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

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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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What’s the Origin of Jack-O’-Lanterns?
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TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

The term "jack-o'-lantern" was first applied to people, not pumpkins. As far back as 1663, the term meant a man with a lantern, or a night watchman. Just a decade or so later, it began to be used to refer to the mysterious lights sometimes seen at night over bogs, swamps, and marshes.

These ghost lights—variously called  jack-o’-lanterns, hinkypunks, hobby lanterns, corpse candles, fairy lights, will-o'-the-wisps, and fool's fire—are created when gases from decomposing plant matter ignite as they come into contact with electricity or heat or as they oxidize. For centuries before this scientific explanation was known, people told stories to explain the mysterious lights. In Ireland, dating as far back as the 1500s, those stories often revolved around a guy named Jack.

LEGEND HAS IT

As the story goes, Stingy Jack—often described as a blacksmith—invited the devil to join him for a drink. Stingy Jack didn't want to pay for the drinks from his own pocket, and convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin that could be used to settle the tab. The devil did so, but Jack skipped out on the bill and kept the devil-coin in his pocket with a silver cross so that the devil couldn’t shift back to his original form. Jack eventually let the devil loose, but made him promise that he wouldn’t seek revenge on Jack, and wouldn’t claim his soul when he died.

Later, Jack irked the devil again by convincing him to climb up a tree to pick some fruit, then carved a cross in the trunk so that the devil couldn’t climb back down (apparently, the devil is a sucker). Jack freed him again, on the condition that the devil once again not take revenge and not claim Jack’s soul.

When Stingy Jack eventually died, God would not allow him into heaven, and the devil, keeping his word, rejected Jack’s soul at the gates of hell. Instead, the devil gave him a single burning coal to light his way and sent him off into the night to “find his own hell.” Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has supposedly been roaming the earth with it ever since. In Ireland, the ghost lights seen in the swamps were said to be Jack’s improvised lantern moving about as his restless soul wandered the countryside. He and the lights were dubbed "Jack of the Lantern," or "Jack O'Lantern."

OLD TALE, NEW TRADITIONS

The legend immigrated to the new world with the Irish, and it collided with another old world tradition and a new world crop. Making vegetable lanterns was a tradition of the British Isles, and carved-out turnips, beets, and potatoes were stuffed with coal, wood embers, or candles as impromptu lanterns to celebrate the fall harvest. As a prank, kids would sometimes wander off the road with a glowing veggie to trick their friends and travelers into thinking they were Stingy Jack or another lost soul. In America, pumpkins were easy enough to come by and good for carving, and got absorbed both into the carved lantern tradition and the associated prank. Over time, kids refined the prank and began carving crude faces into the pumpkins to kick up the fright factor and make the lanterns look like disembodied heads. By the mid-1800s, Stingy Jack’s nickname was applied to the prank pumpkin lanterns that echoed his own lamp, and the pumpkin jack-o’-lantern got its name.

Toward the end of the 19th century, jack-o’-lanterns went from just a trick to a standard seasonal decoration, including at a high-profile 1892 Halloween party hosted by the mayor of Atlanta. In one of the earliest instances of the jack-o’-lantern as Halloween decor, the mayor’s wife had several pumpkins—lit from within and carved with faces—placed around the party, ending Jack O’Lantern’s days of wandering, and beginning his yearly reign over America’s windowsills and front porches.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

 

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