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Between Russian and Dothraki — an interview with Sai Emrys and David J. Peterson

For Russian version click here.

HBO’s upcoming «Game of Thrones» series. Dothraki language, hand-made for the show. Russian language, as one of the sources of influence on the creation of the new tongue. We already know all that. But as Russian speakers, we weren’t satisfied. We wanted to learn more about the influence of our language on the newly created Dothraki. The real Dothrakis, Sai Emrys, the president of the Language Creation Society, and David J. Peterson, the developer of the Dothraki, were kind enough to answer some of our questions about the Dothraki, Russian, and a whole lot more. 


Could you elaborate some more on the way (grammar-, vocabulary-, pronunciation-wise) that Russian influenced the language that you’ve invented? 


David J. Peterson: I took Russian when I was a freshman in college at Berkeley, and it’s been a big influence on my conlanging in general ever since.

One specific way Russian influenced Dothraki is the form of the accusative for regular inanimate nouns. In Russian, you have this kind of alternation with the nominative singular and genitive plural in the feminine declension: 


книга ~ книг 

It’s interesting for linguists, because so many languages have a stem which is the equivalent of the nominative singular and then add affixes to form the other cases. In this declension, you actually take away a suffix to form the complex case. 

In Dothraki, I employed the same strategy. Here is an example: 


serja «leather vest (nominative)« ~ serj «leather vest (accusative)« 

In Russian orthography: 


сэрджа ~ сэрдж 

This was inspired directly by Russian. 

In addition, I think Russian speakers will find the grammar very familiar. The word order is Subject-Verb-Object, and it behaves like standard Russian with its cases, prepositions and lack of articles (the only difference, I think, is that one can expect a greater variety of cases to cooccur with the various prepositions of Dothraki, making it a bit more similar to German in this respect). Essentially, when I create a language without articles, I rely on Russian to imagine how it works. 

Oh, relative clauses should also look very familiar. 


Are you planning on creating other languages for the HBO Game of Thrones series, for example, Valyrian, or, perhaps, others?


Sai Emrys: We have no such plans as of yet. It fully depends on whether HBO wants to hire us to create more or not. We would like to, and we’ve given it some ideas but it is up to them to decide  


Will there be a Dothraki (or any other Westeros language) alphabet? 


SE: No, it won’t be for Dothraki. They have no literacy. Other languages are written (like Valyrian), so if we do it they’ll include writing systems. 


DJP: If I could add to this, it seems to me, based on what I’ve read in the book, that the Dothraki language, which is understood by a large number of Pentoshi, could have a borrowed writing system. The Dothraki themselves don’t write, but if, some time in the future, a writing system were developed for the language(s) of the Free Cities, then that writing system could be adapted to the Dothraki language. It would be the way that someone from Pentos would write Dothraki (and who knows, perhaps in the Free Cities, you might be able to buy a Dothraki primer). 


How do you like the «Song of Ice and Fire» saga? How do you picture the Dothraki people to yourself (is it something like a Nomad Mongol type of people)? Did it influence the process of Dothraki language creation? 


DJP: So far, I like it quite a bit (I’m up to A Clash of Kings). I find that my favorite parts consistently involve Jon Snow, Tyrion or Daenerys. 

The Dothraki are interesting, because they’re not just nomads. Many native tribes from the Americas would follow their food source (buffalo, caribou, etc.). That doesn’t seem to be the case with the Dothraki. In a way, Vaes Dothrak is kind of like a port, and the Dothraki sea is a real sea. The Dothraki, then, voyage out, but always find themselves back on land, so to speak. 

With the Dothraki, I see a lot of dualities. They act one way when inside Vaes Dothrak, and another way when they’re not; they draw a distinction between what’s done under the sky, and what’s done under a roof; there’s a big difference between those that can ride, and those that cannot; there is what is known, and there is what isn’t known, etc. They employ a series of cultural oppositions in their society, so it seemed natural that the language would emulate that. Early on, that affected some of my decisions: singular vs. plural, instead of adding a dual, which I had considered; animate nouns vs. inanimate nouns; nominative vs. accusative without a dative; allative vs. ablative—even the default-to-left stress system where most words are either stressed on the last syllable or the first syllable. It seemed natural. 

I’ve also tried to keep in mind what it would like to be a woman in Dothraki society. We get a narrow view of the Dothraki, for the most part—an outsider’s view—and the main players are all male. Nevertheless, in the «real» Dothraki culture, women will play as important a role as they do in every other culture. I’ve tried to imagine what that would be like, and I bear it in mind when creating vocabulary.


Just how do you think is important to create a language of its own for every people in the series (Dothraki, Valirians, Westerosi, etc.)? With all due respect to conlanging, do you find them (separate languages) to be the part and parcel of the Game of Throne’s world a or is it merely a tribute to fans? 


SE: Conlanging is like any other part of in-depth creation of a world. Sure, GRRM himself managed to avoid adding too much linguistic details in his world – and his books turned out not bad 😉
But, especially when it is on screen with actors, not just described in a book, it is necessary that the depth there really leaves an impression that it is a real world. In a book one can only image how a scene of a Dothraki life sounds. In a film it must be shown. For a TV show our task is like that of costume designers, decorators, etc. We make the world more real for viewers. Ideally they shouldn’t even think of the Dothraki as of a conlang, but only as of a natural part of the world that they see.)    


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Sai Emrys: twice created and taught a semester long class on conlanging at the University of California, Berkeley, founded the nonprofit Language Creation Society, ran three Language Creation Conferences, and is co-host of the interview series of the Language Creation Society Podcast. His personal conlanging interests are primarily in engelangs, particularly in novel ways of using language, such as non-linear writing systems and tactile language.


David J. Peterson: is a professional language creator hired to create the Dothraki language for HBO’s television adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. He received his BA in linguistics from UC Berkeley, and his MA in linguistics from UC San Diego. He’s been creating languages since 2000, and is especially interested in nominal morphology, lexicon creation and writing systems. Aside from Dothraki, his best-known and most fully-developed language is Kamakawi.

Source: Sientific American

Dothraki page of the LCS.

7 комментариев к статье “Between Russian and Dothraki — an interview with Sai Emrys and David J. Peterson”

  1. […] Peterson & Sai Emrys interviewed by Andrei Serov of westeros.ru: in English and […]

  2. smarm:

    The feminine form is more basic / less marked in the accusative? How objectifying!

  3. Ack! Quick comment. That’s not the feminine. Dothraki doesn’t have feminine/masculine nouns. That’s the inanimate. Dothraki has two broad noun classes: animate and inanimate. Men and women, then, are grouped together in the animate; objects like a jacket are in the inanimate.

  4. mary:

    Hey David!
    Just wanted to thank you (and Sai) for the interview.
    Some job you have — guess it will be pretty cool to hear your creation spoken on the show.
    Anyway, somehow I find myself unexpectedly interested in linguistics 🙂

  5. Дозорная:

    David you are our man if you like Deni, Jon and Tirion!

  6. it was very interesting to read.
    I want to quote your post in my blog. It can?
    And you et an account on Twitter?

  7. mary:

    Sure, just put a link to us. And btw there’s a russian version right here 😉
    And Twitter — for now you can follow me, I usually link to what’s new here.

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