There were plenty of bona fide television stars at the Syfy Digital Press Tour in Toronto in October, where I went to learn about the $100 million TV/videogame project that is “Defiance,” but the person getting the most love from the fanboys wasn’t an actor. It was David J. Peterson, a linguist and “alien culture consultant” who creates fictional languages for a living.
If you’ve ever watched HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” you’ve heard his work coming out of the mouths of Dothraki warlord Khal Drogo and his bride, Daenerys Targaryen. But Dothraki was a piece of cake compared to his work on “Defiance,” whose story involves seven different alien races.
Not only did Peterson imagine their spoken tongues, each with its own internally-consistent syntax and phonetics; in some cases, he had to come with up written languages and even number systems. (For instance, the Indogene people use a base-six mathematics inspired by their hexagonal irises.) Then came the not-inconsiderable task of teaching actors how to deliver his dialogue.
Curious what it’s like to have this most unusual of careers? I chatted with Peterson about which of his languages are his favorites, what’s coming up on “Game of Thrones” and why George R.R. Martin is a surprisingly cunning linguist in his own right.
FORBES: So how many languages did you actually write for “Defiance”?
DAVID PETERSON: Well, there’s two full languages and then two kind of language sketches or palettes. Those are for the Indogene and the Liberatta. With the Liberatta language, God, I had so much fun with that. So much slang has come into it.
Is creating languages a full-time business for you?
Yeah. Right now I’m working on “Defiance” and “Game of Thrones” and also a movie project, so I’m constantly busy.
“Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin has said he made up the bits of Dothraki dialogue in his books on the fly, unlike, say, J.R.R. Tolkien, who famously drew up whole families of internally-consistent languages for “Lord of the Rings.” Was it hard to turn Martin’s improvised Dothraki into something that sounded authentic?
There wasn’t that much of it in the books, actually, but I did integrate everything, because, as you know, the books had a huge fanbase and still do. So I knew that I had to integrate everything and make it so that what was in the books didn’t need to be changed, so that I wasn’t coming along and saying, “That’s not how it should be said.” Everything in the books is correct.
Now, I know he said lots of times that he doesn’t create the languages, that he doesn’t do anything like that. But he’s created really consistent bits. I don’t know how he has the skill because there are other fantasy writers that just do an awful, terrible job. He seems to be unconsciously doing a lot of the things that I give to writers when they say “I don’t want to create a full language but I want to have these langauges in here, what do I do?”
He just seems to unconsciously do a lot of the advice I give to them, which is create a consistent sound system, consistent word patterns, the series of consonants and vowels, and don’t use too much. Do things sparingly. Everything he does seems to hang together so well.
Is your work for “Game of Thrones” just Dothraki or are you creating other languages for that show?
I’m creating other lanagues now, shall we say. So I started with just Dothraki…
It’s been a while since I read the books. I guess they go to the East at some point?
Yeah, and that’s where it is now. Actually, this is kind of strange — I did like twice as much work for season three as I did for season two and only one line of Dothraki.
Do you have favorite languages you’ve created?
Yeah. I don’t want to say this too loud because ["Defiance" actor] Tony Curran’s right there, but Irathient is one of my favorites. I love Irathient. It’s a lot of fun.
Why is that not a thing you can say too loud?
Well, his language is Castithan. I don’t want him to feel slighted. But, God, I love Irathient. It’s a lot of fun. At this stage of the game, Dothraki has become second nature so I really don’t have to do to much work when I’m translating it.
Is everything you do in phonemes that would be familiar to a Western speaker, or can you go beyond that — clicks or even sounds that would be possible only with different, alien vocal parts?
It’s something I’d certainly like to do. It’s not something I’ve done very much of because basically I feel sorry for the actors. They have to be able to produce it. For me, it’s more imporant they be able to get the intonation right.
With Dothraki, I dropped in a really difficult sound, which is the uvular stop, a voiceless uvular stop Q, and it’s just — it rarely comes out right. It was just too difficult. So I try my best to use a smaller number of sounds, limit the number of really alien and difficult sounds and instead work more with syllable structure and intonation. The intonational phrasing I came up with for Irathient is one of my favorite things I’ve ever done.
Do you get any say in casting, based on who seems like they can speak your languages well?
Not in anything I’ve ever been involved with, no. The way it ends up is more like they do all their casting and say, “Great, you’re hired. And by the way, you’re going to be saying all your lines in an alien language.”
Do you want to smell like one of the houses from Game of Thrones? Maybe the Lannisters? How about the Starks? Let’s face it, you wouldn’t want to smell like most characters from Westeros. Except for Denerys. You know that she smells good. You can’t look that good and not smell good – even if you have been walking through the Red Waste for weeks. But everyone in the seven kingdoms might smell nicer if they had these soaps.
These house sigil soaps by GeekSoap are pretty neat. They will evoke sweet scents that make you think of each house. There’s Stark, Lannister, Baratheon, and Targaryen. The Lannister scent is “Pride” made from patchouli, plumeria, and orange. I guess that seems about right. Stark’s scent is “Betrayal,” a crisp combination of pine, cedar, and eucalyptus with just a hint of campfire. Yep. That’s how I always imagined they would smell. You get the idea.
There’s no Greyjoy because no one wants to smell like salt water and seaweed. They are just $6(USD) each. Or you could just pay the iron price.
I demand some sort of R'hllor scented candle or something....that smells like fire. Could easily scare away unwanted party guests with the illusion of a fire burning nearby or something idk.