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‘Game of Thrones’ Teaches U.C. Berkeley Students Art of Language Creation

U.C. Berkeley visiting professor David Peterson is in the Bay Area this summer teaching students all about how to speak and write like characters in the hit TV series Game of Thrones. He assigns each of his students one language to build from the Game of Thrones universe. John Clements created one for the people of Sarnor. Clements is a computer science major at the University of Arkansas. He’s in Berkeley this summer to take this class. Clements says creating languages has been a hobby of his since he was a kid.

“It’s always something I’ve been interested in,” says Clements. “I remember in middle school I would sit at lunch and make up alphabets.” Fellow student Dash Stevens is fleshing out the language of the people of Jogos Nhai. Stevens has a lot of experience creating languages. He studied linguistics at the University of Hawaii and has been inventing new tongues for six years. “It’s got a base consonant and then from there it has markings for vowels,” says Stevens of his linguistic project. “The closest kind of writing system in existence would be devanagari for Hindi.”

The class is a crash-course in linguistics through a Game of Thrones lens, says Peterson. “In learning how to do this stuff you’re basically learning everything that there is to know about language,” Peterson says. Peterson has the knowledge to back that up. He studied linguistics at U.C. Berkeley and U.C. San Diego, and created the Dothraki and High Valyrian languages for Game of Thrones. That’s on top of several other created language credits for film and television.

Peterson says he’s been pleased with his students’ progress this summer. “There have been lots of theft-worthy ideas that I’ve seen from my students,” says Peterson. “They’ve come up with some good stuff.” Peterson says 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,” says 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 says it means “17 cats.” Peterson says 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,” Peterson says. For the students, that means making several changes to their languages to make them truly practical. Stevens says he’s already gone 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 says.

So could one of these students be the next hot new language inventor in Hollywood? Peterson says the entertainment industry is just starting to develop serious careers for language creators. So the good news for his students: jobs are on the way.

Image credit:
One of many drafts of Dash Stevens’ writing system for the people of Jogos Nhai. Image courtesy of Tiffany Camhi.
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