Talking my language

Talking my language

By Michael Pickard
May 14, 2024

Job Description

DQ swots up on its Dothraki to find out how conlangers David and Jessie Peterson create original languages for film and television series, with credits including Game of Thrones, Dune, Vampire Academy, Shadow & Bone and Halo.

If you need to create an original language for a film or television series, one that doesn’t currently exist on Earth in any shape or form, David and Jesse Peterson can help.

The professional language creators – or conlangers – have been responsible for numerous written or spoken languages that have appeared on screen in recent years, including those in Halo, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune films, Shadow & Bone, Vampire Academy and The 100. The husband-and-wife team have also worked on HBO’s Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon (pictured above), developing languages including Dothraki and High Valyrian based on content from George RR Martin’s books.

“It’s kind of interesting because we’ve done different levels of work for different projects,” David tells DQ. “For example, on Game of Thrones, you will have heard a number of languages, and that is one of the shows where I also got to do a dialect. On a show like Vampire Academy, you both hear the language and you get to see it. In other words, we created a written form for the language, a unique orthography that’s used all over the series.”

“There are actually, though, only two episodes where there were spoken lines of Aazh Naamori in Vampire Academy, our language,” Jesse says. “There was not a lot because it effectively was a language that was like Latin in our world, where people had to study it. You only heard it in very professional ceremonies, but you saw it all over the place. There was a lot of text written in it, full pages of handwritten text.”

Jessie and David Peterson at French TV festival Series Mania in March

Similarly, David worked on a Netflix series called Another Life where the producers only needed the written form of a new language. “So with Claire Ng, I created two writing systems. Then I created another one for the next season,” he recalls, “so three different writing systems appear there, but no language at all. Then for Dune, we have the spoken language, the writing system and also sign language.”

“In Dune: Part Two, there’s quite a bit of the spoken language,” Jesse adds. “It’s very extensive.”

When they refer to a written language, “I mean a totally unique, invented writing system,” David explains. That’s not something that is always needed, as was the case in Game of Thrones. “But in House of the Dragon, I got the opportunity to create a unique writing system for High Valyrian, and you actually see it. It’s on the buildings, it’s handwritten and you can’t read it unless you know the writing system.”

For the actors, it is written down in the Roman alphabet, so they are able to read it and learn it. They are also provided with audio recordings so they can hear how the words should sound. “But that’s written out more phonetically, whereas the writing system is just as messy as our writing systems are,” Jesse says.

“What we create for the actors is 100% phonetic, 100% regular, and it doesn’t have any fictional reality,” David continues. “For example, the Dothraki language isn’t supposed to have a writing system at all, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to write it down for the actors. It just means that what I’m writing there is something that’s only for the real world. It doesn’t have a fictional reality, in the universe of Game of Thrones.”

The Dothraki language features prominently in the first season of Game of Thrones

When they start work on a new project, the Petersons must first find out if there is any source material they need to take into consideration. Again, Game of Thrones is a good example, being based on George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire novels that contained, in some cases, whole sentences David could work with.

“But sometimes what we get is just certain character names that are part of that world, and so their language should be able to handle being able to say that character name, place names or maybe a small phrase,” Jesse says. “We want to make sure all those are incorporated. We collect all that information and then we start with the sound system, really working on what sounds should be in the language.

“Again, if we have names or anything we need to work with, we not only make sure the sounds are in there, but also patterns like syllable structure. If ‘Sistine’ is a name, we need to make sure the S and T can come together in the same syllable. Those kinds of elements really help inform us what the language should sound like in terms of how those units work.

“Once we get that established, that’s when we move on to nouns. What are all the things they do? Verbs? What are all the things they’re going to do? And then how will sentences work? It really builds quite quickly because you can’t really make any decision in isolation. You have to consistently refer to the larger system you’re building.”

One of the few times their work has been built from a base language is The 100, where David was tasked with creating a future version of English. That meant he could start with English, which viewers could then recognise in the invented language.

But whatever language might be seen or heard, there can often be large parts of the work David and Jesse complete to build it that don’t make it to screen.

The Petersons compare Vampire Academy’s Aazh Naamori language to Latin in the real world

“When you’re creating these systems of grammar, you create the system. Will you use all of it? Not necessarily, but it’s got to be there because you’re creating the system,” David notes. “You’re not just creating isolated words, or you’re not just taking one line of dialogue and saying, ‘Well, translate everything I need to this and nothing else.’

“We always create lots of material that’s not used by the show. But it needs to be there for the entire language to work. Furthermore, you never know exactly what you are or are not going to need. I’ve been surprised where it was, like ‘My goodness, I never thought I would conjugate this verb in this way. And here we are.’”

“There is a baseline, though, where you can reach a point in grammar development and say ‘we know this will be enough’ for most of what we would typically get asked to do,” Jesse says. “That usually comes at a point where we’ve got basic clauses, we’ve got relative clauses, adverb clauses, these kinds of elements, questions, commands. Once you reach a certain point, you can say, ‘OK, this is this is probably going to get us really, really far.’

“In every language ,we always stop short of certain really complex grammatical features that we don’t tackle until we’re asked to do them. These are examples of, in English, what we call the headless relative clause, which we both hate. Something like, ‘I’ll take whatever you have.’ So a lot of times we’ll wait until we need it to decide how the language is going to do it. We never do those just out of fun.”

With the advancing capabilities of artificial intelligence, including chatbots, are the Petersons worried their work could be overtaken by technology?

For The 100, the couple had to create a future version of English

“They’ve been able to do this for ages,” David admits. “If it’s not ChatGPT, it was Google Translate, and before Google Translate, there was just making up gibberish, honestly. This is what Star Wars does. It’s what they’ve always done. It’s what they continue to do. So it’s just another one of those tools.

“But it’s not about what tools are present. It’s about whether you actually want something that is quality or if you don’t care. And if you don’t care, you’ll just use whatever tool is at hand to make up garbage. And they’ve done that in the past, they’ll continue to do that. But it’s not really going to keep me up at night. We have things that we’re doing. We do our work as well as we can.”

When fans take the time to learn the fictional languages they see on TV, it’s proof that David and Jesse’s work, and that of other language creators, is now another way of connecting with a hit series, and has been since Vulcan and Klingon were featured in the Star Trek series and films as far back as the 1960s. Klingon and Game of Thrones’ High Valyrian are even available to learn on language tutor app Duolingo.

“It’s a wonderful thing when fans can dig into something and see there’s actually something there. There’s something that repays their effort,” David says.

“It’s also something any fan can interact with,” Jesse adds, “whereas something like a prop from the show, you can only interact with it if you go to a certain museum or display, and even then you can’t usually touch it. But language is so just human and interaction based. That’s something they can really bite into.”

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