27 Jul Game of Tongues: How Fictional are Fictional Languages?

Game of Thrones is one of the biggest TV shows to date. Garnering 94% rating by Rotten Tomatoes, the most watched HBO series just rounded out its sixth season and the world can’t get enough of it. There are many reasons why people love the show – the well fleshed out characters, the richly detailed locations, the unpredictable plot twists – all adapted from George R.R. Martin’s 5-book series called “A Song of Ice and Fire”. But, what stood out from the trendsetting show are its fictional languages called ‘Dothraki’ and ‘High Valyrian’.

‘Dothraki’ is a language of the nomadic people called the Dothrakis. It references terms involving the Equus species, since Dothrakis are horse riders, according to the show. ‘High Valyrian’, on the other hand, is the mother tongue of ancient Valyrians and is spoken by politicians and history scholars in Essos, one of the three continents featured in the show.


Episode 1: How Were They Created?

The man behind the now famous fictional languages is David J. Peterson, whose profession is known as a ‘conlanger’. A ‘conlanger’ is someone who creates new languages. While this was once confined to message boards and college papers, it is now an actual profession (thanks to Hollywood). David J. Peterson submitted a long proposal, a dictionary and audio files to convince the producers to hire him among 30 candidates who also applied to create the language.

‘Dothraki’ was created by combining elements from real world languages such as the noun classes from Swahili and the verb terms from Estonian. The creator describes it sounding like a mix of Arabic and Spanish. ‘High Valyrian’ is spoken by the high class society and is similar to Latin and Standard Arabic. Both languages are created from combing old and existing languages. The characters in the show even need a translator to help them understand and communicate with other tribes.

Languages are similar to a coding system with links between sounds and words. An extensive research and organization are required to create series of letters, words, sounds, pronunciation and declaring it a language. It has to follow a set of linguistic rules and should make sense grammatically. David J. Peterson has created over 3,000 words for the show (so far) and hopes to reach at least 10,000. The main consideration is the classification of the words, since each tribe does not speak the same language. They also express themselves in different ways.

Episode 2:  Learning Fictional Languages through the Show

Like any language, it is possible to learn a fictional language. While others may struggle in learning a real foreign language, devoted Game of Thrones fanatics spend hours mastering a fictional one with the help of subtitles. Viewers get more immersed in their target language by watching movies and TV shows. A quick search on YouTube reveals that hundreds have done a pretty serious job in learning the faux languages. Fans speak to each other and even to the actors during comic events. The level of effort put in to master a language, fictional at that, has been attracting attention to linguists and language scholars.

High Valyrian Scripture

Episode 3: The Growing Interest of Fictional Languages

People are easily drawn to fantasy shows. Aside from the excitement of the idea of a make-believe world, it also forms communities of people with similar interests. The first episode (first season, 2011) of Game of Thrones was watched by 2.2 million people while the latest one (sixth season, 2016) was watched by 8.89 million people. This is an increase of over 6 million in 5 years – an all-time high in TV history. It is an excellent case of ‘edutainment’ (education and entertainment) where educators can learn and get inspired for their own teaching.

Episode 4: Fictional Languages before Game of Thrones

Even before Game of Thrones, fictional languages made big waves in the film industry. The ‘Elvish’ was used in the Lord of The Rings series (LOTR), which was inspired by Welsh. In fact, J.R.R Tolkien, the author of the LOTR series created the language years before he put it into the books, out of passion for linguistics. The other famous example is ‘Klingon’ from the Star Trek series. A harsh throaty language made exclusively for the film, the language was picked up by fans, proving that learning fictional languages is real.

Episode 5: The Future of Fictional Languages on the Big Screen

It is safe to say that there is a ‘demand’ for fictional languages, in the film industry, at least. Aliens, fairies and other fictional characters no longer speak incomprehensible gibberish anymore. Now, they have a ‘real’ language, complete with sounds, pronunciation and syntax.  As far as ratings and viewership are concerned, fantasy films and television series are expected to start a trend in order to maintain its limelight long enough before another trend goes viral. TV shows like Game of Thrones, do not only set a new standard for entertainment, they also add more meaning to language learning.

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