David J. Peterson, a language creator
Daenerys Targaryen used to call Khal Drogo “Shekh ma shieraki anni” in Game of Thrones, referring him as “my sun and star”. She had to understand and learn the Dothraki’s language to fit into his husband’s world. But behind this language and the Valyrian language in the show is David J. Peterson, a language creator.
David had to create the languages almost from scratch, based on George R.R. Martin novels. He also works in the new science fiction TV show “Defiance” and the upcoming series “Star-crossed”, creating different kinds of languages.
In a conversation with The Outsider Argentina, David spoke about the beginning of his career, his work in Game of Thrones and the projects he has for this year.
How did you become a language creator?
When I went to the university (UC Berkeley), I was taking as many language classes as I could fit in my schedule (while I was there, I took Arabic, French, Esperanto, Russian and Middle Egyptian), and also started taking linguistics courses. During my first linguistics course, I got the idea to create a language. Once I started, I was hooked, and I just kept on creating languages. Eventually I found the online language creation community and started learning from other language creators. Ever since them I’ve continued to improve.
How did you get the opportunity to be a part of “Game of Thrones”? How is the experience?
Initially the Game of Thrones producers contracted the Language Creation Society who put out a call to the entire language creation community, so I applied. After two rounds of judging, I was selected as the winning candidate. Since then, language creation has pretty much taken over my life. Now instead of just being an absorbing hobby, it’s an absorbing profession. It’s been a lot of fun!
How have you adapted the Dothraki and the Valyrian language?
Dothraki followed the lead of the George R. R. Martin novels quite a bit, since there was a fair bit of vocabulary (about thirty words with some phrases). High Valyrian really only had two phrases (valar morghuils and valar dohaeris) plus a couple words and a whole host of names, so that process was much more involved—much more like creating a language from scratch, which is what I’m used to. I’m pleased with both of them, but especially pleased with how High Valyrian turned out.
Do you work with the actors to help them with the vocabulary? How is the process?
The actors don’t have to learn the language: they just have to learn how to pronounce. I’m not sure if any of them retain any vocabulary, apart from a few set phrases (though many still have their lines memorized by rote). For Game of Thrones, I haven’t worked with any of the actors one-on-one. I’ve done so for both Defiance and Star-Crossed, though.
Have you already written the language for the season 4? What can you tell us about it?
I’ve done all the translation for season 4, yes, but I can’t tell you anything about it (well, other than that it’s going to be incredible).
You also work for “Defiance”, a new science fiction TV show, what can you tell us about the alien language?
For Defiance I created two alien languages—Irathient and Castithan—which are mirror opposites of each other. Of any language I’ve ever created, Irathient has my favorite sound (it’s quite musical to my ear). I got to create a writing system for each language in addition to the languages themselves, which was a first for me. I’d created writing systems for my own languages many times before, but I haven’t gotten the chance to do it for Game of Thrones, so I was really excited to get the opportunity for Defiance. The Castithan writing system is probably the most complex writing system I’ve ever devised. I still need to constantly refer to the dictionary to figure out how to spell things.
Is it difficult to make your job? Do you have to have a lot of creativity?
There really aren’t many opportunities for language creators, so I’m quite lucky to be where I am. Being a language creator requires both creativity (artistry) and technical skill. A great number of language creators I’ve met either started out as or went on to become computer programmers, which to me makes a lot of sense, since creating the grammar of a language reminds me of coding more than anything else. The rest (aside from putting together the grammar) is pure artistry.
Which other projects do you have for this year?
This year I joined the crew of Star-Crossed, which is debuting on the CW some time next year. I’ve also got two other projects in the works that I can’t discuss at the moment, but one will be hitting the big screen later this year!