profession, what does your teaching process look like? As it pertains to either consulting with individuals who are responsible for implementing your languages in the project, or in the case where you deal hands on with actors, what does that process look like for you?
David J. Peterson: You’d be surprised, I rarely work with actors. I do sometimes, and it’s nice, but I rarely do it because I record everything on mp3 most of the time. They just listen to exactly how I do it, and they do their best to repeat it exactly the way I do it. Many of them are really good at that, so there isn’t even a teaching process. Often most of them don’t know and don’t particularly care how the words that are translated mean what they mean. I give them a word for word glossary so they can know. Some of them want more than others, some of them want less. It just depends on how they do it, and I don’t think there’s a right way to go about it. It really is more of a solitary process where I talk to somebody initially, get the idea of what they want, and get my idea of what I want to do. I do something, I show it to them, make sure that we’re on the same page, and if we are then I just go. I send my work and they do what they will with it. It’s nice and it’s fun to work with actors because it’s fun to work with anybody, teaching them language stuff. But even then, there’s a point I’ve noticed with all the actors, where they really want to take what they’ve heard and spend some time on their own working with it, making it their own. That’s cool.
Will Slater: Based on that, what’s the greatest experience that you’ve had with an actor who’s taken the material that you’ve given them, run with it, and wanted to consume it as much as they could to get as proficient as possible?
David J. Peterson: It was definitely Nicole Galicia, who came into Defiance in season three. She was one of the bad guys and was only going to be there for one season, even if we went beyond season three, which we did. But she went well above and beyond anybody on anything that I’ve ever worked on. She wanted to learn how the language worked, to constantly go over lines with me on the phone, and would often ask me to translate things for her that she thought her character should be saying in the language that were tagged as English lines. She would ask me to give her translations on the sly because she said, “If I just say it when they’re rolling the camera, then they’ll just go with it.” I did so happily because she worked really hard on it. She put a lot of effort into it and really loved it. At the end of that season, I gifted her a grammar dictionary of the language that she had been working with, because amongst everybody else I felt like she would actually like that. That was the best experience by far. That was amazing.
Will Slater: It’s really cool to hear about full-time professional actors getting excited about pouring into a project like that. Does she have previous foreign language experience?
David J. Peterson: None. I think it was one of her first major guest-starring, recurring roles and so I’m sure that was part of it, but she learned that and was ready to go all in.
Will Slater: Your involvement in Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming Dune adaptation has drawn a lot of buzz. While you can’t say much about the project itself, as it pertains to the series as a whole, what do you think sets Dune apart from other science fiction storylines that you’ve read?
David J. Peterson: Well, of course, at the time, it was a far different setting from anything you were getting. I think that was part of the allure, way different from anything that you’re usually getting in sci-fi or fantasy. So I know that’s part of the draw, and it was a really sincere attempt at representing what life might be like in this really radically different environment, and that’s cool. I know that when it comes to filming, what everybody wants is that evocative image that they get in their mind when they’re reading the book, and the David Lynch project didn’t quite capture that. Jodorowsky’s might have, but it just never came to be. This one I think is going to do it. I think it’s going to be really, really, really good. Of course, we all should have seen it already had it not been for COVID. That was nuts. But I can understand it if you really want people to see that in the theater.
Will Slater: For sure, that’s a movie with the kind of budget where the studio wants the investment to be worth it.
David J. Peterson: Yeah, and it’s also better to say, “Nah, we’re pushing this to October.” Not, “OK, we’re going to push this back a few weeks, now we’re going to push back a few weeks more, and we’re going to push it back a few weeks more.” I think that was smart to say “You know what? October!” By then this all better be done. So help me, if it’s not. It’s been a unique time working in the film industry, but now I’m really excited about Dune, especially when I saw Blade Runner 2049. That blew me away. That movie was amazing. I just wanted to keep watching it when it was done, and so I was like “Somebody who can do that is the person that needs to do Dune.” I remember the first time I read the script because I read the book in high school, and to tell you the truth, I haven’t seen all of David Lynch’s Dune. I’ve seen like 45 minutes of it, and then I saw the Jodorowsky documentary, which is amazing. But I sat down and I read the script from beginning to end, and I was like, “Yeah, that’s how you do that! Why has this been so difficult? Just do it like that.” So I’m really excited about it.
Will Slater: Is there anything that you wanted to highlight, anything you’re currently working on or will be working on in the future?
David J. Peterson: Yeah, still working a little bit on season two of The Witcher that’ll be coming out. My new project, Shadow and Bone, will be coming on Netflix in April. There’s Dune, and then we’re missing…wow, I can’t talk about that one yet. Or that one. Then Motherland: Fort Salem season two, that’ll be coming eventually. But if you want to see what I’m doing right now, the thing that I’ve been doing consistently since March is working with a professor and language creator, Jessie Sams. We work together on Motherland: Fort Salem and we have a YouTube series where we work together to create a language two hours a week, build it up from nothing, and then just keep going. We’ve done one so far that was the first season, and we’re halfway through with the second one right now. So if you want to see what it’s like to see us floundering around and be like, “What do we even do with this?”, and then eventually figure it out, we don’t even work on it outside of the stream. It’s everything about creating a language. It’s right there, and that’s called LangTime Studio.
© 2021 by Will Slater
About David. J. Peterson
David J. Peterson is a writer and language creator. Initially known for his work on HBO’s Game of Thrones, David has spent the last twelve years creating languages for numerous television shows, movies, books, video games, and board games. His upcoming work includes Legendary’s Dune (coming October 2021), Netflix’s Shadow and Bone (out April 23rd, 2021), the second season of Netflix’s The Witcher, and the second season of Freeform’s Motherland: Fort Salem. Along with his co-host Jessie Sams, David creates a language live in two hour increments on his YouTube series LangTime Studio. For those interested in learning how to create a language, David has also written two books: The Art of Language Invention, from Penguin Books, for teens and adults, and Create Your Own Secret Language, from Odd Dot Books, for younger readers.
About Will Slater
Will Slater is a graduate student studying Global Media & Cultures at Georgia Tech with a concentration in Spanish. His interests include cross-cultural communication as it relates to the development of creative industries with a Latin American focus. Specifically, he is currently examining Latina documentary filmmaking in Puerto Rico and why feminist Puerto Rican cinema should be utilized as a lens through which to examine some of the societal issues that have stemmed from the colonial framework that defines the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico. As much as he’s fallen in love with the writings of short story authors such as Ted Chiang, Ken Liu, and Jorge Luis Borges, his favorite piece(s) of speculative fiction will always be his first exposure to the broad genre, the Star Wars franchise.