Back in 2001, Andrew Garrett, now UC Berkeley’s linguistics department chair, had a promising student by the name of David J. Peterson in his undergraduate historical linguistics class. While Garrett was impressed and intrigued by Peterson’s penchant for inventing new languages, he lamented to himself that such interest was likely to remain a hobby rather than a career path.
But within four years of earning a master’s degree in linguistics at UC San Diego in 2005, Peterson was hired as a language creator for the warrior horsemen galloping across HBO’s Game of Thrones. “From there,” said Peterson, “I’ve worked on about a dozen other shows and movies. Language has become my entire life and my livelihood.”
Among his non-HBO credits: the Syfy channel’s Defiance series, for which Peterson developed four full languages; MTV’s Shannara Chronicles; the CW’s The 100; Marvel’s Thor; NBC’s Emerald City; and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. For Game of Thrones, Peterson created both the Dothraki and High Valyrian languages.
Three years ago Peterson came out with Living Language Dothraki, a one-hour CD and 128-page official guide to the language, which he describes as most resembling a mix of Arabic and Spanish. In 2015, he published a guide to language construction, The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words Behind World-Building, that traces the history of language creation and shares tools for inventing and evolving new languages.
Last fall, Garrett heard Peterson speak to the Society of Linguistics Undergraduate Students (SLUgS), a club that promotes linguistics and interaction among interested students. Around that time Garrett also attended a meeting of department chairs where someone mentioned a new course in film studies based on Game of Thrones.
A light bulb went off. Garrett approached Peterson about teaching at Berkeley. Peterson is now finalizing plans for his three-unit course, “The Linguistics of Game of Thrones and the Art of Language Invention,” which he will lead four days a week in the May 22-June 30 summer session.
A life changer
A co-founding member of the Language Creation Society, Peterson is excited to return to campus to share his passion for language creation, which caught fire his sophomore year at UC Berkeley 17 years ago in his very first linguistics class. The course changed his life, said Peterson, who quickly adjusted his major to include linguistics as well as English. He earned bachelor’s degrees in each in 2003.
“I’d been taking language courses, but linguistics was the thing that really opened my eyes,” said Peterson, whose language repertoire includes English, Spanish, French, German, Russian, Esperanto, Arabic and American Sign Language. “I decided to create a language for my own use, and was immediately swept up by the process.”
Creating a language entails so many variables and such a massive scope, he said, that it produces “a never-ending art” in which the only languages ever finished are those no longer spoken.
The art of a new language
What is the value of creating new languages?
“There’s precisely as much value in creating a new language as there is in creating a new fictional story,” Peterson explained. “If you see no value in something like As I Lay Dying or To the Lighthouse, then I probably can’t convince you there’s value in creating a new language. Otherwise, they’re both works of art, and have no value but what the valuer gives it, or the user/experience takes out of it.
“For some, that will be no value,” he said. “For others, the value is tremendous, as the created language can not only be appreciated for what it is, but can also be used to generate new art, using words that are unique to some fictional context, or have immense personal value for the creator. It’s a bit like writing a song on an instrument the writer created.”
New language as art
In addition to developing new languages, Peterson also is dedicated to promoting critical awareness about language creation among the general public: “To the average TV viewer, there’s no difference between the work I’ve done for Game of Thrones and Gallifreyan from Doctor Who, which isn’t even a language, but a different way of writing the English alphabet.”
English speakers are limited when it comes to evaluating work by language creators, said Peterson, who wants more people to understand what distinguishes quality work in this field from projects that simply recode English and label it a new language.
His course is aimed at students who have a good handle on the basics of linguistics and are looking to use that knowledge creatively,.
The class is “best understood as an art course, the same way a figure drawing course might include a fairly rigorous component on human anatomy,” he said.
A new lens on language
“In this case, students are going to be learning how to create a naturalistic language. These are languages that attempt as nearly as possible to replicate the quirks and idiosyncrasies of natural languages, those that have evolved naturally on Earth,” Peterson said. “It’s not going to focus on the creation of alien languages, or auxiliary languages, or parody languages, etcetera.”
Peterson compared his class to a visual art course in landscapes and still lifes rather than abstract expressionism and cubism, and one where students will learn how sounds, word meanings and grammar of natural languages have evolved.
He said Game of Thrones, and the larger world from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, will serve as a kind of framing device for the course so students can focus on the linguistic details of their creations, not the fictional side.
Rather than asking how a language works, Peterson’s students will be asked to put themselves in the mind of the speakers of a new language, “not trying to figure out how something works, but what problem the speakers were trying to solve, and how they did it, and why. It’s an entirely different lens through which to view language.”
Read highlights of a 2015 National Public Radio interview with Peterson. The piece also features audio clips of Peterson reading short phrases in Dothraki and High Valyrian from Game of Thrones as well as Castithan, from the show Defiance.
Watch Peterson discuss The Art of Language Creation in a YouTube series.
Read a Q&A with Peterson in the April 2017 issue of the College Heights Herald at Western Kentucky University, before a scheduled talk by him hosted by the university’s department of modern languages.