Meeting the Father of Languages (Dothraki, mainly)

photo by Frank Lee
photo by Frank Lee

Was thrilled to attend a lecture on translation by renown language creator David J Peterson tonight at CCA.

After describing how he builds his many invented languages—such as Valerian and Dothraki for Game of Thrones—he told a fascinating story about how he discovered his calling. Thanks to his Mexican father, he grew up fluent in Spanish as well as English. He had no particular interest in either, though, until one morning in high school he woke up humiliated because millions of people could speak French and he could not. He started studying it that day, and quickly added on more and more—Russian, Japanese, Middle Egyptian, Arabic, etc. By college he was creating languages and sold his first custom-deisgned one to a D&D Dungeon Master who saw his post on AOL. “His mom send me a check for $40, it was great.”

Now, as the creator of 11 languages for five or six shows—most notably Valerian and Dothraki for Game of Thrones, he’s created a lucrative career that had never really been on the books before. Sure, there was Klingon, invented by Marc Okrand, and the Tolkien languages such as Quenya (Elvish), but no one had really put “language creation” on their radar as a viable business before Peterson.

Hearing him speak it’s clear that he has a profound understanding of the mechanics of language, and a a deep respect for etymology and the evolution of language systems. He’s systematic, but you also see how intensely creative his is in every aspect of his choices—he takes each decision through a stringent creation process that involves a complete imagination of the entire culture, including its evolution over time. Quite the fascinating engine he has on his shoulders.

This explains why the languages he creates feel so meaty and authentic—they have, at root, a deeply complex inner logic. A coherent system. It’s something you pick up on subconsciously, even if you don’t speak that language. (HBO did create a Dothraki language primer, if you want to learn it.) Someone in the audience asked why he couldn’t take more shortcuts, and my answer to that is because we’d instinctively know he did, and the world would not feel as authentic. It takes someone with David’s care, dedication, and abilities to pull this off so well. I’m not the only one glad that he’s found such a creative way to channel his innate talent for writing and invention.

Oh, and he also happens to write books. His new one, The Art of Language Invention, just hit the shelves today.

David J Peterson

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