The Man Who Conlanged "Dothraki" for HBO's "Game of Thrones"

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David J. Peterson is one of many conlangers: people who invent languages. His most recent work is the Dothraki tongue shown in HBO's "Game of Thrones"; the spoken language had to be invented for TV because it's rendered in English in the "Song of Ice and Fire" novels. It turns out that the word of conlangers is just what you'd think it is: very geeky, full of highly-educated people, and surprisingly populous -- I wouldn't be surprised if we had conlangers in the mental_floss readership (if we do, perhaps you can tell me if 'conlanged' is an appropriate past-tense for the verb 'conglang'). For specific languages, there are fan sites -- Lekh Dothraki is devoted to Dothraki, and of course the Klingon Language Institute claims that Klingon is "the fastest growing language in the galaxy." (There's even a Klingon Language Version of the World English Bible -- while not a translation per se, it's...something.)

Recently the New York Times profiled Mr. Peterson, taking the opportunity to examine the broader conlanger culture. Of course, this activity has been going on for centuries, but now it's a legitimate job. From the NYT piece:

"The days of aliens spouting gibberish with no grammatical structure are over," said Paul R. Frommer, professor emeritus of clinical management communication at the University of Southern California who created Na'vi, the language spoken by the giant blue inhabitants of Pandora in "Avatar." Disney recently hired Mr. Frommer to develop a Martian language called Barsoomian for "John Carter," a science-fiction movie to arrive in March.

The shift is slowly transforming the obscure hobby of language construction into a viable, albeit rare, career and engaging followers of fantasies like "Lord of the Rings," "Game of Thrones" and "Avatar" on a more fanatical level.

At "Game of Thrones" viewing parties in San Francisco, fans rewatched Dothraki scenes to study the language in a workshop-like setting. Last October, a group of Na'vi speakers from half a dozen countries convened in Sonoma County, Calif., for a gathering known as "Teach the Teachers." Mr. Frommer gave attendants tips on grammar and vocabulary and fielded any questions they had about the language. The rural, wooded setting felt "almost like being on Pandora," he said. At a question-and-answer session in July that he participated in, at least a dozen attendants rattled off their questions in fluent Na'vi.

"There's been a sea change in Hollywood. They realize there's a fan base out there that wants constructed languages," said Matt Pearson, a linguistics professor at Reed College in Portland, Ore. He created Thhtmaa (pronounced tukhh-t'-mah), the language of termite-like aliens in the short-lived NBC series "Dark Skies."

Read the rest for an excellent look into this awesomely geeky subculture, to listen to clips of translated Dothraki sentences, and for this trivia tidbit:

...Suzette Haden Elgin created Láaden as a language better suited for expressing women's points of view. (Láaden has a word, "bala," that means "I'm angry for a reason but nothing can be done about it.")

If you want to hire Mr. Peterson and his associates, the Language Creation Society has very reasonable rates -- starting at under $1,000, you could have your very own (and very basic) language. See also: Dothraki.com, the official site of "a language of fire and blood."

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December 28, 2011 - 5:49am
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