Inside Game of Thrones: the origins of the Dothraki language

The other day I came across a Dothraki blog hosting a competition for the best Haiku written in the Dothraki language. That’s right, Dothraki, one of the fictional languages of the popular series Game of Thrones. People are writing poems in the language of the horse lords of Essos. But what are the origins of this fantasy language?

A Song of Ice and Fire, the fantasy series invented by George R.R. Martin, has recently been adapted into the HBO television series Game of Thrones. Martin had a large vision for his invented world of Westeros and Essos. He imagined making a world so rich it couldn’t be adapted to the screen. That is, until HBO agreed to produce the series without compromising Martin’s epic vision.

Creating the Dothraki language was just one element of shaping a nuanced fantasy world. Martin had the larger dream of making a world that could stand up to Tolkien’s Middle Earth. 

Dothraki language

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To achieve this same level of depth, Martin realized he had to learn more about his own creation of Westeros and Essos. He began drawing maps and creating family trees in an effort to keep the characters straight and avoid contradicting himself. He also began piecing together the Dothraki and High Valyrian languages.

Who created Dothraki?

Martin includes fragments of the Dothraki language in chapters of A Song of Ice and Fire. The extent of the language’s vocabulary consisted mostly of proper nouns: names of towns, rulers, and customs particular to the Dothraki people. For example, “Adakhakileki,” meaning “The Cannibals,” is the name of a ruined city. “Vaes Tolorro” translates to “The City of Bones.” “Rhaesh Andahli,” meaning “The land of the Andals,” is the Dothraki name for Westeros.

While this limited development of the language served for the purposes of the novels, the HBO version (also adapted by George R.R. Martin) needed a fully formed version of the Dothraki Language.

Dothraki language

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HBO sent out a job offer for the official creator of the Dothraki language. David J. Peterson, a linguist who had perfected the art of language creation through his extensive studies, entered the winning proposal. He expanded the existing words and phrases penned by Martin into a learnable language of over 1,700 words.

Peterson used George R.R. Martin’s improvised phrases to establish a grammatical structure. Once he established the grammar he had the task of coming up with the thousands of words a Dothraki warrior of Westeros might find himself using. What’s more, the actors had to be able to pronounce their lines. This extensive proposal deemed David J. Peterson the first master of the Dothraki language.

Is it learnable?

Amazingly enough, Peterson was so thorough in his creation of the Dothraki language that anyone can learn it. The fact that people have actually attempted to read and write in this fictional language shows the hardcore dedication of fantasy fans. But it also speaks to Peterson’s mastery of language structure. Peterson describes Dothraki’s sound as a mix between Spanish and Arabic.

David J. Peterson is now the official translator of all Game of Thrones lines in Dothraki and High Valerian. In fact, he’s the only translator. But even he has to refer to his Dothraki dictionary.  

The Dothraki language is described as guttural and harsh: a true representation of the Dothraki people. Just as any language reflects its speakers, Martin wanted the Dothraki language to have just the right sound. David J. Peterson used what he knew of the Dothraki society and paired it with his extensive language skills.  

Inside the Dothraki language

The grammar structure has similarities to English. It has 23 consonants and three vowels. Verbs can be conjugated in past, present, and future, as well as two different types of imperatives (the Dothraki give lots of commands), and the verbs must agree with the speaker or number. There are also rules for word order and sentence structure.

David J. Peterson did a great job of using the story’s plot to make decisions about the language. For example, the Dothraki language does not have a written component. This detail fits with what we know about the Dothraki: they are mainly a nomadic people and have not developed much of the technology of city life.

             

The Dothraki vocabulary is reminiscent of the culture. For example, the Dothraki language has three words that mean “to kill” and no word for “thank you.”  Three versions of the verb “to kill” reflects the Dothraki’s tendency for war. Similarly, their absence of the word “thank you” speaks to their general lack of appreciation.

Why include fictional languages?

Why did George R.R. Martin and the producers of Game of Thrones opt to expand Dothraki into a learnable language? Today, consumers of entertainment are ruthless. Even the smallest inconsistencies are highlighted with screenshots, memes, instant replays and “15 cinematic mistakes you may have missed” articles on Buzzfeed.  

Dothraki language

In short, even consumers of fantasy want to be immersed in a world that can stand up to reality. Advances in cinematic technology means a director can shoot a rocket blasting into space. Monsters can exist, and they can look more life-like than we had imagined. George R.R. Martin’s world attracted devoted and attentive fans. To satisfy those fans, this multilingual epic didn’t just need special effects, they needed a linguist.

Game of Throne’s extensive fan base and high ratings speak to the quality of George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy. His themes of war, power, and sex are universally recognized, turning a medieval tale into something larger. The creation of the Dothraki and High Valyrian languages by George R.R. Martin and David J. Peterson added the element that turned a great story into a captivating fantasy world.


At the time of writing, VeraContent does not offer multilingual content services in Dothraki. But our team of expert linguists can help bridge the communication gap in more than 20 languages.

Anna Castellanos
Anna Castellanos is a freelance writer and editor from Chicago, Illinois. She has a degree in the Spanish language and International Studies and an appetite for great works of literature. Find her skeptically reading ingredients of various packaged goods at a supermarket near you.
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