Return to Transcripts main page


David Peterson Explains the Dothraki Language He Created for HBO's Game of Thrones

Aired March 31, 2013 - 14:30   ET



EMELIA CLARKE, ACTRESS, HBO'S "GAME OF THRONE": My name is Emelia Clarke and I play Daenerys Targaryen in "Game of Thrones" a.k.a. Dany.

I am the wife of great Khal and I carry his son inside me.

The Dothraki are kind of a wandering tribe in this kind of imaginary world that George R. Martin in his books has created. They're first and foremost warriors.

The way that I would describe the Dothraki language is that it feels barbaric and so it's something you can definitely shout across a battlefield.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN ANCHOR: The Dothraki, they're just one of the warring factions in George R. R. Martin's best-selling fantasy series, "Song of Ice and Fire," adapted for TV as "Game of Thrones," the hit series on our sister network, HBO.

It's this epic production spanning two continents and among its cast and crew, a wildly creative and unlikely artist, at least in Hollywood circles.

Get ready to meet David Peterson, a linguist and language creator, brave and brilliant enough to meet the fierce Dothraki tribe head on. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta and this is THE NEXT LIST.


DAVID PETERSON, CREATOR OF DOTHRAKI LANGUAGE FOR HBO'S "GAME OF THRONES": I guess a lot of people think when it comes to creating a language, all you do is really kind of open the dictionary, come to the first word and say, well, there's "a," the new word for "a" is going to be black.

The new word for "n" is going to be blurt or whatever. It's not that at all. It's really kind of -- it's like creation itself. Hi, I'm David Peterson. I'm the creator of the Dothraki language for HBO's "Game of Thrones."

CLARKE: The Dothraki are quite a massive tribe who are very wild.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A Dothraki wedding without at least three deaths is considered a dull affair.

DAVID BENIOFF, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, HBO'S "GAME OF THRONES": In George's book, the Dothraki speak their own language. They don't have any writing, but they speak their own language.

And we thought we could create that fictional language for a few lines, just by making up some words. And we tried to do that, and it sounded like gobbledygook. It was complete gibberish.

D.B. WEISS, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, HBO'S "GAME OF THRONES: So we felt the need to start from scratch and have someone who actually knew what they were doing create a language for us.

PETERSON: That's where I came in. I created the language for the Dothraki and worked as a translator on the show, translating all of the lines of dialogue into Dothraki, so it could be spoken on screen.

BENIOFF: I was a little bit skeptical. It seemed like a lot of time to spend on it, spending money, you know, when we're scrounging for every dollar possible to put on screen. And it felt to me like maybe a little bit of a waste.

But once we actually got the Dothraki language that David Peterson created and we saw the actors performing the lines, there was no question that I was wrong, that Dan was right. It made a huge difference in those scenes.

PETERSON: It helps to really put the audience in the mindset that we are in a completely foreign land, but nevertheless, one that's authentic. For the popular languages that have been used in television and film context, I'd say that outside of Tolkien, whose language preceded the films and preceded the books.

Dothraki is the first to really incorporate a historical aspect into the language's creation. I kind of started with the Dothraki culture as it's presented in the books. Who are these people?

Where do they live? What kind of environment are they in? What kind of activities do they do? And little by little, I started to kind of map out a world in my head and shape a lexicon that would represent it.

CLARKE: He's taken into consideration where these people have come from. He's taken into consideration their history and their heritage, so that when you see them as a people, the words that you hear coming out of their mouth completely make sense for the situation that they're in. And I think that's quite incredible.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She's beautiful. Ser Jorah, I don't know how to say "thank you" in Dothraki.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is no word for "thank you" in Dothraki.

WEISS: There is no word for "thank you" in Dothraki and to such a large extent language is culture and culture reflected in language. And I think for the actors who either played Dothrakis or played a part in this world, his language was so well thought out.

And he went so deep that he ended up fleshing out Dothraki culture in a way that went even beyond the culture in the book. I think that really helped them get their heads around what it meant to be a part of this culture.

PETERSON: A lot of people will look at Klingon as kind of the first use as a con-ling in a film, but really it was the "Lord of the Rings" movie that was the watershed moment.



GUPTA: David Peterson's Dothraki isn't the first constructive language or con-lang created for TV or film. But with a vocabulary of some 3,400 words, he estimates it's about twice the size of fan favorites like Na'vi, which was featured in James Cameron's "Avatar" or even Klingon created for the "Star Trek" movies. Still, David is quick to tip his hat to those who came before him.


PETERSON: A lot of people will look at Klingon as the first use of a con-lang in a film. But really it was the "Lord of the Rings" movie that was the watershed movement. The first language creator that we know of that was creating languages just for fun was with J.R. Tolkien, who was creating an entire network of languages, an entire family of languages.

And he was doing it purely for aesthetic purposes. And he actually decided that in order to make his languages real, they needed to be spoken somewhere. And so that's when he sat down and wrote "The Hobbit."

The languages came first. Peter Jackson was, of course, bringing the entire trilogy to the screen exactly as he imagined it. And as a true fan of Tolkien, he knew that he absolutely could not film these movies unless he had Tolkien's languages in them.

And then James Cameron's "Avatar" came, that prominently featured the Na'vi language, probably even more prominently than Tolkien's languages were featured in the "Lord of the Ring" films, and it was wildly successful beyond anybody's wildest imaginations.

BEINOFF: It seems like there's more and more of a movement against of having people in foreign countries, even in our world, speaking English. But there's also been for years a kind of prejudice against subtitles.

I mean, there was definitely a little bit of nervousness from some of the powers that be about having all these scenes in a foreign language, in fact, in a language that doesn't even exist on our planet, and that they were all going to be subtitled.

But in the end, when everyone saw, you know, first of all, the language that David created, but also how the actors took that language and made it their own, they ended up being very happy with it.

CLARKE: Fundamentally, the way it was set up with us is that we would have our scripts come through and it would be the English. Then the closer we got to filming, the Dothraki would be there, mapped on top of the English.

So without being fluent in Dothraki, you could place the English on to the Dothraki and kind of grasp where the intonations would be correct to make it sound like a fluid conversation.

BEINOFF: And you would also record MP3s, which the actors could listen to and know how to say the lines with the proper Dothraki accent.

PETERSON: To help them out, I give them a regular speed version and a slowed down version, so they kind of can really hear what all the sounds are supposed to sound like and then they know how it's supposed to sound fluently.

BEINOFF: In the case of Daenerys played by Emelia Clarke speaking in Dothraki with an English accent, which is a slightly different thing.

PETERSON: I'm not going to tell you who struggles, but, Emelia Clarke does an excellent job as a non-native Dothraki speaker.

CLARKE: I think that he's going to tell me -- I would say that on set, Ian Glen, I think he plays Ser Jorah, my confidant, struggles with Dothraki, as his character should, which is fine, but I think that Jason completely nails it.

PETERSON: They each kind of have their own way of pronouncing words. I remember that one of the fun ones with Jason, he routinely pronounced every word that ends with the sound "e," he changes it to "a."

That's kind of like the rock stars when you hear them say, baby, instead of baby. He does that and he does it perfectly fluently and everywhere throughout the entire series. He's kind of brought that himself. It was so exciting to see.




PETERSON: One of the fun things from the book was Drogo and Dany have a special term they refer to each other with.

CLARKE: It's "my sun and stars," which is the direct translation into English, which is a phrase that my character Dany says to Jason's character, Khal, and it's our little kind of nicknames for each other.

PETERSON: In "A Song of Ice and Fire," there were about, I would say, 30 or so Dothraki words and phrases, and I used those as the basis to form Dothraki.

Because I felt that if I was creating a Dothraki language, what the fans would want to see, is they would want to see the language that essentially looked like these words were pulled from it.

One example from the book that I know a lot of people remember is the Dothraki term for a gigantic meteorological phenomenon known as the red comet. In Dothraki, it's referred to as the bleeding star, which is translated as "Shierak Qiya."

I kind of looked at that and said, OK, if that's translated as bleeding star then based on kind of my previous analysis, I decided that the second word was probably an adjective modifying the first. So then "Sheirak" became the word for star and "Thea" became the word that means bleeding.

I wanted to make Dothraki feel like an old book or maybe some comfortable clothes that have been worn, shoes that have been walked in for miles and miles.

BENIOFF: And Ben already mentioned that there's no phrase for "thank you" in Dothraki, but they have something like 42 words for horse. It's a horse-based culture. In the way that the Eskimos have many different words for many types of snow, the Dothraki have a massive vocabulary when it comes to horses.

PETERSON: I started at kind of an imagined time that's about a thousand years before the action of the books, and the action of the series. I kind of conceived of how the language would look at that point.

And then I evolved the language over a period of a thousand years. In doing so kind of helps to make the language more authentic to fill in kind of the nooks and crannies, the various irregularities that are found in natural languages.

BENIOFF: There's a moment where Kahl Drogo is speaking to Daenerys and she's still learning the language.

PETERSON: And Drogo at that time is revealing in one way you might call it limitations, but really, I would say the kind of peculiarities of Dothraki.

BENIOFF: She's trying to tell him what she really wants is to go home and reclaim the throne that was taken from her family. And she's asking him if he'll help her.

PETERSON: Drogo kind of deals or kind of brings up in this scene, he brings up this tension between how the Dothraki view the world and then how the Westeros see or Daenerys views the world. They discover that sometimes there's not even a common language for the terms.

WEISS: When he finally agrees that he's going to give her what she wants. He reveals how strange it is to him that he's going to go all this way and do this thing just so his wife can have a chair that her dad sat in. That seems bizarre to him. But he loves her so much and he's so angry about the things that have just happened that he's going to go do it and kill the men in their iron suits.

BENIOFF: He's kind of like, all right, baby, you know, if you really want this thing, we'll get on those wooden horses and cross the poison water and get that iron chair, but you are cuckoo.

PETERSON: I plan on continuing to expand the vocabulary and expand the language for the foreseeable future. I really like the language and so I plan to keep working with it.

CLARKE: In seasons to come, Dany and the Dothraki, they are first and foremost her people. So wherever she goes, they follow.




EMILIA CLARKE, ACTRESS, HBO'S "GAME OF THRONES": In seasons to come, Dany and the Dothraki, they are first and foremost her people, and so wherever she goes, they follow. But at the same time, yes, as she's traveling through many different lands, there are other languages that she comes across.

DAVID BENIOFF, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, HBO'S "GAME OF THRONES": We have other languages coming up on the show that are not Dothraki, but also need to be invented and we are hoping David will do those for us as well.

DAVID PETERSON, CREATOR OF DOTHRAKI LANGUAGE FOR HBO'S "GAME OF THRONES": For example, over on Westeros, there's the old tongue, which you get to hear bits and pieces of or at least mentioned here and there. And then across the narrow sea, there's of course, Hypolerian, which Bravosi, Pentoshi.

Nearer to the Dothraki are the Lazarene, really it's kind of a neat thing that George R. R. Martin did. He populated the entire world with languages. Even if they don't actually exist, they kind of -- it's not just a blanket of English.

Personally, I would love to keep creating languages for projects like "Game of Thrones," for TV shows, for movies. I mean, that's kind of the dream of everybody to sit down and create a language.


GUPTA: That dream is quickly becoming a reality. "Game of Thrones" is in its second season and recently, David fielded a call from another production team, this one from the Sci-Fi Network.


PETERSON: In late 2011, they were putting together a new show for the Sci-Fi Network that was going to need a couple of invented languages.

I looked at their initial script and I said, yes, this is something I want to do. I came up with a translation for spirit rider, but of course you can still use the English spirit rider.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How do you say it?

PETERSON: Long form or short form?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. I don't know. You tell me.

PETERSON: (Inaudible).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's easy for you to say.

PETERSON: One of the interesting things about the world of defiance, there are several different alien species that speak several different alien languages that are now intermixing with sort of American English speakers.

So words from an alien language will drop into English, English words are going to pop into the alien languages. Just for starters, I came up with a list of curse words that could work into English.

This actually comes from Arathion and this is how we would do it in English. One of the most interesting things to drop in was curse words that modify adverbs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But it's also got the right amount of -- there's no point of having a curse word unless it feels satisfying.

PETERSON: Exactly.

WEISS: I will say, there's a lot of incidental dialogue we didn't write ourselves in terms of curse words, that people were throwing around, and David wrote for us. He has a real gift for coming up with really vile things to say in Dothraki.

BENIOFF: He's a mild-mannered linguist by day and a profane Dothraki warrior by night.

WEISS: There's a Jekyll and Hyde thing going on with David I think.

PETERSON: I remember the first time I heard a fan speak my language or try to speak my language. It was like -- it was just one of those moments where there are words that were so familiar to me that, especially I'd only really kind of heard in my own voice.

And to hear somebody else pick them up and speak them live, it was a surreal moment, almost as if suddenly my brain had jumped around to somebody else and was speaking in somebody else's voice. It's really a lot of fun.

A creative language can't really be appreciated as simply as something like a painting or a movie or a song where you can just kind of sit down and get all of it, you know, people are going to appreciate it on different levels.

But, a creative language is kind of a large, all-encompassing work. For a con-linger, the online language creation -- we are both kind of a collective of artists, and also, we are our own audience.

At this point, the numbers have just exploded. There are thousands of language creators all over the world and it's impossible to even put a number on how many people are creating languages and how many creative languages there are. So as I see it, the art form of language creation is still extremely young.

AMRITA ACHARIA, ACTRESS, HBO'S "GAME OF THRONES": I don't see it as being any different from very modern art and classic art. It's just a very different way of expressing yourself and making something new.

BENIOFF: The wonderful thing about television is that we're all collaborating, trying to create what, you know, hopefully would pretension, would become a work of art. And it's the writers are a part of it, the director, the actors, the set designers, the costumes.

And now in the most elaborate way possible, David has created a really important component of the series, which is the Dothraki. So I think we're all contributing to this art form, and David helped enormously to make it feel more real.

PETERSON: Five years from now, I guess I wouldn't be surprised if I'm still answering questions about Dothraki and you know, that's fine to the extent that there is such a large fan base for George R. R. Martin's works and hopefully for "Game of Thrones," which by then will hopefully be in season six or season seven.

Hopefully, it will just grow bigger and bigger. I think ideally I would hope to be working on more language projects. For myself, I have a wonderfully small life with my cat and my wife.


GUPTA: Whether creating languages for TV or just for fun, David Peterson is bringing new appreciation to what thousands in the con- lang community consider an art form.

Yes, there are others who have come beforehand, but with each new language that David creates he's sharing his unique vision of the world. And that's what earns him a spot on THE NEXT LIST.

For more on this episode and other agents of change, please go to and join me on my live stream at It's a one-stop spot for all my blogs, tweets, and behind-the-scenes photos.

Thanks for joining. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. See you back next Sunday on THE NEXT LIST.