Spoken in Westeros, Born in California: How 'Game of Thrones' Languages Were Invented

1 min
Scene from 'Game of Thrones' Season 7 (Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO)

The premiere episode of the final season of Game of Thrones drew a record 17.4 million viewers across various platforms. But it's not just HBO's hit show that's drawing big numbers. More than 1 million people have signed up to learn High Valyrian, a fictional language spoken in the series.

For linguist David Peterson, it all started six years after he graduated from UC Berkeley.

The Game of Thrones producers held a competition looking for someone to create a different language, one for the Dothraki people, the nomadic warriors of Essos.

Peterson won, and went on to become the show's language creator. With just a couple of lines to go on from George R. R. Martin's books, Peterson also created High Valyrian, the native tongue of Daenerys Stormborn and House Targaryen.

Now some 1.2 million people have signed up to learn High Valyrian on the free language-learning app Duolingo. According to Duolingo, High Valyrian currently has as many active learners as Hebrew.

So why is High Valyrian so popular?

"Well first let's be serious. It's the dragons. That's what draws people. I mean Daenerys is cool, but the dragons are awesome. So I'm sure that's part of it."

Peterson recalls when High Valyrian was first introduced during Season 3, when Daenerys says, "A dragon is not a slave."

"It was a really cool moment for the series, a very memorable moment for the series," said Peterson. "And unlike many memorable moments of the series, it was a positive one."

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KQED first spoke with Peterson in the summer of 2017 when he was a visiting professor at UC Berkeley, teaching students how to speak and write like characters in Game of Thrones.

He assigned each of his students one language to build from the Game of Thrones universe. John Clements created one for the people of Sarnor.

Clements, who was majoring in computer science at the University of Arkansas, said creating languages has been a hobby of his since he was a kid.

"It’s always something I’ve been interested in," said Clements. "I remember in middle school I would sit at lunch and make up alphabets."

Student Dash Stevens has a background in linguistics and has been creating his own languages for several years.
Student Dash Stevens has a background in linguistics and has been creating his own languages for several years. (Tiffany Camhi/KQED)

Fellow student Dash Stevens fleshed out the language of the people of Jogos Nhai. Stevens studied linguistics at the University of Hawaii, and has been inventing new tongues for years.

"It’s got a base consonant and then from there it has markings for vowels," said Stevens of his linguistic project. "The closest kind of writing system in existence would be devanagari for Hindi."

U.C. Berkeley visiting professor David Peterson runs through translation exercises in a recent class. (Tiffany Camhi)

The class was a crash-course in linguistics through a Game of Thrones lens, said Peterson.

"In learning how to do this stuff you’re basically learning everything that there is to know about language," Peterson said.

As for how that course went in 2017, Peterson said he was pleased with his students’ progress.

"There have been lots of theft-worthy ideas that I’ve seen," said Peterson.

Peterson said one of the most essential things the students learn is to make languages that people actually want to use on a daily basis. "That is what all languages are going to have in common," said Peterson. "They evolve structures that are going to be useful in some way."

For example, a word in English that would not be useful — if it existed — is "cattif." Peterson made up the word and said it means "17 cats."

Peterson said most people would have very little use for a word that means 17 cats, so it would just fall out of use. "That's because of the way the human brain works, the way that we live our lives and our experience with cats."

For the students, that meant making several changes to their languages to make them truly practical. Stevens said he went through seven versions of his written system.

"If you want something to be even remotely realistic, you have to have that kind of depth to it," Stevens said.

One of many drafts of Dash Stevens' writing system for the people of Jogos Nhai. (Tiffany Camhi)

So could one of these students be the next hot new language inventor in Hollywood?

The entertainment industry is just starting to develop serious careers for language creators, said Peterson. So the good news for his students: jobs are on the way.

Although Peterson calls Orange County home, he watched the Season 8 premiere back on the Berkeley campus with some students Sunday night. And like all fans, he's bracing himself because he knows a lot is about to go down in whatever language the character speaks.

This post includes reporting from KCRW's Jenny Hamel and KQED's David Marks. A version of this story was originally published on July 14, 2017.

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